When John Auer's 1954 film Hell's Half Acre begins, we're transported to a post World War II Hawaii where we meet a man named Chet Chester (Wendell Corey). Though he used to be a criminal, Chet has since mellowed out and become a respectable, legitimate member of society since opening his nightclub, one of the hottest spots around - he's even written a popular song. He and his girlfriend, Sally (Nancy Gates), are enjoying the evening's entertainment one night when one of his old criminal acquaintances shows up with blackmail on his mind. Sally learns of this man's plan and before you know it, he's dead at her hand. When the cops show up, however, Chet tells them that he did it and they lock him up for murder.
Meanwhile, back on the American mainland, a widow named Donna Williams (Evelyn Keyes) has lost her husband in the war. When she hears some music by Chet on the radio containing lyrics that her husband wrote in a letter to her before he died, she figures there's got to be a connection of sorts. She ditches the guy she's currently engaged to and then books a flight to Hawaii, arriving arrives just in time for things to get crazy. See, Roger Kong (Philip Ahn), another man from Chet's criminal past, has shot Sally dead and so Chet busts out of prison and heads out into the streets to avenge her. Donna, suspicious that Chet might actually be her husband living a secret life under an alias, wages a manhunt of her own sort which takes her into the roughest, toughest slum in all of Hawaii. Thankfully she's got a sympathetic cab driver named Lida O'Reilly (Elsa Lanchester) to help her out. Also involved in all of this are the local police chief, Dan (Keye Luke), and Roger's squeeze, Rose (Marie Windsor), a woman not so happily married to a drunk named Otis (Jesse White).
Featuring some nice cinematography and a solid cast, there's a lot to like about Hell's Half Acre. The opening scene in Chet's nightclub is tense and sets the mood for the movie nicely and once the action transfers to the titular slum, we get some interesting location photography that makes for a few moments of seedy suspense. Shadows are used well during the night time scenes to paint some atmospheric pictures and the Hawaiian locations used throughout the picture give the movie a fairly distinctive flavor.
There are also some interesting and familiar faces that pop up throughout this feature. Wendell Corey makes for a decent enough lead. He shows enough charisma here to carry the film and he's believable enough as a tough guy to make the part work. Evelyn Keyes does alright in her part but it's such a long shot that her character would do something like this in the first place that, through no fault of her own, she's just not as memorable or believable here as we would probably want her to be. Lanchester's part is played more for comic relief but it's always a treat to see her show up in, well, anything really. Marie Windsor is beautiful but sorely underused. When she is in the picture the camera loves her and she's quite good. Keye Luke is alright as the top cop, an interesting part that distances him a bit from the Charlie Chan movies that he was known for while Philip Ahn is great as the film's chief antagonist.
With that said, there are some problems with Hell's Half Acre that keep it from reaching the top of the heap. Though the opening night club scene is well shot and intriguing enough, from there the movie hits a slow patch that doesn't let up for a half an hour or so. Even once we make it past this hurdle there are frequent pacing issues throughout the movie and a few sizeable plot holes as well. The connection that our female lead makes to our male lead is tenuous at best and as such we need to suspend our disbelief a bit more than we should probably have to. All in all, the good outweighs the bad and this is worth seeing, just temper your expectations accordingly.
For a movie made on a modest budget in 1954, Hell's Half Acre looks pretty good on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.33.1. There's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it. Texture is good and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail making the photography stand out here and giving the movie extra dramatic weight because of it - you'll see this in the Hawaiian nightclub scene in the opening portion of the movie but also in different scenes throughout the movie. There are a few spots where the contrast a tiny bit soft but this looks to be the way that the movie was shot and not a problem caused by the transfer itself. Generally speaking, however, the movie looks quite good here.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in the film's original English language, no alternate language or subtitle options or offered. The audio is clean and clear and easy to follow, the dialogue easily discernible and the score dramatically strong without overpowering anything. There are no issues here with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout the movie. Range is obviously limited by the age and format of the source material but the movie sounds just fine here.
Olive Films doesn't usually include any extras on their releases and this disc is no exception. Static menus offering chapter selection is all we get.
Hell's Half Acre is a good (but not quite great) film noir that is more interesting because of its interesting Hawaiian locations than because of its storyline. With that said, it moves at a good pace and provides some decent scenes of reasonable tension and it's nicely shot and performed with a game cast. Olive Films' Blu-ray debut of the film offers up nothing in the way of extras but it does provide a solid high definition presentation of the feature itself. Recommended for noir completists, a solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.