I’ve been catching up with new-to-me Alan Ladd pictures and what a great bunch this was! Enjoyed them all so much I didn’t even want to stop to blog in between the movies. (Actually, I had an unexpected blog break and this is my way of catching up).
Calcutta (1947). Noir adventure with pilots Ladd and William Bendix investigating the murder of their buddy, which leads to a diamond smuggling ring and the friend’s mysterious fiance Gail Russell. As much as I like Russell, enjoyed seeing her cast as an enigmatic villainness, and loved the visual of her dark beauty paired with Ladd’s ice blonde, I have to say I found her tough to believe as a wicked black widow. She’s just too sweet, gentle and timid, but at least that worked to make her an unknown quantity that feeds and fulfills Ladd’s suspicion of women. June Duprez is great as a lounge singer pining after Ladd, and I could have used a lot more of her and Bendix. Edith King has a colourful part as the local criminal mastermind and madam. Overall an enjoyable, exotic detective yarn, directed by John Farrow.
O.S.S. (1946). Directed by Irving Pichel, this is a fast and thrilling WW2 spy story detailing the training and techniques of the spooks (Ladd and Geraldine Fitzgerald, Don Beddoe, Richard Benedict) before and during their mission in occupied France. They’re tasked by controller Patric Knowles with destroying a tunnel to stop Nazi supply shipments. Fitzgerald is the Mata Hari, and her sophisticated artist act captures the interest of Nazi officer John Hoyt. Once she, Ladd and company blow the tunnel, they have the terrifying Hoyt on their tails, trouble getting out to safety, and a tough time blending in wherever they’re stuck.
Ladd starts out highly skeptical of Fitzgerald’s guts and mettle, but as she proves herself clever and capable as any man, and they face dangers together, they inevitably fall in love. The irony and nice touch is that after all his criticisms and suspicions about her, he’s the one who almost ruins the tunnel operation, gets testy and tired of all the CO’s demands, and almost lets his emotions and feelings for her get the best of him. The only way he powers through his duties at a critical moment is to remember her command to never go back for her. Ladd’s good in this, flinty but and caring, everyone does great acting and there were many highlights, like Harold Vermilyea as the Gestapo turncoat looking to profit and Benedict developing a relationship with the radio girl at headquarters (with less for her to go on than there was in a similar situation in A Matter of Life and Death). Their connection is such that she instantly senses when something’s gone wrong, and little things like that add a lot of humanity to the spy games.
Two Years Before the Mast (1946). Loved this one, Ladd gave a fantastic performance, and had a stellar cast with him for this eye-opening sea voyage directed by John Farrow. He’s a shipowner’s son who gets kidnapped to serve as crew on his father’s vessel, the “Pilgrim.” The sadistic and ruthless captain (an outstanding Howard da Silva) mistreats and abuses the men, and his kills several through torture and malnutrition. The brother of a previous voyage’s victim is a novelist (Brian Donlevy) who’s on board documenting events for his planned expose. That novel will lead to a big rethinking of seamen’s rights at the movie’s end (it’s based on a true story), but first they all have to survive the brutal voyage, pull off a mutiny and face a trial back in Boston.
Bendix silently seethes as the obedient but increasingly resentful first mate, whose initial concern is keeping the men healthy enough to be useful workers. He comes to despise the Captain and his brutality as much as everyone else but remains unpredictable until his memorable and tragic moment of defiance. Ladd is at first entitled and arrogant, but wins the crew’s respect by helping his shipmates and a young stowaway, learning to take his punishment and displaying solidarity with his crewmates.
Branded (1950). My favourite of these four movies. Rudolph Maté directs this western where Ladd, a drifting gunfighter, is talked into scamming a wealthy rancher (Charles Bickford) and his family into believing he’s their long lost son. The clan’s warmth and generosity, and the affection from his new “sister” (Mona Freeman) touches him, so instead of stealing, he sets out to bring them their real son, who was kidnapped and raised by an outlaw in Mexico (Joseph Calleia).
This is a gorgeous film with a fast pace, great acting all around, and very smart and suspenseful storytelling. The crook who sets Ladd up as the impostor (an excellent, dastardly Robert Keith) turns out to be the one who kidnapped the boy long ago. The real son doesn’t react to the news of his true parentage the way you’d expect, nor does his adoptive father. Ladd, the loner whose only friends are his guns, and who gets the willies from any show of kindness, starts to feel the same disgust for deception, and risks his life to put things right that wouldn’t profit him in any way. Ladd makes all of this feel like an epic struggle and decision, and makes a fascinating flawed, likable hero.