Thursday, May 7, 2009

Glug, Glug: Big John Wayne Rides a Riverboat

Blood Alley
Warner Bros. // 1955 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Powder your nose baby; we’re coming into Hong Kong.” ~ So sez Big John Wayne to his imaginary girlfriend.

Opening Shot
The Duke and a riverboat of anti-Communist refugees elude the Red Chinese in this mediocre action film set during the Cold War. Good production values, breathtaking scenery in Cinemascope, and the big Duke himself in mid-career cannot compensate for a weak and occasionally racist script, or the cardinal sin of casting Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), then giving her nothing to do.

A Bit of Plot…
Released from a prison camp in Communist China, Merchant Marine Captain Tom Wilder (Wayne, The Quiet Man) responds to a summons from a nearby village. Along the way, Wilder talks to his imaginary girlfriend “Baby” — a fanciful creation that may have helped him survive prison camp, but doesn’t aid his reputation as a reliable solider of fortune. The village elders want Wilder to commandeer a riverboat and transport all the villagers to Hong Kong, under British rule. American Cathy Grainger (Bacall) aids the villagers while she waits for word from her missing father, a physician whose outspoken opposition to the Communists has led to his disappearance.

Captain Wilder believes their downriver exodus amounts to suicide, although his habit of talking to his imaginary lover calls his own sanity into question. But ever the mercenary with a heart of gold, Wilder reluctantly accepts the job as skipper. When Wilder kills a Chinese solider who attempts to rape Cathy, the planned escape suddenly becomes urgent. He hijacks a dilapidated paddleboat as the villagers gather supplies for the 300-mile river voyage. Cathy and her Chinese friends declare him “one of God’s footsteps,” a life-giving miracle. With the Red Chinese in pursuit, Wilder plots a rough course to the freedom of Hong Kong, a journey that will take his passengers through the treacherous Formosa Straits, AKA Blood Alley.

Historical Context and Significance
By the mid-1950s John Wayne had amassed sufficient wealth and experience to reach beyond starring roles in westerns and war pictures. He decided to try his hand as a producer, which would give him greater control over his projects. Blood Alley became the first picture produced by Wayne’s independent production company, Batjac. The company commissioned a script by A.S. Fleischman, who adapted his novel about a shell-shocked riverboat captain who’s coerced into helping a noble cause — delivering Chinese defectors to the freedom of Hong Kong. Location shooting was out of the question, so Batjac production scouts identified coastal areas in Northern California to substitute for the Formosa Straits along the east coast of China. Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the film. Then the problems began.

A bit of research reveals that original star Robert Mitchum was fired from the production, following an argument in which he shoved a crewmember into San Francisco Bay. That forced Wayne and his production staff to evaluate casting options. Gregory Peck passed. Humphrey Bogart considered the script and could have co-starred with his wife, but he wanted $500,000, which would have broken the budget. It’s just as well: Bogart had definitively essayed this material four years earlier in his Oscar-winning performance as riverboat captain Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, a thematically similar yet vastly superior production.

Lacking a major star, Warner Brothers told Wayne the studio would walk away from their distribution deal — effectively halting the production — unless he played the lead. Running out of options, Wayne signed on as star to keep his fledgling production company in business. The film was completed and released on schedule, but it turned out to be a weak freshman effort from the novice producer.

Director William Wellman (Beau Geste) shows a flair for orchestrating action, but in quieter moments he relies on his actors, who can only do so much with an undernourished script. The dialogue has not aged well. Conversations with and among the Chinese are, by turns, sensitive and respectful, then racist in Wayne’s mimicry of their fractured English — intended as comic relief (of course).

The Duke essentially plays himself, with the added novelty of being slightly mentally out of whack. Bacall displays none of her legendary sultriness; she simply comes off bored in this underwritten role.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Warner Brothers delivers a quality package for a mid-level title. The digital transfer (from a “Warnercolor” print) is rich and luminous, with deep blacks and no noticeable edge enhancement of the Cinemascope framing (a sprawling 2.55:1 canvas). Extras include two fluffy featurettes and four badly-worn newsreels. The sound is missing from about a third of the newsreel footage. More useful (and entertaining) is the trailer selection, featuring seven John Wayne films spanning 30 years. The last one, a 1974 trailer for the cop thriller McQ, is especially curious, as this picture was an obvious attempt to create a Dirty Harry-type persona for the aging Wayne. That would-be franchise began and ended with this one film.

The Contrarian View
Wayne’s Captain Wilder talks to his imaginary girlfriend so often that this character gimmick becomes an unintentional joke, marring the film. I began wishing the two of them would go find a make-believe room where they could pretend to get busy. But when the implications of that scenario began to sink in, I was grateful Wayne just kept on talking, instead.

Like polishing mud, Warner Brothers presents a pedestrian action picture in a slick package with a nice set of extras. The disc is possibly worth a rental for Wayne fans, but only an obsessive collector needs Blood Alley on the shelf.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Cinema Uprising values comments and feedback from readers. Although we cannot reply to every message, we do read comments and take your thoughts into consideration as we continuously produce fresh content.