If you’ve just tuned in, I’ve been watching as many new-to-me Ladd pictures as I can find, and having lots of fun doing it. In today’s group of Ladd movies, he plays a reporter, a first mate on a whaling ship and a peace officer out West.
Chicago Deadline (1949): Ladd is a hardboiled reporter trying to solve a mystery about a pretty girl (Donna Reed) who dies alone of tuberculosis in a fleabag hotel. At first he works on it as a “human interest” story, because it seems nobody knows or cares for this woman, but Ladd soon finds that people “run and hide” at the mere mention of her name (Rosita “something French,” as he first hears it). While Ladd pounds the pavement and follows the clues in Reed’s address book, bodies start piling up, and his editor spins Ladd’s findings into a juicy femme fatale story, but that’s not who Reed was at all. Her brother (Arthur Kennedy) fills us in on her farm girl childhood and the death of her husband, but he has trouble sharing more. As we learn from the movie’s many flashbacks, Reed is a sweet but tragic figure who lost the will to love after being widowed so young, but she can’t help attracting men to whom she brings all kinds of bad luck and tragedy. Lots of familiar faces here: June Havoc as Reed’s roommate, Berry Kroeger, Shepperd Strudwick, Tom Powers, and Dave Willock as Ladd’s dutiful assistant. The plot gets convoluted, but I still really liked this, because I was as curious about Reed as Ladd’s character was, and wanted to see the twists that sucked this sad, sympathetic woman into increasingly messy and shabby situations. Even if you totally lose the plot, there’s much pleasure in watching Ladd work on this puzzle and develop a bit of a crush on Reed (shades of Laura). He made a great gritty noir lead, and here he won’t be stopped by beatings or bullets, ending his search with an exciting showdown in a parking garage.
Hell Below Zero (1954): I see that this Mark Robson movie is considered lesser Ladd, but I enjoyed it and certainly didn’t find it as dull as those reviews led me to believe. The unusual setting and different type of love story/mystery was a plus, and there was a lot more to keep me interested: Ladd as a charming drifter who gets a job on a whaling ship because he’s smitten with Joan Tetzel (looking a lot like young Kathleen Quinlan); Stanley Baker as the evil captain who murdered her father who was co-owner of the whaling company; a fiesty female captain who teaches Ladd the secrets of whaling, Baker trying to eliminate Ladd by ramming his ship, and a final chase and fight on the ice floes. I know nothing about whaling so this was an interesting look into that process, without getting in the way of the soapy action drama. Imperfect for sure, but glad I saw it if only for the way Ladd settles a score with his crooked partner; that scene had some hilarious moments thanks to Ladd’s ultra-cool deadpan way of serving up a surprise assault with a wisecrack and a smirk. That set him up nicely as someone not to be underestimated, and the combination of that strength and determination with his affection for Tetzel got me through when the plot about the family/business mystery and the sea voyages started to drag. Interesting to see the names of 007 producer Albert Broccoli and writer Richard Maibaum in the credits.
Drum Beat (1954). Here Ladd plays an Indian fighter who’s sent to make peace between Oregon settlers and a violent wing of the Modoc tribe. The nasty gang of “mad dogs” is headed by a charismatic Charles Bronson, against whose single-minded greed, childish temper and volatile crew Ladd makes zero diplomatic progress. The massacres, ambushes, and thwarted attempts at peacemaking get repetitive and frustrating, but they do have the intended effect of showing us how many lives were lost, how even Bronson’s men get tired of the killing, and how incredibly difficult peace is to negotiate when grudges, deceptions and discrimination get in the way. Even when it drags, though, Drum Beat is still good and gorgeous to look at, thanks to Arizona locations, CinemaScope and lush photography by J. Peverell Marley, and the battles, fights and falls on those rocks are impressive sights. In the end, all the troop and tribal movement, Presidential orders and neogtiations come down to one stellar fight between Ladd and Bronson over the rocks and into a river. They have terrific scenes together, including their respectful final discussion about the afterlife and possibility of peace. Good supporting work by Elisha Cook Jr. as a slimy storekeeper who gets nailed by the weapons he sells the Indians, Robert Keith as a vengeful settler, and Anthony Caruso and Marisa Pavan as good Modocs desperate to prevent violence and cleanse their tribe of the warmongers. Written and directed by Delmer Daves and done by Ladd’s own Jaguar production company.