The Woman on Pier 13, 1949, 73 minutes, Classic Movies
Is there a Robert Ryan Appreciation Society? If there is, I might as well join up, it seems I’ve seen so many of his features over the past few months I should likely qualify as a member. The Woman on Pier 13 is a 1949 film noir drama with a heavy dose of anti-Red propaganda (the clue is in the films original title, I Married a Communist) starring Robert Ryan as Brad Collins, a respectable newlywed whose life is unravelled by a secret past and the foolish mistakes he made during his angry youth. Working as a shipping executive over the San Francisco docks, he is blackmailed by a communist cell run by Vanning (Thomas Gomez, (Force of Evil, Johnny O’Clock)) into wrecking talks with the dock-workers union. Collins faces ruin; he could lose his job and his wife when Vanning threatens to reveal a past Collins is trying to escape; that his real name is Frank Johnson, a member of the Communist Party and (allegedly) responsible for a murder. Collins reluctantly accedes to Vanning’s demands while trying to work his way out of the trap he’s in.
Janis Carter (Framed) plays Christine Norman, beautiful Communist femme fatale who used to be Collin’s lover – she still has feelings for him and is bitter about him leaving her, and she sets about seducing Collin’s new brother-in-law Don Lowry (John Agar) and indoctrinating him into the Communist Party. Possibly this is what she did to Collins himself, years ago, and in what’s possibly a case of history repeating she finds herself falling in love with Lowry in just the same way as she fell in love with Collins.
I quite enjoyed The Woman in the Pier. Ryan is as dependable as ever; he always convinces in these kinds of roles; a good guy with a shady past or inner demons, he just had the chiselled face and natural intensity to pull off this kind of material with ease: perfect casting, really, although Ryan would later become frustrated by such roles and usually being cast as villain. Did he ever play a wholesome all-American good guy?
Gomez is a little overly melodramatic as the manic Communist and Laraine Day, playing Collin’s newlywed Nan Lowry Collins, is a little bland in an underwritten role, but I thought Janis Carter was brilliant as the sultry femme fatale seducing poor Don. She comes across has much more sympathetic and believable than the one-dimensional vixen she might have been, and I think she almost steals the picture, she’s great. Looking her up on IMDB, I find she’s another promising actress who it seems didn’t stick around in Hollywood for very long, instead marrying a shipping tycoon and retiring from showbusiness after a spell co-hosting a quiz show on television.
There’s nothing really ground-breaking or particularly complex regards The Woman on Pier 13; its fairly predictable albeit it does feature two murders that genuinely surprise- its quite ruthless, and also features a grisly execution when the Communists drown a suspected traitor in the docks, so it certainly held my attention throughout. I love these narratives of trapped characters trying to get out of trouble, caught in a tightening web of menace; its one of the appeals of noir, these lives out of control and gradually unravelling as we watch. The film even manages to hold fast to its noir sensibilities with regards Ryan’s character not being able to walk away at the end- the moral code of the time seems to suggest no Communist (even an ex-Communist) can get away unpunished so -spoiler ahoy- there’s no sudden happy ending/unconvincing twist ruining this noir.
As usual with many of these pictures, its brevity -here hardly 73 minutes- probably proves its biggest asset; its another exercise in efficiency. Sure its not perfect and its certainly not great, but its a fine melodrama/noir which just, well, works, somehow- Hollywood was something of a machine with these b-pictures back then. Ryan himself may have made better films (The Set-Up, Crossfire etc) but he’d made worse, too- like the curiously similarly-titled The Woman on the Beach. I just wonder what the next Robert Ryan film will be to come my way…