Saturday, August 05, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Blood Alley (1955) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

John Wayne and Lauren Bacall star in the adventure film BLOOD ALLEY (1955), just released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

I recently wrote of my intent to catch up on a number of previously unseen John Wayne films, and BLOOD ALLEY is one of those titles.

Wayne made BLOOD ALLEY the same year as another sailing-themed title, THE SEA CHASE (1955), which the Archive has also just released on Blu-ray. While I found THE SEA CHASE something of a clunker a couple years ago, I thought BLOOD ALLEY was quite entertaining.

Granted, the character of a sea captain who's spent a couple years in a Communist prison staying sane by talking to the unseen "Baby" is a bit of an oddball part for Wayne. It made a little more sense when I learned that the role of the loose-living captain, who claims to have a girl in every port, was originally cast with Robert Mitchum; it's easy to envision him in the part. (Incidentally, tomorrow, August 6th, marks the centennial of Mitchum's birth.)

Mitchum had just made TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) with director William A. Wellman and had also worked with Wellman a decade previously on THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1945). This time around director and star clashed and Wellman had Mitchum pulled off the picture.

BLOOD ALLEY was from John Wayne's Batjac production company, and when they were unable to timely cast another actor in the part, Wayne jumped in. He and Wellman had previously made two very successful aviation-themed films, ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953) and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954). Incidentally, Wayne did some uncredited directing on BLOOD ALLEY when Wellman fell ill.

As the movie opens, Wayne's Captain Tom Wilder is sprung from a Chinese Communist prison by the people of a small village, including the local American doctor's daughter, Cathy (Lauren Bacall).

In return the villagers want to flee Communism and ask the captain to sail them to freedom in Hong Kong on a paddle-wheeler, through the 300 miles of treacherous uncharted waters which give the movie its title.

The captain is initially a bit reluctant, but he soon warms to both the people and the challenge, and off they go, facing bad weather, poisoned food, and shelling from Communist destroyers.

BLOOD ALLEY is surely not one of Wayne or Wellman's best films, partly due to a weak script by Albert Sidney Fleischman, based on his own novel; it particularly lacks the gravitas of Wayne and Wellman's ISLAND IN THE SKY, a favorite of mine.

That said, the film was made by a team of pros and it's never dull, holding its own as an enjoyable mid-range action film. It's a well-paced 110 minutes with an interesting premise and a handful of good action scenes.

While Wayne and Bacall's relationship isn't especially well developed, their star power keeps things watchable. The duo got along well offscreen and would reunite years later for Wayne's last film, THE SHOOTIST (1976).

Henry Nakamura (seen at right), who was so good in Wellman's WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), here has a terrific role as the captain's boiler room engineer, who may be Chinese but knows the port of San Pedro and is very Americanized. It's a fun part, and Nakamura makes the most of it.

Paul Fix and Mike Mazurki are also quite good in key roles as Chinese villagers. Recognizing this is how ethnic roles were often cast in this era, they offer fine support, with Fix's elder offering sage advice and Mazurki providing needed brawn as the captain's first mate. Mazurki often played villains so it's great to see him as a good guy here.

The cast is rounded out by Joy Kim, Victor Sen Yung, and James Hong. Anita Ekberg is in the mix as a Chinese villager, casting that was a little more bizarre than Fix or Mazurki, but she's mostly in the background.

The movie was filmed with the Sacramento River Delta and other Northern California locations standing in for China. The fine CinemaScope photography by William H. Clothier is one of the film's chief assets; Clothier worked with Wayne frequently from the '50s on, and it's easy to see why.

As a side note, BLOOD ALLEY is one of a couple strongly anti-Communist films Wayne made in the early '50s, following BIG JIM MCLAIN (1952). As with BIG JIM MCLAIN, the issues may be presented a bit unsubtly at times, but the theme of citizens wanting to live in freedom is meaningful and sincerely presented. The film also provides an interesting window into the times.

The BLOOD ALLEY Warner Archive Blu-ray is gorgeous. Extras include the trailer, which is interesting due to its use of alternate takes, and two short promos with Gig Young hosting John Wayne.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

3 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

I've often wondered what Bacall's hubby thought of this one. Bogart was pretty well-known to not at all care for Wayne. And that's putting it mildly.

Of course, Bacall and Wayne later teamed, quite wonderfully, in Duke's last movie, THE SHOOTIST. But by then, of course, Bogie was long gone.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Remembered as the film Wayne was shamelessly shilling on I LOVE LUCY. At one point holding the poster up to the camera.

8:23 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

Interesting that Bogart was considered for the lead but wanted too much money.
I totally agree that Wayne and Bacall were far better as a team in the now classic
THE SHOOTIST
Generally I prefer the films of Wellman over that of John Farrow but I much prefer
THE SEA CHASE over BLOOD ALLEY. The thing that sunk the film for me was the over
use of the fog machine that,for me, gives the film a dank murky look,even on Blu ray.
THE SEA CHASE Blu Ray however sparkles and the supporting cast is outstanding.
David Farrar must be the only actor in screen history to strike the Duke and call
him a coward and the Duke just taking it.
I loved THE SEA CHASE full of intrigue and offbeat plot twists.You just know with Lyle Bettger in his crew it's not going to be plain sailing for the Duke.
I too feel that BLOOD ALLEY was more of a Mitchum type role.
I hope that you give THE SEA CHASE another go Laura,the quality of the recent Blu
Ray is gorgeous.

5:57 AM  

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