Monday, May 11, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Hell's Half Acre (dir. John H. Auer, 1954)

Director John H. Auer, screenwriter Steve Fisher, and cinematographer John L. Russell (Hitchcock's DP on Psycho) make a good creative team on this underrated Hawaiian noir, which has many points of interest:

Gender -- The two key women in the film, Evelyn Keyes and Elsa Lanchester (playing one of her patented flakeroos), are exceptionally proactive and form an instant collaborative sisterhood. You only see that occasionally in movies of the era. A good comparison is the pairing of Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window (which Wendell Corey made back-to-back with this film).

Race -- Hawaii has long been one of the most poly-racial places on earth, and that is reflected and indeed openly discussed in Hell's Half Acre (Keye Luke's police chief gently suggests that all Orientals might look alike to Keyes). We learn through the dialogue that Corey's girlfriend Nancy Gates is mixed-race; Korean-American actor Philip Ahn (below) is romantically paired with Marie Windsor; Eurasian actor Leonard Strong (so creepy as "The Hitch-Hiker" in the classic Twilight Zone episode) plays a key supporting role. There was a growing fascination in the Fifties with Eurasians and mixed white-Asian romances: think The King and I, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, The World of Suzy Wong, House of Bamboo. This sociological development was inevitable after World War II, the American occupation of Japan, and the Korean War, and it is strongly evidenced in Hell's Half Acre.

Wendell Corey -- Corey, with his ordinary guy looks, seldom got to play lead roles, and is effective here as "Chet Chester," a nightclub owner, racketeer, and part-time pop composer, precisely because of that ordinary quality. (By the way, I love the Chet Chester composition "Polynesian Rhapsody," one of those overblown spoken-word pop suites that were the rage at the time. It actually plays an important part in the plot.)

Location filming -- I am a sucker for location filming. Hell's Half Acre uses its Hawaiian locations well, and in that respect is a worthy precursor of the television series Hawaii Five-O. As with the series, it highlights the seamy rather than the picturesque side of Hawaii. The "hell's half acre" of the title is a Honolulu tenement district with "300 ways in, and 400 ways out," and the film-makers went right into the old A'ala neighborhood to shoot: You can tell that those rickety wooden structures are not sets.

Because there was no law against prostitution at that time, there were many houses of ill repute in the A'ala, Hotel Street and Chinatown areas. The sale of illegal black-market liquor to servicemen also flourished, with some of them also beaten and robbed in back alleys. The substandard living conditions that were particular to these areas of the city also were portrayed in the movie, with some of the scenes actually filmed on location in the A'ala Street area.

The end of the war also brought an unparalleled boom to the A'ala district as elsewhere, with the night life especially enjoyed by many. Huge crowds attended Japanese movies, several dance halls sprouted and other night businesses in the area later years, the beloved A'ala district...[was] finally demolished for modern housing and development. Only fond memories remain today of what was once a busy and bustling area of the city.

Edginess -- Hell's Half Acre is pretty pulpy. Movies were starting to push up against the boundaries of the Hays Code at that time. This film features not just "miscegenation," specifically forbidden by the Code, but also the drugging and beating of women, and a quite nasty attempted rape. It's really a little scuzzy!


Denouement -- But perhaps the most unusual plot element in Hell's Half Acre is that Corey commits suicide at the end by setting up his own ambush. Granted that this might be considered his comeuppance for earlier criminal activity, and that his removing himself from the scene guarantees that his son will never know that his dad was a minor crime lord and not, as he thinks, a war hero; still, it caught my attention as an envelope-pusher. Are there other noir films in which a key character unmistakably commits suicide? I can think of Val Lewton's and Mark Robson's off-genre noir The Seventh Victim, with its double suicide ending (and I still don't know how they got away with that). What else?

POSTSCRIPT: After I first published this in an earlier blog in 2011, a correspondent at The Blackboard pointed out that Van Heflin stages his own death in Act of Violence. I should have thought of that one, and indeed, it is a very similar situation: the protagonist is not who he seems to be, his identity shift is related to what happened during World War II, and he comes to grief over it. (Don Draper's dual identity in Mad Men, also war-derived, has a pedigree in noir.)

Hell's Half Acre

No comments:

Post a Comment