Hell's Half Acre, a Hawaiian Noir

One of my principal attractions to film noir and hardboiled detective fiction are the mediums' abilities to move easily from the roughest neighborhoods to the most exclusive areas of a city, from the decaying outskirts of town to the marble steps of City Hall. This perspective allows viewers and readers to see an intriguing portrayal of the cities and areas in which the works are set, albeit through a glass darkly. Often the city is as important to the story as its main characters, as evidenced by Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles in the Philip Marlowe stories, Jules Dassin's Paris in Rififi, and Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco, to name just a few. Some critics even categorize these noir narratives by their location—Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy is often considered the harbinger of "Mediterranean Noir," David Fine's wonderful Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction traces the roots and importance of Los Angeles' history in early hardboiled detective fiction and noir literature, not to mention the distinctions made by film and literary critics between East Coast and West Coast noir, European, French, and American noir, and so on.

Given the importance of setting in film noir and crime fiction—indeed, the entire premise of Akashic Books' wonderful noir series—one of my first thoughts when visiting somewhere new is, "I wonder what noir is set here?" The day I landed in Honolulu, I Googled "Hawaiian noir" and stumbled across Hell's Half Acre, a lurid, pulpy film directed by John H. Auer and penned by Steve Fisher (Lady in the Lake, Dead ReckoningSong of the Thin Man) set in Honolulu eleven years after Pearl Harbor, which, as luck would have it, is currently streaming at Amazon Prime.

If you go in expecting The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep set on O'ahu, you'll likely be disappointed by Hell's Half Acre. If you have more tempered expectations, however, the film is a strange, enjoyable hour and a half of pulp. Just remember the film was made in the 1950s, not necessarily a decade known as a shining beacon of hope for American race relations. Certain portrayals of Hawaiian and Asian people and cultures are not Hollywood's finest moments. Ironically, one scene in particular—when Honolulu Police Chief Dan (Keye Luke) basically says to Donna Williams (Evelyn Keyes), "All Asians look the same to you, huh?" and Donna concedes the point, then uses the word "Orientals"—diffuses some of the film's problematic elements in a moment of unintentional humor. After this scene, all you can do is laugh at the careless—ignorant, as opposed to malicious—ethnocentrism, cultural insensitivity, and naïvety at work from time to time.

The film opens up just as you'd expect a 1950s film set in O'ahu to, with Hawaiian music and picturesque scenes of Honolulu acting as the backdrop for the credits (which reveal that the technical advisor for the film was Don the Beachcomber, whose Wikipedia page is worth a read). Interestingly though, just as the credits end, the daytime shots of the city and its beaches suddenly slip into darkness—a scene with a beach full of people, Diamond Head in the background, quickly shifts to the beach deserted at night, the ridge now a shadowy silhouette. Within the next few minutes, all the elements that make up the plot of Hell's Half Acre come together. During a party to celebrate a song written by our protagonist Chet Chester (Wendell Corey), a spoken word number called "Polynesian Rhapsody" which extols the virtues of the Hawaiian islands, we witness the heights to which Chet has risen (he owns the swanky bar where the party is being held, Chet's Hawaiian Escape), learn of his checkered past when an old criminal associate tries to extort money, and before the film is even seven minutes old, we have our first dead body, courtesy of Chet's girlfriend, Sally Lee (Nancy Gates).

Roger Kong (Philip Ahn) and Rose Otis (Marie Windsor)

Roger Kong (Philip Ahn) and Rose Otis (Marie Windsor)

From this point on, miscommunications, assumptions, and coincidences push the plot forward. Chet decides to take the rap for the murder, claiming the only reason he didn't kill the blackmailer was that Sally saw his note first, and asks Sally to get fifty thousand dollars to his lawyer in San Francisco, who will conceivably bolster his "self defense" case and help bring about an acquittal. Donna Williams hears Chet's song in Los Angeles and believes that Chet is really her husband Randy Williams, who was meant to have died on the USS Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor—the final words of the song echo a note Randy left Donna before he shipped out. If Chet is Randy, he is also the father of Donna's eleven year old son (who we learn is very "manly," even as a pre-adolescent, and would make any father proud, hitting a grand slam home run the last time Donna say him play baseball). Donna then, of course, decides to leave Los Angeles (and her fiancé) to travel to Hawaii to see if her dead husband is actually still alive, living in Honolulu under a different name. And while this is going on, a supposed friend of Chet's, Roger Kong (Philip Ahn), also a former criminal conspirator, believes that Chet is having Sally (and perhaps even Donna, whom Chet doesn't even realize is in Honolulu) take all of their ill-gotten gains to the mainland and out of Roger's grasp. Roger is put on to Donna by Ippy (Leonard Strong), a man with his ear to the ground willing to sell (or not sell) information to the highest bidder, who just happened to overhear Donna talking with Chief Dan about Chet/Randy, claiming to be "a relation" of his. (One can almost imagine Peter Lorre playing the role of Ippy had the film been set elsewhere.) Oh, and Donna is shuttled around Honolulu and helped throughout the film by the kind-hearted cabbie, Lida O'Reilly (Elsa Lanchester).

Now the stage is set for a taut pulpy drama, all of which—in wonderful noir tradition—could have been so easily avoided with just a little communication and trust. Instead, we get a front row seat to violent dysfunction, suspicion, and treachery, most of which is set in the real Hell's Half Acre, a lurid tenement where thieves lie low, men pay "taxi-dancers" for more than just a dance, and a general seediness pervades the region. While Chet, Donna, Roger, Ippy, and Chief Dan take up a fair amount of screen time, our arrival in "the Acre" also introduces us to the bottom-dwelling couple of Tubby and Rose Otis (Jesse White and Marie Windsor), who each play their part in resolving this murky tale: Tubby as a mostly useless, but dangerous henchmen in Roger's employ, and Rose as a sleazy, scheming femme fatale who is seeing Roger on the side.

By the end of the film—which I won't spoil, as Hell's Half Acre really is worth ninety minutes of your time if you're a film noir, pulp fiction, or B-movie fan—a lot of people are dead, the rest disappointed, and yet, somehow, the final moments of the film are shot as if everything has somehow worked out. It's a strange moment in the history of film noir, but, in some strange way, it kind of, sort of, maybe works, too. If you've been able to swallow the coincidences necessary to drive and resolve multiple storylines over an hour and a half, you'll be able to handle the sudden burst of sunlight at the end of a series of shadows and darkness.

All in all, there's a fair amount to nitpick (and cringe at) within Hell's Half Acre, but when it gets it right, it does the noir tradition proud. It also lives up to what it was trying to be: a look at the dark underbelly of the Paradise of the Pacific. If you think of it as a Tiki Noir (a term I read over at Back Alley Noir, the official forum of the Film Noir Foundation) with more pulp than a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (yep, that just happened), you won't be disappointed.