Monday, October 25, 2021

Saigon (1947)

In the late 40s there was a craze for American movies with the names of exotic cities as the title - Calcutta, Macao, Singapore, Lisbon, etc. Most of these movies are great entertainment and most of them fit at least peripherally into one of my all-time favourite sub-genres - tropical noir. Tropical noir was a very big thing at the time, with movies like The Bribe and Hell’s Half Acre.

If you want to be picky some of thee movies might be better described as tropical melodramas or tropical adventure melodramas. I don’t mind how you classify them, if a movie was made at that time and it has a tropical setting (or any kind of similar exotic setting) then it’s a movie I want to see.

Which brings us to Saigon, released by Paramount in 1947 and starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (who were at that time just about the hottest leading man-leading lady combo in Hollywood).

Major Larry Briggs is in Shanghai where he’s just been released for his wartime air force service. He’s just had a shock. His co-pilot and best buddy Captain Mike Perry (Douglas Dick) has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He has two, maybe three, months to live. Briggs tells the doctor that he’ll give Perry the bad news. But he has no intention of doing so. He and their other surviving wartime crew member Sergeant Pete Rocco (Wally Cassell) decide they’re going to make Perry’s last months the most exciting and fun months of his life.

To finance all this fun Briggs accepts a flying job from a shady character named Maris. Since the pay is $10,000 for one flight the job can’t be honest but Briggs wants that money to give his friend a couple of months of high living. Maris is supposed to be the passenger but when the plane takes off there’s a different passenger aboard - Maris’s glamorous secretary (played by Veronica Lake of course). Maris himself didn’t make the flight and Briggs figures that the flurry of gunshots they heard just before takeoff may be the reason for that.

Briggs and his buddies now have Maris’s ten grand. In fact they have fifteen grand - Maris’s secretary (we learn that her name is Susan) offered them a bonus just before takeoff. They have all that dough, which is not a major problem, but they also have a very angry very pretty blonde who seems like she might be a very big problem. Pete Rocco has already had to give her a sock in the jaw. Pete thinks that’s the approved way of dealing with over-excited females.

They decide to head for Saigon but the plane doesn’t make it. They end up in a paddy field in Indo-China. It’s not too bad, nobody was hurt, they make it to a nearby town and put up in a hotel. The fly in the ointment is a policeman, Lieutenant Keon (Luther Adler). Keon is one of those very civilised very polite very friendly cops who gives the impression he might be rather good at his job. He’s very interested in these new arrivals in his territory and he seems particularly interested in Susan.

Larry Briggs is rather curious about Susan as well. Was she just Maris’s secretary? What was the reason for the flight that Maris wanted to take out of Shanghai? What’s in the briefcase which she clutches so tightly? Susan doesn’t reveal much about herself but she’s obviously a woman with a few secrets. Briggs is a smart guy, He knows if Lieutenant Keon is interested in the young lady then he has a good reason for being interested. Briggs figures it might be worthwhile finding out a bit more about Susan, especially since poor doomed Mike has fallen for her and fallen hard.

Alan Ladd is perfectly cast as Briggs, a tough guy with a sensitive side but a tough guy all the same. Susan is obviously set up to be the femme fatale and that’s the sort of thing Veronica Lake could do quite competently. Of course Susan might not be a femme fatale. She could be an innocent dupe. Or she could have become involved in something a bit dubious and then gotten in deeper than she’d intended. Lake plays the part with enough ambiguity to keep us interested. And of course, as always, there’s some heat between Ladd and Lake. It could be love, it could be lust, it could be hate, it could be all three. Luther Adler has fun as the ever-smiling Lieutenant Keon.

Leslie Fenton directed. He was not exactly one of the big name directors in Hollywood at that time. After a not terribly distinguished career he quit the film business in the early 1950s.

This is not an easy movie to track down. I found an Italian DVD which includes the English soundtrack (with removable Italian subtitles). The transfer isn’t fantastic but it’s acceptable. This Italian disc appears to be the only DVD release the film has had. I was involved in an interesting discussion recently on Riding the High Country about tropical noir and the difficulty of getting to see some of the key movies in that genre, including this one.

Saigon has plenty of hothouse tropical atmosphere and it has a few definite noir touches. It’s not a great film, Fenton’s direction is lacklustre and it suffers a little from being in effect two films at once - a sentimental romantic melodrama and a noirish thriller. It’s just a tad disjointed. But it looks great and Ladd and Lake, in their final pairing, are good enough to carry the film through a few weak spots. Recommended.


  1. Interesting. I'm tempted to take a chance on the Italian DVD, even if it's less than stellar. The only thing making my hold off just now is the suspicion that as soon as I do there will be an announcement from Kino or the like of a brand new transfer.

    1. The only thing making my hold off just now is the suspicion that as soon as I do there will be an announcement from Kino or the like of a brand new transfer.

      Yeah, that's happened to me a few times!