CINEMASCOPE BLOGATHON: “BLOOD ALLEY”. ( 1955 )
This year I’m participating in the Cinemascope Blogathon, which is hosted by Wide Screen World. For my contribution, I will be exhibiting the 1955 Cinemascope production “Blood Alley” starring Lauren Bacall and John Wayne.
Cinemascope was a common format used in the classic era of cinema for filming movies that were to be released in wide screen. This method of filming was known as the anamorphic lens series which first came to life in 1953 when Spyros P. Skouras, the president of Twentieth Century Fox, marked the beginning of the modern anamorphic format in both principal photography and movie projection. These anamorphic lenses allowed the process to create an image of up to 2.66.1 aspect ratio, which was almost twice as wide as the Academy format’s 1.37.1. ratio. By 1967, Cinemascope was in decline. Some studio’s started abandoning the format in previous years, but by now even Fox had started to use the new format known as Panavision.
There have been an array of movies being shot in Cinemascope during the years. Some of these films being crowned as some of the most memorable the world has known. Almost every star from the fifties and sixties has appeared in a Cinemascope production.
“Blood Alley” is a 1955 film shot in Cinemascope, which is directed by William A. Wellman, and stars Lauren Bacall and John Wayne. The film was shot in glorious Warner Color, with China Camp, a fishing village situated on the San Francisco Bay serving as the location. Written by Albert Sidney Fleischman, and based on his novel, the film opened to critical reception, and was a moderate success, but as the years progressed, it is now hailed as one of the finest Cinemascope presentations.
The plot centers around the story of Captain Tom Wilder ( John Wayne ) an American merchant marine, who is seized by the Chinese Communists, and is sentenced to many years in prison. On his release, Wilder is recruited to transport the people of Chiku Shan Village in Red China in a small sternwheeler riverboat to safety in Hong Kong. With efficient memory of the coast, and the help of a hand drawn chart, he is able to navigate successfully. At the village, Tom is met by Cathy Grainger ( Lauren Bacall ), a strong and obstinate young woman whose father is a medical missionary. When Dr. Grainger is murdered by the Reds after a fallacious error on an operation he was performing, Tom Wilder is forced to break the news of her fathers death to Cathy before they are set to escape from Chiku Shan.
On their journey to Hong Kong, they encounter a plethora of problems. Cathy doesn’t believe that her father is dead, and is persistent about getting off the boat at the Graveyard Of Ships at Honghai Bay to find the whereabouts of her father. Wilder is adamant by annunciating that nobody leaves the boat, but Cathy demands that he grants her permission to exit the vessel, which results in several altercations along the way.
Further down the river they are trapped in even more obstacles. First they pass a Peoples Liberation Army Navy destroyer that has not yet learnt about their escape. Then they discover that all their food has been poisoned by thugs on board the boat, leaving them with a diminutive quantity of food and water. Later the same people try to take the ship during a storm, but fails at their first attempt.
Ever since they first met, Tom has been interested in Cathy, but doesn’t pursue any relationship. It is not until they are in the midst of the ferocious storm that Cathy comes to terms with her passionate feelings for Captain Wilder.
“Blood Alley” is a very underrated film, and deserves more accolades that what it has achieved during the years. It’s an highly entertaining film that offers a conglomeration of action, suspense and romance.
This is the first of two films that Lauren Bacall appeared in with John Wayne, and while it is not one of Lauren’s most honorable roles, it is one of my favorite vehicles of hers. Lauren Bacall delivered a commendable performance in her fine portrayal of Cathy Grainger, a doctors daughter and love interest for Tom Wilder. Sadly Lauren doesn’t get enough credit for her copacetic presentation in the movie, and is often overlooked and dismissed by many who think she was miscast, but that is not true. Bacall was first rate in everything she done. John Wayne is also outstanding, and adds some humor to his character which makes the film rather comical at certain intervals.
What really makes this film exceptional are the settings and the great cinematography, which showcases vivid scenes of the Chinese coast – having been filmed in San Francisco Bay. A 1955 review in the New York Times praised William Wellman for his direction. “But in filming his story at China Camp in San Rafael, near San Francisco, and in San Francisco Bay, Wellman appears to have approximated, in flavor at least, the authentic hilly Chinese locales as well as the reedy shores and choppy waters of the Formosa Strait. And he has added to that flavor by employing scores of Chinese-Americans as realistic ‘extras.'” The stunningly composed landscapes that are bathed in ravishing colors and splashed across the Cinemascope screen are worth a viewing in themselves.
Robert Mitchum was originally cast as Capt. Wilder. He was fired from the film after an altercation in which he shoved the film’s transportation manager into San Francisco Bay. Director Wellman complained to Wayne that the star “was on dope, always walking about six inches off the ground.” Wellman said either he or Mitchum had to go. Gregory Peck subsequently turned down the role of Capt. Wilder, and Humphrey Bogart wanted a $500,000 salary, which would have put the film over budget. Without a major male star involved, Warner Bros. contacted producer John Wayne, threatening to pull out of their distribution deal for the film unless he took the role himself. To keep his new production company Batjac afloat, Wayne agreed to play Capt. Wilder.
There was some surprise when Lauren Bacall agreed to make the movie since she was a left-wing Democrat and the film was right-wing Cold War propaganda.
In an interview Lauren Bacall said that she took the role when Robert Mitchum was to be the male lead. When John Wayne took the role after Mitchum was fired she expected to clash with him since she was a left-wing Liberal and he was a right-wing Conservative. She said that he was warm and friendly and they did not discuss politics. She later starred with him again in his last movie ‘The Shootist’ (1976).
John Wayne appeared in an episode of I Love Lucy (1951) to promote this film. In a scene when Lucy is hiding in Wayne’s trailer on set, a worker brings in the large poster for “Blood Alley” for his approval just before he is about to receive a massage. As Lucy tries to sneak away, he hears her and makes her give the massage without ever seeing her.
Tom Wilder: “A trip down Blood Alley on a ferry boat is no Sunday excursion.”
Cathy Grainger: “Maybe we’ll go on a Monday, eh Baby?”
Tom Wilder: [spoken through voice tube to engine room] “If you want a last look at home, you’d better take it now.”
Tack: “I looked.”
Lauren Bacall: Born Betty Joan Perske on September 16th, 1924 in The Bronx, New York. Died: August 12th, 2014 in New York. Aged 89.
John Wayne: Born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26th, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. Died: June 11th, 1979 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 72.