The continuing story of my Alan Ladd movie binge, this time with four of his 1950s pictures.
Red Mountain (1951). Ladd is a Confederate Captain whose rendezvous with Gen. Quantrill (John Ireland) is interrupted when he helps a prospector (Arthur Kennedy) escape lynching for a murder Ladd did. Kennedy won’t let Ladd get away without sorting the matter out, so he and his sweetheart Lizabeth Scott track Ladd into the mountains. They find him but end up prisoners of the ruthless General, who wants Kennedy’s gold to build his dream of a Western empire with allied Indian tribes.
I really enjoyed this one, you can’t go wrong with a cast that also includes Bert Freed, Jeff Corey, Neville Brand, Whit Bissell, and Jay Silverheels, in an interesting, fairly suspenseful, great-looking movie with good action. After a brief chase, followed by Ladd’s capture and a reversal of power, most of the drama between Kennedy, Ladd and Scott happens inside a high mountain cave overlooking beautiful New Mexico scenery. There, Kennedy grows delirious from a potentially gangrenous broken leg, Scott fends off a creepy soldier and reveals that Quantrill killed her whole family, and Ladd and Scott fall in love with each other. Ladd has a tricky time trying to conceal his changing loyalties and disillusionment with Ireland’s plan and methods, and pretends to obey orders while trying to help the couple. This is a nice change from Scott’s femme fatale roles; she’s still a strong equal who tracks, shoots and fights but she’s also sensitive, torn between the two men and guilty about falling for Ladd when Kennedy has been a decent guy to her. Ireland is good, acting like an unstable, desperately lonely intellectual who sees an equal and potential buddy in Ladd, and won’t accept the slightest betrayal. Directed by William Dieterle with an uncredited John Farrow, my favourite of these four movies.
Thunder in the East (1951). Here Ladd is in India, playing an arms dealer who hopes to make a big sale during the early, rocky period of that nation’s independence. He has no luck finding a customer in the pacifist PM (a curiously cast but still fascinating Charles Boyer), so his gun shipment is impounded and he gets sucked into the battle between the Maharajah, the rebels and the English who can’t believe they have to run for their lives after years of rule and comfort. As the guerrillas burn and massacre their way closer, Ladd falls for a classy blind woman (Deborah Kerr) who deeply loves the place and realizes she is but a guest there. She’s reluctant to leave the only life she’s ever known, but agrees to go when Ladd offers to fly her, her grandpa (Cecil Kellaway) to safety. Things change when Ladd, still looking to milk some money out of this trip, demands an astronomical fee to fly out the rest of the Brits, thereby revealing a heartless, mercenary streak which turns Kerr off completely. Meanwhile back at the palace, Ladd and the British plead with Boyer not to let his own pacifism doom them all, but he refuses to use any weapons or violence, even when everyone and a kid are surrounded with the guerrillas shooting in and breaking down the door. There’s a startling moment right before the abrupt ending, where Boyer makes his decision, and while it’s satisfying in an action movie way, it’s one of the things that makes this feel like such a peculiar film. It was certainly interesting and action-packed, full of intrigue and close calls in a countdown plot. It has several pretty scenes and memorable moments, like Kerr tinkling away at the piano when shooting starts, and it’s a good, wounded, bitter hero role for Ladd. The violence isn’t graphic, but the suggestion is brutal, as people are clearly massacred, hands are chopped off, etc. At times this wants to be (and sometimes is) a serious drama about the distance between different cultures, the breakdown of colonial attitudes (religious conflicts weren’t really addressed), and the inability to let go of the past, but it’s mostly an adventure yarn with the moral that pacifism stinks.
The Iron Mistress (1952). This Jim Bowie biopic felt like about 4 movies crammed into one, all tied together by the wicked, selfish acts of Virginia Mayo, a New Orleans maneater and socialite. During the years covered in this story, Ladd is mostly bewitched by Mayo (that’s no surprise, when she’s at her most gorgeous and alluring here), and allows himself to be manipulated into settling her debts, offing her poor useless husband, and sometimes just providing some unexpected excitement as she sets her suitors against each other in the duel-happy culture. Despite seeing the damage she does and the jams she gets him into, despite the fact she considers him a hick not worth marrying, despite his mama’s advice to find himself a decent woman, Ladd can’t quit Mayo.
Eventually one of the grudges resulting from her engineering inspires Ladd, the expert knife-fighter and -thrower, to design and order a custom blade to end them all, one with a meteor fragment mixed into the metal. In between Mayo encounters, Ladd makes a fortune in land speculation, gambling (fairly, there’s some good action in scenes against cheaters), horse racing and cotton. Colourful drama that feels overstuffed but gives Ladd a lot to do, including some quality swashbuckling. I loved one spectacular duel in a dark room lit by flashes of lightning, and the knife fight with Anthony Caruso, with their hands tied together.
The Man in the Net (1959). Michael Curtiz’s thriller was like Gone Girl (2014), if that movie also had a gang of cute kids helping the wrongly accused husband in their handy cave clubhouse, and if the bored, scheming wife actually was murdered. Here Ladd plays an artist who’s so aloof and emotionally numbed by his wife’s (an excellent Carolyn Jones), cruelty, neuroses and alcoholism, that his neighbours too easily buy her lies about his abuse and her misery, and when she goes missing, they become a lynch mob. Ladd must depend on the kindness and the tidbits of info from a group of kids he’s befriended, in order to clear his name and get to the bottom of the blackmail scheme that got Jones killed.
I ended up liking this one a lot, even though I felt the combination of noirish tension and scary mob mentality with precocious children-who-know-best and their Utopian setup didn’t always feel right together. Little Susan Gordon was great, as was Charles McGraw as the menacing Sheriff with a disturbing influence over Jones and the town’s residents. The identity of Jones’ lover remained a mystery longer than I expected, and there was a good payoff concerning the only adult who believes in Ladd’s innocence (Diane Brewster). The irony of Jones’ complaints that she’s dying of boredom in this little Connecticut suburb, is that she ends up tangling the place in a net of juicy secrets and exposing some other scandals. This movie came late in Ladd’s career, and I see some reviewers calling his performance wooden, but for me it fit his character, someone who lost and sacrificed a lot to help his wife, and gets all this in return. He hardly knows how to feel anything until he’s free of his wife once and for all.
Some more Ladd at this blog: Whispering Smith, Calcutta, O.S.S., Two Years Before the Mast & Branded, Appointment with Danger