Blood Alley: Review
Blood Alley with Lauren Bacall and John Wayne is a 1955 William Wellman film about a merchant marine captain rescued from the Chinese Communists by local villagers. These same villagers then turn around and "shanghaie" Wayne into transporting the whole village to Hong Kong on an ancient paddle steamer.
It’s an interesting pairing, Bacall and Wayne. These two stars had never appeared in a film together before Blood Alley. It’s particularly interesting when you consider that the film started out with completely different leads. Apparently the filmmakers ran through three actors (including the logical choice of Bogie) before they got to Wayne who was to star with Anita Ekberg. That’s right. The voluptuous Swedish actress best known for being the siren in La Dolce Vita was cast as an Asian villager (whose idea was that?). And although her name appears in the credits she never actually appears on the screen. One is tempted to imagine the sound of those other voices as lines are spoken, but in short order you find you have bought in to the characters as they appear on the screen and the story they tell.
As it is Bacall is a perfect fit for the roll of a daughter of a way-laid doctor who had a drinking problem. Her elegant figure suggests the refinement of earlier and more prosperous days, while her slender physique hints at the turn of events that have brought them to such a remote place. And because she is tall enough to wear flats next to Wayne’s lofty height, for once we have a leading lady wearing appropriate footwear for the character as opposed to some overly coiffed gal sporting the incongruity of high heels. Regardless of attire, Bacall’s sophisticated demeanor plays like satin against Wayne’s usual rough wool.
The story itself is a real tearjerker, as a whole village is determined to escape political oppression. The menagerie includes bright-eyed children, the local giant who is brave and true (played by the fine character actor, Mike Masurki), the village elder who is wise and kind and of course there are the Red Chinese who make excellent, vile and menacing bad guys, making it is easy to cheer when the villagers continually outsmart their pursuers in an attempt to gain their freedom. Add to that some awesome scenery that lends an authentic feeling, making the Yangtze a romantic wide way to freedom fraught with dangers shrouded by a fog that shields a thick and welcome hiding place. Along the way there is the threat of death, rape, poisoning, flying bullets, and big guns blowing big holes, splintering wood and sending up walls of water. Amongst a storm and a baby being born there is more than one gentle chuckle and a few out right laughs. All in all, Blood Alley is a very entertaining movie.
Interestingly, the brutality of the relationship between the locals and their oppressors is reflected in the unusually physical courtship of the two leads. More than the usual sharp words and bickering are exchanged. There’s a fair few solid slaps included. Of course Bacall gives as good as she gets and in the end she gets the hero who had tried to convince her, and himself, it was not to be. Silly man, he was lost the first time he looked into those big deep eyes – just like everybody else.
Blood Alley is a movie that brings this watcher and the leads to the same conclusion – they are made for each other. It is the least divisive of the roles Bacall played with perhaps the exception of her role in The Shootist, another John Wayne film more than two decades later where she plays the mother of Ron Howard and goes toe to toe with Wayne once more. The Shootist pairing presented fewer slaps, a quiet non-romance of a romance that Bacall does proud, and proves herself to be the perfect leading lady for Wayne’s last film. But then Lauren Bacall was the perfect leading lady for many a strong-minded hero as her many roles attest. Tall and lithe and never the starlet type, she was from day one a star. It was her eyes and her voice that wooed and wowed. Simply put, she was a lovely lady that will be remembered.