Friday, September 03, 2021

"Calcutta" (1947)

Today is Alan Ladd's birthday, so you know what that means!  It's time for 93 screencaps and a lengthy, heart-eyed movie review.

::rubs hands::

So, let's get to it!  

"Does a guy have to trust a girl to fall for her?"

That's the central question in Calcutta (1947).  Neale Gordon (Alan Ladd) asks it aloud almost three-quarters of the way through the movie, but it's really the core of the whole story.  And it's what his character arc revolves around, too.

The fun starts when pilot pals Neale and Pedro (William Bendix) have a bit of engine trouble on their routine cargo route between Chungking, China to Calcutta, India.  

Their buddy Bill (John Whitney) talks to them via radio until he's sure they've dumped their cargo and are able to make a safe emergency landing.  He then takes off to bring them engine parts, and says he has some big news to share.

For some unknown reason, only Neale got so hot while repairing that engine that he had to doff his shirt.  Very mysterious.

This shot is just here in case you need a photo of Alan Ladd shirtless AND smiling.  Usually, when he's shirtless in a movie, he's grim or serious, so this is actually kind of rare.

Bill lands on their makeshift runway and offers to buy Neale and Pedro a drink in a nearby town while their plane gets fixed up.  That suits them fine.

Bill's a little banged up because he has this bad habit of drinking too much and picking fights, and last night, Neale and Pedro weren't around to help him out when he got in a brawl.  But he says his barfighting days are over, because he's going to get married!

Pedro and Neale are not amused.  Neale in particular likes women only on a temporary basis.  He reminds his pal, "You've combed enough dames outta your hair to know what they want: stability.  Settling down."  And settling down is NOT Neale's idea of a good life.  He has no use for any of this stick-to-one-woman-forever nonsense.

Bill gets in a fight about two seconds later, and Pedro and Neale happily fend off his assailants and put him back on his plane to head back to Calcutta.  They'll be following as soon as their plane is fixed.

But when Neale and Pedro get to Calcutta the next day, they learn that Bill was murdered soon after he returned the night before.  He was strangled, his body dumped in an alley.  They go to the morgue with Inspector Kendricks (Gavin Muir) to identify Bill's body.

Neale instantly decides that he's going to find out who killed Bill, and he's going to do it before the police do so he can get a little personal revenge on the murderer before he gets locked up.  Pedro has to fly a load of passengers to Chungking and back tomorrow, and he makes Neale promise not to kill the murderer before he gets back so he can take his pound of flesh too.  You know, Bill seemed like a really nice guy, but his pals play kinda rough.

Neale starts his investigation by looking up his... best girl?  Main squeeze?  I'm not sure what to call her!  Marina (June Duprez) is a nightclub singer who loves Neale even though she knows he plays the field constantly.  She's always there for him, however and whenever he needs her company, even though she's about given up hope that he'll ever stop his philandering ways and become a one-woman man.

Anyway, Neale asks Marina if she knows anything about Bill's fiancée, whom Neale and Pedro have never met, and never even heard of until yesterday.  Marina gives Neale a few clues, and he heads off to do some sleuthing.

Neale (and Pedro) start out by asking nightclub-and-casino owner Eric Lasser (Lowell Gilmore) about Bill's last visit to this establishment.  They get very few real answers from Lasser, or from his business associate Malik (Paul Singh).  Both of them seem to be hiding more than they're telling, and Pedro and Neale leave unsatisfied.

Random note, but Alan Ladd spends most of this movie with his hands in his pockets.  I have never seen him do this so often in a movie before!  I'm really curious as to why.  Is it to show that Neale is suspicious by nature, and likes to keep tabs on his own valuables?  Does it show he hides things from others?  Is it to show that he usually doesn't stick his nose in other people's business, and so all this investigating is unusual for him?  Were Alan Ladd's hands cold on set?  I don't know!  But in basically every scene, he either ends up with his hands in his pockets or his arms folded.  The folded-arms thing, I get, because that's an easy visual cue to show that a character doesn't believe something, and Neale doesn't believe most of the stuff people tell him.  But I don't know about the pockets thing.  It's very interesting.

Anyway, guess who shows up at the last minute for that passenger flight Pedro has to take to Chungking the next day?  None other than Malik, Lasser's "business associate."  He's charming and polite and friendly, and Pedro gets very, very suspicious of him.

Meanwhile, back in Calcutta, Neale is trying to find this fiancée of Bill's.  He knocks on her hotel door a couple times, with no answer.  Then, as he heads back to his own room after another unsuccessful visit to hers, she calls out to him from above on the stairs.  And there she is, the seemingly mythical fiancée, Virginia Moore (Gail Russell).  She is young and soft-spoken and luminous and beautiful.

