A former member of the US Communist Party in a management
job on the San Francisco waterfront is blackmailed by the Party
It is with some irony that 60 years on it is the greed of bankers and not the ideology of leftists that has brought global capitalism to the brink of collapse, so take the red-menace propaganda here with a good dose of salt and you have a top film noir.
The Woman on Pier 13 (original title I Married a Communist) was a pet project of RKO boss Howard Hughes and it is said by some was a litmus test to sniff out reds in the ranks. His meddling delayed the movie’s release until 1951 after HUAC’s halycon days were past, and it bombed at the box office.
The screenplay, which despite criticism by most film critics as being far-fetched, to my viewing is quite solid, has the ‘commies’ work as a bunch of hoods. This conceit makes the script and the story compelling, with both melodramatic and thriller arcs. RKO stringer Robert Stevenson (Walk Softly, Stranger) does a solid job of directing, with stunning noir visuals by veteran noir cameraman Nicholas Musuraca.
The cast is particularly strong. Robert Ryan plays the former commie, and the lovely Laraine Day (The Locket) his wife. Thomas Gomez is a ruthless commie boss, with Janis Carter (Night Editor, Framed, I Love Trouble) as an undercover commie femme-fatale who mixes politics and love, and William Talman (Armored Car Robbery, The Racket, The Hitch-Hiker, City That Never Sleeps, Big House USA ) is convincing as a carnie moonlighting as a commie hit-man – in his first role.
The story never flags, and eroticized and violent noir pyrotechnics make for an enthralling and wild roller-coaster ride. When Ryan is first confronted by his Party blackmailer at a warehouse, a Party member suspected of treason is trussed and thrown in the Bay to drown while Ryan watches. Later a protagonist is run down by a car in cold blood by hit-man Talman. That same night Gomez pushes a woman out of an apartment window, and the sister of the guy run-down by Talman tracks him down and poses as a wife who needs her husband out-of-the-way Double-Indemnity style. The scenes between the two are erotic dynamite, and the perversity of Talman as the wise-cracking hit-man on the make boasting about his latest job make Tommy Udo (Kiss of Death) look like a kindergarten teacher.
A solid downbeat ending after a spectacular shoot-out on the wharves satisfies and has a redemptive focus.