Kudos to the Warner Archive for its release of the 1955 crime thriller "Hell on Frisco Bay" in the Blu-ray format. The movie had been only seen in scratchy, pan-and-scan versions over the decades and it was presumed that the original camera negative had been lost. However, that was remedied when the camera negative was eventually located and subjected to a painstaking restoration. Since the movie doesn't have the resonance of more famous crime titles, the Warner Archive deserves praise from retro movie fans for putting the effort and expense into restoring this title. Complicating matters were some messy rights issues that also had to be dealt with.
The movie opens with Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) being released from a San Francisco prison after serving time for a murder of a gangster that he was framed for. He's greeted by his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru), but he cruelly rebuffs her. Seems that while in stir, Rollins completely ignored her and refused to allow her to visit him or communicate with him in any way. His only advice to her was to get on with creating a life without him. Several years into his incarceration, she did just that. However, when Rollins learns that Marcia had a brief fling with another man, his male ego is damaged and the grudge extends to him simply wanting to collect his clothes from their home and move into a boarding house, which he does. He later explains to his former police colleague Dan Bianco (William Demarest) that there is an alternate reason for his harsh rejection of his wife: he wants to immediately set out to track down the killer who framed him and he doesn't want her to become a target of the mob. (Although it's never explained why he simply doesn't advise Marcia of this concern.) Rollins knows the murder he was framed for took place under orders from local crime kingpin Victor Amato (Edward G. Robinson, strangely billed on the movie posters as "Edw. G. Robinson"), who has a lock on business done on the local docks. He's a true sociopath without the slightest sentiment for even his most loyal colleagues. When Rollins confronts him, the situation becomes a cat-and-mouse game of who can eliminate who before the truth behind the murder is known. A compelling subplot has Rollins and Marica slowly becoming more civil to each other, as Marcia carries on with her career as a popular torch singer in a local nightclub. The script also centers on another interesting relationship concerning Joe Lye (Paul Stewart) and his girlfriend Kay Stanley (Fay Wray), a once-popular movie star who has fallen into obscurity. Joe was on death row when Amato used bribes and influence to get him released from prison. Amato reminds him of this every day and make is clear that he can put Joe back on death row if he doesn't slavishly carry out all of his orders. Things get sticky when Amato's penchant for humiliating Joe extends to trying to seduce Kay. As the action unfolds, Rollins interacts with this strange group of characters along with other mob underlings as he obsessively tries to clear his name. The film ends with him going mano a mano with Amato in an action-packed sequence set in a speedboat in San Francisco bay.
The movie, based on a novel, was produced for Alan Ladds production company and he hired director Frank Tuttle to helm the film. The two had previously collaborated on Ladd's breakthrough hit "This Gun for Hire". Despite the impressive Cinemascope and short-lived Warnercolor values, "Hell on Frisco Bay" still resembles an old-fashioned black-and-white film noir. It boasts an intelligent script, interesting characters and very impressive performances. Ladd is in his typical "quiet tough guy" mode and he allows the supporting characters to get the lion's share of the memorable screen moments. Top of the list is Edward G. Robinson, who is in great form, dispensing insults and cruel witticisms against everyone in his orbit. Paul Stewart gives one of his finest performances as the reluctant mobster who has sacrificed his self-respect for his freedom. The two female leads are also excellent in strongly-written roles, with Fay Wray particularly impressive in what was deemed to be a comeback role. The film zips along at a brisk pace under Tuttle's inspired direction until the exciting conclusion. It's all set to a typically impressive Max Steiner score.
The most impressive aspect of this release is the transfer the Warner Archive put so much effort into. It's truly superb on every level. The colors practically leap from the screen and the sheer brilliance of the picture is reason enough to add this one to your collection. The Blu-ray contains the original trailer.
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