Hell's Half Acre (1954)

Hell's Half Acre (1954) is a female seeker film noir about a woman who travels to Hawaii to investigate her missing or dead racketeer husband.

As a rather unique slice of Hawaii noir, Hell's Half Acre stars Evelyn Keyes as the seeker hero on the trail and Wendell Corey as the lousy husband, who is actually still alive but changed his identity due to his own criminal activities. 

Hell's Half Acre was written screen by Steve Fisher, who also wrote I Wake Up Screaming which is a sure-fire classic film noir 

It's set in a rundown section of Honolulu, incredibly well photographed it has to be said, and down there on Honolulu's skid row there are all kinds.

While trying to go straight in this environment, ex-racketeer Chet Chester (Wendell Corey) is shaken down by his former criminal cohorts. Chester's girl friend Rose (Nancy Gates) then kills one of them and Chester takes the blame, thinking to himself that he still has enough local influence to get a light sentence.

This Hawaii noir classic opens with a couple planning to be married. It is Chet and Sally Lee (Wendell Corey and Nancy Gates), and they are sitting in Chet's tiki nightclub called "Chet's Hawaiian Retreat" in what must be the ultimate Tiki Bar. 

Chet Chester has a burn scar on  his face and is something of a racketeer, and at the start of WWII he started a syndicate in Hell's Half Acre with "Slim" Novak (Robert Costa) and Roger Kong (Phililip Ahn). After the war he bought them both out and went legit and now also composes and records songs, which is a most curious side hustle indeed.

Chet's friend Roger Kong is throwing a party in his honor by staging a Hawaiian band & chorus floor show playing Chet's hit song "Polynesian Rhapsody". 

While they listen, the incredibly sinister looking Novak passes a threatening note to Sally Lee telling her that he is going to blackmail Chet exposing his past so he and Roger can re start the syndicate.

Sally is not taking any crap at all from Novak and puts a bullet in his forehead, by means of a handgun which she unloads in his face, in a surprising and enjoyable blast of 1954-style violence.

Sally Lee goes back and tells Chet what she did. He tells her that he will take the rap for her but that she is to leave for the mainland with $50,000 of his money to give to a lawyer buddy of his back in LA to get him off.

Now cutting to a record store in LA. Donna Williams (Keyes) is listening to Polynesian Rhapsody and is startled by the final line:

"You're my golden dream at the rainbows end"

The final line is exactly the same as an inscription her dead sailor husband wrote to her on a framed picture she has on a table. It can't be a coincidence, and she is still holding the torch for Randy who was on the USS Arizona when it was bombed at Pearl Harbor. 

Could he be alive? She wants to talk to the composer. So she flies to Hawaii to check things out.

The dark and fantastical origins of film noir plots are a source of continual fascination, as people are imaginatively drawn into their dark and life-threatening journeys in all sorts of magical and coincidental and fateful ways.

Star of the show is female seeker hero, Dona Williams (Evelyn Keyes) who is certain that Chester is her long-lost husband, killed at Pearl Harbor. When Rose is murdered, Chester escapes from jail, intending to prove Dona's innocence and to complicate things even further, try and make things right with the ten year old son that he did not know he had.

All the while Elsa Lanchester provides rambunctious classic whimsy laughs and posturing as she plays a cab driver who becomes a kind of logistical and emotional support for the hero.

Wendell Corey in Hell's Half Acre (1954)

The scuzziness of some of the best film noir is to the fore in Hell's Half Acre (1954) which does not often much try to warm viewers with the panoramas and vistas of the Pacific, but does the low-rent rooms, cop shops and drinking dives of Honolulu as well it might any of the urban noir of the period.

There is also a fairly amusing display of innuendo in Hell's Half Acre (1954).

Wendell Corey and Evelyn Keyes Hawaii noir in Hell's Half Acre (1954)

The story hook is a strange one but film noir is a strange form. Back in mainland America Evelyn Keyes hears a recording by a songwriter from the Islands who, she's told, has been imprisoned for killing a crime lord. 

Certain phrases in the song remind her of her husband, presumed lost on the Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 

She breaks off her engagement, handing the ring back to her rather confused husband to be, and flies to Honolulu. There, her guide to the local culture is cabdriver Elsa Lanchester. Police Chief Keye Luke arranges for Keyes to see the mystery man (Wendell Corey), but when the prisoner learns that his current girlfriend (Nancy Gates) has been murdered, he escapes. 

