Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)

Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is a man who's been wronged. After serving a 5 year sentence at San Quentin for a crime he didn't commit, the former cop is now free. Waiting for him at the gate is his old partner Dan (William Demarest) who sticks with him through thick and thin, and his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru), a lounge singer who gave into temptation while her husband was away. But Steve can't be bothered with dealing with his failed marriage. He's on a mission to track down the one man responsible for putting him in the slammer: Vic Damato (Edward G. Robinson). He got a hot tip from Frank Ragoni about who set him up and now Ragoni is missing. All fingers point to Damato who leads a mob syndicate that terrorizes the Italian fishing community of San Francisco. He's drunk with power and will kill anyone who gets in his way, even one of his own. He rules his team with an iron fist. First there's his number one man, Joe (Paul Stewart), who will do anything Damato tells him to but pulls away when he starts a romance with former screen star Kay (Fay Wray). Then there's Hammy (Stanley Adams), a blood thirsty mobster who is a little too eager to please, Damato's naive nephew Mario (Perry Lopez) and his man on the inside, dirty cop Detective Connors (Peter Hansen). Steve must make his way through web of shady characters to uncover the truth and to bring down Damato once and for all.

Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) is a fascinating noir, filmed in Cinemascope and Warner Color by with plenty of on-location shooting in the city by the bay. San Francisco serves as the beautiful backdrop for a dark tale of disturbed characters. Viewers will see shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf and the San Francisco, Ghirardelli Square, the Embarcadero and the iconic hills of San Francisco. Anyone familiar with the city will find plenty of recognizable scenery.

Based on the novel The Darkest Hour by William P. McGivern, Hell on Frisco Bay was adapted by screenwriters Sydney Boehm and Martin Rackin for Warner Bros. McGivern also wrote The Big Heat which is one of my favorite Noirs and one of the best films Fritz Lang made during his time in Hollywood. It was directed by Frank Tuttle who worked with Alan Ladd on This Gun for Hire (1942). Ladd, who also served as an uncredited producer through his company Jaguar Productions, hired Tuttle and other colleagues from his Paramount days including William Demarest, Paul Stewart and Anthony Caruso.

This Noir boasts a cast of characters portrayed by some of the best in the business. Edward G. Robinson playing a heartless mobster is no stretch as he had been playing such characters for many years. Alan Ladd looks worse for wear but his performance as Steve begs for the audience's sympathy but also holds them at a distance. I was quite taken with Paul Stewart's nuanced performance as Damato's reluctant sidekick Joe. He's not an actor I'm all that familiar with but this film definitely brought him to my attention. Fay Wray has an important but small role as a former actress who tries to protect her gangster boyfriend. I wish Joanne Dru and William Demarest had more to do in the film. They really just serve as the protagonist's counter parts. Starlet Jayne Mansfield has a bit role as the girl Perry Lopez dances with at Damato's night club. A young Rod Taylor, billed as Rodney Taylor, has a small role as one of Damato's thugs. His fight seen with Alan Ladd isn't quite believable but it's still fun to see Taylor in what was his fourth movie. In fact Ladd and Robinson have a big action-packed scene in San Francisco Bay that is also not quite believable. But with the help of stunt men and some studio footage, it works.

Hell on Frisco Bay is a gorgeous movie. Where it lacks in story telling it makes up for in stunning visuals and dramatic music by Max Steiner. This movie makes me long for a time when you could dress up, go to a classy lounge, have a drink and hear a good song or two. I always forget how richly visual 1950s movies are until I watch a good one and am reminded of this fact. Because of the gorgeous color cinematography, the film felt less like a Noir and more like a 1950s drama. I don't think this hurts the film at all. It makes it more of a hybrid.

Hell on Frisco Bay is available on Blu-Ray and DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection. According to their recent podcast Hard Lessons this is the first time this film has been available either on DVD or Blu-Ray format. The film has been remastered from the original camera negative at 4k. You can buy the DVD and Blu-Ray at the WB Shop. Using my buy links helps support this site. Thanks!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) to review!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Stefan is a tortured artist. A once celebrated composer, he has abandoned his craft for a transient life of excess. He leaves a trail of broken hearts behind him. A wealthy man has challenged him to a duel, one Stefan doesn't plan to go through with. When he arrives at his home, his butler John presents him with a letter. It's from someone he doesn't quite remember, a dying woman named Lisa. Lisa has been in love with Stefan ever since she first laid eyes on him at the tender age of 16. Over the years she follows his career and longs to be with him. They have a short and passionate affair that leaves her bearing his child. Every time she comes into his life, Stefan doesn't remember Lisa. She's relegated to the status of unknown woman. Lisa's letter tells Stefan the story of her love for him, the one he's neglected to appreciate over the years.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is Lisa's story. We follow her from her teenage years all the way until the delivery of her letter to Stefan. The film stars Joan Fontaine as Lisa Brendle, the impressionable and shy young woman whose fierce devotion to the object of her affection makes her more of a tragic figure than her early demise. Fontaine plays Lisa at different stages at her life. At the age of 30, which Fontaine was at the time of filming, it's difficult to pull off playing a 16 year old. However, Fontaine's natural talent for playing shy yet passionate characters makes an impression. Had they cast another actress to play teenage Lisa, the viewer wouldn't have felt such a strong connection to the character as they do when they follow Fontaine as Lisa throughout the film.Louis Jourdan plays Stefan, the impossibly handsome composer who refuses to be pinned down by life. The only constant in his life is John (Art Smith) his mute butler. It drives me mad to see how Stefan can forget Lisa so quickly. Doesn't he realize just how special she is? The art of this film is how it makes one feel so strongly about a fictional character.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, Max Ophuls, Letter from an Unknown Woman is a stunning movie. It's rich in emotional drama without becoming overly sentimental. The audience enters the world of Lisa and Stefan giving us the room to understand and sympathize with Lisa as we follow her journey. Stefan is elusive and feels just out of reach, much as he does in Lisa's life. The film boasts trademarks of Ophuls work including European sensibilities, a complex and interesting female protagonist, a duel, and luxurious sets and costumes that are pleasing to the eye.

