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Director John H. Auer and writer Steve Fisher collaborated on a couple of interesting films noir at Republic Pictures, the nifty police drama City That Never Sleeps and this interesting pulp fiction tale filmed in Hawaii, Hell's Half Acre. One wonders if Republic honcho Herbert J. Yates green-lit the picture to give himself a working vacation in the Island Paradise, as we see a lot of Honolulu in the still relatively undeveloped year of 1954. The idea of a film noir set in sunny Waikiki shouldn't be a contradiction in terms: remember the previous year's From Here to Eternity, with its shady 'serviceman's clubs' and knife fights in back alleys? Hell's Half Acre gathers an interesting cast for a tale that evokes the old Duvivier classic Pépé le moko, with its Algerian Casbah.
The sordid story seems an odd fit in the gorgeous setting. This must be before municipalities became Public Image- conscious, as the show makes Honolulu look like a den of thieves, with nightly shootouts and stabbings. And who expects a movie called Hell's Half Acre to take place on Waikiki Beach?
Steve Fisher's screenplay is packed with colorful characters. When she finds out that her lover, ex- Honolulu gangster Chet Chester (Wendell Corey of The File on Thelma Jordon) is being threatened by an old partner in crime, beautiful Sally Lee (Nancy Gates) murders the interloper. Chet takes the rap, convinced that his lawyers can get him off with a light sentence. Chet is now a well known nightclub owner and songwriter, and when a lyric on one of his new songs reaches the states, Donna Williams (Evelyn Keyes) hears it. She's convinced that Chet is really the sailor-husband she knew only a few days back in 1941, before he was killed on the Arizona. Newly arrived in Honolulu, Donna makes fast friends with taxi driver Lida O'Reilly (Elsa Lanchester), and runs into another of Chet's ex-partners, Roger Kong (Philip Ahn), who has just beaten Sally Lee to death. When Chet finds this out, he breaks free from police custody to track down Kong in a warren of tenement apartments known as Hell's Half Acre, or just "The Acre". Police Chief Dan (Keye Luke) reluctantly allows Donna to stay in town. Kong still wants to find and kill Chet. Realizing that Donna is now part of the deal, Kong enlists the alcoholic Tubby Otis (Jesse White) to kidnap her to bait a trap. The four-way search is even more complex. Tubby's wife Rose (Marie Windsor of The Killing, The Narrow Margin and The Sniper) is also Kong's lover. When Donna finally meets up with Chet, he pretends that he's never seen her before.
Nobody in the film says, "Forget it, Chester, it's The Acre", but this moderately expensive Republic Picture comes very close to being a great film noir. For originality it can't be beat. It is unusual to see the expected generic double and triple-crosses carried out on sun-bathed streets, or in the dark of night with everyone wearing Hawaiian shirts, even the police detectives. The atmosphere says Honolulu in the '50s, a place not yet overrun by giant hotels. Chet Chester runs a swank Waikiki restaurant with a hula floor show, either based on or filmed at Don the Beachcomber's (he's credited as a technical advisor).
In keeping with the changing face of noir thrillers, Steve Fisher's screenplay stays clear of hardboiled dialogue clichés. The cast meshes well, although the lack of a big star must have been a limiting factor at the box office. Wendell Corey is often disparaged for a perceived lack of masculine assertiveness; here he's perfect as Chet Chester, a crook trying to secure an honest lifestyle. Chet's violent background is suggested with a facial scar. We feel his love for Sally Lee, and his regret over his long-ago past with Donna.
An asset to any picture, Evelyn Keyes (The Prowler, The Killer that Stalked New York, 99 River Street) carries the picture's main story thread. Donna Williams must pry herself loose from her present fiancé, to investigate the husband she barely knew before he was lost thirteen years before. Once enmeshed in the Honolulu underworld she proves her tenacity under trying conditions. The film's most interesting sequence has Donna wake up clutching a blanket, in the apartment of the uncouth Tubby and his low-rent wife Rose. A stupid thug, Tubby doesn't realize that Rose is two-timing him with his own boss. With Jesse White playing Tubby as a disgusting slob and Marie Windsor slumming it up, we're sorry when the story moves on.
