Friday, December 10, 2010

The Films of Robert Aldrich: World for Ransom

Aldrich's career got off to a rocky start. His second feature, World for Ransom (1954), lists Aldrich as a producer, but omits his directorial credit. I get the feeling that this was deliberate. It's not a very good movie. It IS an interesting movie, though, mainly as a kind of ur-Kiss Me Deadly, but also as a bridge from Aldrich's television work.

This was filmed on the sets of the television series "China Smith," for which Aldrich directed two episodes, and features most of the cast members from that show, including Dan Duryea in the lead. Duryea plays an American vagabond kicking around Singapore who falls into the role of gumshoe on the trail of a kidnapped nuclear expert (the movie describes him as "a combination soldier of fortune and beachcomber"). The set-bound parts of the film even LOOK like fifties television. To its credit, this film isn't a re-packaging of episodes for movie theaters (as was occasionally done at the time), but an actual new story nominally unrelated to the show.

In its broad outlines, this is Aldrich's first dalliance with the nuclear age, which is the obvious link to Kiss Me Deadly. Less obvious is the general contempt Aldrich seems to feel for his private eye lead character, who is presented as a bit of a sleazeball and as a shiftless barfly. Duryea inhabits the role effortlessly, and perhaps with a bit of method acting derived from a bottle. His face by this time was kind of a wreck for a leading man. The movie is also populated by a terrific roster of character actors, including Reginald Denny, Keye Luke, Gene Lockhart, and Nigel Bruce (in his last role). Strother Martin shows up in an unbilled bit part. The femme fatale is played by Marion Carr, and her character is a bundle of confused motivations: married to Duryea's best friend, but in love with him. In all, it's an interesting cast, and Aldrich, never one to restrain his actors, lets them chew the scenery. In spite of this, the film never really comes alive. I suspect the speed with which it was made--a mere 10 days--contributes to the awkward line readings throughout the movie. There's also a good deal of miscasting. Certainly, Gene Lockhart is too cuddly an actor to play a criminal mastermind. I get the casting against type, but the actor doesn't rise to the challenge.

The film's last act turns into an action film, and in this regard, it loses more than a little of its credibility. After staggering through the first half of the movie, Duryea turns into a killing machine? Hard to believe. Oddly enough, the second half of the film seems like a template for a James Bond movie. It works better than the early parts of the movie, in any case, but Aldrich is pretty sloppy with his camera placements during the actions scenes (see also, Apache, Vera Cruz), and probably filmed it so fast that coverage shooting was only a pleasant dream. This is very much a journeyman work, in spite of the signature flourishes that occasionally mark the film (it takes an explicit poke at colonialism at one point). It's not unwatchable, but, in all, it's pretty minor.

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