Another Kino three-disc noir box set, another movie named after an exotic locale. Going into this, I had no doubt this would be another Casablanca wannabe, like Singapore or Tangier, each of which led off other sets in the series. To my considerable surprise, 1946’s Calcutta does not follow that formula. Instead, this is a picture that hews closer to film noir conventions.
Noir staples Alan Ladd and William Bendix are pilots doing regular flights between Calcutta and Chungking. The last time I saw these two was in The Glass Key, where Bendix brutalizes Ladd in a scene that had undertones of sadomasochism and repressed homosexuality. Good to see they are on different terms here.
When we first see them, they are experiencing a mechanical failure on a flight back to Calcutta. They don’t appear to be panicked about it but Bendix jokes on the radio, “We’re so nervous, we’re biting each other’s fingernails.” Yet the danger is serious enough they bail out the entire cargo. Fortunately, they find a nice stretch of flat land between the mountaintops where a cute miniature of their aircraft lands safely. That’s when guards from the lost city of Shangri-La rescue them.
Just kidding, another plane piloted by their friend John Whitney comes in to rescue them. He brings them the equipment to repair their plane, as well as the unexpected news he is getting married. That is revealed in a scene in a thatched-roof bar (complete with monkey on the counter) where, inexplicably, some guys in pith helmets pick a fight with the trio and lose. Drunk and punch-drunk, Whitney flies back solo. He gets home safely only to be found dead in an alley behind a bar that night.
Ladd and Bendix learn this when their plane gets to Calcutta. But that’s not before Bendix gets a back-rub from a female airport employee the moment he disembarks. Clearly, the golden age of travel is behind us.
The police ask these two to identify the body and they confirm it is Whitney. I really like the shot of the room used as the morgue. Judging from the ceiling, which takes up most of the shot, I assume this was a real locale. If so, I wonder where this was as it looks indeterminately Asian in style and very old.
Next, we get an obligatory musical number performed in a nightclub. The singer is June Duprez, singing in French in a club in Calcutta. I like to think all the patrons are wearing lederhosen and eating Texas-style BBQ, just to make this as much of a cultural mish-mash as possible. In a movie like this, Duprez would normally be the femme fatale, so it was pleasantly surprising that isn’t the case here. Instead, she is crushing hard on Ladd, while he is content to play the field.
And that introduces a problem I had with this movie as it pertains to Ladd. There have been some great noirs with antiheroes at the forefront. I have seen more than a few noirs where somebody who isn’t a police office or private detective still conducts their own investigation. But I found Ladd’s character here to be quite repellent. He treats Duprez like she just his recurring lay at this particular layover. He throws his weight around town in the course of his investigation, and I was stunned nobody ever asks him for any credentials. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to produce any, as he’s an airplane pilot.
His behavior towards the fiancée of the deceased Whitney is especially abhorrent. He takes an immediate distrust to her, rips the diamond necklace right off her neck and stomps out of the room. Then he goes to a jewelry shop where he demands to know whether it was purchased there. The Asian employee at the store pretends to not understand English and I thought, “Good for him.”
The store’s proprietor is, surprisingly, played by a woman. Edith King fills what would normally be a role for Sydney Greenstreet. She has a large, physically-imposing presence reinforced by the ever-present cigar she’s smoking. When we first see her, she has a suit-clad monkey on her shoulder, and I found this stupefying. Although this character does not appear to be fully trustworthy, Ladd believes her when she says Whitney had purchased the necklace in her shop.
Another noir-appropriate location Ladd will visit is a backroom casino ran by Lowell Gilmore. I thought this scene was interesting, as it appears this is where all people are equal. It was intriguing to see people of various ethnicities elbow-to-elbow at the tables. It is here Ladd will first meet Paul Singh as a character who radiates deceptiveness. The first hint he isn’t on the level is his line of business. Why is working in export/import always shorthand in noir for “criminal”? If that were always true, Pier 1 Imports would have stayed in business longer just by obviously being the best organized criminal enterprise in the world.
I need to talk a bit more about Gail Russell. Although she is second-billed, there isn’t much for her to do here. I’m having trouble remembering any scenes she’s in that don’t take place in her room at the hotel. Also, her character is made to be too mousy and unremarkable initially. This can only mean one of two things: the movie didn’t know what to do with her or she’s actually the femme fatale the picture curiously seems to be lacking. Admittedly, something seems amiss about a woman who claims she had spent the night wandering through Calcutta while lost in thought, though Ladd doesn’t think seems unlikely. All that said, she gets a line I have not encountered in another film. When Ladd demands she “keep talking and stop crying”, she says, “I can’t. The mascara is getting in my eyes.”
Calcutta takes some interesting detours from the noir template, but isn’t overall remarkable enough that I am likely to remember it well among the many films I seen of its ilk. I wouldn’t recommend it to the casual fan of the genre, but completists will find enough unique here for it be of interest.
Dir: John Farrow
Starring Alan Ladd, Gail Russell, William Bendix, June Duprez
Watched as part of Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV blu-ray box set