It is notoriously difficult to pin down what exactly constitutes Film Noir. Everybody seems to have their own list of titles that will variously include or omit a number of marginal entries. This 1953 movie would seem a likely candidate since it has a number of noir characteristics. The action, for the most part, takes place in Mexico, the lead is a down on his luck type drawn into intrigue, and the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to The Maltese Falcon. Furthermore, the director (John Farrow) had a fair noir pedigree, having overseen the likes of Where Danger Lives, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and The Big Clock. So, does it qualify? I’m inclined to think not, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. The upbeat ending crossed my mind, but I don’t really buy into the theory that the style of everything gone before can be negated by the last few minutes – that would rule something like The Woman in the Window out of consideration as noir. Well, let’s just say that I don’t feel comfortable calling it noir – maybe someone else can offer a definitive answer.
The story opens in Oaxaca, Mexico and – via flashback and a noirish voice-over narration – takes us to Havana to introduce the main character, Al Colby (Glenn Ford), as a man on the bum and desperate to find the means to pay his debts and get back to the States. His hopes seem to be answered when he’s approached in a bar by a girl (Patricia Medina) in the employ of a crippled collector of artifacts (Francis L. Sullivan). Colby accepts the offer to book passage on a ship bound for Mexico with the aim of smuggling in a small package containing an old parchment. On board he meets the other main players, a spoiled rich girl (Diana Lynn) and a sinister archaeologist (Sean McClory). From there the action moves to Mexico and a treasure hunt ensues. So, there’s a race to possess a fortune, some dubious history, a fat man and a pair of duplicitous females – like I said, it all sounds like a cousin of The Maltese Falcon.
Glenn Ford is always an enjoyable actor to watch and he handles his fairly undemanding part well enough. Irish character actor Sean McClory looks a little startling with bleached blond hair and sunglasses, but his disbarred archaeologist (can an archaeologist be disbarred?), alternating between between charm and menace, is probably the best thing in the movie. Patricia Medina looks exotic and seductive and certainly fares better than the other female star, Diana Lynn, who has little more to do than impersonate Gloria Grahame.
Much of the film was shot on location in and around Oaxaca and makes good use of the ancient Zapotec ruins and pyramids. Paramount put this out on DVD a while back (before they decided to completely ignore their back catalogue) as part of the Batjac line. It looks very good and boasts a fine selection of extras, including a commentary, featurettes on Sean McClory and the Zapotec locations, trailer etc. Bearing in mind that the movie clocks in at around 80 minutes, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the time.