Sunday, November 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Woman on Pier 13' (1949)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's kind of hilarious to watch this ridiculous piece of Red Scare propaganda, until you realize how seriously some people took the material. Supposedly producer Howard Hughes offered this project (originally titled I Married a Communist, until the studio changed the title to The Woman on Pier 13 thanks to poor audience response) to directors as a test of their patriotism, and he was turned down an appropriate 13 times before finally finding someone (British director Robert Stevenson, who went on to make family classics like Old Yeller, Mary Poppins and The Absent-Minded Professor) to take it on. Those various other filmmakers were right to pass on Hughes' offer, since Pier 13 is a laughable piece of hysterics that envisions the American Communist party as a group of thugs who are essentially interchangeable with any other 1940s movie gangsters.

The stolid Robert Ryan plays a San Francisco shipping executive who's changed his name to escape his shameful past as a Communist Party member, but here the Commies are like the mob: Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. Janis Carter is pretty entertaining as the Commie femme fatale, who returns to help blackmail Ryan's Brad Collins (or Frank Johnson the Commie) into sabotaging labor negotiations at the San Francisco pier (hence the retooled title, I guess, even though no pier numbers are ever mentioned). Carter's Christine Norman also seduces Brad's brother-in-law for good measure, providing an important lesson about avoiding hot Commie seductresses who will indoctrinate you with sex (or something).

The whole thing resolves in a lame shoot-out, with the Commies getting what's coming to them, of course (although not before a series of overwrought murders). Thanks to Carter and a few hammy thugs, Pier 13 could be an okay second-rate noir, but the noxious politics really push it over the edge and make it sort of uncomfortable to watch. It's not quite inept enough to be obviously comical along the lines of something like Reefer Madness, and although reviewers at the time dismissed it as obvious propaganda, some audiences presumably took the message at face value. The actors do their best to imbue the absurd material with some semblance of reality, but it's pretty much a lost cause. Thankfully, the movie's hoped-for witch hunt became a lost cause, too.

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