Deep blacks and neon-colored neo-noir art by Kiev, Ukraine artist Tony Skeor, a master of night time urbanscapes and the people who populate their dangerous streets.
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.
DVD’s of the 1956 noir-in-color film Slightly Scarlet are supposed to come with extras, including a Max Allan Collins commentary. Mine may have been bought new, but from a closeout bin, and it came with nothing but a disk with the movie on it. Just a knock-off copy? Who knows? But I would’ve really liked that Collins commentary track.
Call it a noir, call it a crime melodrama, call it what you will, but director Allan Dwan’s film of a Robert Blees’ screenplay – adapted (rather freely) from James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit — is an intriguing movie, and in more than one way.
The source novel isn’t Cain’s best, but less-than-perfect Cain can be better than some others’ best work, and being James M. Cain, the novel includes some scenes/themes that a mid-1950’s movie could never hope to get away with. Here, John Payne plays Ben Grace, who works for Bay City’s ruthless rackets boss Solly Caspar, and has been assigned to dig up dirt on a crusading mayoral candidate making trouble for the syndicate. Doing so might be easier than Ben Grace imagined, once he discovers that the reformer has a girlfriend, and she has a sister newly released from prison.
Rhonda Fleming plays ‘good girl’ June Lyons, who Ben Grace promptly falls for. Arlene Dahl plays ‘bad girl’ Dorothy, an unrepentant thief with an eye for the fellows — the badder the better — and Payne’s Ben Grace will do just fine. With the heat on and the mob boss forced to flee town, Ben Grace takes over the rackets while he falls for sister-the-good but is seduced by sister-the-bad, all in suitably 1950’s era levels of sex-i-fied sizzle. But then Solly the mob boss returns, with wads of dough that more than make up for his gruff ways as far as Dorothy is concerned. Soon, bullets start flying, bodies pile up till the law finally arrives, though not before Ben Grace goes down.
John Payne may have gotten top billing, but this was Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl’s movie all the way, and they’re a delight to watch. Dahl, in particular, pushes the era’s boundaries in both subtle and then overt ways as an unapologetic crook whose sex drive is always in high gear, whether she’s pawing through wads of loot the mob kingpin tosses at her feet, or more provocative still, is sprawled on a sofa and apparently enjoying a little…uhm…’private time’. (Demurely shot from behind the sofa, of course…C’mon, it was 1956!) Bottom line: The two actresses get a workout in this film and turn in terrific performances. FYI, both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are still with us, I believe.
While Slightly Scarlet wasn’t a big budget production, it was filmed in Technicolor (and “Superscope”, whatever that is) and in many scenes and setups, seems to point the way toward the look of many “Neo-Noir” films to come decades later. Familiar film noir camera angles and deeply shadowed corners, backgrounds and overheads are evident throughout, but all in color instead of black & white. Visually, at least, much of the film looks ahead of tis time.
Maybe you’ll spot Slightly Scarlet poking out of a bargain bin yourself. If you do, grab it. It won’t (and shouldn’t) replace Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice on your DVD shelf, but you’ll watch two 1950’s pro’s dialing some so-so material up a few notches, all of it shot in a nifty noir-in-color style that presages ominously dark visuals to come a few decades later.