Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 1956. Twentieth Century Fox. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm, based on the novel by William Bradford Huie. Cinematography by Leo Tover. Produced by Buddy Adler. Music by Hugo Friedhofer. Production Design by Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle R. Wheeler. Costume Design by Travilla. Film Editing by Louis R. Loeffler.
Casting aspersions on the post-war economic boom is not something anyone was going to let author William Bradford Hui get away with when it came time to adapt the first novel in his wartime trilogy to the big screen. This sexy, provocative melodrama is a blistering takedown of the seedy elements that went into the building of the American dream, so it’s no surprise that it builds to an exciting climax before a painfully illogical ending that feels tacked on by studio executives nervous to keep any Red Scare criticism at bay. Jane Russell is at her most fetching as a woman who, in 1941 San Francisco, is escorted out of town by cops in the middle of the night (this is old movie code for prostitution) and put on a ship heading out into the middle of the Pacific. While on board, she makes the acquaintance of a well-to-do Richard Egan and they have a fun affair until they dock in Honolulu and he reunites with his country-club-style fiancée Joan Leslie. Russell takes up work at a nightclub where she sells her dances for a dime, quickly building up her reputation and becoming the top draw of the place under her tough, uncompromising manager (a superb Agnes Moorehead). When the Japanese planes start buzzing over the island and deliver one of the most devastating days in the country’s history, Russell sees her chance and starts buying up the properties that nervous businessmen are abandoning as they run for their lives. Having kept up secret dalliances with Egan despite not being permitted to go to his side of the island (old money lives on Waikiki), she now formalizes plans to become a business tycoon and legitimize their relationship, but the ideas of class that surround them aren’t going to go away that soon no matter how many stacks of bills she throws at the local real estate. Russell delivers a terrific performance that could have withstood being put through a Mildred Pierce-level challenge in the third act, but this was not the right era to tell this story and the movie cuts out well before exploring the territory it was leading to (though to its credit, it also doesn’t kill her off, which is something that erotic professionals are usually subjected to in movies). It’s a shame it isn’t better, as the chemistry between the leads sets the screen on fire and Walsh’s potent, angry direction strangely collaborates beautifully with the blazing, colourful widescreen photography.