So what do you want from a movie? Most of us will probably settle for an entertaining and competent piece of work that keeps us engaged for as long as the reels are turning. If there happens to be something in the mix that encourages us to think about some matter in a different light, or even simply encourages us to think, then that’s all to the good. Plenty of movies fulfill the first half of that equation and a respectable number will have enough of the second to elevate them above the routine or the run-of-the-mill. And then there is promise, and its deadly first cousin potential. Both of those may be hard to define but are, nevertheless, instantly recognizable, and both have colored responses to more than a few movies over the years. Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) certainly promises much, what with that cast and a plot derived from a William P McGivern novel. The end result? Well, it’s passable as entertainment and has a handful of themes sprinkled through the script that ought to have been explored further, but there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the whole affair.
Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is fresh out of San Quentin, having done five years for a crime he didn’t commit. He is still smarting over the loss of his freedom, the loss of his job and reputation, and also the loss of respect for his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru). She succumbed to weakness while he was inside and was unfaithful, meaning that Rollins’ dogged desire for vindication has an extra edge. He knows that the boss of the waterfront rackets Vic Amato (Edward G Robinson) was the figure responsible for the frame-up but finding a way to clear his name and bring it home to the mobster means tracking down certain men. One of them has disappeared, and is later confirmed to be dead, while his main dockland contact won’t be long in joining him. Despite the setbacks and the bitterness that is never far from the surface, Rollins bulldozes his way though the hoods and enforcers till he finds an opening. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with crime stories to learn that this opening gets busted wide open not merely as a result of the external pressure applied by Rollins, but via the scheming and antagonism seething within the criminals’ own closed circle.
I’ve seen Hell on Frisco Bay billed as a film noir, but I’m not convinced it really is. It is a crime story for sure, but neither the colorful ‘Scope visuals nor the overall tone of the piece recall noir to this viewer. I guess the presence of the leads, and the name of William P McGivern (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop, The Big Heat) loom large and fuel that impression. While I don’t particularly care how or even if the movie is labeled, I will admit that those aforementioned factors raised my expectations. The plot, a typical McGivern tale of compromised cops, isn’t going to provide major surprises but a bigger problem is the flatness, the absence of (for the want of a better word) passion in its telling, and that’s not what I normally think of when approaching a Sydney Boehm script. There is of course an undercurrent of sadism to the needling relationship between Robinson and his top boy played by Paul Stewart. As well as that, the hypocrisy highlighted by Robinson’s outwardly devout domestic arrangements and his lusting after Stewart’s girlfriend (Fay Wray) adds another layer, but none of it feels especially compelling.
Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz enjoyed great success more than a decade earlier when they made This Gun for Hire with Alan Ladd. However, there is none of the freshness of that movie about Hell on Frisco Bay. Ladd was starting to look tired and dissipated at this point, not a major problem in itself given the background of his character, but despite his best efforts, I didn’t feel much of a spark about his quest for justice along the waterfront. Robinson fares better as the villain and there are a few nicely shot scenes juxtaposing the religious iconography around his home and the murderous intent he harbors there. He shares a few mean-spirited moments with Paul Stewart’s reluctant killer; the scene with them setting up a fateful hit as they verbally fence with one another while prowling around Fay Wray’s tastefully feminine lounge as well as a subsequent piece of lethal horse-trading in Robinson’s kitchen gives another meaning to the term domestic suspense.
Joanne Dru was the top-billed actress in the movie and is handed an interesting back story, although this is never as fully explored as it might have been. Her role as a nightclub chanteuse means she gets to sing The Very Thought of You and It Had to Be You, although apparently dubbed by Bonnie Lee Williams on both. I don’t know if it’s down to the way Ladd’s character reacts to her throughout, but she seems ill-served by the script. Fay Wray is given a little more to work with as the former starlet now reduced to slumming with the waterfront hoods. In support, it is good to see William Demarest, Nestor Paiva, Willis Bouchey, Anthony Caruso, and a young Rod Taylor. I might also mention that Jayne Mansfield pops up in a brief bit part.
Hell on Frisco Bay has been released by the Warner Archive on both DVD and Blu-ray, so it’s easily accessible. I picked up the movie a few years ago based on the cast, the crew and the source material. I wouldn’t say I came to it hoping to have stumbled on some neglected gem – after all, those are not as common as we might like to believe – but I did think credits such as those it boasted would make it worthwhile viewing. Ultimately, while it is moderately entertaining and watching it is hardly a chore, it is not something I can see myself racing to return to. One to look out for should it appear in the broadcast schedules perhaps.
Some other views on the movie can be found at:
Vienna’s Classic Hollywood
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings
24 thoughts on “Hell on Frisco Bay”
Not seen this in an age but I remember thinking it was all a bit routine. Shame given the pedigree. I don’t know if Ladd had a face lift but he certainly seemed to get less and less expressive as the years wore on.
I found it all rather routine too, not bad but less than I thought it could or, given the personnel involved, ought to have been.
As for Ladd, I think his lifestyle was just catching up with him.
My My! What a Cast. I always marvel at the power of these thespians that seem not to exist anymore. If I’m flipping the channels on my TV am going to flip past ANYTHING with Edgar G. Robinson or Alan Ladd … in it? Not bloody likely. These people were riveting in what they did. Thanks Colin.
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Quite. Regardless of how one might feel about the end result, there is no question that the cast is an incredibly attractive one. Many a mediocre production has been elevated by the presence of a strong cast.
There are two things going on, one with each star. Dull and lifeless with Ladd, compelling and intelligent with Robinson and all those playing off him. My understanding, Robinson required a rewrite of his role before signing on. he got it, the film benefitted. Otherwise, pass.
