Hell on Frisco Bay (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
Produced by George C. Bertholon; directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Martin Rackin, based on the novel The Darkest Hour by William P. McGivern; cinematography by John F. Seitz; edited by Folmar Blangsted; music by Max Steiner; starring Alan Ladd, Edward G. Robinson and Joanne Dru. Blu-ray, color, 98 min., 1955. A Warner Archive release.
In March 1955, On the Waterfront, directed by a former communist who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, won eight Oscars for a film about a fall guy taking on a criminally corrupt union on the docks of New York, led by a charismatically vicious father figure. Nine months later, Warner Bros. released Hell on Frisco Bay, directed by a former communist who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, a film about a betrayed fall guy taking on a criminally corrupt union on the docks of San Francisco, led by a charismatically vicious father figure. Alan Ladd plays Steve Rollins, a policeman framed for manslaughter by racketeer Vic Amato (Edward G. Robinson) when he gets too close to the latter’s criminal empire. After five years in San Quentin State Prison, Rollins has become a well-oiled machine of vengeance, determined to bring down Amato by any means necessary, leaving his wife, former partner, and priest as emotional collateral damage.
The setup is so similar to On the Waterfront that Warners distinguished its product by substituting CinemaScope and Warnercolor for the intimate black-and-white naturalism of Kazan’s film. The action was switched from the dark, winter New York of William P. McGivern’s source novel The Darkest Hour to the glaringly sunny skies of San Francisco. This switch has its consequences. McGivern’s New York is not just a meticulously described, geographically and culturally specific location. Its narrow, labyrinthine streets, treacherous industrial spaces, shady entertainment haunts, and narrow cubicles of habitation all shape the characters and determine their behavior. Furthermore, McGivern—whose books were earlier adapted as notable film thrillers such as The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954)—seems to have written the novel as an extended treatment for a film noir—sparing in the light it lets into the all-encompassing darkness; there is very little color in the novel.
This dark, claustrophobic setting is also a moral arena in which the choices men and women make have spiritual as well as material consequences. Largely set in immigrant Irish and Italian communities, Catholicism in the novel is at once an everyday presence—the priest embedded in the community, the pictures, statues, and crucifixes that decorate every home—and a metaphysical criterion against which characters are judged and judge themselves. It is clear from his first appearance in The Darkest Hour that Steve (surnamed Retnick in the book) has become so bitter in his overriding need for vengeance that it has gnawed at his soul and put it in grave danger. Although the novel is a perfectly presentable piece of hardboiled crime fiction about a detective who is also a convicted criminal, about the investigation of a crime and the exposure of criminality, it is also an allegory of spiritual revelation and redemption. The novel is patterned by references to eyes, to watching, seeing, and looking, which creates a materialistic world of vivid people in vivid spaces. But true sight in the novel is of the inner, visionary kind—at first, Steve, having constructed himself in the holistic image of an avenging knight, cannot cope with this revelation and seeks self-annihilation. The spiritual thrust of McGivern’s novel, the use of tough-guy genre fiction for a Christian agon ultimately derives from the Catholic existentialism of Graham Greene.
The film hesitates to go so far. Before he can be redeemed, McGivern’s Steve must approach damnation—he crosses the moral line by setting in motion the murder of a petty hoodlum, causing his remorseful accomplice to attempt suicide. Ladd is not asked to accept such a burden, and although he scowls well enough, his occasional smile betrays a warmth that promises this Steve will be okay. Despite the change in title to indicate a hell on earth, there is little metaphysical craziness in the film. Steve’s early scene with the priest in his boys’ boxing club merely serves to place Hell in Frisco Bay in the tradition of Warners’ crime films such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). The religious paraphernalia in Amato’s home indicates the moral framework the gangster persistently violates, but it is Robinson’s masterful performance that catches the unease behind the barnstorming evil, the reserves of guilt and inability to love (despite his name) that Amato deflects by needling others’ weaknesses.
In any case, veteran director Frank Tuttle’s balanced classical compositions and measured pacing work against any kind of febrile Expressionism (Tuttle previously directed the classic noir This Gun for Hire , which made Ladd a star). More broadly, the switch in location to San Francisco is not compensated for by an exploration of that city’s distinctive geography; compare Hell in Frisco Bay to a film released three years later about another obsessed, misogynistic detective whose fate is controlled by a sinister older man, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This is not to say that there is no craziness or frisson in the film. Rollins rejects his wife because of a brief affair she had when he refused to see her in prison; his repressed emotions towards her reappear in the strangest places. At one point Rollins visits Marcia (Joanne Dru) at her nightclub where she works—in an extraordinary, easy-to-miss shot, the throbbing shadow of her microphone as she sings seems to burn her pelvis in punishment. Whatever Steve may say to himself and others, this is not a man who is finished with his wife at all. The vengeance plot is an alibi - a Maguffin, to continue the Hitchcock parallel—or a means by which Steve can prove himself worthy of Marcia once more.
What the story loses in one sense in the transfer to San Francisco, it gains in another. The move west turns Hell in Frisco Bay into a modern-day Western, with Rollins as the laconic, lone avenger who cleans out the town controlled by a monopolist with an almost parodic monomania (all the ships, buildings, and signs on the docks proclaim AMATO). Two years earlier, Ladd had given his best-remembered performance in Shane (1953)—echoed in a lovely scene here with a son trying to defend his faint-hearted father, while earlier in the year Robinson had excelled as another monopolist (this time a ranch owner) losing his grip in Rudolph Maté’s The Violent Men (1955). By the conformist 1950s, the certainties of the mythic Western were curdling into anxieties about Manifest Destiny and individualist heroes, feelings that were repressed during the conformist Eisenhower era, but which would erupt into full-blown crises in the 1960s. The infrastructure of corruption and tacit complicity in Hell on Frisco Bay encompasses capitalism, the police, the church, and the family. If Rollins is partially successful in confronting the evil that threatens the American civic fabric, it is by abandoning his maverick individualism and accepting friendship, loyalty, and love. Whether this is anything more than a Pyrrhic victory, Tuttle's clear-eyed description of endemic corruption leaves us to doubt. Hell on Frisco Bay may have been conceived as an opportunistic rehash of On the Waterfront directed by another squealer, but by avoiding Kazan's Messianic and self-serving hysteria, director Tuttle manages to produce a more politically astute, if artistically inferior, work.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray transfer is almost three-dimensional in its clarity, although the sides of the image wobble whenever the camera moves laterally, presumably due to the original anamorphic process used. The only extra is a trailer.
Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2