World for Ransom is a clunker, but a fun one with a some upside. A youthful Robert Aldrich shot the thing in less than two weeks for next to nothing, which was no great accomplishment since the production implemented many of the physical assets of star Dan Duryea’s China Smith television series (which seems to no longer exist), the popularity of which this was created to cash in on. Aside from the obvious name change — Duryea goes by Mike Callahan in this — everything about the main character is the same, while all of the sets and many of the performers were held over as well. Aldrich himself had even cut his teeth on a few episodes of the series. World for Ransom rates as a film noir on the strength of Duryea’s character, a typical noir antihero: a basically decent fellow who moves with ease and experience through the criminal underworld of the Orient, occasionally committing a minor criminal act — but who at his core lives according to a system of moral absolutism that revolves around doing the honorable thing. Even in a film as slight and inconsequential as this one, the concept of the “existential samurai,” (which is how I often think of the noir / hardboiled / detective film protagonist) is fleshed out through Duryea. In this notion, as well as Joe Biroc’s sharp camera work, World for Ransom has value.
Despite backlot filming using mostly existing sets and props, Joe Biroc was able to give World for Ransom a distinctive visual style that holds up against many more highly regarded film noirs. Frankly, without his work (and the presence of Duryea) the movie would be just another forgettable poverty row programmer. Biroc is one of those Hollywood types who no one, not even film buffs, seems to remember, despite an extraordinary body of work. He shot his first film in 1929 and his last in 1987. That’s a career that touched seven decades and included such films as It’s A Wonderful Life, Red Planet Mars, The Amazing Colossal Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, Blazing Saddles, Airplane and many more well-remembered films. Like any good d.p., Biroc uses his shots in this film to reinforce character development. In the case of Mike Callahan he framed Duryea to hint at the claustrophobic and densely layered underworld the character inhabits. Duryea is often juxtaposed between areas of extreme light and shadow, seen through louvered windows, or from behind areas of concealment — as if no matter what Mike Callahan seems to be coming or going.
The story is programmatic and trite, so potential viewers shouldn't be fooled by the somewhat sensationalist poster which looks as if it would make a better advertisement the next Ringling Brothers show. Having seen the film twice, I can promise that there is no “incredible plot to destroy the world.” This aside, the characters are interesting and well-rendered — particularly Callahan, the American ex-pat living in Singapore and earning a living as a gumshoe, soldier of fortune, confidence man — you name it. It’s nice to see him playing a lead in a film for once that doesn't find him cast as a scoundrel, or at least a disagreeable one. Here he's him sucked into a convoluted mess of international intrigue surrounding the kidnapping of one of the world’s leading H-Bomb men. This idea of a Shanghai job on an important nuclear scientist played on fears common to the era in much the same fashion as contemporary audiences might sweat the possibility of a nuke in a suitcase or panel van — and we have certainly seen those films in recent years. That somehow capturing a single man and possibly ransoming him to the Soviets could somehow alter the fate of the world offered the film a fair portion of pre-packaged tension that the story would be unlikely to generate by other means.
It turns out that Mike’s long time pal Julian (Patric Knowles), formerly of the British Army, aided in the kidnapping, which gives Mike a rooting interest in the case — especially considering he’s carrying a torch for lounge singer Frennessey, who is currently Julian’s girl. An optimist romantically, if in no other way, Mike’s hoping that by pulling Julian’s fat from the fire Frennessey will see the error of her ways and return to him. In the best noir tradition Mike has on blinders where Frennessey is concerned — in an early scene he’s reminded brusquely, “You’re no Galahad.” Frennessey is a manifestation of the inner turmoil in Mike’s character: he desires her and the glossy magazine ad fantasy life she represents, but she’s attached to his pal and according to his system of values the only way to win her back is to save his friend. Doing so will set her up to make a fair choice between the two men — but in all likelihood a choice that won’t go his way. It matters little though — Mike’s code determines his course of action with much more finality than any decision he can arrive at by weighing the pros and cons. It’s in this determined fatalism that Mike embodies film noir.
Most of the remaining action concerns Mike’s efforts to stay one step ahead of the British Colonial Police as he uncovers the whereabouts of the scientist. After a climactic B-Movie gun and grenade battle at the jungle hideout of the crooks, in which the now completely corrupt Julian is killed, Mike returns the Frennessey — to be spurned in spite of Julian's death. Frennessey’s reassurances of her rekindled love for Mike had only been her ploy to enlist his aid in the safe return of her lover. At the news of his death Frennessey’s true feelings for Mike are finally revealed. The film ends as Mike, crushed not by violence but by his unrequited obsession, returns to the fog-covered street of bars, opium dens, and fortunetellers.
World for Ransom (1954)
Director: none credited (Robert Aldrich)
Cinematographer: Joseph Biroc
Screenplay: Lindsay Hardy and Hugo Butler
Starring: Dan Duryea, Gene Lockhart, Patric Knowles, and Marian Carr
Released by: Allied Artists
Running time: 78 minutes