You can see this is not the sort of woman Neale was expecting, not even after his gal pal Marina told him Virginia was a sweet girl.  (And, oh my goodness, is this not a beautiful use of shadows?  Nom nom nom.)

Neale comes back up the stairs to meet Virginia.  She's shy and nervous, but smiles and invites him in so he can ask her his questions about Bill.

Neale listens while Virginia tells him all about how she and Bill spent his last day or two in Calcutta, their plans to get married, and how horrible it was when she found out from the morning news that he'd been killed.

Neale listens... but skeptically.  Neale does not think much of most women.  He thinks they're nice to look at and touch, but that they're all devious and conniving, all just trying to hook a man for good.  And here is the woman who hooked his friend for good, but then his friend died, so yeah... Neale is not feeling warm fuzzies toward this Virginia dame.

Virginia, however, has "sweet and young and confused and sad" written all over her. 

So Neale continues asking questions and being cynical.  And continues enjoying looking at her.

His questions annoy Virginia, eventually, and she decides he needs to leave.  That's when he notices she's wearing a fabulously expensive necklace.  She claims Bill gave it to her.  Neale says Bill never had enough money at one time to buy anything half so expensive.  He asks her to give him the necklace so he can look into this.  When she won't, he snaps the chain and takes it anyway.

Virginia declares she doesn't know how Bill could ever have been friends with him, because Bill was nice, but Neale is, and I quote, "cold, sadistic, and egotistical."  (I am not at all sure that "snapped the chain of my necklace" is enough to label Neale sadistic, but she's a bit given to hyperbole, so whatever.)

Neale grins at that.  "Maybe, but I'm still alive," he purrs before leaving.

Neale knows where that fancy necklace came from, so he heads off to find out if Bill really did buy it for Virginia, and, if so, with what.  And here we meet one of my favorite characters in the whole movie: Mrs. Smith (Edith King).  Mrs. Smith owns an imported goods shop, smokes cigars, and has a really ridiculous hat.  I love her.  

In fact, my brain has tossed together some follow-up scenarios to this movie where Pedro and Mrs. Smith hit it off in a big way and get together.  She is just plain awesome -- a straight-talking, intelligent, no-nonsense woman who knows more than she says.  And she has an eye for handsome guys, too.

Sure enough, Bill bought that necklace from her.  Paid her with a check.  She's all hearty cheer and comradely helpfulness... until Neale tells her that Bill was murdered.  Suddenly, Mrs. Smith goes still and serious.  She'd taken a shine to Bill, and the idea of that sweet kid getting strangled in an alley bugs the crap out of her.  She'll do anything she can to help Neale figure this out, and she's completely sincere about that offer.

Then she's all vivacious bonhomie again, and she and Neale bid each other a chummy farewell.  MAN, I wish she was in this movie a lot more than she is.

Neale is stumped.  He has no idea where Bill got so much money, and he's worried that Bill must've been mixed up in something illegal.  But he just doesn't want to believe that.  He goes back to his own hotel suite, where he lives when he's not flying.

Marina has spent the afternoon there, while he was out, taking a cool bath in his tub.  She comes out wrapped in Neale's bathrobe and perches beside him on the... divan?  Couch?  Thing?

Neale toys with the robe's belt while they flirt a little, eventually tying it tighter rather than untying it because this is the 1940s and the Hays Code is still in effect, so of course he does.

Marina asks him what he's learned, and they do this cute little thing they did at the nightclub earlier, where Neale sticks a cigarette between his own lips to light it, then hands it to Marina.  It sounds dumb when I state it like that, but I promise it's all kinds of flirty and sexy.

Marina reminds Neale that he hasn't kissed her yet, and he's been there for simply minutes and minutes.  

Neale takes her cigarette and stubs it out with one hand while pulling her closer with the other.  Cue a very sultry kiss and a fade-to-black.

We return to find Neale retying his tie when who should come knocking on his door but Virginia.  She wants to apologize for being rude and calling him names, or something.  Neal apologizes too, and gives back the necklace, along with the information that Bill really did pay for it himself.

Marina comes out of Neale's bedroom, prompting Virginia to frostily apologize if she was interrupting anything.  Neale gets a kick out of her insinuations (at this point he kind of treats her like she's a funny kid, while he and Marina are clearly Serious Adults), but Marina brushes them aside with a calm smile.

