Friday, March 30, 2018

"Hell on Frisco Bay" (1955)

The premise of Hell on Frisco Bay has been done before, and often.  Policeman Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) got sent to prison five years ago for a murder he didn't commit.  When he's released, he goes looking for the people who actually committed the crime and framed him for it.

What elevates Hell on Frisco Bay from being just another vengeance noir is the acting.  When you get Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson in a room together, two actors who honed their skills playing tougher-than-tough guys, you know you're in for a good show.  Ladd's the sort that can make you care about his character even if the script doesn't give him a lot to work with, and Robinson's the sort that can make you despise him just by staring at another character in a certain way.

Happily, the script by Sydney Boehm and Martin Rackin gives them both plenty of character development and good lines.  And Frank Tuttle's directing keeps everyone on task nicely.  I'm never bored during this film even though it doesn't trot out the thrills at a rat-a-tat pace.  It opts for a slow boil instead, which is fine by me.

You know I totally bought this movie for Alan Ladd, and he plays the central character, so I'll start with him.  Ladd's character undergoes a remarkable transformation over the course of this film.

When he first gets out of prison, he is angry, fearful, weary, and determined to keep away from anyone he cares about so they don't get hurt by the people he's going to investigate.  He wears a too-big trench coat buttoned and tied tightly.  We find out early on that his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru) sent a suit and coat for him so he would have something nice to wear on his way out of prison.  The coat is too big, as if she'd sent along something made to the measurements he'd had when he went to prison, and he's lost weight while on the inside.  Rollins refused to let his wife see him in prison, so it would make sense she wouldn't know what kind of shape he's in now.

Rollins wraps himself up so tightly in that coat, as if it's armor.  Everyone else is acting like it's summer, but he's got that coat closed up, hiding him.  He's been in prison a long time, and he's a former cop -- at one point, someone asks him a snide question about what it was like being in prison with guys he put there, and Rollins looks sick for a split second.  He did not have a good time in prison, you can bet on that.

I mentioned he looks weary.  He also looks old.

This is only four years after he filmed Shane, but Ladd starts this film looking a decade older than he did there.  The first time I watched this, I chalked this up to Ladd's declining health at the time.  But nope, I think this was actually a deliberate decision on the part of Ladd and the filmmakers.

As the story progresses, not only does he stop wrapping himself in that too-big trench coat, he begins to look healthier and younger.

By the end of the film, he's positively handsome again.  It's a remarkable transformation, and a subtle way to show that proving his innocence is helping Rollins heal from all he's been through.

Edward G. Robinson plays one of his meanest, dirtiest characters here, and if you know anything about the sorts of characters he played over the years, you know that's saying something.  Here, he's Vic Amato, a mafia boss bent on taking over the entire San Francisco waterfront.  Rollins is convinced Amato is behind that killing 5 years ago that Rollins got framed for, and he's willing to do just about anything to prove this.  The trouble is, Amato's willing to do asolutely anything to keep control over his territory.

And I do mean absolutely anything.  Amato is reptillian, cold and mean and merciless.  He has no compunctions about bribing cops, killing family members, or propositioning other people's fiancees.  And yet, just when you're ready to write him off as a cliched caricature of a bad guy, he does something surprising like ask someone a deep theological question because he's genuinely fascinated by why people would believe in God.

It's a gripping performance on every level.  You wouldn't think anything could get me to take my eyes off Alan Ladd, but in the main scene the two share, I have a hard time deciding who to watch the closest!

I've mostly seen Joanne Dru in westerns, so it was nifty to see her in something more modern.  She plays Marcia Rollins quietly, filled with regret, yet she's never mousy.  Marcia briefly became involved with another man while her husband was in prison, either physicially or just emotionally -- the film doesn't specify.  She's convinced that the reason her husband gives her the cold shoulder when he's free is entirely because of this.

Rollins doesn't disabuse her of this, and does seem genuinely upset by it.  But it's also true that he refuses to move in with her again because he knows Amato would use her against him, and he doesn't want to put Marcia in danger.  So he makes sure everybody knows he wants nothing to do with her.  Dru nails this role of a bewildered, lonely, angry, and uncertain woman.

Plus, she's absolutely beautiful in this film.  It's no surprise that Rollins can't stay away from Marcia, despite his best intentions.  Sure, he's still upset that she got involved for a short time with someone else.  She's still upset because he wouldn't let her see him in prison.  He insists he wants her to find a new life without him.

And yet, he keeps showing up at the nightclub where she sings.  When she's not looking at him, he gets these wistful, yearning expressions.

You know he still loves her, he just... can't be with her for so many reasons until he's cleared his name, taken Amato down, and thus made sure it will be safe for her to be with him again.

The real surprise here was Paul Stewart as Amato's gunman Joe Lye.  He's easily one of the most sympathetic bad guys I've seen in recent memory.  He spent some time in prison himself, on death row, but Amato got him freed somehow.

