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Wake Of The Red Witch Catches John Wayne In The Wake of Red River
The first thirty minutes or so of Wake Of The Red Witch has so many characters, and it's so hard to figure out what's happening, it may remind you of The Big Sleep. After two lengthy flashback sequences, told by two different characters, the waters of the plot were a little less muddy. Unfortunately, at that point the story slowed down and sagged a little. Nevertheless, this is a very exotic (as in strangely but appealingly different) and entertaining movie and a different direction for John Wayne, who plays one of the most sinister and cruelest characters of his career.
Republic Pictures was a studio with a reputation for making movies on the cheap without the final product looking cheap. Most of their output were programmers, but they liked to turn out one or two "quality productions" per year. It looks as if Wake Of The Red Witch with a budget of over $1,200,000 was the quality of 1948. The movie premiered in Houston, Texas in late 1948 but did not get a general release until March 1949, which probably indicates some re-editing and perhaps new scenes. It has a terrific cast, headed by Wayne and Gail Russell, excellently supported by Gig Young, Adelle Mara, Luther Adler, Henry Daniel, Eduard Franz, Paul Fix, and Grant Withers. Edward Ludwig's direction is sharp, especially considering the complex script handed him by screen writers Harry Brown and Kenneth Gamet. Cinematography by Reggie Lanning is up to the best standards of beautiful back and white era. Though there is some obvious back projection in places, the South Sea sets by John McCarthy, Jr. and George Milo are lush and convincing, and stock footage from other movies (one of Republic's favorite cost-cutters) is blended in flawlessly. On the other hand the fluid editing we take for granted in pictures from the 'forties is spoiled by too many abrupt, blackout scene changes. This may point to some radical re-editing between the premiere and the general release three months later.
Set in the 1860's Dutch East Indies and surrounding area, the story revolves around a bitter but respectful rivalry between sea captain Wayne and ship owner Adler. These two strong, morally challenged men are locked in a long-standing mutual hatred. But each grudging admires the other as the most ruthless and competent man he knows. Their rivalry eventually becomes the sole reason each has for living.
Wayne was coming off the release of the highly successful Red River, which had actually been filmed two years earlier, when Wake Of The Red Witch was made. There was a little of Tom Dunson, the cruel, tyrannical rancher he played in Red River in practically every movie John Wayne subsequently made. There is a lot of Dunson in his Captain Ralls in Wake Of The Red Witch. He is Dunson magnified. Wayne and Adler's intense character studies are what makes this movie really worth watching. As for the rest of the cast .... judging by this picture, it would seem that Gail Russel, in addition to wrecking her career with booze, just wasn't really much of an actress. Adele Mara should have had the female lead instead of the second lead. And Gig Young should have kept the mustache.
Wake Of The Red Witch is one of John Wayne's best performances, an entertaining, action-packed, and mysterious picture.
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