Marina walks around Virginia, subtly giving her the once-over, and lands firmly beside Neale, right where she belongs.  Without being obviously proprietary, she's letting Virginia know this man already has a woman, and reminding Neale not to be a sap where Virginia's concerned.  Which Neale totally knows she's doing, and finds most amusing.  I suspect him of enjoying having two pretty ladies vying for his attention.

Virginia's sweet face slides into a scowl.  She knows what Marina's communicating too.

Marina even kisses Neale goodbye, chastely on the cheek, rather like a wife would.  But Neale doesn't like the idea of being tied to one woman, so he only smirks rather than appreciating the loyal gesture.

Neale takes Virginia dancing.  This gives him a chance to question her more, and us a chance to enjoy how nicely Alan Ladd dances.  Frustratingly, like most of his movies, this dancing sequence is very short and mostly focuses on faces and dialog.

Virginia pours on the innocent-yet-glamorous charm.

Neale resists it, while looking pretty darn devastating himself.

Pedro returns from the airport at last, and he and Neale confront Malik, who has been behaving really suspiciously.  (Oh look, hands in pockets again for Alan.)  They get no real answers out of him, though.

This shot is here in case you needed a picture of Alan Ladd in suspenders (swoon!) reclining nonchalantly on a bed.

Neale has had an idea about what Bill might have gotten killed over.  He calls the airport and asks what plane will be flying to Chungking next.  

Then he leaves word for Pedro to meet him at the airport and heads over alone because it is always a good idea to go investigate an airport at night, alone, when you're looking into the mysterious murder of your best friend.  ::shakes finger at Neale for not having better sense::

Actual surprise:  Neale finds a bag of smuggled jewelry under the floor of the airplane.

Not an actual surprise:  Neale is then attacked by someone who tries to strangle him.  

Spoiler Alert: he gets away.

Also not a surprise:  when Neale gets back to his hotel, Malik shows up with a gun before Neale can even get his coat off.  Malik wants the bag that Neale took from the airplane, of course.

Neale thinks this is awesome.  He's pretty sure he knows who was behind Bill's death now.  Also, he knows something Malik doesn't know:  the bag's empty.

Neale and Pedro stashed the goods so they can use it as bait to draw Bill's killer out, and Neale is quite chuffed at how well their plan has worked.

Except Malik says he has no idea who killed Bill.  He simply heard something about smuggled goods being up for grabs and came sniffing around.  Totally innocent of anything but curiosity, la la la la la.

Yeah, Neale's not buying it, but he lets Malik leave with his pistol and the empty bag.  Look at that casual leeeeeeeeeean.  He thinks he's about to wrap up this whole mystery.

I'm not done looking at that lean, are you?  (Also, hands in pockets again.)  

Now, the plot is going to kick into overdrive, and I'm going to start spoiling stuff all over, so if you don't want SPOILAGE, skip to after the last picture.

You've been warned.

Malik wasn't warned, though, and he ends up dead about 30 seconds after he leaves Neale's room.  

I really like the composition of this shot, how crowded with action it is.  Also, look how many patrons this hotel has, after seeming mostly empty all this time!

Dear old Inspector Kendricks arrives and questions everyone, especially Neale, who folds his arms and cooperates a little, but mostly just glares and makes a lot of snide remarks.

Then he sticks his hands in his pockets and glares some more.  

This shot is here in case you needed to see a picture of Alan Ladd pouring himself a spot of tea.

I kind of collect pictures of favorite actors and characters drinking things, so I had no choice but to screencap this.

Anyway, Marina and Neale have a chummy breakfast while they discuss Malik's death and all the things Neale didn't learn when he was out dancing with Virginia, etc.

I missed this the first two times I watched Calcutta, but I think this is a turning point in Neale's character arc, even if Neale and Marina don't realize it.  Up until now, we always see Neale lighting a cigarette and then passing it to Marina.  But here, Marina lights one and hands it to Neale instead.

Neale doesn't even notice, really -- he's so wrapped up in trying to figure out if Virginia is involved in Bill's death, and who killed Malik, and where all that smuggled jewelry came from.  He accepts the cigarette and goes right on pondering.

Isn't Marina pretty?  I love her eyes.

Neale is still contemplating everything he doesn't know about who killed Bill when the Friendly Neighborhood Desk Clerk (Milton Parsons) calls to say that Neale should come up to Virginia's room right away.  It's been ransacked, and Virginia is nowhere to be found.

We get treated to this sly little exchange that I can't believe got past the censors:

Neale: Has the bed been slept in?
Desk Clerk: No.
Marina: Well, I'm glad you asked that question.

