You’re no Galahad.
(Spoilers abound) World for Ransom is a clunker, but a fun one with a some upside. A youthful Robert Aldrich shot it in under two weeks for next to nothing, which is a bit less surprising when you take into account that the production took advantage of all of the sets and some of the performers from Dan Duryea’s hard to find China Smith television series, the popularity of which this was created to cash in on. Aldrich himself had even cut his teeth on a few episodes of the series. Interestingly, no director is credited—take that as a sign.
World for Ransom rates as a film noir on the strength of Duryea’s character, a typical noir antihero. Mike Callahan is a basically decent fellow who moves with ease and experience through the criminal underworld of the Orient, occasionally breaking the law himself. At his core, he lives according to a set of moral absolutes that revolve around doing the honorable thing. Even in a film as slight and inconsequential as this one, the notion of the “existential samurai” (which is how I often think of the noir / hardboiled / detective film protagonist), is realized rather vividly through Duryea. It’s in this, as well as Joe Biroc’s sharp camera work, that World for Ransom has value.
Despite backlot filming with repurposed sets and props, Joe Biroc was gives World for Ransom a distinctive visual style that holds up against many more highly regarded film noirs. Without his work and Duryea’s charisma, this 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 good movies. Like any director of photography that’s worth his salt, Biroc uses his shots in this film to reinforce character development. Here he consistently captures Duryea in a way that suggests the claustrophobic and densely layered underworld his character inhabits. Duryea is often stuck between areas of extreme light and shadow, obscured by louvered windows and grates, or caught from areas of concealment. Mike Callahan is situated in a world of intrigue and danger.
The story is trite, so don’t be fooled by a poster that evokes the Ringling Brothers and promises as much excitement. Having watched this twice, I can assure you that the stakes are pretty low, there’s no “incredible plot to destroy the world.” What we get instead is 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 a nuclear scientist toyed with the atomic-age audience’s fear that somehow capturing a lone scientist and ransoming him to the Soviets could jeopardize the fate of the world. It gins up a shot of pre-bottled tension that the script would never be able to generate by other means.
Callahan gets pulled into the case when he learns that his longtime pal from the British army, Julian (Patric Knowles), is somehow mixed up in the kidnapping. He is also carrying a torch for lounge singer Frennessey, who just so happens to be Julian’s girl. Callahan’s secretly hoping that by pulling his buddy’s fat from the fire, the songbird will see the error of her ways and choose him instead. In the best noir tradition, the hero has blinders on wherever women are concerned. Frennessey embodies the inner turmoil in Callahan’s character: he desires her and the glossy magazine ad fantasy life she represents, but she’s attached to the pal that his system of values tells him that he must save, even if it costs him a chance with the girl. Callahan’s code determines his course of action whether he likes it or not. It’s in this determined fatalism that he embodies film noir.
Most of the remaining action concerns Callahan’s efforts to stay one step ahead of the British Colonial Police as he searches for the scientist. After a climactic gun and grenade battle at the jungle hideout of the crooks, in which the now completely corrupt Julian is killed, Callahan returns to Frennessey, only to be spurned. The femme-fatale’s reassurances of her rekindled love for Callahan were merely a ruse to enlist his aid in the safe return of her lover. The film ends as Callahan, crushed not by violence but by his unrequited obsession, vanishes in the fog-shrouded streets of seedy bars, opium dens, and fortunetellers.
World for Ransom (1954)
Director: none credited (Robert Aldrich)
Cinematographer: Joseph Biroc
Screenplay by Lindsay Hardy and Hugo Butler
Starring Dan Duryea, Gene Lockhart, Patric Knowles, and Marian Carr
Released by Allied Artists
Running time: 78 minutes