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We love the films of Robert Aldrich, though not all are gems. In fact, for some Aldrich pictures it's only his forceful attitude that keeps us on his side. Aldrich had been the assistant director for some of the finest talents of the late 1940s, several of whom were blacklisted. He would retain their sense of liberal outrage in many of his self-produced pictures, giving them a very individual edge.
Aldrich was considered such a savvy assistant that he won his first directing assignment The Big Leaguer almost purely on a producer's recommendation to MGM. His directing career really began with an association with producer-star Burt Lancaster on Apache and the big hit Vera Cruz. Lancaster probably wanted to place all the organizing work in Aldrich's hands and reserve the creative decisions for himself. The two men apparently got along well enough, for they worked together again much later in their careers.
Robert Aldrich did direct another feature 'Before Burt', but his name was credited only as a producer. 1 He'd directed two episodes of TV's China Smith, a vehicle for star Dan Duryea. A sizeable set and crew were ready and available, and Aldrich sold TV producer Bernard Tabakin on the idea of shooting a feature. Not much money was available for the project. Aldrich hired the blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler to adapt an existing episode idea for China Smith. According to Alain Silver and James Ursini, 2 Aldrich had to shoot some television commercials to raise cash to finish the film.
The best thing about World for Ransom may be its title, which perfectly expresses the insecurities of the atom age. Lindsay Hardy's un-ambitious story takes place in a shabby 'man of adventure' pulp setting in Singapore. Far East drifter Mike Callahan (Dan Duryea) has lost Frennessey, the woman he loves (Marian Carr of Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly) to his best friend Julian March, a disreputable British former soldier (Patric Knowles). Frennessey says that she'll desert her husband and run away with Mike, if Mike will save Julian from trouble on a dangerous new deal with the international crook Alexis Pederas (Gene Lockhart). Mike blunders into the scheme, only to find that he'll be lucky if he can save his own skin: Julian was hired to kidnap atom scientist Sean O'Connor (Arthur Shields). Pederas gives the British authorities an ultimatum: pay $5 million dollars or O'Connor will be shopped to the Communists.
The synopsis makes Aldrich's show sound a bit like a James Bond picture, years before the nuclear extortion plot of Thunderball. On paper, the thematic link to Kiss Me Deadly seems explicit -- was Robert Aldrich fixated on the atom threat? Unfortunately, the only aspect World for Ransom shares in common with Kiss Me Deadly is an air of pretension. Made under what must have been trying circumstances, the finished film is not well directed, although we can see Aldrich's interesting visual mannerisms coming through loud and clear.
More than half of the movie consists of dialogue scenes in small rooms. Most of the actors are professional in their roles but leading man Dan Duryea shouts his dialogue through many of his scenes, ruining every one of them -- it sounds as if he's emoting for the hearing-impaired. The movie has too many cast members, with several in for only a scene or two. Gene Lockhart is a colorless criminal mastermind -- he mumbles Lex Luthor-like evil threats but comes off as a harmless little man. Douglas Dumbrille and Nigel Bruce (in his last film) are ineffectual Brit bureaucrats, and Arthur Shields looks more like a visiting Irish priest than a scientist worth $5 million on the black market. Of the ensemble, only Patric Knowles and Reginald Denny come off convincingly. Knowles makes a solid impact as a cad and bounder. Old hand Denny gets the film's best part as a Brit officer who intuits that Mike is actually a good guy, and throws in with him.
Duryea's Mike slouches about with a long face, pushing the 'weary noir loser' act much too hard. He seems too weary to climb a set of stairs, yet suddenly transforms into a 4th-rate Indiana Jones. A great deal of unnecessary talk is expended on Mike's background: war hero and rescuer of best friend Julian, but also a smuggler suspected of a million crimes. In this generic "Terry & the Pirates" setting, the downtrodden Callahan only needs to be seen lighting a cigarette, for us to accept him as an existential noir hero.
Blonde looker Marian Carr seems to have been chosen for her likeness to Marilyn Monroe -- for one scene they even dress and light her to match. Her torch singer Frennessey is obviously using Mike Callahan for her own purposes. Along with everyone else, Carr is sunk by a script that dredges up pulp clichés and offers little or nothing that is new. The blocking in her dressing room scenes is stilted, very much like early TV work.
Viewers aware of how insubstantial and cheap early '50s filmed TV can be will know what to expect with World for Ransom. The concept is far too ambitious, an MGM story filmed on less than a P.R.C. budget. The Singapore street set is large but looks claustrophobic anyway. The Indonesian countryside is too much like Southern California. There are no action scenes per se, just an unlikely standoff. Dashing into the enemy den, Mike keeps three men with machine guns at bay by brandishing a pair of hand grenades with the pins pulled.
