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Noirvember 2020, Episode 8: Hell Bound (1957)

Hell Bound (1957)

Directed by William J. Hole Jr.

Produced by Howard W. Koch

Screenplay by Richard H. Landau

Story by Richard H. Landau and Arthur E. Orloff

Cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie

Edited by John A. Bushelman

Bel-Air Productions

Distributed by United Artists

(1:09) Amazon Prime

Hell Bound starts with an impressive opening: We see and hear a man narrating an elaborate scheme to that allows a carefully-selected team of criminals to infiltrate a large ship in a Los Angeles harbor and steal $2 million worth of surplus war narcotics. Several minutes in, we learn that this entire exercise is just that: a filmed dress rehearsal, which leads us to wonder how Jordan (John Russell), the mastermind of the plan, was able to hire actors and find a ship to use as a location for this little venture, a selling point for a gathering of underworld investors. (It almost makes you wonder why didn't Jordan just use these same actors to pull the job? They don't have to know it's not a movie.)


Nothing really ever goes smoothly once Jordan puts his plan into motion in the real world. Jordan’s girlfriend Paula (June Blair) poses as a nurse who will play a pivotal role in the heist. The problem is that Paula falls for Eddie (Stuart Whitman), the ambulance-driving intern who suspects nothing. Another problem ensues when the ship’s health officer (Stanley Adams!) runs into trouble with his diabetes. A health officer with diabetes? It’s just one of the many aspects of this film that’s hard to swallow.

Yet Hell Bound provides an interesting dissonance between its slick opening, using (for the time) impressive technology and a modern office, contrasted with the shipyard where most of the dirty work takes place. There's a wonderful scene with Jordan seeking to escape capture in a graveyard of stacked Los Angeles trolley cars. These latter locations remind us of the rubble and detritus common in several postwar European films, and not a small number of American ones. (Think of the opening shots in The Asphalt Jungle or much of Touch of Evil.)

In a slightly better picture, Jordan would probably be remembered as one of the most cold-blooded characters in noir. John Russell could've built a respectable noir resume from this film alone. I couldn’t help thinking that he might have been a good candidate to play Parker from the Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) crime novels. Russell is remembered most not for his work in film noir pictures, but in westerns. Shortly after completing Hell Bound, Russell began a four-year stretch playing Marshal Dan Troop in the TV show Lawman (1958-1962). He also appeared in the Clint Eastwood pictures The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Honkytonk Man (1982), and Pale Rider (1985). Russell’s acting career lasted over 40 years, ending in 1988.

Hell Bound is certainly ambitious, but contains many elements it simply can’t pull off. Primarily it suffers from a budget that’s too low and a director who needed more experience. (William J. Hole Jr. directed mostly TV shows. This was his first film.) Is it worth checking out? Absolutely. The opening alone is worth adding to your Amazon Prime watchlist, and the final scene will have you shaking your head, saying, “Yep, that’s noir for ya…”

Next time: a "film noir lite" bonus feature!

Photos: Down These Mean Streets, RareFilm, IMDb, Forgotten Films

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