Film

Calling Mr. Aldrich: The '50s-era Fisticuffs of 'World for Ransom' and 'Ten Seconds to Hell'

Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)

Robert Aldrich favors the classical presentation of angry cynical characters given to violence and grotesquery, which means he's often "tasteless" and discomfitting.


World for Ransom

Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Dan Duryea
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1954
USDVD release date: 2015-01-20

Ten Seconds to Hell

Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 19
USDVD release date: 2015-02-24

Robert Aldrich is a rankling case, a maker of films both stylish and rough-hewn at once, an aggressively masculine filmmaker who enjoyed making films about (hostile) women, a Hollywood studio-trained apprentice who often bit the system that fed him and sometimes found himself out of a job but scored almost as many hits as misses. He favors the classical presentation of angry cynical characters given to violence and grotesquery, which means he's often "tasteless" and discomfitting. Two of his minor brash '50s efforts, World for Ransom and Ten Seconds to Hell, are freshly available on blu-ray.

These throwaways are the type of film that separate the auteurist from the amateur hedonist. To the untrained eye, the Monogram production World for Ransom is merely a cheap, routine thriller full of borrowed elements and predictable narrative gestures. To the auteurist, it's interesting (not always the same as "good") as an example of nascent Aldrich and the kind of films he'd soon be making.

The film is basically an extended episode of the TV series China Smith with the names changed. Aldrich was a writer-director on that show, which starred Dan Duryea as a two-fisted Irish adventurer of shady dealings in Singapore. Douglas Dumbrille played a British police inspector. This film uses the same two stars in essentially the same roles, with the same crew of photographer Joseph Biroc, editor Michael Luciano, and art director William Glasgow, whom Aldrich retained for future films.

Amid the cramped exoticism of a backlot Singapore, Mike Callahan (Dan Duryea) wanders in his crumpled linen suit, forever menaced and/or beaten by various factions during his investigation of an old "friend", Julian March (Patric Knowles). The effete and spinless Julian is mixed up with some chess-playing villain (Gene Lockhart) who kidnaps a British scientist (Arthur Shields), one of "four men in the world who knows how to set off an H-bomb".

Mike's weary wisecracks come out like cynical cackles ("Mike Callahan, private eye!") as he makes like a chump for his old girlfriend Frennessey (Marian Carr), now Julian's wife. His scenes with her are so choked with design -- mirrors, mosquito nets, spiraling bedposts -- that Aldrich must think he's Josef von Sternberg, with Carr as his Marlene Dietrich.

Most of the first, claustrophobic first half consists of characters explaining the plot to each other. The latter half opens out to the countryside for a mini-war movie, including some vigorous shots taken from a moving jeep driven by another British cop (Reginald Denny). While the story is a twisted knot presented from several angles that don't always involve Callahan, Aldrich and his visual crew concentrate on ways to present each scene in as confined and chiaroscuro a manner as possible, with many "imprisoning" motifs like sewer grates or windows or gates.

Many scenes are staged in a single shot, either stationary or gliding, as when Callahan is confronted by two Chinese gangsters in a narrow stairwell in the screen's central meridian, or when Callahan lays out some exposition with Frenessey while she stares out at the camera-mirror and brushes her hair, or when the camera pulls back from the desk of the British governor (Nigel Bruce, remaining seated in his last film) to hover near the ceiling fan, or when it slides around Callahan's bed for his scene with a photographer (Keye Luke), and later when that shutterbug meets his desultory end at the hands of two other thugs.

All of Carr's scenes are duets with Duryea. Carr, who'd appeared more than once on China Smith and would be in Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, is "introduced" in this movie, although she'd been acting since 1946. Sources agree in spelling her character as Frennessey, although surely it's supposed to be Frenesi (Spanish for "frenzy"), from the popular song of the '40s.

Carr's career isn't prolific, but its pedigree is fascinating to noirists and cultists, as she also appeared in Felix Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride with Lawrence Tierney, Mark Robson's The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart, Maxwell Shane's Nightmare with Edward G. Robinson in a bizarre Cornell Woolrich story, James Edward Grant's Ring of Fear with Mickey Spillane, and Jack Pollexfen's The Indestructible Man with Lon Chaney Jr. She even had a small role in It's a Wonderful Life!

Because Julian mockingly compares Callahan to Galahad, Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward's Film Noir tries to make something of Callahan/Galahad's "white suit", but it's more off-white on the increased resolution of this Blu-ray, with Julian's suit even whiter. Aldrich's entry in World Film Directors, Volume Two quotes him describing this as "an interesting picture, bits and pieces stolen from different directors, with a variety of styles and techniques."

