I tell you it’s rough out there on Frisco Bay, especially when you say the word ‘Frisco’ within earshot of a proud San Francisco native. This Alan Ladd racketeering tale could have been written twenty years earlier, but it has Warner Color and the early, extra-wide iteration of the new movie attraction CinemaScope.
Hell on Frisco Bay
Warner Archive Collection
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen Academy / 98 min. / Street Date , 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Alan Ladd, Edward G. Robinson, Joanne Dru, William Demarest, Paul Stewart, Perry Lopez, Fay Wray, Nestor Paiva, Willis Bouchey, Anthony Caruso, Tina Carver, Rod(ney) Taylor, Jayne Mansfield, Mae Marsh, Tito Vuolo.
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Stunts: Paul Baxley
Original Music: Max Steiner
Written by Martin Rackin, Sydney Boehm from a book by William P. McGivern
Produced by George C. Berttholon, Alan Ladd
Directed by Frank Tuttle
Alan Ladd had always been sort of the Perry Como of screen tough-guys. Fashionably laid-back and quiet in his early hits This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, he set a fashion for bruiser heroes that keep their violent potential corked up behind a calm exterior. Ladd would continue to work that character in more good noirs (Appointment with Danger) and of course the classic Shane. But when the script wasn’t good an Alan Ladd movie could end up just sitting there with its hands folded, waiting for exciting things to happen.
After making some Columbia pictures for future 007 mogul Albert Broccoli, his Jaguar Productions took on a contract at Warners, which had upped him to CinemaScope for the western Drum Beat and the patriotic recruiting bio The McConnell Story. Ladd was heavier and slower, not tired, exactly, but the age showed. In the late ’40s he had been perfect for action thrillers — his gentle features masked a guy ready to spring like a cobra. But in 1954-55 he seems genuinely worn sitting a horse, and far too placid to be a killer jet ace.
Hell on Frisco Bay benefits from handsome location work but is mostly an on-the-lot cheapie. As an unbilled executive producer, Alan Ladd pairs himself with a great star having difficulty landing major roles, and surrounds the two of them with an interesting group of actors.
The story could indeed have been written in 1935. It also seems practically a template for a thousand Japanese Yakuza pictures, where someone’s always being released from prison in the first scene. Railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit, ex-policeman Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) emerges from San Quentin looking for revenge. Rollins rejects the counsel of Dan Bianco (William Demarest), the only cop on the force that still believes in him. Worse, he snubs his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru) outright, even though she’s waited five years for his return, singing at a club. Steve closed the door on Marcia when he learned that she had seen someone else, and hasn’t allowed her to visit him since the trial. Marcia is crushed by Steve’s rejection, and disappointed that his only aim to nail the guys that framed him. The crime-ridden, mostly Italian fishing boat docks are now run by Union racketeer Victor Amato (Edward G. Robinson), who doesn’t mind using violence and suborning policemen to maintain control. Trying to protect Steve from himself, his old friends won’t help him, even though Amato’s henchman Hammy (Stanley Adams) proves no match for the fast-fisted ex-cop. As it turns out, weaknesses in Victor Amato’s close associates are his undoing. Under pressure from Dan Bianco, Victor’s weakling nephew Mario (Perry Lopez) surrenders good info on the old murder. Amato must rely on his capable assistant Joe Lye (Paul Stewart) yet constantly needles him, criticizing Joe’s faith and jeering at his deeply scarred face. Amato also harps on the fact that, with the help of crooked Detective Connors (Peter Hansen) he can put Joe back in jail on a murder rap whenever he wants. If that’s not enough, Victor tries to put the moves on Joe’s girl, ex- movie star Kay Stanley (Fay Wray). What kind of leader of a criminal organization so routinely abuses and betrays his handpicked cronies? Steve begins to make headway when he locates John Brodie (Rod Taylor), a key thug in the five-year-old killing.
Alan Ladd isn’t all that likable in Hell on Frisco Bay, mainly because he does the usual tough-guy thing of getting other people killed while pursuing his selfish goal of vengeance. That Steve Rollins never seems ruffled and is always polite, even to the bad guys, doesn’t help sell the idea that he’s a driven man. He just doesn’t look all that obsessed. The solution is of course to surround Ladd with people that do care. Thus we get impassioned close associates to counter Rollins’ ‘casual obsession.’ This is just an okay role for Joanne Dru, who never topped her terrific Tess Millay in Red River. But her Marcia does get to tell off Ladd’s Steve nicely at one point, a satisfying moment for sure. She sings a couple of songs, presumably not her own voice, and then rushes to be on time to become Robinson’s hostage. The songs make the film seem old-fashioned: most are the same standards we heard way back in The Roaring Twenties.
Without a single ‘nyaah,’ Edward G. Robinson makes Victor Amato a highly watchable bad guy, a somewhat generic post- Bandello post- Rocco mob boss with a nasty ego. Cold-fish Amato orders the slaying of an untrustworthy relative and ends up condoning murders he can’t control. His best scene, though, is when he tries to cozy up to Kay Stanley, the former movie star. Fay Wray is so decidedly a lady that Robinson’s make-believe verbal advances come off as an outrage. Just making an improper advance to our beloved Fay should be a capital offense. Murderous mobsters we can understand, but we want Amato dead because he made our favorite scream queen upset.
