Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Good Man In Singapore

World For Ransom, US, directed by Robert Aldrich (1954)

Dan Duryea. If you love film noir, this is a name to cherish. A lithe, sneering presence in some great films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, skin pasty from too many studio interiors, large jaw clenched tight as if swallowing back pain or pride, and his voice, a perpetually nasal, lazy whine. He could be a wise-cracking smartass or a sinister tormentor, both sometimes. Memorably he hounded Edward G Robinson in a diptych of Fritz Langs, Woman In The Window and Scarlet Street, playing the dubious lover/controller of femme fatale Joan Bennett. He could also turn on the charm, most memorably as the dreamily psychotic villain Waco, in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73.

Duryea was rarely leading man material in film, but he had a lesser known career on super-cheapo TV. And that’s what brought him to ‘Singapore’ if you will. For several years in the mid-to-early ‘50s, he was China Smith, a cynical adventurer, for some reason tossed ashore in Singapore, solving mysteries and outwitting villains in this exotic locale. The film we’re looking at, World For Ransom, is alleged to have been shot off the back of the second series (The New Adventures of China Smith, made in California), recycling sets and cast to a create some bottom-of-the-bill fodder. Aside from the setting, a post-war, heavily militarised Singapore/Malaya, what makes World For Ransom of particular interest is that the director is Robert Aldrich. This was the great macho-man’s last stop before heading towards far more exciting territories, Westerns with A-list star Burt Lancaster (Apache, Vera Cruz), and arguably the last great film noir (the one that imploded the genre), Kiss Me Deadly. Ransom, a quasi-noir-slash-adventure, with its hugely compromised ‘hero’, and the Cold War-era H-bomb MacGuffin is, at a stretch, a rough dress rehearsal.

It opens with one of those ersatz ‘Oriental’ streets cluttered with coolies (later referred to as Foo Chow Road “near the docks”). We meet Duryea’s character, deep in the sprawl, profusely sweating (all the men are drenched in the film, as if the entire overdressed male population of Singapore is steeped in nervous tension), a Yank in a suit, tie and hat, who stumbles along, while a naval foghorn sounds in the distance. Duryea is Mike Callahan, a distant Irish-American relative of ‘China Smith’ we suppose, who quickly finds himself in a hellishly expressionistic stairwell, caught between two sinister Chinese hoods. This is the first of the film’s many stylistic flourishes, and although clearly working with hackneyed, uninspired and excessively talky material, Aldrich is determined (when he can) to make the film a visual feast for those attracted to bizarre angles, smoothly purposeful camera moves, and most of all, looming objects in the foreground. With a promise of “free transportation” Mike agrees to go see Johnny Chan, “the biggest racketeer in Singapore”, who grills him about Julian March, a friend of Mike’s who’s wrapped up in some dodgy business, to which Mike pleads ignorance. “You could be on the level. Half of Singapore thinks you are,” consoles Chan, after slapping his face.

The writers of this highly plotty plot were clearly inspired by (or ripping off) The Third Man. Julian replaces the amoral Harry Lime figure and Marion Carr plays his wife, Frenessy (odd name), who Mike’s foolishly in love with, much as Holly Martins adored Alida Valli in Carol Reed’s masterpiece. There’s also an initially antagonistic military man, Major Bone, who becomes Mike’s buddy, and Mike gets to dive into some sewers (in Singapore, in the 50s?!). Mike’s known Julian since pre-war Shanghai, when they competed for the love of Frenessy. He was called for duty, and so Julian got the girl. Now they’re all washed up in Singapore which has become for each of them, a private hell, Mike gambles and drinks, Frenessy performs an tame male-drag act at a club called The Golden Poppy, while Julian’s busy exploring Singapore as a zone of erotic possibilities. When we first meet him he’s off to “meet a charming young lady called Willow Blossom, or… a young lady not so charming but I hear considerably more talented.”