Does Marina know that Neale sleeps with other women?  Yes, she's known that all along.  Is she okay with that?  Not as okay as he's assumed she is.  And she's getting less okay with it all the time.  Marina's attitude toward Neale is changing from resigned to protective, and Neale hasn't quite noticed yet.  He also hasn't noticed that he's started appreciating how steady and dependable Marina is, especially compared to the other leading lady in the story.

Speaking of other ladies, Neale goes back to see Mrs. Smith again, arriving when she's in the middle of a rather elaborate beauty treatment.  Or, as she puts it, getting her warpaint on.

Neale thinks now that Mrs. Smith is behind the smuggling.  She says she and Malik used to be partners in a bit of illegal exporting and importing, but that ended years ago.  Before they can get any more info out of each other, the police arrive and take Neale off to the station for questioning regarding Malik's death.

I haven't talked much about Pedro yet.  When the movie starts, you kind of assume Pedro is, well, dimmer than Neale.  He's not dumb, but he's not the guy digging up clues.  He's the sidekick, following along with whatever the hero says.  But in this scene, you discover that Pedro is a fast thinker and keeps a cooler head than even Neale.  He's extremely good at reading people, and he uses that to flip everything the police think they know upside down, ensuring that Neale can keep investigating, even though Pedro will have to stay in jail for a bit.

This doesn't come as a surprise when you think back over how accurately Pedro has pegged Bill, Marina, and Virginia over the course of the film.  He's observant and savvy, and I love that about him.

I think Neale realizes here that he may also have underestimated Pedro -- not his intelligence, but his devotion to being sure they find out who killed Bill.  It's a cool scene.

Virginia sends for Neale.  She's staying at "a friend's" apartment across town.  I'd just like to point out that, although Pedro's the one cooling his heels in jail right now, Neale's the one with shadowy stripes on his clothes, posed up against a beaded curtain that looks vaguely like bars in a jail cell.  

In fact, there are bars and stripes all over this apartment, making it look like an elaborate cage.

Neale remains skeptical about the things Virginia tells him, especially about how Bill got that money to buy that necklace.  She insists he won it gambling.  Neale knows Bill wasn't a gambler.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuut she's beautiful, and she's in distress, and right here is where Neale asks that central question: "Does a guy have to trust a girl to fall for her?"  Because he doesn't really trust Virginia (he claims he doesn't trust any woman), but he is really starting to fall for her.

For the record, Virginia's answer to that question is "No, he doesn't."

It appears that Neale spends the night in Virginia's apartment.  Very early the next morning, he leaves her a note and heads back to the hotel.  This shot is mostly here because I also collect pictures of favorite actors and characters writing.

Back at the hotel, Neale gets some extremely enlightening information from, of all people, the Friendly Neighborhood Desk Clerk.  

This leads him to question the waiters for the hotel's bar, and this new information shoots holes all through Virginia's story about how she and Bill spent their last evening together, and about how she learned that Bill had died.

And now Neale has what he's wanted all along: a way to find Bill's killer.

Neale returns to Virginia, bringing all that smuggled jewelry with him.  She just about drools when she sees it.

But then Neale confronts her with her lies about Bill.  She responds by reminding him that she never claimed to love Bill, but she thinks she's in love with Neale now.

Uh, yeah, Neale's not buying what you're selling anymore, sweetheart.  You gambled on the fact that most men will fall for a girl they don't trust -- it's worked beautifully for you for a long time now.  But Neale... Neale has learned better, thanks partly to you and partly to having a girl in his life he really can trust.

When she won't answer his questions about how she helped get Bill killed, Neale slaps her around a little.  "Do you think you're too pretty to hit?" he snarls.

Yeah, she did think that.  She also thinks if she cries, he'll feel sorry for her.  Virginia has never really understood what deep friendship there was between Neale, Pedro, and Bill.  She's used to being able to charm any man into doing anything for her, even turning against his own friends.  But Neale's cynicism about women, and his true friendship for Bill, keeps him from falling for her charms too far.

He finally gets her to confess that she's been in cahoots with Lasser (the nighclub owner) long before she met Bill, and that she used her feminine wiles to distract pilots and keep them happy while Lasser used their planes to smuggle things in and out of China.  The only trouble is, Bill was an actually nice guy who actually fell for her, but then got wise to the smuggling, and Lasser had him killed.

Virginia insists she loves Neale.  Then she tries to shoot him.  Lasser turns up and tries to shoot Neale too.  Neale shoots Lasser, finally fulfilling his vow to take down the guy who killed Bill.  Or, had him killed, anyway.  I can't actually remember if we for sure find out who strangled Bill -- I think it was the same henchman who tried to strangle Neale at the airport?

