Thursday, April 15, 2021

Santiago (1956)

Santiago is a 1956 Warner Brothers adventure movie starring Alan Ladd. It has a pretty poor reputation. Whether it’s really that bad remains to be seen.

The movie is set in 1898 with the Cuban revolution against the Spanish providing the historical background. Cash Adams (Ladd) is a former US Army officer who was dishonourably discharged. He now makes his living as a gun runner. He’s being paid to deliver a consignment of guns to Tampa where Cuban revolutionaries will be waiting with $100,000 for him.

The job is much more complicated than he expected. Firstly he and his men are attacked by hijackers before they even reach Tampa and then he discovers that the deal has been changed - he has to deliver the guns all the way to Cuba. The Cubans do agree to double his price which is some consolation.

The guns have to be loaded on board an old paddle-wheel riverboat which will take them (along with Cash Adams and his confederates) to Haiti, then on to Cuba.

I don’t claim to know much about nautical matters but I have to say that the riverboat really doesn’t look like it would last five minutes in the open sea.

The second complication is that the riverboat will be taking a second consignment of guns, along with rival gun runner Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan) and his cohorts. Cash and Pike have hated each other for years so neither man is happy with this development.

There’s yet another complication - they have to deliver a Cuban revolutionary to Cuba as well. The revolutionary is the young and beautiful Doña Isabella (Rossana Podestà).

The riverboat has to run the gauntlet of Spanish gunboats and then when they reach the Cuban coast they run into yet another obstacle - a Spanish artillery position that they will have to find a way to neutralise.

As you might expect Cash Adams and Pike clash numerous times during the voyage, culminating in a couple of all-in fist-fights. Their clashes have something to do with their pasts but also quite a bit to do with the fact that they both take a shine to Doña Isabella.

And new obstacles just keep on appearing. The gun runners start to wonder just how much they’re going to have to go through to get their money, and whether they’ll live to collect it.

Alan Ladd is pretty good as Cash Adams, a somewhat tortured soul. He’s tortured by shame about the ignominious end to his military career. And while he claims that now he cares only about money we get the distinct impression that he’s not entirely comfortable with his new career as a gun runner. In fact we get the impression that he might be a man in search of redemption.

Lloyd Nolan is of course marvellous as the thoroughly amoral Pike. Rossana Podestà may have been a bit miscast here but she’s OK. Chill Wills is fun as the riverboat captain who seems to have spent the whole of an adventurous life on the losing side. I liked Paul Fix as Cash’s old army buddy Trasker.

Gordon Douglas directed. Douglas had a varied career which included some pretty interesting movies including a couple of very good private eye thrillers with Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome and The Lady in Cement), the spy spoof In Like Flint and the sci-fi classic Them! Martin Rackin wrote the screenplay (his other credits include the underrated noirish crime thriller A Dangerous Profession).

All the right ingredients are here. The story is pretty decent. The setting is unusual and interesting (even though we know that the crew never left the studio backlot). The two lead actors are very good. The film was shot widescreen and in Warnercolor and it looks terrific. So what went wrong? Well, to be honest not all that much did go wrong. It’s really not such a bad movie. Its poor reputation may stem from the perception that with all those desirable ingredients it should have been a classic adventure thriller when in fact it’s a merely competent one.

What’s interesting is that rather than idealists fighting for a good cause what we have here are bad men fighting (rather reluctantly) for a good cause.

The Warner Archive presentation is extremely good with a fine anamorphic transfer.

Santiago isn’t that bad. It doesn’t quite catch fire the way it should but it looks great. It’s worth seeing if you’re an Alan Ladd or a Lloyd Nolan fan. It’s not one of the adventure classics but it’s reasonable entertainment.

1 comment:

  1. It is worth watching if you are a fan of Alan Ladd. I saw it in the late Fifties as The Gunrunner!