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Blood Alley (Blu-ray Review)

21 Aug, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Paul Fix, Mike Mazurki, Joy Kim.

Even those who are sympathetically inclined will likely concede that William A. Wellman’s late-career Blood Alley is best viewed as a cartoon, but that still means that someone would have to issue a modification. In truth, this medium-level hit in its day can only be viewed as one, in which case those inclined can have some loopy Cold War fun watching Duke Wayne foil Chinese Communists in a 2.55:1 presentation. I can’t remember if the old laserdisc and DVD versions went all the way with 2.55, but this release seems really panoramic, which (in as good a transfer as sickly Warnercolor allows) enhances what are by far the movie’s standout features). These would be the cinematography by soon-to-be John Wayne-James Stewart-John Ford regular William Clothier and production design by Al Ybarra, who’d just orchestrated the unforgettable snowbound look of Wellman and producer Wayne’s cult oddball Track of the Cat.

When the Kennedy Center’s old AFI Theater showed Alley in 1973 before I became programmer and later director, the color had faded even worse than imaginable even by Eastman standards, and this was only 18 years after its release. (Alley also nearly became the only movie ever shown at the theater to which no one showed up — until four people moseyed up to the box office a couple minutes before show time, foiling the picture’s chance for folkloric local glory). And this was not the beginning of insults. A little more than a decade before that, Alley had been part of the first post-1948 package of Warner titles sold to TV, where it played panned-and-scanned (again, this was 2.55) and in black-and-white when many scenes in the second hour were enshrouded in fog. Screen enthusiasts of today with a head-swimming array of movie channels at their disposal have no idea the level of viewing compromises that had to be made for anyone seeking first-hand historical knowledge.

Alley was the first film released under the banner of Wayne’s Batjac Productions, and here was trouble right off the bat when initial lead Robert Mitchum got fired for, if what I once read is true, shoving the Warner Bros. transportation representative into San Francisco Bay or something like that. (No one likely celebrated that poor guy’s centennial, as those in the know recently did Bob’s.) Wayne took over the lead in a period of heavy screen activity, having recently starred for Wellman — and with significant success — in Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty. In this case, he’s a mercenary Merchant Marine sprung from two years in a Chinese Commie prison, where he keeps himself sane by talking to a fictional looker named “Baby” — out loud, which makes this one of the relatively few Wayne pictures where the actor seems a bit batty.

Wayne finds a for-real Baby in the woman who in real-life was known as “Bogie’s Baby”: Lauren Bacall, who doesn’t photograph well in Warnercolor and has about as much on-screen chemistry with Wayne as he would have had with Maxine Waters were he around today. (The two leads fared better together in Wayne’s swansong, The Shootist.) Bacall is daughter of a missionary sawbones with a drinking problem, which is a bad combination when he’s called in to perform surgery on Communist bigwigs. Concerned about his welfare, she is nonetheless a proponent of a harebrained scheme the locals have dreamed up during Wayne’s incarceration: to have him skipper a dilapidated boat of refugees over 300 miles of the Formosa Strait (termed “Blood Alley”) and into Hong Kong.

Shrewd Wayne, whose TV appearances were getting more frequent, went all out for the picture. The more famous of his airwaves promotions was the classic and easily available “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy steals Wayne’s cement footprints outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater during Alley’s opening engagement. But a couple weeks before its airing, there had been a Sept. 27, 1955, Wayne appearance on Milton’s Berle’s “Texaco Theater,” which I remember his part of very well; he showed up in a terry cloth bathrobe (or close) with “Blood Alley” on its back — setting off thunderous audience applause each time he turned around with his back to the audience as an oblivious Uncle Miltie kept wondering why the audience was cheering. For this, amid Wayne’s peak popularity, the picture did well enough to get held over for a second week at one of my local movie palaces, top-billed over the Mickey Rooney Republic oddity The Twinkle in God’s Eye.   

For red meat fans, Wayne has some fun with the Chinese Commies: shoving a bowl of rice down the throat of one and not only bayoneting another, but (out of camera) “mixing up” the guy’s guts with the bayonet end in egg-beating fashion. I suppose some will slam this as racist, but the Caucasian pool is mostly empty for both good folks and bad after the two leads — as Paul Fix, Mike Mazurki, Barry Kroger and even Anita Ekberg (though I can never spot her in apparent burlap) playing Chinese characters. Longtime Wayne bud Fix in that makeup is an unusual sight but probably no weirder than his playing a bartender in Zabriskie Point. As for Mazurki, he’d come close to going this route again in John Ford’s near-great career finale 7 Women (which really ought to get a Blu-ray release from Warner Archive).

The extras here are a couple segments from ABC-TV’s “Warner Bros. Presents,” in which host Gig Young (much as he did when welcoming a Giant-garbed James Dean to promote “highway safety” on the same show a couple weeks before his death) interviews Wayne about his career.


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