The story is based on a novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The plot had to be toned down quite a bit for American movie audiences. Produced by Joan Fontaine and her husband WIlliam Dozier's company Rampart Productions, the film got its start at RKO. However they couldn't get the plot past the Hays Office. Max Ophuls convinced Universal Pictures head William Goetz to let him make the movie when Ophuls cornered Goetz in a Turkish bath. At Universal, screenwriter Howard Koch adapted the story. Because of the increasing number of independent production companies and players, members of the Hays Office knew it would eventually get made so they negotiated with Universal on several plot points to get it approved. Most notably the couple, and their son, had to be punished for having relations out of wedlock. I suspect that having the story based in Austria helped their cause. American audiences could relegate the behavior of the protagonists as something those naughty Europeans do. The otherness of the characters was less threatening than if they were Americans going against their own moral code.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the perspective of the story. Most see it as Lisa's point-of-view. It's infuriating for viewers to see how Stefan neglects Lisa and can't fully remember her when he encounters her again. She loves him with such fervor so why can't he wake up and appreciate this? The only person Stefan seems to remember is his mute butler John. Possibly because he is the only person who does not ask Stefan for anything. Unlike Stefan's many romantic flings or admirers of his music who demand new art from him. Another school of thought places the perspective on Stefan. He reads Lisa's letter and imagines her story through the filter of his own ego. In this way she is a more submissive, loving, and self-sacrificing character than what she might have been in real life.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is the second Max Ophuls movie I've watched but won't be my last. Ever since my viewing of The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) I've been very interested in Ophuls as a director. Letter was made during the ten years in which Ophuls lived and worked in the United States before moving back to France. In the early 1930s, Ophuls predicted the rise of German Nazis and as a Jew wisely fled Germany for France. He held out in France for as long as possible. However, a serious threat by the Nazis forced him to leave France and after a short stint in Switzerland, he made his way to Hollywood. The film industry already had plenty of European emigres. Ophuls found it difficult to break into the business. He worked as an independent director with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s production company, Universal Studios, Paramount Studios and MGM making one film with each. After the war, Ophuls moved back to France and continued his film career there.

Olive Films has released a limited edition Blu-Ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman as part of their Oliver Signature line. Only 3,5000 copies have been made and once they're gone, they're gone. Olive Films already had a Blu-Ray edition of this film but the Signature edition is a collector's item fans of the film will want to have. The film has undergone a 4k restoration and looks absolute brilliant. The Blu-Ray is tucked into a beautifully designed and slender slipcase. The bonus features include commentary by Litz Bacher, a Max Ophuls expert who speaks specifically on the production of the film. Also included are interviews and essays. I particularly enjoyed the video interview with Max Ophuls' son Marcel Ophuls who speaks at length about their time in the United States.

The Olive Signature Edition of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is a must have for classic film collectors and Max Ophuls enthusiasts alike. Thank you to Olive Films for sending me a copy for review!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

DVD Netflix Holiday Twitter Giveaway

This giveaway is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

As a special treat for my readers, I have a holiday giveaway just for you! I've partnered up with DVD Netflix to giveaway three $100 DVD Netflix gift cards. One gift card equals a year's subscription at the 1 disc at a time tier. However the credit can be applied to any tier or bundle (streaming and DVD rental) you have. If you don't have DVD Netflix and want to try it out, this is a great opportunity to start. For existing DVD Netflix members, this is a nice way to cover the costs for a good stretch.

DVD Netflix has a wide variety of classic movies on DVD (and Blu-Ray if you chose to upgrade the service). I have been using it for years to watch new-to-me films, to dive into a particular star's filmography or just to try something different. It's a good service to have especially if the titles you're interested in are not available on streaming services.

As the title of this post suggests this is a Twitter giveaway. You must have a Twitter account to participate as all the prompts relate to that platform.

Rules and Regulations: Must be 18+ or over. DVD Netflix is only available in the US (sorry Canadian and International readers!). One completed entry per person. Contest ends Sunday December 10th at midnight EST. Winners will be chosen the following day and announced below.

You must complete all prompts to enter.


1) Follow my Twitter @Quellelove

2) Follow @DVDNetflix on Twitter

3) Tweet out my newest guest post "5 Holiday Gems from the 1940s" and tag both @Quellelove and @DVDNetflix. Click on the link or the image above to tweet!

4) Leave a comment below with your Twitter username written out (so I can check entries) and tell me about your favorite holiday movie!

Stay tuned as I'll have some fun DVD Netflix content coming on this blog, my social profiles and on the DVD Inside the Envelope blog in 2018!

Congrats to the three winners!


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