Always a favorite with the public, Robinson never gave a bad performance. At this time he was struggling under what has been called the Hollywood graylist. Cleared of Communist connections, Robinson was still given grief for having been a vocal anti-Nazi, for not kowtowing under pressure, and for simply being liberal. The bigots behind the Red Scare were also known to single out Jews. Lesser actors with suspect political associations were simply blacklisted from the industry. In a couple of cases their names were even removed from film credits. A star like Robinson was too big to be banned outright, but the really desirable roles dried up overnight. The highly capable star found himself playing routine bad guys for tiny outfits like Grammercy Pictures. Warners put him in a lower-case remake, Illegal, with a ‘B’ cast, and Tight Spot for Columbia was also not a big production. None of Robinson’s characters were criminals, and had conditions been different he might have turned down this generic mobster role. It was good work on an ‘A’ picture, and Jaguar Productions was clearly bucking the system by hiring him. That’s another solid reason to admire Alan Ladd.
The major supporting roles make strong but predictable impressions. The boisterous William Demarest smartly underplays opposite Allan Ladd; if Demarest let loose he might blow Ladd away like a leaf in the wind. Paul Stewart has a key part as the tormented Number One to Robinson’s Amato. Joe Lye is supposed to be smart, but he can’t be too smart to commit killings for such an unstable boss. Stewart wears an extreme makeup to create a scar on the left side of his face, which seemingly bisects a cheekbone and wraps around his nose. I’ll have to ask Craig Reardon for his opinion, but I’m thinking that the makeup artist has disguised a rubber band that goes partway or all the way across Stewart’s face, to distort his features. I’ll bet that after a few minutes the makeup job approached a Lon Chaney- level of discomfort.
For two players this was clearly a big opportunity. Tina Carver has an entire scene to herself with Alan Ladd. Unfortunately it looks like they’re making her wear the same old feathery robe Gladys George wore back in The Roaring Twenties. Within two years the former USO entertainer Carver would retreat to TV work, after scraping bottom in a risible horror picture. But the coin flipped the other way for Australian newcomer Rodney Taylor, who makes every second on-screen count, and turns a nothing bit role into a heck of an audition. Rod Taylor immediately jumped into much bigger movies by George Stevens and Richard Brooks.
In much smaller, compartmentalized parts are the capable Nestor Paiva, Anthony Caruso, Stanley Adams and Willis Bouchey. Peter Hansen isn’t too thrilling as a cop on Amato’s payroll, but Perry Lopez again shows potential as the weakling nephew. Lopez also gets a nice scene dancing with none other than Jayne Mansfield, doing her best as an alluring dance date.
Hollywood adapted several of author William McGivern’s police corruption stories: The Big Heat, Rogue Cop, Shield for Murder. Martin Rackin and Sydney Boehm’s screenplay doesn’t belabor the disgraced policeman theme. Steve Rollins is bent out of shape because he was framed, not for losing his badge. Neither is Frisco Bay all that interested in labor racketeering. Audiences in 1955 had just been assaulted by the eye-opening union corruption drama On the Waterfront, but the conflict here is reduced to a fishing boat czar rubbing out competition, as in films from the 1930s.
The movie isn’t exactly technically progressive, either. Although we see Alan Ladd on the San Francisco locations almost everybody else is doubled, and rear projection places them in scenes requiring dialogue. Director Frank Tuttle had done a couple of Ladd hits but here he just stands back with his wide CinemaScope frame and lets scenes play out in standard coverage. The company either obeyed the pre-censorship suggestions of Joseph Breen and Geoffrey Shurlock, or perhaps Ladd was personally against on-screen violence, for almost all of the film’s killings take place off-screen. A couple of characters disappear just as we’re getting to know them.
Hell on Frisco Bay would seem to confirm a suspicion I’ve had about certain early CinemaScope pictures. By 1955 Elia Kazan and John Sturges were experimenting with flexible framing and compositions in the wide format, with their efforts even being complimented by critics. Director Tuttle and cameraman John Seitz defeat the purpose of the wide screen by composing most shots with all the essential subject matter huddled near the middle of the screen, often leaving empty ‘tabs’ out at the side. The titles of course fill the frame, but most wide interior shots gather everyone in the center. It’s as if they consider the ‘real’ movie to be an eventual pan-scanned TV version. The fact that this was the early extra-wide 2:55 ‘Scope exacerbates the look. The movie might conceivably play better matted to 1.78:1, but were grateful that WB honors original aspect rations. The Fox cable channels routinely blow up 20th Fox ‘Scope movies in this way, creating a mess.
Read any bio of Alan Ladd and you’ll find out that he had a rough childhood, and a long haul getting established in Hollywood. Yet he maintained his stardom with dignity right through the 1950s, with nary a scandal. Even if his later star vehicles sometimes seemed a bit behind the times, Ladd still looks great and the impressive voice hasn’t diminished. Hell on Frisco Bay was Ladd’s movie, and his fans will be pleased to see him choosing such a deserving group of players to back him up.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Hell on Frisco Bay is a handsomely restored edition of this vintage crime picture. Colors are bright and the image is sharp, although in early CinemaScope the rear projection scenes can look grainy. I said that Alan Ladd’s face sometimes looks a bit puffy, but this might be another unwanted result of early ‘Scope distortion called the CinemaScope Mumps.
Helping out considerably is Max Steiner’s active, brooding film score. Steiner enhances confrontations by underscoring the lead-ups and then backing off with his music cues, letting the dialogue take over.
The one extra is an original trailer, with a script that practically follows the synopsis from above. Why did I never catch Hell on Frisco Bay on TV in the 1960s? I was once given to believe that TV stations balked at showing movies with ‘hell’ in the title, as if newspaper TV guides objected. Release ads for the movie do show some examples with the title ‘The Darkest Hour’ pasted in over the original title. Speaking of ad materials, some unpleasant-looking lobby cards were all I could find to illustrate this review. Have no fear, the brilliant hues on the WAC’s fine disc do not look like a bad color photocopy. The large top image is from a typically beautiful Italian poster.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hell on Frisco Bay Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good +
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 18, 2017
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson