Hell’s Half Acre is a 1954 film noir from Republic Pictures, and it’s one of the few examples of film noir in a Hawaiian setting. In fact it’s probably the only film noir set in Hawaii. It’s not a bad little B-movie.
Chet Chester (Wendell Corey) is a well-known and popular figure in Honolulu. He owns the Hawaiian Retreat hotel. He’s prosperous and he has a girlfriend named Sally Lee (Nancy Gates). But Chet Chester is a man with a past. Actually he’s a man with two pasts, and they’re about to collide.
In one past life Chet was Randy Williams, a young sailor who’d just married his sweetheart. After three days of marriage Randy had to leave to join his ship. His ship was the USS Arizona and it was December 1941. Randy Williams was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. At least that’s what US Navy records say, but his body was never found. Now someone from that life is looking for him.
This collision of past lives will lead to murder. In fact several murders. It’s not easy to escape the past and it’s even harder when you have two pasts to escape from.
Much of the action takes place in Honolulu’s red-light district, known locally as Hell’s Half Acre. Such a setting is ideal for a film noir, with just the right amounts of seediness and sordid glamour.
There’s no femme fatale in this story, although Marie Windsor’s presence in the cast as the girlfriend of a small-time hoodlum adds to the movie’s noir credentials. The female lead is Evelyn Keyes (no stranger to film noir) as Donna Williams and she does a solid job.
Philip Ahn brings a certain simmering menace to his role as the movie’s chief villain. Robert Costa is so sinister as Slim Novak that it’s a pity he gets so little screen time.
John H. Auer directed a lot of B-pictures for Republic. He does a competent job here and uses the Honolulu setting effectively. The movie was actually shot in Honolulu, which helps.
Steve Fisher’s script is effective, as you’d expect, although it would have worked better if the movie had been prepared to be a bit more down and dirty.
The Olive Films DVD is exactly what we expect from this company, a good transfer with no extras.
The movie’s main selling point is its novelty value, a film noir in a tropical paradise. Somehow a tropical setting always seems to work well when you populate it with desperate and defeated characters. This is strictly a minor noir but it’s entertaining enough. Recommended.