Marie Windsor in Hell's Half Acre (1954)

As female seeker hero, Keyes penetrates deeper into the slumland known as Hell's Half Acre to find him, while his underworld associates, their greed and curiosity stimulated, try to find her.

Hell's Half Acre features Marie Windsor, as the wife of heavy drinker Jesse White and she is two-timing him with most-sinister Philip Ahn. The crummy rooms Windsor and White occupy in the Acre are amazing and the other main sets include Corey's Waikiki beach house and The Polynesian Paradise, the nightclub he owns.

For film noir fans there is a steadily surprising amount of violence, particularly violence to women, and the story is murky and grimy although there are touristy flashes at time. 

Hell's Half Acre holds its own against his better-known The City That Never Sleeps from John H. Auer, it has a certain seedy flavour and adventuresome pull and the leads are great. 

Corey is doing well for a guy surrounded by femme fatales, shifty criminal acquaintances and coppers, when apparently he was supposed to have been killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor — Dirty rat! It's a phrase that this film strangely loves.

The Hell's Half Acre of the tile is what is termed in the film as the seedy tenement underbelly district of the paradise island, a multi-story labyrinth, a rats nest of cribs, flop houses, clubs, gambling dens and dime a dance joints. The production adores the abodes and the ream of wooden stairs and banisters and makes a moody backdrop of much of the area, including with shadow, alleyways and nasty little bars.

Evelyn Keyes in Hell's Half Acre (1954)

A highly enjoyable dream-like guitar score tops it off. The female seeker hero genre within the style of film noir usually sees the woman in question enter the underworld, which Evelyn Keyes does via a dancing club, a presentation of prostitution in this instance.

And it's not a noir of happy endings, given the neck-deep crime-obsessed lives of many of the characters, most especially Wendell Corey as Chet.

Republic Pictures, active from 1935 to 1959, was known for producing westerns, serials, musicals, and adventure films. 

Republic Pictures was known for its serials, which were short, episodic films often featuring action, adventure, and suspense. Serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939) were popular during their initial release. Additionally, Republic was known for producing B movies, which were lower-budget films often shown as the second feature in a double bill. These films catered to a broad audience looking for entertainment.

Republic was a major player in the western genre. Its films were often produced with high energy, featuring action, music, and, in the case of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry films, singing.

Republic Pictures had a fruitful collaboration with John Wayne, producing some of his early successes, including Stagecoach (1939). Wayne's association with the studio helped boost its profile, and he became one of Hollywood's most significant stars.

While Republic Pictures was known for producing films efficiently on a lower budget, it didn't always have the prestige associated with major studios like MGM or Warner Bros. Some critics and industry observers may have regarded Republic as a studio that catered more to mass entertainment than artistic depth.

Elsa Lanchester as cabbie in Hell's Half Acre (1954)

Towards the end of the 1950s, Republic Pictures faced financial difficulties, and changing audience tastes contributed to the decline of the traditional B movie market. The studio eventually ceased production in 1959.

Republic Pictures had a significant impact on the film industry, particularly in the serials, B movie, and western genres. While the studio may not have been considered on par with some of the major studios in terms of prestige, its films found popularity among audiences seeking diverse forms of entertainment. The legacy of Republic Pictures lives on through its contributions to popular genres and the work of notable stars like John Wayne.

Republic Pictures was more known for its work in westerns, serials, and B movies, but it did venture into noir territory on occasion. Here are a few examples of film noir productions from Republic Pictures:

Trapped (1949): Directed by Richard Fleischer, Trapped is a classic film noir that revolves around a counterfeiting scheme. Lloyd Bridges plays the lead role of the U.S. Treasury agent trying to crack the case.

City That Never Sleeps (1953): Directed by John H. Auer, this film is a blend of crime drama and film noir, set against the backdrop of Chicago. The story follows a night in the lives of various characters, including a disillusioned cop and a dancer.

The Pretender (1947): This film, directed by W. Lee Wilder, explores the theme of identity and features noir elements. Albert Dekker plays a man who assumes the identity of a dead gangster.

While Republic Pictures may not have been as prolific in the film noir genre as some other studios like Warner Bros. or RKO, it did contribute to the noir canon with a handful of productions.

Director Of Photography: John L. Russell

Cast: Wendell Corey, Evelyn Keyes, Elsa Lanchester, Marie Windsor, Nancy Gates, Leonard Strong, Jesse White, Keye Luke

Director: John H. Auer

Running Time: 90 min.

Hell's Half Acre (1954) at Wikipedia

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