Time for another triple feature in my ongoing look at Alan Ladd’s movies. In today’s group, we have two WW2 stories centered on a military man hesitant to fight or lead, plus one western remake of a crime classic.
The Red Beret (1953) is a good war movie, a streamlined example of the “training-bonding-mission” plot formula. Ladd is a charming paratrooper pretending to be Canadian, so he can hide his USAF past and his guilt about ordering a man to his death. As he trains, he falls for parachute rigger (Susan Stephen), reluctantly opens up to her, and though he’s skilled and a natural leader, he refuses any promotion that would again give him responsibility over men’s fates. Poor Stanley Baker, he gets beaten up in a comically cool assault by Ladd during training, and then is killed in a shocking mishap. Leo Genn is fantastic as the kindly Major who has impressive aim when it comes to flinging his beret across the room and landing it on a hook (loved that moment, producer Albert Broccoli and writer Richard Maibaum repeated that trick later with 007). Genn plays Major Snow, a character based on the real Lt. Frost whose mission at Arnhem bridge was also depicted in A Bridge Too Far (1977). Here the focus is more on the mystery of Ladd’s character, and he does a great job with his likable way of mixing brooding with wisecracks, and being both vulnerable and aloof.
The Deep Six (1958), directed by Rudolph Maté, made a good companion to Red Beret, since both movies look at a man’s reluctance in battle. Here Ladd plays a Navy gunnery officer who doesn’t think his pacifist Quaker upbringing will prevent him from fighting, but is quickly branded a coward when he hesitates to fire on enemy aircraft (which turns out to be friendly!). James Whitmore is a sympathetic skipper who nevertheless reassigns Ladd and must be convinced when Ladd claims he’s found the will to fight. Keenan Wynn is a tough Lieutenant who rides Ladd hard, out of equal parts hatred for the enemy, Pearl Harbor survivor guilt, and an effort to hide his own cancer pain and morphine addiction. The prominent romance plot concerns Ladd’s struggle to fit career girl Dianne Foster into his life and vice versa, and the ship’s doctor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is an encouraging, matchmaking and morale boosting friend. Such scenes of bonding are reflected among the sailors (including Joey Bishop), as they make and lose buddies, brawl and womanize on leave, and make an Olympic sport of volleying quips. Best of all was the genuine warmth between Ladd and William Bendix, whose chatty, funny, loyal and heartbreaking Chief petty officer was a huge highlight. Liked this movie for those interactions and for good action, but the balance of serious subjects with comic relief didn’t always work for me, and Ladd’s character was hard to understand in his final “test.” After he proves to himself and others that he is indeed brave, he volunteers for a challenging rescue mission, confident that he’s “cured” of his yips, but once again in the heat of battle, he freezes, wastes valuable time and puts his men in danger before shooting back.
The Badlanders (1958): Saw this one years ago but it faded from memory enough to count as new-ish and therefore eligible for this Ladd-a-thon. Delmer Daves directs this western take on The Asphalt Jungle, wherein Ladd, fresh out of prison, plots the heist of a gold mine, and strikes a sneaky deal to sell the gold back to the mine’s owner (Kent Smith). Ladd gets the help of fellow ex-con Ernest Borgnine, who doesn’t much like Ladd but used to own the land over the mine and is just as unwelcome in town. The romance between Borgnine and Katy Jurado is sweet, touching and totally believable (no wonder, they were soon married in real life). The movie might, as some reviewers say, pale in comparison to Huston’s noir, but I had a great time watching. It was solid and satisfying, with much to enjoy in the emphasis on action, the comfortable chemistry between all the actors, the lighter ending and colourful cinematography. When Laddand Borgnine are joined by explosive expert (“powder monkey”) Nehemiah Persoff, their “heist” scenes are suspenseful, as they time their hammering and blasting in the abandoned shaft so the noise blends in with the work going on nearby.
Previously: The Great Gatsby, The Big Land, Santiago, Chicago Deadline, Drum Beat, Hell Below Zero, Red Mountain, Thunder in the East, The Iron Mistress, The Man in the Net, Whispering Smith, Calcutta, O.S.S., Two Years Before the Mast, Branded, Appointment with Danger.