Lady-O-Active

Film noir fans are in for an unexpected treat with the twisty, delightfully sordid 1954 thriller WORLD FOR RANSOM, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

An early Robert Aldrich effort (in fact, only his second big-screen endeavor following the baseball drama Big Leaguer), WORLD FOR RANSOM was the result of his bonding with star Dan Duryea. Duryea had just finished a short-lived action series, China Smith, several episodes of which were directed by Aldrich. The idea of doing a progressive suspense adventure utilizing the still-standing China Smith sets intrigued Duryea and he signed on. Aldrich, who acted as coproducer, did the rest, assembling the cast and crew and quickly putting the actors through their paces in eleven days, and for a total cost of under $100,000.

The result is one of the strangest noirs viewers are ever likely to see. Suffice to say, it’s also one of the strangest action pictures, one of the strangest adventures and one of the strangest love stories (extra sauce on the latter).

The 83-minute tale of intrigue and double-crossing was scripted by Lindsay Hardy (with uncredited assist from Hugo Butler) and revolves around one of the director’s pet themes: the ultimate price to be paid for monkeying around with atomic warfare. In this respect, it prefigures his subsequent triumphs Kiss Me Deadly and Twilight’s Last Gleaming – but there embryonic rumblings that would erupt full-force in many of his other later classics.

Duryea plays the mysterious Mike Callahan, a soldier of fortune with a dubious reputation for playing both sides of the fence. The “both sides of the fence” pattern is a major part of the story, as the audience will learn with a breathless gasp.

Even for a film noir character, Callahan wanders through the seamy, steamy nighttime Singapore streets with a disturbing “who cares?” abandon. Indeed, as depicted in WORLD FOR RANSOM, the infamous Asian city is such a noir town that even the interiors are awash with thick, swirling fog.

Callahan is despised by both sides of the law, each of whom, at various points of the movie, beat him mercilessly. “You really got a hoodlum touch,” he honestly tells the chief of police in one of the pic’s plethora of great lines indicative of the genre.

The core of Callahan’s malaise is his being screwed over by his one-time pal and partner Julian March, a particularly slimy Patric Knowles – picking up from where he left off in Don Siegel’s The Big Steal. What really got Callahan’s goat was that the biggest crime March ever committed was stealing and marrying his former (and only) true love, Frennessey, a beauteous chanteuse.

Callahan’s eternal bitterness is sweetened when Frennessey calls him out of the blue, wanting to hire him to find out what her disreputable spouse is up to. Callahan jumps at the chance, hoping to get the goods on the bum and ruin him in the eyes of his beloved – thus winning her back. The fool!

Frennessey is amused by Callahan’s aspirations, and shrugs off the many infidelities she has suffered due to hubby’s womanizing. She just wants to find the slob.

No doubt March is up to no good, but, oh, what no good! It’s beyond even Callahan’s wildest nightmares. He’s aligned himself with Alexis Pederas, a sinister bastard, portrayed by the usually likeable Gene Lockhart.

March, impersonating a British officer, kidnaps brilliant nuclear physicist Arthur Shields (yeah, I know), who is armed with the plans for the new, improved A-Bomb – the H-Bomb.

In walks Lockhart to Governor Nigel Bruce’s office (yup, Nigel Bruce in his final screen role) and calmly demands $5 million in gold, or he’s offering the goodies to folks behind the Iron Curtain.

Believe me, there’s nothing better than hearing the cinema’s beloved bungling Dr. Watson mouth off about the horrors of nuclear warfare to cohorts Reginald Denny and Douglass Dumbrille. There were, I say unabashedly, tears of joy in my eyes.

How Duryea infiltrates these baddies (including a frightening Lou Nova) and apathetically triumphs (all in the name of love) is the picture’s crazed wrap-up. The magnificence of Duryea’s thespian chops are on full display here as he spectacularly reveals that what happens to the world is of little importance to him – he just wants his dream babe back.

The violence in WORLD FOR RANSOM is trademark Aldrich, and, by that I mean shockingly graphic (especially for its time). Jungle fighting, sanguine skewering, innocent bystanders offed without hesitation…It’s a bloodbath at its most unhygienic. The attack on the kidnappers’ compound resembles a low-rent run-through for the climax of The Dirty Dozen, and is almost as exciting.

But the true horror is not the post-war end-of-the-world possibilities, but what awaits Callahan and his anxious reunion with Frennessey.

Alone in her room with the singer, Callahan describes with relish the evil of her now-exed ex. She sneers it off, and when Callahan makes his move to rekindle a flame, he’s met with one of the most vicious bitch-slaps in all of cinema. This physical response, however, no way matches the verbal anger that spews forth from the lady’s lips. She tolerated and even encouraged March’s cheating because he left her alone. “He got me!,” she screams. “Accepted me for what I am.” Duryea (and, presumably, the audience) is (are) to take this as meaning a whore. Nuh-uh. Frennessey has an H-Bomb of her own. She is repelled by men, and adores the pleasures of her own sex. Duryea’s realization is seen by the look of “suddenly-it-all-makes-sense” terror in his face, most likely underlined by earlier sequences of her singing in a nightclub where female performers tend to dress like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco.

An even-more disillusioned Callahan staggers out into the rain-swept streets, disappearing into the night as sultry procurer May Ling taunts sailors outside the Golden Poppy with “Love is a white bird, yet you cannot buy her.” I tell you, this movie is a peach!

The iconic noir theme of double-cross is practiced with a vengeance throughout WORLD FOR RANSOM. Callahan has alternate identities, sometimes known as Corrigan. Knowles impersonates officers. Cops act like thugs, thugs act like ruthless government diplomats, and Frennessey…well…

With his second feature, Aldrich is already at the top of his game, and, with his key crew in place: d.p. Joe Biroc, editor Michael Luciano and composer Frank DeVol.  A teasing ballad about the perils of falling in love without your peepers open, appropriately titled “Too Soon,” was written for the picture by Walter G. Samuels.

Marian Carr, who is introduced in WORLD FOR RANSOM (and appeared on episodes of China Smith) is the berries as Frennessey. Aldrich thought so too, and later cast her in Kiss Me Deadly. Other welcome faces include Keye Luke, Patrick Allen and Strother Martin. Of course, it’s the great Dan Duryea who dominates the proceedings; it’s always cool to see this noir master starring in a movie – and in this one he’s got a lot on his plate. Cold War plotwise, he’s akin to Richard Widmark in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (and, natch, Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly), except here, it’s pure love that floats his boat, and not the almighty buck. What a sap!

The movie is a catalog of Aldrich visual insanity – dutch angles, creepy moving camera, comically-framed imagery of visceral events…It’s all here and more. As indicated earlier, the dialogue perfectly complements the foreboding compositions. For example, upon hearing a wacky Chinese name, Callahan, in a rare moment of levity, quips, “There’s a pun there somewhere.”

The Olive Films blu-ray, comes from generally excellent 35MM materials. Picture quality is format prerequisite razor-sharp and the mono audio crisp and clear. Originally released through Allied Artists, WORLD FOR RANSOM is a must-see little pulp gem that horrifically lives up to its title. Did I say “peach”? It’s a honey of a peach!

WORLD FOR RANSOM.  Black and white.  Full frame (1.37:1; 1080p High Definition).  2.0 mono DTS-HD MA.  CAT # OF882.  SRP: $29.95.

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