Tuesday 29 July 2008

Wake of the Red Witch (1948)

I needed something to clear my head after Big Jim McLain. I was expecting one of the Duke's tough cop roles, but I couldn't have been much further wrong. It was a blatant propaganda piece that delved so far into incoherence that it became stunning for all the wrong reasons. Here's another movie that isn't a western starring the same actor, John Wayne, and made by the same director, Edward Ludwig. I thought of betting against the odds: surely they wouldn't have got the opportunity to make Big Jim McLain together if this one sucked royally, right?

We're in 1860 and the Duke is a Captain, Capt Ralls, who commands the Red Witch of the title. The Red Witch is supposedly transporting $5,000,000 in gold bullion across the south Pacific to the Phillipines for Dutch shipping magnate Mayrant Sidneye, but Ralls has other ideas. Together with a couple of partners in crime, he scuttles the Red Witch in a carefully chosen spot, planning to return a year later to recover his booty, but it isn't going to be that simple. Sidneye withdraws his complaint of piracy to a royal court of inquiry, so that he can redress the balance his own way. He suckers the three crooks to an uncharted island where the game of cat and mouse really begins, not just for the gold but for the beautiful Angelique Desaix.

In the middle of it all, telling our story, is Sam Rosen, who becomes Ralls's first mate and co-conspirator. He's played by Gig Young, as a romantic pirate, though not of the swashbuckling Jack Sparrow type. He's a pretty good foil for the Duke, who isn't bad at all as an anti-hero. He's a villain, no doubt, but he's an honest one with plenty of heroism in him too. His greatest scenes here demonstrates his darker side: the forceful lover and the dangerous drunk. Ralls is a bad man when drunk, almost possessed with intent, and while Wayne was always a powerfully forceful man, he was usually very much in control when demonstrating that. Here the drink takes him a long way away from that control. I'd like to see more of that side of John Wayne.

The third man in Ralls's outfit is Antonio Arrezo, played by an even more unlike man to play a pirate: Paul Fix, who my wife knows as the sheriff from The Rifleman but I remember best nowadays as a different sheriff: the one in Night of the Lepus. The leading lady is Gail Russell and there are also capable character actors in the cast such as Henry Daniell and Luther Adler, but the other character of note is a giant octopus that guards a hoard of huge pearls in a subterranean cave. Yes, the Duke gets to fight an octopus, the very same octopus that Ed Wood stole to use in Bride of the Monster. At least in this film, there's a mechanism to make it move; in Wood's film, Bela Lugosi had to fake both sides of the fight, because that was the only way to get the tentacles to move.

This is far from perfect but it has far more worth than Big Jim McLain. Half the film is notably slow, there are some bad special effects and some very obvious and pointless rear projection shots. Half of the story is in flashback, so after an intriguing opening, Paul Fix virtually disappears from the film and Gig Young only pops in and out on occasion for far too long. There's not enough Gail Russell either though Adele Mara gets some decent screen time as her niece. However even acknowledging all these flaws, I can still vouch for this as a few light years ahead of Big Jim McLain. Wayne is very good indeed and he has a great and memorable battle of wits with his nemesis, Mayrant Sidneye, played by Luther Adler. They're great enemies but they're very much alike in many ways.

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