Like the concurrently released The Sea Chase, another seafaring Wayne movie from 1955, Warner Bros.' Blu-ray is a big improvement over the (also concurrently released) DVD version.
Set in present day China, Wayne is American seafarer Tom Wilder, a prisoner of the Red Chinese. A jailbreak is arranged, with Wilder disguised as a Soviet soldier (!) and whisked to the village of Chiku Shan, where he meets benefactors Mr. Tao (Paul Fix) and Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall). They've sprung him from jail to captain a rust-colored ferryboat they intend to commandeer as part of a daring escape. They plan to move all 180 of the village's residents "plus ducks and pigs and a couple of trained canaries" to freedom in Hong Kong. At first Wilder is aghast: the proposed ferryboat is decrepit, nearly a hundred years old, barely capable of six knots. The 300 miles down the Formosa Strait are waters certain to tear the boat to pieces, and that's if the Chinese hardliners don't kill them all first. Of course he'll take them.
Blood Alley is at times peculiar and embarrassing but well produced and reasonably suspenseful. After nearly going mad in a Chinese prison, Wilder has taken to talking to himself, an old habit hard to break. Throughout the film he looks up at the ceiling, occasionally conversing with an imaginary friend (lover?) he calls "Baby." This may have been a device used more effectively in Albert Sidney Fleischmann's original novel, which he adapted for the screen, but onscreen it only makes Wilder look balmy. Mitchum might have pulled it off, but Wayne's conversations with "Baby" are merely silly.
Filmed in large part along the northern California coast, Blood Alley is handsomely produced (apart from some obscenely inadequate miniatures), its centerpiece being an elaborately recreated Chinese village. Albert Ybarra's production design is convincing enough with its authentic-looking buildings and sampans that this reviewer wondered for a time whether a second unit crew actually went to Asia.
Conversely, non-Asians unconvincingly play most of the Asian speaking parts, and the film's attitude toward them is condescending. Paul Fix is okay as village elder Mr. Tao, but Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg is only slightly more convincing as a Chinese woman than Harpo Marx was as Sir Isaac Newton in The Story of Mankind. The two Asians in the cast with substantial roles are standard Hollywood stereotypes: Joy Kim's maid is saddled with Pidgin English dialogue like "Me thinky Captain sailorman need cutty hair, all light?" Ship's engineer Tack (Henry Nakamura), by contrast, had spent some time in California, and predictably is super-Americanized. In the larger sense, the Chinese are painted in the broadest of strokes. Soldiers are bloodthirsty, lecherous dogs eager to rape white woman, while the anti-communist villagers are good-natured innocents with broad smiles and cute babies ready to risk their lives for a taste of democracy. Naturally they all look up to their white savior with unwavering admiration.
A subplot has the considerate villagers unconvincingly taking the one pro-communist family along with them out of fear that family will be blamed (and subsequently executed) for the villagers' escape. The family's elder, Old Feng (Berry Kroeger, playing his part like Fu Manchu) is corpulent and corrupt, sending his nephews out to kill Wayne in a swell fight scene (effectively shot with the camera silently observing the melee through the window on the ship's bridge) and other dastardly deeds.
One area where Mitchum might have fared better than Wayne is Wilder's scenes with Cathy. Wayne and Bacall have no chemistry at all, less even than with Lana Turner in The Sea Chase, and the script's perfunctory romance and her character's archly-written personal crisis don't help.
Video & Audio
Filmed in CinemaScope (and presented here with an aspect ratio of about 2.50:1), Blood Alley looks here, despite some flaws. An early CinemaScope title originally printed in WarnerColor, the presentation makes the most of William A. Clothier's often-impressive cinematography, some of which plays very modern, including a lovely shot of Bacall waiting on a dock. (Clothier uses filters a lot, giving the film a softer look than most CinemaScope releases of the period.) It improves upon the DVD with better dissolves between scenes, all of which were faded and grainy on the DVD. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is a decent enough approximation of the film's original four-track mag mix. Optional English subtitles are included.
Included, from the earlier DVD, is an odd montage of miscellaneous Pathe Newsreel Footage. There are four distinct clips: Wayne receiving an award sometime in late-1952 or early 1953 (winners and presenters include Vincent Price, Gene Nelson, and Greer Garson), making a "Crusade for Freedom" speech apparently during production on Operation Pacific (co-star Patricia Neal is in costume), at an American Legion poppy sale, and on location for Blood Alley. None of this material is dated or identified or explained, and some of it is missing audio.
Two seven-minute excerpts from two "Behind the Camera" segments of Warner Bros. Presents a short-lived television series hosted by Gig Young. The two segments are very quaint by today's standards, with Gig and Duke's off the cuff conversation completely and obviously scripted. Wayne briefly explains how CinemaScope works, then shows "home movies" he allegedly took on the set of Blood Alley. Also included is a trailer for Blood Alley complete with text and narration.
Blood Alley is a relic of its era, and an expression of Wayne's heartfelt belief in democracy and concern about communism in Asia. As such, it's less ridiculous than Jet Pilot (filmed in 1950) or Big Jim McLain (1952) - those films are laugh riots - but Blood Alley is still pretty silly. It overflows with '50s communist thugs and Asian stereotypes, but is lavishly done and is entertaining in its action and suspense.