World for Ransom's crook Pederas should be an important figure in the progression of pulp fiction -- his big-stakes scheme to auction an atom scientist to the world powers is something a super-villain from the Superman might do. The Bomb upped the ante on pulp thrillers by removing the limit on the potential for jeopardy. One man fighting in a jungle over a deadly invention is no longer nonsense for a Republic serial. Doomsday Weapons are an everyday fact. But the movie's title is all that reflects this new level of anxiety. Nobody in the film has anything to say about the bomb, atomic power or the security problem posed by nuclear secrets. What we get is a no-budget chase to free a kidnapped Irishman, and even that seems a sidebar to Mike Callahan's desultory romantic problem.
Although World for Ransom isn't much of a movie, it's a find for followers of director Robert Aldrich. His personal directorial taste is in evidence throughout. The movie is bookended with fortune telling scenes, in which Mike is quoted a discouraging line of poetry:
The first street scene is framed through an arch; a composition that Aldrich uses throughout his career. An early angle on a stairwell captures the maze-like quality in many shots in Kiss Me Deadly. Parts of scenes in Frennessey's room are filmed through the iron headboard of her bed, forming a web-like pattern in which Mike is 'caught'. Aldrich would frequently re-use that motif as well. The editing is as blunt as that in later Aldrich pictures, with the occasional continuity mismatch indicating some radical pruning of scenes. When we return from the jungle, the scene fades up in Frennessey's room after Mike has entered, making it look as if somebody decided to cut the scene in half, or at least drop his entrance.
Dancer Carmen D'Antonio is given a full number in the Club Poppy, which is pretty terrible. But the big performance of star torch singer Frennessey is over almost before it begins. Silver & Ursini tell us that the Production Code Office did require the excision of prologue scene in which Frennessey kisses another woman. The missing kiss and the tuxedo that Carr wears are clearly patterned on Marlene Dietrich's daring cross-dressing performance in the von Sternberg pre-Code classic Morocco.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of World for Ransom is an almost perfect print of what has been a very difficult film to see: I remember it playing on television's TBS cable station only once in the 1980s. The movie's crude titles look like they were produced for television use. They are arranged for widescreen projection, but Olive's choice of a flat 1:37 aspect ratio would seem correct. Any cropping for widescreen would wreck many compositions. Although the release date is given as January 1954, I would think that World was likely filmed before the format changeover. With the reported hiatus in production, filming may have begun as early as late 1952.
Aldrich fans will welcome the opportunity to see the great director's initial stumbling effort to put his first violent, apocalyptic-themed thriller on screen. World for Ransom is no gem, but it's equally as interesting as Stanley Kubrick's first films Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
World for Ransom Blu-ray rates:
1. That makes two Hollywood films I know of that don't carry a director credit... the other is MGM's musical Hollywood Party.
Actually, correspondent Barry Lane wrote in on January 20, 2015 to name another film with no credited director: Desire Me (1947) with Greer Garson and Robert Mitchum.
2. ... in their very good book What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, New York 1995.
3. A note from "B", 4.18.15:
Dear Glenn: I seem to be repeatedly writing you about this Aldrich movie, but I thought I'd check in, as I have at last seen the thing.
The form, structure and even (to an extent) the grammar of the picture are fairly odd. It's as if Aldrich, after years as a top a.d. and occasional second-unit director, concentrated on his already established skills of scene-setting, atmosphere and action staging and didn't bother much to explore the complicated tasks of developing exposition and dimensional characterizations. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the film, because I did. In many ways, it's a creditable piece of work; Aldrich gets a great deal more flavor and mood from the movie's inexpensive sets and short schedule than I had expected, and when the not-always-easy-to-follow story finally gets in gear, what passes for action is crisply shot and tautly assembled.
But the relationship between Mike, Julian and Frennessey, which is the heart of the story, is mostly a botch. The script and dialogue aren't particularly helpful here, but Aldrich doesn't draw out performances that would make us give a damn about these three. Duryea does weirdly shout many of his lines (did one of those prop grenades accidentally go off too close to his ears?), but he's at least recognizably the hero and coherently delivers the dialogue. I had to watch the scenes between Knowles' Julian and Duryea's Mike several times to try to grasp what Julian is supposedly telling (or not telling) Mike about his plans. I couldn't get a sense of their friendship (or its significance to either of them) from their interaction, which made the late scene in which Julian reveals his true colors play entirely flat. Marian Carr doesn't really bring anything to the table as Frennessey; she's not magnetic, appealing, mysterious... she's just there.
The film begins so perfunctorily, it's easy to see how it could have opened with a number in the club. I dunno whether seeing Frennessy kiss a woman (ala Marlene in Morocco) would have added much to the character's mystique, but it might have at least made the movie a little more exotic. Her scenes with Duryea have no spark. When we learn at the end that Frennessy had been leading Mike on all along, it's neither a surprise nor a shock. It just doesn't matter. We do see that it matters to Mike, so the ending works a little.
Aldrich, of course, learned his trade quickly. Best, Always --B.
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