It’s a given that Lauren Bacall had some real sex appeal, especially in her early years with her onscreen presence with Humphrey Bogart. Blood Alley teams her up with John Wayne, and that chemistry seems to dissipate immensely. One wonders how much better it would have been with Robert Mitchum (the original star of the picture), or for that matter, Bogart, who was approached to do the film after Mitchum got canned from the flick, but wanted too much money to do it.
Blood Alley (1955):
The movie begins with Captain Tom Wilder (John Wayne), a seaman in the Merchant Marines, in prison in Communist China. He has been under interrogation by the Communists during this time, but he has kept his sanity because he has a guardian angel of sorts, named “Baby”, whom he talks to and confides in when the going gets rough. (Must be a new definition of “sanity”, if you ask me…)
The circumstances change when he is helped to escape. He doesn’t initially know why his secret benefactors have conspired to get him out until he arrives at the town of Chiku Shan. There he mets a Mr. Tso (Paul Fix, entirely unrecognizable in make up, at least to me, but if you close your eyes, you will hear the voice of the Marshall from The Rifleman, the part he was most famous for playing). Tso tells him the reason. He is wanted to pilot a ferryboat the town has commandeered and take the entire city of Chiku Shan out of Communist China territory to freedom in Hong Kong.
Also on hand in Chiku Shan is Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall), the daughter of a medical missionary. Cathy is waiting for the return of her father, who has gone to do some surgery on one of the Communist leaders. Unbeknownst to Cathy, or anyone else at the beginning, Cathy’s father’s surgery failed, and he was killed by the Communists in revenge.
So Wilder has to get the village to safety, but he has no real chance. The ferryboat is a wreck, the trip is full of dangers, hampered by the fact that Wilder has to go only by his memory of the area since he has no viable map, and the escape vehicle can’t really outdistance any ships the Communists could use to chase them. They must rely on a little subterfuge to even get out of Chiku Shan so that the enemy doesn’t realize what is going on right away.
The trip is hampered by the fact that the village has to take the resident family of Communist loyalists, the Fengs, with them. Ostensibly because the Fengs would be blamed, persecuted and probably executed for allowing the village to escape. But the Fengs prove to be a hazard to the trip in a couple of ways, including the poisoning of the food supply onboard.
The one thing that kept coming to my mind in this movie is how the film seems to teeter on the edge of being either late 19th century/early 20th century and “modern” (or modern in terms of the time of the movie). It seems to me that it avoids some seemingly obvious options on the part of the Communists. Why, if they were so intent on preventing the defection, didn’t they just put a couple of airplanes in the air to bomb the derelict ferryboat?
Given Wayne’s virulent anti-communist stance in politics, the film does come off a bit jingoistic. And the Chinese characters are, admittedly typical of the era, a bit of a parody. I cringed every time Joy Kim, who plays Cathy’s maidservant, Susu, spoke. But not all are such offensive annoyances. Wilder’s main man on the boat, Big Han (Mike Mazurski) is pretty good, as well as Henry Nakamura, who plays a cigar loving engineer, Tack.
The movie is not one of Wayne’s best, nor is it one of Bacall’s best, but it is entertaining on most levels. After all he Wayne movies I’ve seen, this one only ranks in the middle of the list, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to watch a non-Western Wayne film.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.