“There isn’t any part of the anatomy I don’t know, even with my eyes closed” – Paula
Two titles with differing ambitions, the wildly baroque ‘Touch of Evil‘ (1958) and the grimly fatalistic 'Odds Against Tomorrow’ (1959) have come to signify the final erosion of classic film noir. But a few grungy late-period B-movie thrillers like ‘Hell Bound’ (1957) had already gone ahead ahead and conjured up what some of the actual post-noir detritus might look like.
Some might be more than enough. ‘Hell Bound’ is a seamy side-show of raw pulp psychodrama, whacked-out dialog, unrestrained violence, sexpots in glasses, foot fetishism, and an excitable psychotronic sound track (scored by Les Baxter, one of the emperors of tiki bar exotica). While the film is recognizably of the classic cycle, it also recognizably looks to be heading off somewhere else.
From the opening frame we’re not sure where we are or what’s going on other than there’s a film-in-film being screened outlining how a store of medical-grade narcotics could be boosted from a cargo ship. It’s a clever set-up involving a ship-board snitch, a tame port authority health officer, a bogus seaman and a cool-headed nurse imposter.
When the show's over and lights go on we get to see who else has been watching. Among those is crime boss Harry Quantro (Frank Fenton) who says he’s seen everything he needs to. Quantro’s ready to stake the heist but on one condition. He wants his eye-catching girlfriend Paula (actress/real-life Playboy Playmate June Blair) to play the nurse who’ll bundle the drugs off the ship. Just to protect his investment you understand.
Jordan (John Russell) a free-lance villain who’s both planned the caper and made the demo film readily gives way. If it means having to side-line his girlfriend Jan (Margo Woode) already installed in the getaway ambulance, so be it. Jordan has his own plans for the quarter million dollars’ worth of uncut dope and doesn’t intend to let a cheap tramp like Paula get in his way. Jordon’s already got his hands full with other gang recruits Stanley Thomas (George E. Mather) a feckless and desperate drug addict who’s scheduled as the phony sailor-in-distress and Herbert Fay Jr. (Stanley Adams) the real-life health officer and an angry self-loathing neurotic.
Jordan knows full well that his so-called crew is a sack of grief. But for practical and personal reasons he has to play it as it lays and figures he can maintain control through fear if nothing else. However as the big day approaches things start to come unhinged. Thomas goes to a burlesque joint to score dope and goes berserk when his dealer - who's blind - only seems to have eyes for a no-hope stripper; Fay Jr. gets fall-down drunk and ugly in a bar and starts shooting his fat mouth off; later Jordan beats Thomas senseless and then takes after Paula when he finds out she’s fallen for the ambulance driver, Eddie Mason (Stuart Whitman) and about to blow the whole operation. As for the snitch - the only guy who’s played it straight - once Jordan’s got what he needs from him, he kills him. That too now seems like part of the plan.
Jordan easily rates among the most amoral and dangerous villains in film noir and as played by John Russell also one of the coolest - a totally disaffected, very present day killer. Had Donald Westlake/ Richard Stark penned the ‘Parker’ series during Russell’s on- screen working life, the actor would have been the one to play him. Russell was big and handsome, a former college athlete and a decorated ex-marine. A force on-screen, Russell in ‘Hell Bound’ is terrifyingly all there.
Eventually the combination of Jordon's calculation and ruthlessness manage to get things on track and likewise ‘Hell Bound’ begins now to accelerate in a straighter line towards the climax. As the prospect of further mishap appears pushed to the side, we can cast a hopeful eye on the prize. Maybe it’s not too late for this thing to happen. Maybe.
‘Hell Bound’ keeps the suspense turned up high. Some of the heat is a result of the tension that exists between the things that we readily recognize - the familiar narratives and visual mechanics of film noir - and some that we don’t - or might just rather not. We know that classic noir would lose out in the ‘60’s to far more grim and exploitative expressions of its own dark impulses. And we don’t have to look too hard in ‘Hell Bound’ for those grindhouse moments. Overall there’s not a hell of a lot in ‘Hell Bound’ of what Eddie Muller describes as classic noir’s romantic ‘suffering in style’. Mostly it's just suffering.
‘Hell Bound’ in its own morbidly fraught fashion makes for a fascinating low-rent match-up against better regarded A-list noirs such as ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950) and the ‘The Killing’ (1956). The movie was director William J. Hole’s first feature (his career was mostly in television) but he had veteran cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie on set to help out with some of the visual heavy lifting. Guthrie was a pro and by the time he was assigned to ‘Hell Bound’ he'd notched over a hundred movies including ‘Flaxy Martin (1947), ‘Backfire’ (1950) and the groundbreaking ‘Caged’ (1950’).
Hence a fair bit of ‘Hell Bound is more expertly set-up and impressively lensed than might be expected especially the many exterior sequences shot in and around gloomy commercial/ industrial sites. The film ends in the surreal, horrific desolation of a Los Angeles’ Red trolley graveyard, the real-life result of the corrupt ‘decommissioning’ of one of the largest public transit systems in the world. Hell bound indeed.
However the film’s most lasting sequence is that of Jordon’s brutal beating of Stanley. The urgency and fury of it anticipates the opening scene of Sam Fuller’s ‘The Naked Kiss’ (1964) in which Constance Towers thrashes her pimp. Both are unexpected, relentless, suffocating.