When I recently wrote a little overview of the noirs Phil Karlson directed starring John Payne, I hadn’t seen Hell’s Island (1955), so I finally caught up with that one, their third and last movie together. Most of the reviews I’d read about the film said it wasn’t as good as their previous pictures, Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953), and I’d agree, but I still had a lot of fun with Hell’s Island. It’s a pulpy tropical take on the Maltese Falcon find-the-treasure plot, with colourful characters, a deadly femme and double-crossing galore. Payne plays Mike, a bouncer sent by wheelchair-bound casino boss Barzland (Francis L. Sullivan) to retrieve a giant stolen ruby. Barzland hooks Mike by telling him the gem might be in the hands of his former girlfriend Janet (Mary Murphy), who left him for smuggler Eduardo (Paul Picerni). The ruby vanished in a deadly plane crash that Eduardo is now in jail for, but Janet says she caused (if you can believe anything she says). There’s also an antiques dealer Armand (Arnold Moss) who knows something, and an inspector (Eduardo Noriega) who tells Mike he’s been given bad intel and warns him to back off before it’s too late.
The twisty plot is told as a flashback, and moves fast but stops for plenty of sightseeing and local colour, as Mike endures a loud jukebox convention in his hotel, browses the market and meets an informant at a cockfight. Payne does the weary, hardboiled action hero he was so good at, and Mike’s also got some tough James Bond style. He’s elegant in a tux, deadly with his fists, snoops the exotic locale, steers a boat through the fog to an island penal colony, and has to deal with an alligator pit. Sullivan reminded me as much of Sydney Greenstreet as he did of an early Bond villain, expecting Mike to die when he’s no longer of use, and ordering around one creepy bespectacled henchman (Walter Reed) and a freakishly strong one (Sándor Szabó).
Murphy is great as a dastardly femme. Mike hates her for ruining his life, but he’s still hopelessly attracted, and her magical way of running her hands all over him makes him forget his doubts, ignore all the danger signs and get lured into most of her traps. Her best one is talking Mike into breaking Eduardo out of prison, but when Mike makes it into his cell, Eduardo smiles and refuses to budge; he’s wise to Janet’s evil tricks and assures Mike they’re both a lot safer in jail than getting shot at during her idea of an “escape.” Sure enough, while they’ve been talking, she’s murdered yet another accomplice and tattled to the authorities to expect their prison break. Is she ever shocked when Mike appears later, very much alive, well past his gullible phase and ready to trap her.
With Janet’s perpetually changing story, and lots of lies and murders to muddy the waters, the plot can be hard to follow. It’s also not too hard to guess where that ruby is hidden, but none of that hurt my enjoyment of this fast and gritty VistaVision Caribbean noir.
That South Sea Fury poster is from the movie’s 1962 re-release