This is only his second feature (after many years as an assistant and working in TV), and it fits Andrew Sarris' observation in The American Cinema that "his direction of his players generally creates a subtle frenzy [or frenesi?] on the screen, and his visual style suggests an unstable world full of awkward angles and harsh transitions".

World for Ransom (1954)

That perfectly describes his approach in Ten Seconds to Hell, where he and great black-and-white cinematographer Ernest Laszlo find all kinds of imprisoning compositions and fresh angles amid the brilliant production design of Ken Adam, a few years before Adam embarked on the James Bond series. The film's outstanding visual qualities must make it especially impressive to audiences who don't know English, because the dialogue and characters are another matter. Since a movie should be visual, it's a success on that level, atmospheric and vivid.

This is a British production from Hammer Films, shot in the ruins of postwar Berlin and presenting a crew of German ex-soldiers with experience in defusing unexploded bombs. A narrator explains that these are rag-tag misfits and outsiders who were punished by the German army by being given this job. This will immediately remind many viewers of The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich's later trendsetting WWII hit. The film's highlights are the suspenseful defusings, which don't always go well. As in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room of ten years earlier, the climax involves a bomb with a dual fuse.

As tense and gritty as these scenes are, they're marred logically by the fact that the bombs seem to be in unimportant locations that are already bombed-out ruins, in which case the procedure was generally to detonate on site. At least that's what I learned from the British TV series Danger UXB, and it would have increased the suspense and sense if the film explained how this bomb was near a crowded hospital, that one a power station or school, etc. Instead this one's near a crater and that one's in a collapsing wreck already. This does nothing to make the ending more credible, as it seems to be operating entirely on its symbolic level.

The human angle is provided by two tall, hard, square-jawed types who embody different philosophical approaches in leadership: one selfish and cynical (Jeff Chandler), the other sensitive and anguished (Jack Palance!). They're also rivals in pursuit of their French landlady (Martine Carol), who allegorizes wounded postwar Europe. All dialogue on these topics is dull, labored, and overwrought, courtesy of a script by Aldrich and Teddi Sherman from Lawrence P. Bachmann's novel The Phoenix (the film's British title). Sherman, a TV writer who mostly did westerns, is a rare woman scripting a war film, and it's too bad the script is the main problem.

Chandler and Palance are cast against their typical roles, but their charisma still holds. As one observant contributor points out at IMDB, Chandler delivers a soliloquy about his harsh upbringing that echoes a similar tale in Aldrich's Vera Cruz. For the most part, however, you wish these characters would shut up, and you must mentally turn them off to appreciate how Aldrich stages them in their tatty, haggard, desolate surroundings.

Palance's character is one of Aldrich's increasingly bruised intellectuals who remains a master at his craft, a character type on the moral decline in the director's output since the quietly sympathetic manager played by Edward G. Robinson in Aldrich's feature debut, The Big Leaguer (a film very much worth tracking down and available on Warner Archive). Aldrich reported that he and Palance, who'd worked together so well on The Big Knife and Attack, suffered a rift on this troubled production, and that Hammer cut many minutes out of the film. Some of that material must involve the wife of one of the bomb squad, because she's now only glimpsed in one scene, and we're apparently meant to recognize her. It turned out not to be a happy experience for Aldrich, and this compounded his disaster of being fired from The Garment Jungle. Perhaps his mood matched the bleakness of his characters.

The event proved far from a washout, however. This co-production between Hammer and an indie American company called Seven Arts would not only lead to many more co-productions between them, but also to Seven Arts financing more Aldrich projects. These included his triumphal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, one of his poisoned valentines to Hollywood, and the huge hit The Dirty Dozen, in which he toned down the tortured philosophy and amped up the violence, the cynicism, and the nihilism. In the end, you could say Jeff Chandler's character lost the battle but won the war.

Also in the picture are Richard Wattis as the men's British commander, Virginia Baker as their liaison, and Robert Cornthwaite, Wesley Addy, Dave Willock and James Goodwin as the expendables. The HD image on Kino's blu-ray is excellent, as is most of World for Ransom on the Olive disc. These are bare-bones releases for which Aldrich fans will be grateful because they give us a chance to look at his visual style and soak in his fatalistic atmosphere, which wasn't failing him even in minor efforts. Non-auteurist viewers won't see much to cause a stir, which is their right and their loss.

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