HELL’S ISLAND—“I should’ve run like a rabbit. But the minute he mentioned Janet I knew I’d accept his lousy proposition. I had to see her again, to get the bitterness out of my system, to even the score. That’s what I told myself. Before I knew it I was on a plane to Puerto Rosario…”
With teeth-gritted narration like that, delivered by crime & punishment veteran John Payne, you know you’ve booked a trip to noir territory, director Phil Karlson notching another entry in the genre. Raw deals and deceitful dames, dead ahead. One of the “color” noirs, done up here in ‘VistaVision’, though not much is made of the process, as the budget called for unconvincing studio sets and slapped on fake backdrops. They were used instead of location filming in mythical ‘Puerto Rosario’, the generic Caribbean/South American lowlife lair hero ‘Mike Cormack’ (Payne) mis-steps into in this okay 1955 fling, written by Maxwell Shane (now there’s a noir name) and having more than a whiff of something done before in true-blue black & white. As Karlson later noted “we took The Maltese Falcon and we did… The Maltese Falcon! In our own way.” *
Title fiddling went thru “Love Is A Weapon”, “Chubasco” and “The Ruby Virgin” before settling on Hell’s Island. The bad babe this time is Mary Murphy, going for allure (it works) instead of wholesome, and rather than cultured big cheese Sydney Greenstreet we get equally calorie-stuffed enunciator Francis L. Sullivan (his last role, passing away that year at the age of 56, felled by a heart attack). Others in the broth include Eduardo Noriega, Arnold Moss, Paul Picerni (a good role for this busy character actor) Pepe Hern and Walter Reed.
“I’ve been beaten, badgered, hit over the head, and mixed up in three killings, and believe me, I’m going to find out why.”
Payne’s always good, Murphy is provocative, there’s a neat finale. The leading man and director had already worked to good (better) effect in Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. Before hanging up features for TV, Payne had a few more noir items to deliver a year later in Slightly Scarlet and The Boss. **
Grosses came to $2,900,000. 84 minutes.
* Under ‘music supervisor’ Irvin Talbot the score used snippets of work from Hugo Friedhofer, Franz Waxman, Victor Young, Miklos Rozsa and six other composers. Rozsa’s inserts are so obvious that I was compelled to look up who did the music for this pesky punk of an asterisk.
** Karlson, on Payne: “I must tell you, this is a fellow that I literally fell in love with. This is a great human being. He’s nobody’s fool, to start with. He’s got a wonderful creative mind himself. Kansas City Confidential was written with he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form. I did three pictures with him, and all three we did the same way.