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When ex-cop Steve Rollins is released from San Quentin after five years, his only thoughts are of revenge on the men who framed him for manslaughter. Back in San Francisco, his quest for the truth brings him up against ruthless waterfront gang boss Victor Amato. Written by
Ian Harries <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A film noir shot in colour, in cinemascope, with scenes set mostly outdoors during daylight hours, and making ample use of San Francisco's picturesque landscape, starts out with several counts against it.
But contravention of most if not all of the conventions of the noir genre is the least of this movie's problems.
The biggest drag on the story is its star. Alan Ladd strolls through the plot like a Californian Redwood on legs. If it weren't a clash of materials, it would not be unfair to characterise his woodenness as robotic. There's not an ounce of enthusiasm or conviction in his performance as Steve Rollins, an ex-cop wrongly convicted of manslaughter, who leaves jail vowing vengeance on the gangsters who framed him.
Ridiculously attired in a linen suit that never creases or stains despite several bare knuckle dust ups, he fearlessly provokes corrupt waterfront boss Victor Amato (Edward G Robinson) into a showdown that can only result in death or victory.
Along the way, just to demonstrate what a straight-up, honorable guy he is, Rollins rebuffs his wife (Joanne Dru) for a moment of weakness while he was in jail (but only after he'd refused to let her visit him for three years) and comes to the aid of a nightclub singer (Fay Wray) whose life Amato is threatening. All of which Ladd achieves without once moving a facial muscle.
So thank god for Edward G.Robinson! He singlehandedly saves HELL ON FRISCO BAY with a performance that is considerably better than the film deserves. Robinson's career was in a slump in 1955, mostly as a result of the anti-communist blacklist, and he was no longer getting A-list parts, but he never stopped giving his best to whatever work came his way. He's as great here as he was in 'Little Caesar' and 'Key Largo.' His Victor Amato is a fully-rounded, believable and disturbing character, a psychopath who can charm the parish priest one moment and order the murder of his own nephew the next. When Robinson's on screen it's almost possible to forget he's inhabiting the same story as dreary lifeless Alan Ladd.
Credit is also due to Paul Stewart who makes the most of his underwritten part as Amato's put-upon right hand man, and watch out for an uncredited but instantly recognisable Jayne Mansfield in her last bit part before exploding into America's consciousness with 'The Girl Can't Help It' a few months later.
HELL ON FRISCO BAY is a decidedly mediocre tale but a fine example of an actor proving himself better than the material he's given to work with. Watch this and you may well be put off Alan Ladd for life but you'll definitely want another serving of the wonderful Edward G Robinson.
Read more of my reviews at http://thefilmivejustseen.blogspot.com/
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