The exotic twang of Hawaiian guitars over touristy scenes of Hawaii in the opening credits of Hell’s Half Acre evoke a monochrome vision of Blue Hawaii. You half expect Elvis to appear and soothe you into the lyrical Hawaiian Wedding Song. The vision continues as the camera cuts to Wendell Corey and a pretty young islander bedecked with lais in a tiki bar listening to the debut of a love song composed by the said Corey. But things get serious before the song ends with a killing stage left, and Corey, who we now know has a shady past as a crooked impresario in cahoots with a couple of local heavies, hatching a plan to take the rap for reasons best left for the viewer to discover.
As the story develops it is hard to take it too seriously. The plot, which centres around revenge and a man-hunt with an overlay of melodrama, is a trifle contrived, and the scenario often has a levity or earnestness that has you smiling – and sometimes laughing out loud. The bizarre casting of Elsa Lanchester as a savvy cabbie is just too weird, but having the wonderful Evelyn Keyes as a woman from Corey’s past is a stroke of genius. She dominates the picture and oozes charm with every swish of her skirts and raised eyebrows, subverting the melodrama by the sheer power of her charm. There is the added bonus of Marie Windsor as a cheap harlot. Dark deeds in nocturnal haunts and in bright daylight keep things moving. Sex is dealt with honestly and with some clever innuendo. In one scene we see Keyes in bed and obviously naked under the sheets; we are left to wonder about the circumstances a bit before we get the angle.
Like the curate’s egg, Hell’s Half Acre, is good in parts, and when it is good it is spectacular. Filmed in the real Hell’s Half Acre, where the denizens of Oahu’s Chinatown mix it with taxi-dancers and b-girls, amongst claustrophobic wooden tenements in narrow alleys joined by criss-crossing stairs and clotheslines. Scenes filmed at night in these warrens are beautifully staged by a team of Republic Pictures stringers. The highlights are a police raid at night and a later stakeout. The violent and drawn out shoot-to-kill pursuit of a minor hood by local cops is unusually drawn out and violent. On the other side is a lovely comic scene with Evelyn Keyes impersonating a taxi-dancer. She carries it beautifully including faking chewing gum – a nice echo of Ella Raines in the jazz-jam scene from Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady.
Again I have to thank Cigar Joe for bringing this new release to my attention.