Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) is a satisfying colour flick set in and around the fishing wharf areas of San Francisco Bay. 

The picture opens as ex-cop Steve Rollins, played by Alan Ladd, is paroled and leaves San Quentin Prison in order to search San Francisco for the mobsters who framed him for manslaughter.

It's a pretty exciting opening few scenes, and it doesn't look like the gates of the prison have changed at all in the last seventy years. Of Steve Rollins prison years, we learn little, although they may likely have amounted to their own hell on Frisco Bay. Because of course, cops in stir are not usually that popular.

There at the gate of San Quentin, waiting for him, is his wife and former police partner. As his wife has been unfaithful to him while he was banged up, it appears, Steve Rollins rejects her and opts to take the bus to town. 

In this decision, his partner joins him, leaving the wife alone; the first of many casually handled scenes involving women on Frisco Bay.

This is the apologetic version of noir, which tries to shoehorn in female stories, actors and themes, but either fails or gives up. There are stabs at love interest throughout the film, but they are generally unclear, and Ladd's wife, played by Joanne Dru, works as well as she can in the background, relegated generally to the club, where he watches her carefully over a drink.

This is how male identity is generated in film noir, which as a medium does offer some of the best roles for women in the era  although not here. Here, as is common to the style, it is all about the issues that men face. These are issues around violence, around emotion and how not show it, about status  either within a criminal, social or familial coterie  and there are issues that are purely existential.

Alan Ladd eyes Fay Wray

This existential quest is writ large on the motionless face of Steve Rollins. Film noir is the fantasy land where men are defined by fate and environment, and of course by women. Film noir is the fantasy land in which they beat other men, and are beaten by them; crime is one of the arenas in which these fantasies are explored. Even in the civilised society of the American Century, men need to know what they are to aspire to and be ready for attack. The result as seen here, as above, as on Frisco Bay, is that women are obliged to watch, sometimes in their underwear, for obvious reasons.

The exciting start to Hell on Frisco Bay also sees Alan Ladd's ex-cop Steve Rollins hitting the streets the moment he is free. He doesn't take his bearings, or even attempt to find a place to live when the gates of San Quentin close behind him.

Instead he heads straight for the fishing port and starts asking around, hot on the trail of the mobsters who framed him. There are a short series of encounters before he comes face to face with the evil gang boss Amato, played by Edward G. Robinson, who is the best value in the movie.

Hell on Frisco Bay is in fact all about this excellent performance. Edward G. Robinson played a variety of characters, including cops, officials and villains, but generally his villains were of the cold kind. Here in Hell on Frisco Bay, Edward G. Robinson is wild, angry and violent, psychopathic even, domineeringly bad and loud, shouting at anybody that gets in his way and ordering hits left, right and centre. He seems to care for little, and even bullies his right hand man, played by Paul Stewart.

At heart, Hell on Frisco Bay is a movie of driving violence, as Alan Ladd beats his way through a series of hoods to get to the truth about his own incarceration. His end point will not only be the vendetta style justice he can carry out against the mob, but the nob itself and the crooked police and politicians that co-operate with them.

For its day, it is in fact significantly brutal, and although Alan Ladd's Steve Rollins is not technically speaking a cop, and as such technically speaking not bound by cops rules and regulations, there is something of the Dirty Harry about him, as he always seems to end up using his fists to get his way.

Amato's weak nephew is given a sink swirlie in a nightclub bathroom, and Amato's rather inefficient muscle, Hammy, played by Stanley Adams, gets several cracks at getting the better of the ex-cop, and fails rather pitifully each time, even when he is armed and Rollins is not.

As a film noir, everything is in place, with the exception perhaps of the Cinemascope colour, which is perhaps not fully utilised. Colour film processes mean that much film noir ambience is simply missing, in the lack of shadows and light play necessitated by black and white. The violence however and the urban adventure are true to type, and the expansive widescreen view only comes into its own in the film's amazing climax, which is a long fight on board a speedboat on the bay.

Thrilling speedboat scenes aside, there isn't much in the way of atmosphere and tension, and this must be down to the fact that the city of San Francisco looks great, pretty in fact, and not an urban mess of ill-will and crime, as perhaps it could in a picture like this.

There is no framing as there should be in classic film noir; that is to say no voice-over or flashback, merely straight-color cinematic storytelling.

Color film noir, when it suffers, suffers from this abject lack of framing. There may not be much in it, in the mind of the producer, but the entire range of framing devices employed by film noir, are a key effect across the style.

Two further notable appearances make Hell on Frisco Bay a collector's item for movie fans, nonetheless; the first being Rod Taylor who makes a brief but exciting appearance as a hood on the run; and Fay Wray who appears briefly and steals a scene or two. 

You could class Hell on Frisco Bay as something of a 'stroller'. That's to say that Alan Ladd, whose Jaguar films proudly produced this number - proudly we could say by the size of their logo, mid way through the credits - that's to say that Alan Ladd seems rather casual as he walks from scene to scene, somewhat wooden perhaps, although this imitation of a Californian Redwood may be more to do with his efforts to appear cool and calm. As producer too, he may have had more on his mind than presenting the complexities of his character, Steve Rollins.

There is still something that keeps this stroller rollin', even if it isn't Steve Rollins. Like the movie itself, Steve Rollins has a trajectory, and wastes no time. The love interest may be brief but there isn't a lot of fat on this flick, and although it never feels tense, and although there is never any doubt about the conclusion, and although we never feel like Steve Rollins is in any actual danger, it ticks over well, and bears repeat viewing.

Strollin' Hell on Frisco Bay (Wikipedia)

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