8 February 2004 | bmacv
Offbeat and overlooked film noir set in Hawaiian Territory
Hell's Half Acre (habitués just call it `the Acre') is a rabbit warren of tenements and dens of iniquity in post-war Honolulu a South-Seas casbah. It's also the title of John H. Auer's movie which has the distinction between the lapse of the Charlie Chan cycle and the arrival of TV dramas like Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum P.I. of being the only film noir set in the (then) Hawaiian Territory. A little clumsy and four-square (with little of visual interest), it boasts an offbeat story line and a dandy cast.
Stateside, widowed young mother Evelyn Keyes hears a recording by a songwriter from the Islands who, she's told, has been imprisoned for killing a crime lord. Certain phrases in the song remind her of her husband, presumed lost on the Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She breaks off her engagement and flies to Honolulu; her guide to the local culture is cabdriver Elsa Lanchester, a `character.' Police Chief Keye Luke arranges for Keyes to see the mystery man (Wendell Corey), but when the prisoner learns that his current girlfriend (Nancy Gates) has been murdered, he escapes custody. Keyes penetrates deeper into the Acre to find him, while his underworld associates, their greed and curiosity piqued, try to find her....
All too briefly, Hell's Half Acre features Marie Windsor, as the wife of fish-and-poi slinger Jesse White (she's two-timing him with sinister Philip Ahn). The crummy rooms Windsor and White occupy in the Acre are one of three main locales, the others being Corey's Waikiki beach house and The Polynesian Paradise, the nightclub he owns (technical advisor to the film was Don The Beachcomber). There's an elevated quotient of violence, particularly violence to women, and the somewhat murky story isn't sweetened up (though touristy material sometimes intrudes). Auer never got a crack at first-rate material to direct (maybe he never showed he could do it), but Hell's Half Acre holds its own against his better-known The City That Never Sleeps. Like so many of the better noirs, its surprises emerge from out of the past.