The heroic and relatively up-and-coming DVD/Blu-ray label Olive Films has added two movies by John H. Auer to their March slate: the 1941 John Wayne vehicle A Man Betrayed, and the 1954 mystery-noir Hell’s Half Acre. Largely an unknown quantity, Auer’s championship has been taken up by Dave Kehr, who wrote about the versatile “micro-” auteur in a 2011 issue of Film Comment.
I’ve only seen Hell’s Half Acre, which inspired me to write this post in May 2011. Here it is again:
Pretty much an unknown quantity these days, there’s very little of John H. Auer’s filmography that’s readily available for viewing, but even a minor work like this should spark some interest. For the purposes of nomenclature, Hell’s Half Acre is a Honolulu noir – postwar bitterness, opportunism, and despair, typically depicted in movies as the intellectual property of North American cities, is transplanted to the South Pacific completely intact and fresher for the change of scenery. Even under the weight of a television staple like “Hawaii Five-O,” the genre hybrid alone would grant the film curio status.
But there’s more. There’s a pronounced influence by The Third Man (another fish-out-of-water noir set in postwar ruins), both in aspects of the plot (woman tries to track down her presumed dead husband), as well as the way the lap slide guitar serves as an astonishingly appropriate replacement for Anton Karas’s legendary zither. Instead of Carol Reed, Auer’s direction feels like the earliest films of Shohei Imamura’s (which would not appear for another four years), as cheap, desperate crooks cannonball through skid row Honolulu, a shantytown of plaster-plywood firetraps and a trillion clotheslines.
But wait, there’s more! Forty minutes into the picture, the plot grinds to a halt, and a very, very long sequence takes place in what appears to be complete narrative stasis, on temporary hiatus from the machinery of the boilerplate melodrama. While much of the film that comes before and after seems to resemble a mix of Imamura, Hathaway, and Karlson, this particular chapter resembles no other film except for the very singular Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010). The heroine has tracked down her husband and she’s 100% certain it’s him, and he knows she knows, and we know she knows he knows, etc. But still, they play this maddening verbal shell game in which he denies he’s herhusband and she feigns uncertainty, or resignation. Or does she, and does he, in fact, and what’s going on, etc. In another context their verbal sparring would be interpreted as flirtatious, but circumstances cast their words in bitterness and longing, and it’s all complicated by our nagging suspicion that at least one of them is playacting. The plot, as it’s been constructed up to that point, either supports the illusion or doesn’t, depending on whether you blinked, and when, and whether or not you tuned out momentarily, at all, during the preceding forty minutes. Did I mention that the entire movie drops absolutely everything for this sequence, which goes on for what feels like two whole reels?
And there’s more. Elsa Lanchester has a supporting role as a jovial, Honolulu cab driver: the regal Bride of Frankenstein/Mrs. Charles Laughton herself cannot be undone by a dowdy hack’s jumpsuit and cap. Another queen, this time of the B’s, Marie Windsor, appears as a resolutely vile, alcoholic moll: when she sees her soused husband in the bedroom with nude Evelyn Keyes (not as sordid as it sounds…well, maybe a little), her callous shrug indicates a soul blacker even than her more famous turn (in a nearly identical role) in Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).
Most of the above is directed by Auer with plucky, skid row know-how: nothing special, but good enough for government work. Late in the picture, after the Certified Copy-esque sequence, a different, far more inventive director emerges, musically quick-cutting between hooligans peeking out from back-alley hidey-holes, dissecting a frame with a policeman’s revolver (the frame pans left across the lovers in the background as the gun enters right, held by the out-of-frame cop), while the climactic showdown is held among Tiki torches and assorted bamboo kitsch.