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For whatever reason, Ladd does seem rather unengaged, not just that characteristic reserve he often exploited so well.
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I watched this movie not too long ago too and had about the same reaction to it as you do, Colin.
“And then there is promise, and its deadly first cousin potential.” Ah yes, there’s always that dreaded phrase “XYZ had so much potential”. Unfortunately it got squandered.
Ladd by this time was sadly not in top form anymore. I’m always happy to see Joanne Dru and Robinson was in scary good form here as a guy who has no problem ordering the murder of his own nephew.
But to me it was Paul Stewart who stole the movie. His Joe Lye is a very touching portrayal of a man who knows he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and who is constantly abused by by his boss who derives a sadistic pleasure from it. Lye lets his boss use him to do the dirty work for him but he doesn’t like what he is (or has become).
Robinson and Stewart play well off each other, and I think your description of the latter is spot on. It can’t be easy to play a hood like Lye and humanize him to the degree Stewart manages to do. A very clever and sensitive piece of work on his part.
Paul Stewart is outstanding in Ted Tetzlaff’s THE WINDOW the Warner Archive Blu Ray is sensational-a Noir worthy of rediscovery. Speaking of Tetzlaff when finally is UNDER THE GUN going to get released on disc.
I rather like HOFB for what it is and nice to see Ladd employ his old pal Frank Tuttle after had run afoul of the
HUAC goons. HOFB is also not a Noir in my view-Crime Thriller will do nicely. Tuttle also directed two non Ladd programmers for Ladd’s Jaguar imprint A CRY IN THE NIGHT-racy in it’s time much tamer now- and ISLAND OF LOST WOMEN-not available on disc as far as I know.
Speaking of the HUAC there’s a neat tale among the extras on THE SLEEPING TIGER Blu Ray-Losey and Alexis Smith were dining in an English country pub when in walks Ginger Rogers (the HUAC’s main Hollywood Cheerleader)-bearing in mind Losey’s blacklisting the pair headed for the door trying hard not to be spotted by Ginger. The transfer of THE SLEEPING TIGER is beautiful-Studio
Canal are raising the game when it comes to stunning B & W transfers.
I liked The Window since I first caught a TV screening back when I was only a youngster. I agree that it’s a first rate movie, well worth anyone’s time.
I’m fond enough of The Sleeping Tiger too so it’s good to hear the new Blu-ray is a high quality release.
Leslie Phillips dies at Age 98. One of my fav UK actors has left us.
It feels like he was in almost every British comedy in the mid-1950s.
A truly funny man. On screen or tv from 1938 to 2012.
I caught this one back in 2016 and would have to agree with your take on the film. Ladd comes across as a bit tired looking. As others have commented, Stewart and Robinson are the glue that hold the production together. By no means a bad film, but I was expecting a bit more.
Perfectly watchable, isn’t it? And while those villainous turns are strong, it lacks that essential spark overall.
I was disappointed the first time I saw it, but enjoyed it more on a second viewing. Maybe my expectations were too high the first time? I thought Fay Wray was really good here, and the film does contain a new favorite line of dialogue, when Ladd says to a snarling Eddie G, “I want to kill you so bad I can taste it.”
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That’s a fair point and I’d like to think I might have a more positive reaction myself with a repeat viewing and correspondingly adjusted expectations, which is something I’ve experienced with other films.
A second look at the film sounds like a good idea. Strange how a second boo at a film can sometimes change one’s point of view on it.
Hi Colin! I think I liked this film a little more than you, but I agree it has flaws and I really enjoyed reading your take on it.
I’m a sucker for Ladd movies, even the weaker ones (grin) – and also really enjoyed the Fay Wray storyline.
Thank you for the link to my past review!
You’re very welcome, Laura. You’ve linked to countless posts of mine over the years so just returning a small part of the favor.
Past weekend viewing
LUST FOR GOLD 1949 A quite good duster with Glenn Ford, Gig Young and Ida Lupino. Lupino steals the show as the double-dealing woman playing off Ford and Gig Young against each other.
ADVENTURES IN PARADISE “The Reluctant Hero” 1961 This was an action-adventure series that ran 1959 to 62. Gardner McKay played the captain of a schooner running cargo etc out of Tahiti. This episode guest stars are Susan Oliver, Guy Stockwell and Dick York. York is a rich guy looking for adventure. Needless to say, he gets mixed up with the wrong types. Series was based on stories from James A Michener. This episode was directed by former big screen helmsman, Normon Foster. (JOURNEY INTO FEAR, KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, WOMAN ON THE RUN)
The Witness for the Prosecution – 2016 This remake is a tv miniseries starring Toby Jones, Kim Cattrall, Andrea Rosebrough, Bruce Howie and Monica Dolan. This is not at all like the Billy Wilder film. This one is based on Christe’s first draft of the story. The Wilder film was based on the second draft. The viewer is going to love it or hate it.
Lust for Gold is a fine movie, recommended viewing in my opinion.
I didn’t get on with that Christie adaptation, but I don’t like any of those recent efforts scripted by Sarah Phelps anyway. I even found the color grading of the whole thing off-putting.
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I am with you regarding the new Christie adaptations.
Yes, me too, Barry and Colin! They have no ‘feel’ of Agatha Christie now. I don’t think she would have cared for any of Sarah Phelps’ adaptations.
Gord, I remember watching the ‘ADVENTURES IN PARADISE’ series on TV in 1961. It was reasonably enjoyable but not terribly memorable.
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