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Hell’s Half Acre

Posted by martinteller on November 24, 2012

“The 50 cents is for the dance. If you want snappy dialogue, it’ll cost you extra.”

Chet Chester (Wendell Corey) is a former racketeer, now gone straight with a nightclub in Hawaii.  One of his old partners shows up and tries to blackmail him, but Chet’s gal Sally (Nancy Gates) kills him.  Chet takes the rap for it and gets hauled off to jail.  Meanwhile, Donna Williams (Evelyn Keyes) hears a pop song that Chet wrote with a lyric that matches something her husband — believed to have been killed at Pearl Harbor long ago — wrote to her.  She heads off to the islands to meet him, but before she has the chance, he escapes police custody.  You see, another of Chet’s former associates, Roger Kong (Philip Ahn) has just bumped off Sally, and now Chet is looking for revenge.  Donna needs to find him to see if he’s her “dead” husband, but to do so she’ll have to look in Honolulu’s seediest area: a shabby tenement neighborhood called Hell’s Half Acre.

For a while, I was pretty disappointed with this.   It was an uninteresting story with bland characters.  No zip at all, and the dialogue was stiff as a board (I highlighted the particular quote above for a good reason).  Corey and Keyes were both fine but neither left a strong impression.  Then some things started to happen.  At around the half hour mark, there’s a police raid on “the Acre” that was rather well done, really flashy stuff.  Then the sublime Marie Windsor shows up, as the brash wife of lowlife Jesse White… and she’s also two-timing him with Ahn.  The performances of Ahn, Windsor and White are all wonderful (except that Windsor proves that even some of the greats can have problems with drunk acting) and very noir.  Shady, vicious, devious, sarcastic characters that are fun to watch.

Then it goes back to more boring bits with Corey and Keyes, featuring more blah dialogue.  Then there’ll be some kind of awesome scene.  Back and forth, good and bad.  The film is interesting for its setting (the Hawaiian-themed score is a nice touch, although Chet’s “Polynesian Rhapsody” is an awful song) and the titular area is well-conceived, with lots of run-down apartment and creaky stairways.  But then there’s something like Elsa Lanchester’s role as an affable taxi driver, hamming it up with an overly goofy performance.  On the other hand, I loved the ending.  Most noirs, even some of the best ones, wrap things up with a “happy” conclusion, so it was really refreshing to see one that had a hint of tragedy to it.  On the other other hand, the plotting is fairly problematic.  On the other other other hand, it’s a nice opportunity to see some Asian-American actors in substantial roles (and some, like the incredibly dull Keye Luke, blowing the opportunity).

It’s a classic mixed bag.  It needs more good (especially more Windsor) and less bad/mediocre.  I don’t recommend it, but you could probably edit it into a really sweet 20-minute highlight reel.  Rating: Fair (65)


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