Red-scare film noirs – for me at least – don't have much entertainment value. I Was a Communist for the FBI and The Whip Hand have too much message, too light on the story. (Most noirs with a message don't do much for me... Crossfire, No Way Out and Odds Against Tomorrow have their moments but they're way too heavy for me to digest when devouring them today. Two of those are absolute classics but they do little for this noir fan.)
The Woman on Pier 13 is the one exception. Originally titled “I Married a Communist” by RKO chief Howard Hughes, the film is possibly the first attempt at an anti-Communist film from Hollywood. Thankfully, the Communists are depicted as basically gangster thugs so the movie works as a solid crime thriller even though it's trying to be propaganda. "It's a pity that some of our members don't understand...they can never leave the Party...until the Party's ready to let them go." sounds more like something you'd hear in Godfather III than in a piece of pulpy propaganda.
In fact, Hughes thought the title was it's biggest selling point. But when focus groups made it clear the viewing public wouldn't want to see a movie called “I Married a Communist”, the film title was changed to The Woman on Pier 13. (Interestingly, one of the early working titles was “Where Danger Lives” – which was used later for another RKO noir.)
Daniel Mainwaring (the writer of RKO's Out of the Past) wrote that Hughes used The Woman on Pier 13 as a loyalty test. Directors, actors and behind-the-scenes talent were in and out of the film like walking through a revolving door. TCM's piece on the movie argues it may have been just a case of Hughes being too involved in the film making process:
Howard Hughes took a special interest in The Woman on Pier 13. Allegedly he used the film as a loyalty test for his employees. If any writer, director or actor who was assigned to work on it refused, they would be fired. The actual facts, however, indicate it was mainly frustration and creative differences that drove people off the project. At first John Cromwell was assigned to direct, working from a script by Herman Mankiewicz.
"After Hughes vetoed several script rewrites and various writers had departed," according to Franklin Jarlett (in his book Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography), "Cromwell backed out of the film, calling the screenplay, "without a doubt the worst I have ever read in my life." Next, Nicholas Ray agreed to direct the film, but he also dropped out at the last minute. Finally, Robert Stevenson (Jane Eyre, 1944) took the helm, and I Married a Communist went into production in April 1949. Principal shooting lasted one month, but two days of retakes were necessary after Hughes carefully examined and found fault with many aspects of the film. In one scene, Hughes ordered Laraine Day's profile to be reshot from a different angle when he noticed a blemish on her face. He criticized the kiss sequences between Janis Carter and John Agar, and wanted them to be made sexier. He also felt "very definitely" that "Bob Ryan and Bill Talman should be helped in their pistol shooting."
Even with all the tinkering, the film turns out to be capably directed by Robert Stevenson (who also helmed last week's NOTW Walk Softly, Stranger). You can only wonder how the film would have come out in Cromwell or Ray's hands.
The film was a box office failure. Paying audiences didn't have much interest in seeing anti-Commie movies, but Hollywood was just getting started. Amazingly, the b-grade noir I Was a Communist for the FBI was actually nominated for Best Documentary! It's neither a documentary nor a good film (but who's to say what the criteria for selection by the Academy Awards was back then. A lot of bad films got awards). More than 50 anti-communist films were made from 1949-1954. All mostly mediocre maybe because the blacklist was actually gutting Hollywood of a lot of good talent while these were being churned out.
But the The Woman on Pier 13 does work as a solid film noir today. Thanks mostly to Robert Ryan as the man slowly being destroyed by his dark past.
Critical praise was hard to find, but Ryan was singled out as the bright spot in the film. The late 40s was a very good period for Ryan who could say a lot without overdoing it in this one and other noirs like The Set-Up.
William Talman is first seen in this one and he's appropriately menacing as the hired killer for the San Francisco branch of the Communist party. One unintentionally funny scene in the movie has Talman beating the stuffing out of a guy in a bar that tries to cut in on a dance with Ryan's confused wife (Laraine Day). They then sit one out – everyone ignoring the unconscious guy lying on the dance floor. This may have worked in a 40s Western, but it just seem silly that they wouldn't have at least been bounced from the club.
Laraine Day doesn't do much. The blonde with great cheekbones Janis Carter (fantastic in Night Editor) somehow comes across stiff and vanilla as the femme fatale. That bourbon-and-beer concoction she makes for Ryan is more inviting than any of her flirtations. The film is one of the first appearances of John Agar – who would move on from Communist to alien invasions once the 50s came around.
Location shooting in San Francisco is solid, and the night shooting at the San Francisco Pier is appropriately dank. (Is there a Pier 13 and does it have anything to do with the movie?) Credit camera work by Nicholas Musuraca and music by Leigh Harline for making the film fit in with many other RKO noirs at the time. 40S RKO film noirs are like a film series... they all seem to be comfortably similar and fantastic.
No, the film isn't an essential noir but it IS a very good RKO noir despite it trying to be something else.