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Hell on Frisco Bay (Blu-ray Review)

20 Nov, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$19.99 DVD, $21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Alan Ladd, Edward G. Robinson, Joanne Dru, Paul Stewart, William Demarest.

A rare home release filmed in WarnerColor that won’t make your eyes feel as if you have Doctor Oedipus as your ophthalmologist, Warner Archive’s new Hell on Frisco Bay Blu-ray has two things going for it beyond a decent dose of cosmetic handsomeness and a robust mono soundtrack that surprised me in one key scene with the intense ka-bam of its gunshots. The first is its recent rareness (“recent” defined by many, many years — at least in my neck of the Al Roker woods) and the other by an Edward G. Robinson gangster performance that may be my favorite next to his obvious landmark turn in Little Caesar. At absolute minimum, it’s as entertaining as the one he gives in John Huston’s Key Largo, and I don’t take this level of huzzah-ing lightly.

Thanks almost exclusively to Eddie G., Bay is the one of the more acceptable programmers that Alan Ladd starred in for his own Jaguar production company as part of a later-career association with Warner — all but one of which came following a three-picture deal with Britain’s Warwick Films and Columbia Pictures that at least paid him well. Unfortunately, each of the Warwicks (Paratrooper, Hell Below Zero and The Black Knight) proved underwhelming enough to do his career long-term harm in the U.S. — and this, ironically, directly on the heels of Paramount’s iconic all-timer Shane. So by the time of Bay, the actor’s career had somehow found itself on the wane in just a couple years, and it didn’t help that the puffy alcoholic look that undermined what for me was always Ladd’s stoic appeal shows on the screen. Interestingly, Warner released A Star Is Born around the same time, and its script makes the point that booze has had the same professional effect on its male protagonist Norman Maine.

Bay’s story opens as Ladd’s onetime cop gets released from San Quentin after serving five years on a bogus manslaughter rap and vowing to get the guy or guys who sent him up. So, yeah, we’ve all heard this one a million times before — and things don’t improve much with a subplot about Ladd’s chanteuse ex (Joanne Dru), who apparently strayed once while he was in the slammer because he cut off all communication. In one of the more thankless roles of the day, third-billed Dru is reduced to singing a couple of songs dubbed by someone else and pleading back in her apartment for some understanding. Dru’s one compensation, perhaps, was that almost immediately before Bay, Warner had released Sincerely Yours, in which her acting assignment was to compete with Dorothy Malone (at least until the latter switched allegiance to Alex Nicol) for Liberace’s loins. By that standard, maybe this picture constituted a step up because, even then, we all sensed that Lee only played boogie-woogie on the piano.

After this protracted buildup does what it can to sink Bay into the Bay, the picture suddenly and unexpectedly goes from 0-to-60 with the dynamic appearance of Robinson’s Victor Amato — a mob boss who rules the roost around the Fisherman’s Wharf area, even though at home, he’s as ground down as much by domestic headaches as anyone else is. The Mrs. is, to his mind, too much of a professional Catholic, and Vic voices a lot of displeasure at the religious artifacts he practically trips over in their household. And for reasons somewhat unclear unless I missed it, he also boards a 20-ish nephew (Perry Lopez) who’s something less than the Amato organization’s standard finger-breaker — a kid who, in fact, is overly protected by his aunt, who sees him as someone who should be playing the violin. This aside, a normal day at the office at Vic is bumping off anyone who gets in the way, duties he dictates to walking-wounded subordinates like one pitiful scar-face (Paul Stewart) in his employ.

Unlikely as it seems, this perpetually insulted right-hand-lackey has taken up with a ladylike former movie star (Fay Wray) — a situation that amuses Amato/Robinson to no end until he starts putting mild moves on her himself after they meet. When predictably rebuffed, this kingpin’s reaction is mildly shocking for its movie day, at least from someone of Robinson’s presumed age-dictated refinement. Similarly, one execution here (it’s the scene with the loud gunshots) is fairly brutal — though hardly anything like the violence to the extent of, say, anything in Kiss Me Deadly, which had come out few months earlier. But in CinemaScope and color, it makes an impression.

Robinson was just coming back from the political gray-list during this period — his professional savior having been, of all people, famed reactionary Cecil B. De Mille, who went full gonzo by casting the actor as Dathan in The Ten Commandments, a performance of such twisted and demented beauty that it provided Billy Crystal with some great material on, I believe, a David Letterman show somewhere in my deep archives. So by this time, then, Robinson was beginning to come back in pictures with real budgets and production values — and this time, he had a role that that fit him more naturally than that the heavy who kept stirring up trouble for Moses Heston and getting John Derek to stray with Debra Paget in a Golden Calf environment. He is really wonderful here, and it’s a good thing, too, because Ladd looks and acts mighty tired and seems to drag down Dru with him.

Wearing his producer’s hat, Ladd stayed in his comfort zone by hiring (as he frequently did) his old Paramount cinematographer John Seitz — who also shot some that studio’s most memorable films of the ’40s for major directors like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Directing was Frank Tuttle, who’d been all out blacklisted not long before, as opposed to having suffered Robinson’s lesser “gray” fate, which meant that Robinson at least got some work. Tuttle had done Ladd’s star-making noir This Gun for Hire and the amusing wartime espionage comedy-drama Lucky Jordan, which followed Gun in fairly quick order. Of course, by now, everyone was older. The irony is that Robinson almost comes off as youngest of the bunch, and whenever he’s on screen (which, eventually is a lot), this is a different movie.

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