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Wake of the Red Witch(1948)
No synopsis for Wake of the Red Witch.
For more about Wake of the Red Witch and the Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray release, see Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on April 22, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: John Wayne, Gig Young, Eduard Franz, Luther Adler, Henry Daniell, Paul Fix
Director: Edward Ludwig
» See full cast & crew
Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray Review
John Wayne, Actor.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, April 22, 2013
The dissolution of the studio system in the late forties and on into the fifties is a fascinating study in corporate hierarchies struggling to deal with new realties, many of which were foisted upon them not so much by government decree (as in the anti monopoly rulings that divested the studios of their theaters), but the public at large (which began matriculating to the free idiom of television in ever increasing numbers as the fifties wore on). But buried beneath the stories of the studios and their magnates having to come to terms with not being the all powerful entities they once were are other, just as interesting stories, about a handful of actors who presciently saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to at least attempt to take their fates into their own hands. The Golden Age of Hollywood is rife with stories about actors being pigeonholed in certain kinds of roles, often rebelling and at least occasionally suing or being put on suspension (sometimes in tandem) since they felt powerless to control their own futures. But suddenly during this era a few smart actors surveyed the changing landscape and decided that producing was where the real power lay, and they formed their own production companies to help steer their careers outside of what was obviously becoming a crumbling studio system. Two of the earliest stars to take this route were Burt Lancaster and John Wayne. While Lancaster actually had a number of different production entities through the years, Wayne's chief producton outlet was the rather oddly named Batjac Productions. If you've ever wondered if that name were an acronym or perhaps a combination of phonemes from, say, the names of Wayne's children, it isn't. It's actually a misspelled version of a trading company mentioned in Wake of the Red Witch, a 1948 seafaring potboiler starring Wayne and Gail Russell that combines elements of treasure hunting with a kind of turgid and highly unlikely love triangle.
Wake of the Red Witch has some problems, there's no doubt about it, but it is also a "must see" film for any true John Wayne aficionado, for it's one of the few films Wayne appeared in where he isn't a typical stalwart hero. Wayne's character of Ralls, a rough and tumble Captain in the West Indies in the mid-19th century, is easily one of the most shaded roles the actor ever undertook to play. Ralls is a study in contrasts. He's rough hewn, bordering on being a martinet (Captain Bligh could learn a thing or two from Ralls in terms of keeping his crew in line), prone to alcoholic stupors, and carrying enough emotional baggage to get him to hell and back. Wayne is surprisingly adept at navigating these roiling waters, especially since in the somewhat confusing screenplay by Harry Brown and Kenneth Gamet (adapting a bestselling novel by Garland Roark), a chronological through line is at least partially obscured by flashbacks and a nonlinear storytelling artifice.
The film's perhaps overly convoluted plot deals with a long festering dispute between Ralls and Sidneye (Luther Adler in one of his few featured film appearances), the owner of the shipping company that owns the Red Witch, the ship Ralls commands. We meet Ralls in the midst of a scheme to scuttle the Red Witch in the hopes of being able to secretly come back and purloin its hefty freight which is worth several million dollars. This scheme involves a lot of machinations which include conspiracies with Ralls' newfound ally Sam Rosen (Gig Young) and against Mr. Loring (Jeff Corey), a lackey of Sidneye's who is on the Red Witch and realizes that Ralls is up to no good. While the scuttling goes more or less as planned, the repercussions don't, which leads to the rest of the film's sometimes silly histrionics as we slowly get to understand what really is going on vis a vis Ralls and Sidneye.
Of course there's a woman involved, in this case a former flame of Ralls' named Angelique (Gail Russell) who has been forced into an arranged marriage with Sidneye. If Wake of the Red Witch had stayed centered on this love triangle, no matter how unlikely, it might have ultimately been a more dramatically compelling film. As it stands, the film goes off on an increasingly bizarre series of tangents, including Ralls and Sam ending up on an island ruled by a perhaps power mad Sidneye that seems like it was ported over from other South Seas fare like Ebb Tide. The fact that we don't even get to the triangle until midway through the film, and then only courtesy of a flashback, is another perhaps fatal miscalculation by the film's scenarists.
Gail Russell is yet another tragic story in the annals of Hollywood, and Wake of the Red Witch is arguably her best screen performance. Signed by Paramount at the tender age of 18 despite having no real interest in an acting career, Russell appeared in a number of supporting roles, as well as one other Wayne feature, Angel and the Badman. By the 1950s she was debilitated by an increasing alcoholism, and ultimately found herself making national headlines when she drunkenly crashed her car through a diner's plate glass window. She drank herself to death at the shocking age of 36. Russell brings a certain exotic allure to the role of Angelique and plays well off of Wayne's simmering melancholy throughout the film.
Wake of the Red Witch also manages to work in pearl diving (something at the center of many a South Seas film adventure) as well as a giant octopus (shades of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), working in all these plot elements in a sort of fever dream approach that may in fact seem like Ralls' version of delirium tremens. The film is very scenic, with lots of second unit (and stock) footage helping to establish place, but the film's turgid dramatic ambience often undercuts its exotic locales. As iconic a stage actor as Adler was, he seems incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera, and Gig Young also is miscast as the two faced helper. That leaves most of the heavy lifting to Wayne and Russell, along with some noted supporting players like Henry Daniell and Paul Fix. The good news is that the top billed stars are excellent, with this being a real standout in Wayne's oeuvre. Rarely has Wayne shown such range and he manages to bring both an arrogant cockiness and haunted sadness to Ralls. It's a performance that makes the rest of these choppy waters worth wading through.
Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray, Video Quality
Wake of the Red Witch is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.38:1. The elements here are in mostly excellent condition, with only the expected amounts of age related wear and tear cropping up from time to time. While the bulk of this transfer offers a really nicely crisp image, with excellent contrast, the high definition presentation is somewhat hobbled by the film's abundance of optical special effects, as well as its reliance on stock footage, both of which tend to look at least a little more ragged when compared to the rest of the film. That passing qualm aside, however, Wake of the Red Witch looks very good, with very good fine object detail and, as is usually the case with these Olive catalog releases, no sign of digital tweaking whatsoever.
Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Wake of the Red Witch features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix which is mostly problem free save for a very few clicks and pops. Fidelity is very good, offering both dialogue and the film's rather boisterous score with clarity and precision, if an expected narrowness.
Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
No supplements are offered on this Blu-ray disc.
Wake of the Red Witch Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Wake of the Red Witch probably would have been better with a more straightforward storyline and a more stable focus on the Wayne-Russell love affair. Instead, the film is filled to the brim with supporting characters, including a kind of needless amount of time spent with the Gig Young character and his putative girlfriend. But despite its obvious flaws, much of Wake of the Red Witch remains surprisingly visceral, aided by one of John Wayne's most interesting performances. Wayne could often be stiff in uncomfortable roles, but here, even outside of his traditional milieu, he does fantastic work and any Wayne fan will certainly want to see this film for his performance alone. This Blu-ray features excellent video and audio and comes Recommended.
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