This cad’s played by the smooth (but sweaty) Patric Knowles, a Yorkshire lad who ran to Hollywood and became a low-rent Errol Flynn (once Will Scarlett to Flynn’s Robin Hood—his biggest gig). Everyone’s worried about Julian, including Frenessy, who tasked Mike with following him, and although he keeps protesting he’s a “big boy”, Julian’s indeed fallen in with a ludicrous bunch of panto villains (like something out of the Batman TV series) led by Gene Lockhart as a chess-playing mastermind Pederas, and amateur heavyweight boxer (and very amateurish actor) Lou Nova as his heavy, Guzik. They conspire to kidnap top Nuclear bomb-maker, Professor O’Connor (Arthur Shields, an Irish John Ford regular) who’s coming through Singapore on his way to Australia (nothing changes!). After an efficiently staged set-piece along ‘Airport Road’, where Julian and gang intercept the car sent for O’Connor, Julian pretends to be a Brit officer at ‘Singapore Airport’ and scoops up the Prof. And he would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for pesky photographer Wong (a very intense Keye Luke, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son) who snaps Julian in mid-operation. The Governor of Singapore (professional blusterer Nigel Bruce, long serving Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes) declares it a “National Emergency”, and orders a blockade of the “causeway to the mainland”, not the only time in the film that Singapore is described as a mere adjunct to Malaya.

Meanwhile, Dan Duryea has got drunk, beaten up, fallen asleep, and is dragging himself around Singapore in a state of semi-conscious, intense self-loathing. Aldrich makes Mike’s powerful negativity the guiding principle of all Duryea's scenes—spaces are dark, obscure, stuffed with forbidding obstacles. The composition screams “Sucker!” when Frenessy galvanises him into action by promising him he “has a chance” with her. Not only is Mike clearly being set-up by Frenessy, but also by the Brits, who shake him down (“You’ve had a good run in Singapore but you’re coming to the end of your rope.”) so that he’ll escape and lead them to Julian. During the back alley chase sequence, Aldrich has Duryea run through a kaleidoscope of stark frames-within-frames, until he impersonates a topless rickshaw puller, a disguise that makes him literally invisible to the British military. This leads to a cute homo-erotic visit to gangster Chan’s bedroom (“What do want?”, “Most of all, a shirt.”).

The Brits regroup with the Governor and pile on a ton of exposition about Mike, who “gave a good account of himself” in the war, is a “beach comber and soldier of fortune… he knows the China Coast like the back of his hand, he’s wanted everywhere.” They’ve lost him, and “there’s not a sign of him, between here and Penang.” Unctuous Pederas turns up, offering to sell O’Connor to the Brits, explaining that he’s doing the deal in Malaya so he can also offer this “new kind of horror” to the nameless, obviously Commie “enemy”. Mike busts out of Singapore by sewer and jalopy, followed by the avuncular Major Bone, and they head up to Ipoh in record time. Mike knows where Julian, the heavies and the scientist are holed up, ‘The Village of Death’, a deserted kampong, which lives up to its nickname. Aldrich delivers a serious action set-piece as Mike and Bone take on the might of several machine-gun weilding, grim-faced Chinese-American extras. Bone’s shot, and Mike grabs some grenades and turns himself into a walking bomb (see first image), the closest we ever get to a ‘World for Ransom’. After this stand-off, Mike rescues the Prof, but has to kill Julian, who’s more cowardly and corrupt than even Mike suspected.

Back in Singapore, Mike delivers the double-bad news to Frenessy that Julian’s dead and he's the dude what did it. She matches it by telling Mike a/ she doesn’t love him, and b/ she’s a very bad girl indeed, not the saint that Mike imagines —“How do you think I could be so friendly to someone close to the Governor?” Actress Marion Carr emotes her heart out here, successfully auditioning for her role in Kiss Me Deadly.

So, sad old Dan Duryea’s killed his best friend, been betrayed and slapped around by the woman he loves and pretty much everyone else in town. He does what any good man would do in Singapore, takes his hangdog mug back to the bustling throng of Foo Chow Road, and towards the always welcoming neon of The Golden Poppy, much as Jack Flowers will disappear into Clarke Quay a couple of decades later. Tigers all round?