And then, Neale calls the police.  All the way up to here, Virginia has been doe-eyed and sweet and trembling, still giving Neale the come-hither treatment.  She's doing everything she can to convince him to blame everything on Lasser (including a murder she committed) and help her get out of this.

But when Neale really does turn her over to Inspector Kendricks, she loses all the sugar and snidely says, "I would have hated to have killed you."  And she kisses Neale on the cheek, just the way Marina did earlier, but with a weird look of regretful malice.

We cut to Neale getting ready to take off on a flight to somewhere.  Marina brings him the extra shirt he always forgets to pack, and a bag of sandwiches.  Just the sort of domestic, wifely attentions that Neale has scorned all his life.  But Neale has learned something important: trust is more important in a relationship than all the sexy sparkage you can feel toward a stranger.

Neale tells Marina, "You're an awfully swell guy."  He said this to her once before, early in the film, but the meaning of his words has completely changed.  Earlier, he meant that he liked that she didn't ask to be more to him than just a pal.  Someone he could fool around with, without feeling guilty when he fooled around with some other girl.

But I don't think that's what he means by it now.  Now, he means that he values her the way he values Pedro and Bill -- as someone he can trust and depend on.  Someone he wants to be loyal to.

In fact, I wouldn't be awfully surprised if Pedro got asked to be best man at a wedding before too awful long.

(If you were avoiding spoilers, you're safe now.)

Is this movie family friendly?  Well, yeah.  All the love scenes fade to black a few seconds after they begin.  Neale's philandering is obliquely referred to, and you could just view him as someone who goes around kissing a lot of girls if you want to.  The death scenes are bloodless.  There's no cussing.  Lots and lots of cigarettes get smoked, though, and people drink various alcoholic beverages.

I find it very interesting that Alan Ladd made so many movies about three wartime buddies, one of whom gets in terrible trouble and has to be protected, helped, or avenged by the other two.  This, The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Saigon (1947) all kind of use that basic set-up.  I'm not really going anywhere with this observation, I just noticed it and thought I'd mention it.  The three-wartime-buddies motif gets used in lots of other movies too -- Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town (1949), and It's Always Fair Weather (1955) come to mind.

Anyway, happy birthday, my dear Alan Ladd :-)  Thanks for making all these delicious movies!


  1. I remember noticing the hands in the pockets thing when I watched Appointment with Danger, too. At the time, I remembered thinking "maybe it's just a default 'I dunno what to do with my hands, guess I'll put them in my pockets' move." And/or maybe a sign of nervousness.

    Is that a cat in Neale's room?

    I think I saw this movie a very long time ago, although of course I hope to see it again some time soon. Thanks for the review!

    1. VT, I never noticed him do it repeatedly in Appointment with Danger! I will have to rewatch it and see if I catch that. He does look very natural with his hands in his pockets, so I'm not complaining.

      I don't think there's a cat in Neale's room -- are you thinking the thing on the table in the picture where he's stretched out on the couch? That's a statue of a person riding an elephant -- you can see it closer a couple pictures down, at the bottom of the frame.

      I like that this one is pretty readily available :-) Not hard to track down like some of his!

  2. *joins you in saying happy birthday to Alan Ladd*
    It's always interesting when you notice those plotlines that the writer clearly really likes.

    1. Elizabeth, patterns like that are pretty fun to spot! :-)

  3. Quite entertaining, the picture and your comments.

  4. I'll have to watch this one.
    I think the hands in the pockets may be to indicate both his suspicious nature, and that he may have something to hide. I haven't seen an Alad Ladd movie yet where he didn't play a character with something to hide.

    1. Stanley, it's not hard to find! I hope you're able to find and see it.

      You're right, Ladd excelled at characters with Something to Hide. I think it's because he's really good at saying one thing with words and another with his eyes and face. He's always playing characters who are all tough and cynical on the outside, but sweet and tender-hearted on the inside. Which is part of what made this fun, as usually his characters have an arc that involves them learning not to be so cynical... but here, his cynicism actually serves him well!

  5. I loved this review! The pictures of Alan leaning with the coat pulled back and the suspensders.... Yuuuusss.
    I hate movies where the main character goes around kissing a bunch of girls, even if he ends up with just one, but I live with it, since it's in an insane amount of movies. This actually does look pretty fun.

    1. Irene (and Anna?) yeah, he was in top form in this one. All the swoonage.

      I'm generally not a fan of characters who are "playing the field," either (of either sex), and Neale definitely isn't in my top ten list for Alan Ladd characters, but the movie as a whole works very well, and by the end you get the feeling he's going to give the whole "stick to one woman" thing a try.


Agree or disagree? That is the question...

Comments on old posts are always welcome!

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)