The depiction of Keyes' Donna and Windsor's Rose skates close to the censorship zone, suggesting sexual thrills that '50s movies promised but couldn't deliver. Donna is clearly naked under that blanket, with the lecherous Tubby unpleasantly close. Rose's amorous dishonesty is likewise out in the open. She practically flaunts her stray-cat interest in Roger Kong, but her tubby Hubby Tubby is too much of a clod to catch on. Donna seems to derive her only pleasure in life from cuckolding him. At the time, these were racy roles: the movies were tame, not the women.
The third 'noir babe' in the picture is young Nancy Gates, who in the '50s seemed to land in one interesting genre picture after another: The Atomic City, Suddenly, World Without End, Comanche Station. Her part is small, but with Eurasian makeup Ms. Gates makes her mark. We understand why Chet would break jail to avenge Sally Lee's death.
Less interesting but professionally sketched is third-billed Elsa Lanchester. Her ditzy cabdriver Lida drops everything to become Donna's companion, confidante and chauffeur for the weekend. She's set up nicely, but fades out of the story in the third act. Another 'lazy' character is Ippy, a weasel-like informer played by character actor Leonard Strong (Ernie in Shane). Ippy's behavior seems an imitation of Peter Lorre in Casablanca, right down to various shifty mannerisms.
John Auer isn't a particularly distinctive director. Not all of Hell's Half Acre maintains the rising curve of tension, but he brings it to a very satisfying concoction. We have rousing shootouts in the
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Hell's Half Acre is a good-looking transfer from materials that have clearly been stored well for the last 59 years. It's therefore a nagging frustration that whoever is responsible (Paramount? Viacom? Republic? Olive?) has transferred this widescreen picture flat. The main titles are a horizontal bar across the frame, with empty sky above and extraneous image below. Viewers with widescreen monitors capable of doing the cropping manually are advised to try the show out with a different scan.
I have a feeling that these AR decisions are being made because a bean-counter executive's budgetary policy rules out making two separate transfers for most titles. We all know that the studios' only interest in library pictures is in making the sale. This is why I don't throw stones at the smaller companies. Until now Olive has performed remarkably well, with things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Private Hell 36 properly formatted. It's just too bad that favorites like Johnny Guitar slip by, presented once again at the wrong Aspect Ratio.
Hell's Half Acre is still an exciting and fairly original noir thriller, so is this issue worth making such a fuss about? I just think the problem needs to be noted. Heck, everybody's monitors are now widescreen... perhaps what's needed is a disclaimer card reading, "This movie has been modified from its original screen shape, so as to not fit your TV screen."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hell's Half Acre Blu-ray rates:
1. Hell's Half Acre is a great picture for those of us who remember Oahu "back when" - see a lot more of Honolulu than just Diamond Head. I lived in Hawaii as a child from 1958 to 1961 and to me it looks like the beachside hula show is just down the beach from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, perhaps at the same place my family went for an evening tourist Luau before we came back to the states. Is that little patch of Army beach called Fort DeRussy still there?
Even in 1958 it doesn't seem possible that any part of Honolulu had room for a criminal slum. I do remember that the streets around the Hawaii Theater were kind of rough-looking, at least as seen through the eyes of a 9-year-old. At that time a new divided road/freeway stretched the few miles between Hickam Field and Honolulu, and there was a new shopping center surrounded by a giant parking lot called "Ala Moana" or perhaps "The Alamoana". Maybe its construction wiped out the less savory neighborhood called "The Acre". Of course, now when I see The Descendants and its miles of new suburb-like housing tracts, I wonder where they could possibly find space to build them. So much of Oahu seemed packed with development, even back then.
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