Tuesday 26 May 2020

On DVD - Ben Cho gets into the films of a now mostly overlooked star - THE ALAN LADD COLLECTION - Volume One

Although it’s a tad pricey at $35 (from Amazon or from JB HiFi) if you’re working backwards that’s only $7 per title for Calcutta, Two Years Before The Mast, 13 West Street, Red Mountain and Thunder in the East. The most you’ll get Special Features-wise is a theatrical trailer but the audio-visual quality on each disc is decent, even if the clunky packaging that holds four of the discs in place could have been improved. 

The sleeve artwork declares “Hollywood Legend Alan Ladd takes the law into his own hands with 5 action-packed adventures”, and I guess if you were to try and pick a suitable thread running through each of the films (besides Ladd’s appearance in them, obviously) these do all in some way feature Ladd breaking the conventions of legal (and to some extent social) norms and forging his own path for justice. 

Red Mountain
Belgian Poster
In Red Mountain Ladd defies the orders of Quantrill’s quasi-military force, in essence to flip on his own southern loyalties to save those who would be considered “collateral damage” in war; in Calcutta, he goes it alone to track down the killers of his co-worker after the police fail to make much progress; in Thunder in the East, as a mercenary gunrunner Ladd is willing, and does, flout the customs and laws around warfare in a small Indian kingdom; in 13 West Street, an ageing Ladd decides to go after a teenage gang who terrorised his family when the official LAPD processes fail to deliver quick results; and in Two Years Before The Mast the whole film is a devastating exploration of maritime law and (in)justice as Ladd suffers the consequences of a ruthless captain of a merchant ship. 

Of the five films John Farrow’s contributions make for the best (Two Years Before the Mast) and worst (Calcutta) of the set. From the opening few minutes of Two Years Before The Mast you can clearly tell this is material that has energised Farrow’s style and flair with sophisticated camerawork and gorgeous set design (witness in the opening as the camera moves from the galloping of horse hooves right through a street and into a merchant’s office). You’ve got to think the material would have been close to Farrow’s heart given his sea adventures as a young man in the Pacific; unlike Calcutta which is an ordinary film noir in an exotic (which still looks like a studio lot) locale, there’s a sense of period detail, dread-filled atmosphere and compelling performances fueling Two Years. 

Two Years Before the Mast
Italian Poster
While it is an “Alan Ladd” starring film, his roguish charm never really swallows the other finely-tuned performances of William Bendix as the loyal First Mate, Howard Da Silva as the chilling Captain Thompson or Brian Donlevy as Richard Dana. The presence of these four archetypes very much anchor (sorry) the film and its supporting players around the central legal/moral dilemma: at sea, does the tyrannical rule of a captain outstrip any claim a common sailor might have to basic human rights and protections? 

Da Silva’s Captain Thompson is ruthless in the grand tradition of movie military tyrants, his unfulfilled desire for military prestige has been channeled in the most hideous way at the service of the capitalist machine, and his largely ceremonial firing of the cannons a misguided gesture to relive his long-gone naval days; here we have a man clinging to a military past which has deserted him, and the only way he knows how to seek satisfaction is to shoot his load into a vast, indifferent ocean.   

As the weakest of the films,Calcutta is no disaster but rather standard noirish stuff which never really ignites: an exotic locale which looks exactly like what you'd expect from an “exotic” studio backlot, some plodding investigations into a suspicious death, the femme fatale, a smuggling conspiracy… if you get that lingering feeling you’ve seen this sort of thing before but done much better you’re probably right. 

William Dieterle’s Red Mountain may have one of those final reel reveals which makes you roll your eyes but the preceding 80-or-so minutes is a fine historical western set during the dying days of the US Civil War. Now some parts of the modern (extreme) progressive culture have sought to demonise Confederates as racist monsters, so in 2020 to watch a film where the main protagonist (and some would argue “hero”) is a Confederate Captain might seem a little jarring, but there’s a more complicated vision of Civil War drama presented here than simply “Union Good, Confederates Bad”. Ladd’s Brett Sherwood is committed to helping the fight for the Southern cause but even he has his limits as to how far the savagery of Quantrill’s warfare should go to ensure victory; likewise Arthur Kennedy’s character Chris may be living happily enough in a pro-Union area but he too still harbours sympathies for the South (despite a Union-supporting lover played by Lizabeth Scott). 

