It’s said that director Phil Karlson joked, “we took The Maltese Falcon and we did The Maltese Falcon…in our own way”.
That might be stretching it a bit, but if you get a chance to see Paramount’s Hell’s Island (originally titled Love Is A Weapon, a much better and more accurate title, I think), you’ll see what Karlson meant. Shot in Technicolor and Vista-Vision, Hell’s Island is one of several mid-1950’s crime and romantic suspense films that seem to point the way – visually, at least – to what would become neo-noir years later…specifically, how to capture film noir’s ominous and foreboding darkness in richly saturated hues. It’d be nice to watch a crisp and clean version of this movie, but aside from an incompatible format European DVD, all I’ve come up with are the online versions. Even so, it’s well worth viewing.
The opening credits roll over a violent shootout and cut to late-era noir stalwart John Payne on the operating table about to get a bullet dug out of his shoulder. A police detective squeezes in between the surgeon and nurses to light a cigarette for Payne (who’s apparently not under anesthesia…and allowed to smoke in the operating room). In classic film noir fashion, Payne launches into a voice-over narration about how he wound up there.
He’s Mike Cormack, who lost it all just a year earlier when his lifelong love Janie Erskine concluded that marriage to a dashing Caribbean pilot had more appeal than life with a struggling Los Angeles assistant D.A. Seven months spent drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze didn’t help Cormack get over being jilted, but it did cost him his career, and now he’s a glorified Las Vegas casino bouncer. There he meets a Sydney Greenstreet/Kaspar Gutman clone played by Francis L. Sullivan in one of his last roles, an unsavory wheelchair bound manipulator with a borderline illegal proposition: A grand upfront and four more to follow if Cormack will go to Puerto Rosario to look for a precious carved Madonna ruby, stolen from the local museum and presumed lost when the smugglers’ plane crashed on takeoff. Why Cormack for this peculiar mission? Because the pilot was none other than the glamorous flyboy who stole Cormack’s girl.
To say too much about the twists and turns that peel off one after another once Cormack makes it to Puerto Rosario would be cheating. Just know that Cormack and Janie do meet up, the silver screen could just about melt once they do, and soon enough the bodies start piling up…culminating in the climactic shootout with Cormack lighting one cigarette after another on the operating table. And Janie being led away by the law into a waiting police van.
Not everyone’s a John Payne fan, but I like him just fine in this and similar roles. Mind you, if Paramount had snagged Robert Mitchum for this role instead, I wouldn’t complain. But the real revelation here is Mary Murphy as Janie Erskine (now Jane Martin). Known more for ingenue, pioneer woman and small-town girl roles, Murphy’s Janie deploys both vulnerability and duplicity wrapped in a steamy allure in order to get what she wants, and when that fails, is ready with a loaded automatic to seal the deal. There’ve been much bigger stars, more memorable heroines and evil villainesses in film noir, but only a few who can match this character’s cold bloodedness. Hell’s Island is worth looking for just to watch Murphy at work.
“Sometimes, love is a weapon,” John Payne’s Mike Cormack is told near the end of the film as he finally begins to realize that he’s been played right from the beginning. Indeed it is, particularly when it’s wielded by someone like Mary Murphy’s memorably dangerous dame.