Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.
John Wayne wasn’t the first choice to play Captain Tom Wilder. Or the second. Or third. But he takes the role of a man trying to lead a village through treacherous waters without a map, and he makes it his crazy own.
It’s a middle child of his career and a middle child of the genre (whatever genre that might be), but it manages to be an enduring classic simply because of how strange it is.
Blood Alley (1955)
Directed By: William A. Wellman
Written By: A.S. Fleischman
Starring: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Joy Kim, Mike Mazurki, Anita Ekberg
For all intents and purposes, John Wayne is playing an insane person here. We’re introduced to his Captain Wilder as he lights his jail cell mattress on fire and talks to an invisible entity named “Baby.” If that weren’t bizarre enough, Wayne isn’t acting here so much as doing his best John Wayne impression, and it really is a wonder to behold.
Wilder’s replacement mattress has a gun and the means to escape to a small village in it. Fortunately, Baby comes along with him.
Apparently the small populace of a town wishing to leave the grips of Red China has enlisted the captured sailor’s help to navigate them through 300 miles of death that will either come with the salty, cold water filling up their lungs or the unforgiving metal of Communist bullets. They have no map, their ship does little more than float, and Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall) keeps making everything far more intense than it needs to be.
Critics at the time thought there was no chemistry between Bacall and Wayne, and that’s because there isn’t. But did Wayne ever have chemistry with any of his leading ladies? He was the kind of star who slapped a woman on the ass, tossed her over his shoulder and made her his own – he didn’t Cary Grant his way into her (or the audience’s) heart. So, no, there’s more chemistry to be found here between Captain Wilder and his imaginary love than there is between the flesh and blood woman in front of him.
Plus, their lack of chemistry is one of the better elements of the story. Here’s a man aided in escaping a Chinese prison, meant to help a group of total strangers, and it thankfully doesn’t shoehorn in a sappy love story where one doesn’t need to be. Plus, Bacall is no wilting flower herself. It’s a role that (despite the hilarious racism of the rest of the movie) cuts a fine balance proving a woman can be an action co-star just as well as any man.
On the other hand, Wayne is his own co-star here because of how much he talks to himself through his unseen Baby. She’s clearly a lost love, and she calmly haunts him through the film, giving him a mirror to his own actions. Robert Mitchum was the first choice for the role, but was fired by Wellman after several incidents (including one where Mitchum apparently shoved a producer into the water). Gregory Peck refused the role, Humphrey Bogart (wisely) wanted too much money to play the part, so The Duke (who was already producing it) stepped into an acting role that kept his head and skill level consistently below water.
With Mitchum or Peck (and maybe Bogart), the result could have been an action film that stood out as a look into one man’s heart of darkness. Instead, Wayne chews the gorgeous scenery and keeps the flick on an even keel toward being a hell of an action film.
That’s really the beauty here. The film is intense. The crew effectively made a jail break movie on a large scale – instead of a group breaking out of barbwire confines, an entire village is attempting to uproot themselves across safe, international barriers. It’s the act of hopping a 300-mile-long fence to freedom.
The Chinese are almost always keeping a watchful eye, Wilder is always having to hide or fight or kill, and the voyage itself has a built-in siren ringing to the heightened beat of pulses pounding. Of course, there is some down time for Wilder to continue being insane and for that previously ignored romance story to find its way to the deck, but with soaring production value and a solid sweat worked up by the action, Blood Alley lives up to its name.
It also lives up to the modern-day, universal excuse for action movies. It’s not like it has to win an Academy Award or anything. All of its strengths are in its muscles, and all of its weaknesses are benignly hilarious. Does it matter if John Wayne keeps talking to no one while drawing a map of China from memory? Does it matter that he pretends to assault his Chinese personal aide after she makes fun of him while cutting his hair? Does it matter that Lauren Bacall has a deeper voice than he does? No. There’s no nuance to this flick, and that’s what makes it great. Let the bullets fly as fast as the anti-Communist rhetoric and let the fires burn the whole place down. What matters is what happens when a group of people and one crazy person set out to free themselves from bondage by crawling on their stomachs through 300 miles of shit known as Blood Alley, and the movie definitely Chinese delivers on that promise.
Next week, we’ll relive The Best Years of Our Lives.