Amato holds this over Lye's head -- he's at his absolute meanest when he's tormenting Lye over the fact that he converted to Christianity in prison, that he has a nice woman (Fay Wray) for a girlfriend now, and the fact that when he's nervous, he starts to stutter and gets a facial tic.

I spent basically this whole movie wanting to rescue Joe Lye.  He's stuck in a hopeless situation, killing people on Amato's orders so Amato won't send him back to death row.

And when Lye finally thinks he has a way to stop Amato's persecution, you know it's doomed to fail.  I've never paid a lot of attention to Paul Stewart before, though I know I've seen him in several movies, but I'm going to change that from now on, for sure.

There are a lot of familiar faces in this.  I've seen William Demarest, Peter Hansen, and Anthony Caruso, and George J. Lewis in lots of things, including other Alan Ladd movies.  I can never see George J. Lewis in a movie without thinking of Disney's Zorro -- he's so memorable as Don Alejandro in that!

I was especially interested to see Perry Lopez playing an antagonist, for I know him best as the sweet, young cowhand Pete Ramirez in The Lone Ranger (1956).

It was also really neat to see Stanley Adams in a small role -- he played Cyrano Jones in the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," which I've seen countless times.

And a lot of people know this movie just because it's got a young Rod Taylor in it -- he's only got a small role, but he's memorable, that's for sure.  He smashes a beer bottle at one point and makes me think of a young Alan Ladd in The Glass Key (1942).

Overall, this is a solid late film noir with some excellent acting.  The cinematography is nothing extremely awesome, but there are loads of great scenes shot on location in San Francisco, which definitely add a lot to it.  It's also one of those rare later noir films where not absolutely every single good guy dies, and in which the bad guys really do get what they deserve.  I love that about it.

This is my entry into the Good Cop, Bad Cop Blogathon.  Check out the list of participants here for more great movie reviews!

EDIT: I forgot to say if this is family friendly or not.  It is one of the family friendliest noir films I've ever seen.  No bad language, the violence is not icky, the mention of the wife's unfaithfulness is very veiled, and even Amato's attempt to seduce his lackey's girlfriend is subdued and unsuccessful.  Fine for tweens and up, I'd say.  Younger kids probably wouldn't care much about it anyway.


  1. I loved reading your review, it was so detailed and insightful.

    I haven't seen Hell on Frisco Bay since I was a teenager, but I've never forgotten it. Nothing about it has faded from memory and that says a lot about the work that went into this movie.

    1. Thanks, Caftan Woman! It's definitely memorable -- nobody in this movie is boring, not even the bit players! As you say, that says a lot about how it was crafted :-)

  2. I know we've talked about this before, but I can't remember the answer, and I'm still curious:

    How did Alan Ladd get cast in all those "tough guy" roles in the first place? He doesn't . . . don't get mad at me for saying this, but he doesn't LOOK the part?

    Like I'm not saying he can't act them well--I know he can--but how did the studio executives make the decision to let him try? He's small-ish and blond and has a nice smile and all that; he doesn't resemble the type they usually cast for those parts back then.

    1. Jessica, you're absolutely right. He does NOT look the part. He's small and slender and sweet-faced. Which is what makes him such a memorable tough guy -- he looks like the innocent boy next door, but his characters so often are anything but. Which makes them instantly complex, more interesting than a bad guy who looks bad on the outside. And it also makes his characters automatically sympathetic -- you want them to reform or behave or not get in trouble, as the case may be. Also, Ladd himself was reportedly shy and sweet and hard-working, and I think that shines through even when he's playing a hard-nosed killer or a vengeful ex-cop.

      How did the studio execs decide to let him try being playing tough guys? Basically, he worked in pictures doing stunt work and small roles for a number of years, and also did a ton of radio work, where he developed his silky, growly voice that works so much to his advantage. Then his agent (whom he married around the same time) got him a screen test to play the bad guy in This Gun for Hire. It was definitely a case of casting against "type" working brilliantly, because even though he's the villain of the piece, you spend that whole movie just aching for him to live to the end credits. Ladd knew that was his big break, and he acted circles around the film's actual stars. Audiences wanted more, so the studio gave them more, and an unlikely action hero was born.

      Critics actually disliked how cold-blooded Ladd could act, especially in scenes where he had to kill someone. There was a lot of noise about his movie China depicting violence too joyfully, mostly due to the scene where he kills three enemy soldiers he just found raping a teenage girl -- he's got this grim almost-smile of satisfaction when he kills them, and people got all vocal about that.

    2. That is such a fascinating story. I like how he worked to make a success out of a combination that most of film executives wouldn't have believed could be a success, if he hadn't actually proved it to them.

    3. Jessica, from what I've read, he struggled a lot with self-confidence too, which makes him playing these super-tough guys all the more intriguing.