There's a lot of western tropes to digest here (lynching posses, gold mining claims, raiding Indians, epic shootouts) even without the Civil War dimensions, and that makes for exciting viewing as the pace never really lets up once Kennedy goes on the run from the lynching mob. On a side note historical accuracy is not a strong point of Red Mountain: the real Quantrill did not die in some epic knife duel as depicted here but was shot, paralysed and later died in a prison hospital.

Charles Vidor’s Thunder in the East sees Ladd plays a pretty unlikeable gun runner who eventually finds his humanity by assisting the Brits as they face an onslaught from a bandit army about to invade a secluded Indian state. Deborah Kerr is the blind love interest, Charles Boyer is the pacifist Prime Minister for the maharajah, and for trivia fans Boyer starred in a 1934 French film also called Thunder in the East (also known as The Battle). 

Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express, The Lusty Men, China Girl, Nightmare Alley, Caught) served as cinematographer on Thunder; there may not be the visual flair seen in his work with von Sternberg but this is a strikingly shot thriller which, for its time, really embeds you in the ruins of a gutted Indian town and makes you feel the tension of the climatic siege in the maharajah’s palace. 

Finally 13 West Street is adapted from Leigh Brackett’s delinquent youth revenge thriller The Tiger Among Us but, as opposed to the novel, the film version has Ladd and his wife (played by Dolores Dorn) childless as a youth gang stalk and taunt the couple. After a hard day’s work at the office, a middle-aged Ladd is driving home when he runs out of gas. As he’s walking down the street looking for help, he is almost run over by a youth gang driving around looking for kicks, and, after Ladd abuses them, they give him a good kicking. He later wakes up in the hospital with a broken leg and a bruised ego; the police are little help so Ladd sets off on a mission to get revenge on the kids. After repeated fails Ladd turns to a private detective for help in catching the gang who become more brazen in their attempt to intimidate the couple. 

According to Wikipedia the original title was going to be The Tiger Among Us but was later changed because of fears audiences may expect a jungle adventure film; it was then going to be changed to 13 East Street but Ladd wanted it switched to Westto demonstrate youth delinquency could equally come from the swankier sides of LA’s western suburbs. The youth presented here aren’t from the wrong side of the tracks but in at least two of the main suspects there are serious daddy issues to help give context to their behaviour. 

13 West Street is a lean 80 minutes so you’re unlikely to lose interest over the running time even if by the final third there are some convenient plotting issues starting to emerge (NO SPOILERS but I’m thinking chiefly of how the film proceeds after the car chase involving the gang and the private detective). Ladd’s job as a rocket scientist is a bit of a WTF? addition which appears to be a contrived detail to add “tension” to the scenario like there’s Cold War stakes at play in the background. 

I’ve never been a particular fan of Rod Steiger in films but here he plays the overworked and seen-it-all youth division detective effectively, and his cynicism and no-nonsense approach is a perfect counter to Ladd’s increasing thirst for justice. 

Nothing special, but 13 West Street at least provides another side of Ladd in his middle age. He’s no Charles Bronson and there’s something rather pathetic and sad about watching him get thrown in the clink for accidentally attacking a young woman at a gas station, thinking she’s part of the youth gang. This would be one of his final roles (his last film was Edward Dmytryk’s The Carpetbaggers) before his drug/alcohol overdose death in 1964. 

All in all, if you haven’t got the movies from TCM/ABC rips already then it’s a reasonably priced set for the five films: Farrow’s Two Years Before the Mast is the standout, followed by Dieterle’s Red Mountain; Thunder in the East is decent, 13 West Street less so and Calcutta just ordinary. The DVD artwork does say “Volume One” but who knows whether we’ll see subsequent sets get released … besides some of the Ladd releases already out there on DVD (Proud Rebel, Shane, Saskatchewan) there are plenty of films left in his filmography to fill a few more volumes if Viavision Entertainment get enough sales of this one. 

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