  3. This looks like such a great movie and one that I want to see ASAP. :) The characters, especially, seem to be very memorable.

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

    1. Eva, I could see you being really interested in this one. Especially since it's not so dark or disturbing.

  4. Great review, and definitely one I want to see at some point!!

    1. DKoren, it's a fascinating one. Story-wise, it's one of Alan's better noirs, I think.

  5. I've seen the film yesterday & I was also irritated by Alan's weary looks, but I also realized that he looked better with the progress of the action. After I've read your very competend analysis (why the too big coat, the broken psyche of an ex-jailbird, framed for a murder he didn't committed...) I will watch the film again ! I admit, I also became a big fan of Alan Ladd & I think he is one of Hollywood's most underrated actors ! I always liked him in Shane, but when I saw his GATSBY - I was blown away! He was always simply awsome til Shane (which is interstellar !!). But after Shane is the crack, he started to loose his dynamic power, which made him so great (in every aspect). BUT I love him because of his ups & downs, his good & wrong decisions, his sad ending & because he gave us so many many wonderful hours !! AND I thank you for your very interesting blogs !

    1. Andrea, I'm sorry I didn't reply to this sooner! It got pushed down in my inbox. I apologize.

      I'm glad you also noticed that Ladd started out looking pretty awful, but perked up over the course of the story. I'm so happy you're going to give it another chance! I liked it WAY better the second time through.

      How cool that you're also a big fan of Ladd! I had seen him in Shane and The Proud Rebel as a teen, but not taken much notice of him. Saw This Gun for Hire ten years or so ago and thought it was cool, and thought he'd have made a dandy Hamlet, but really didn't pay more attention than that. Then just over 2 years ago, I hosted a read-along of Shane on my book blog and watched the movie again, and I watched Whispering Smith that same week... and the two of those back-to-back just knocked my little socks off. I started inhaling every Ladd film I could get my hands on, and I've been his devotee ever since.

      LOVE that you've seen his Gatsby! It's not that well-known, but I thought he was particularly great in it. I wish it was better-known.

      And yes, I agree that after Shane, his films started to slide. His performances and their overall quality declined, though there are a few like this and The Proud Rebel that are still worthy of rewatching.

      I also love him for his turbulence and his sad life. I love how he overcame so many things, though eventually he couldn't surmount all his troubles.

      I've reviewed quite a few of his films here, and will be reviewing more in the future, so if you want to leave more comments at some point, I will happily answer them! AND I'll try not to wait like a week to do so :-)

  6. Have you ever imagined Ladd portraying Mark McPherson? Andrews was great, but Ladd would have added another dimension to the role. Unless I'm mistaken, he never played a cop or detective in any of his noir films. I wish someone would upload a Youtube video of the Encore Western promos for Ladd marathons because they're really good.

    1. Anonymous, nope, that hadn't crossed my mind! I could see Ladd in the role, yes. Though I adore Dana Andrews' portrayal, so I don't know that I'd want to switch them out.

      Ladd did play a postal inspector in Appointment with Danger, but that's the closest to a cop or detective he got in his noirs, you're right!

  7. After reading your review, I expanded my growing collection of Alan Ladd movies by getting the DVD of "Hell on Frisco Bay". Like you, I totally got this because of Alan Ladd, of course, but I was curious to see two of the most legendary (and SOOO different) "tough guys" together in one film – Ladd and Edward G. Robinson! Having read your blog, I was prepared for Ladd's "looking weary and old" and then slowly but marvelously rejuvenating during the film, which you explain spot-on (just a little thing, I'm a stickler, I know: it's not two years after "Shane", but four years, since "Shane" was shot in 1951 and director Stevens took almost 2 years editing it, so it was released in 1953). The boat chase in the harbour reminded me of later James Bond and Indiana Jones movies... And Alan, the former swimming and diving champion, is in his element again. I think he did that jump from the really high jetty himself, and seeing him swim so elegantly always makes my day (he did it almost ten years earlier in the movie "China", too). With the bad guy in handcuffs, Alan indeed looks years younger than at the start of the film, sweet smile, eyes sparkling with joy. Not a typical "noir", not totally gloomy and cynical. And I, too, like that about it.

    1. Andrea, oh, I'm SO glad you liked this one! And that I'm not just imagining that he looks younger and lighter as the film progresses.

      You're absolutely right about my error on the filming vs. release of Shane. Good catch! I will fix that. Thanks!

      Yes, the boat chase definitely makes me think of certain James Bond and Indiana Jones films! I also think he did that dive -- we know he was very proud of his swimming abilities (and justly so), and I'm sure he would have relished the chance to perform that stunt.

      My favorite noirs are the hopeful ones with the possibility of happiness to come, and the more often I watch this one, the higher it rises in my list of favorite Ladd films :-)


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