Lake and Ladd get “steamy” in Saigon.
As part of #Noirvember on Twitter, I have been trying to broaden my knowledge of film noir. My favourite noir pairing is Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, who I felt were absolutely perfectly suited. Although they were originally put together because of their respective heights (Ladd appeared taller opposite the petite Lake), they showed in their movies together, which include This Gun For Hire, The Blue Dahlia and The Glass Key, that their onscreen chemistry was about much more than that. My favourite film starring the pair is indeed The Blue Dahlia, and The Glass Key is a close second. But after watching Saigon, I’d say that I like it almost as much as those two classics of the genre.
It may not not be as competently plotted and directed as those earlier outings, but it is an extremely enjoyable film that doesn’t slow down for a minute. It has the signature sexual tension that always bloomed between Lake and Ladd, with several scenes where they seem about to consummate their attraction, but then explode into antagonistic barbs or Ladd storms out of the room in his trademark manner.
What’s in the case, baby?
Major Larry Briggs’ (played by Alan Ladd) friend, Captain Mike Perry (played by Douglas Dick, say that ten times fast) is dying from a head injury sustained when their bomber squad was destroyed. Most of the men who were part of the unit were killed, with only Larry, Mike and their friend Sergeant Pete Rocco (played by Wally Cassell) having survived.
Larry and Pete decide that they are going to keep the truth about his condition from Mike, and rather than letting him return home, where he has no family, they are going to fill his last few months with adventure.
Larry takes a flying job from rather shady businessman, Alex Maris (played by Morris Carnovsky), who wants to be flown to Saigon and will pay Larry, Mike and Pete $10 000 to do so. Despite thinking this an unusually high sum for such a routine flight, Larry doesn’t ask for any further details. What could possibly go wrong?
After they have made the rather creaky, patched up airplane that Maris gave them flyable, his sophisticated secretary, Susan Cleaver (played by Veronica Lake) arrives to accompany them on the flight. When Maris hasn’t arrived at the “airfield”, and they hear gunshots, which seem to be coming from the police (somehow Larry, Pete and Mike can identify police bullets by sound alone) Larry decides to leave without his would be employer. Susan tries to get them to turn back, but Pete hits her in the face before she can cause Larry to inadvertently crash the plane.
A few hours into the flight, Larry has to crash-land in a rice field because both engines have died, and dropping everything from the plane (except the passengers) hasn’t helped decrease the weight.
After a local farmer gives them food, Larry and Susan have a confrontation about the $10 000, which culminates in Susan biting Larry’s hand and him pushing her to the floor, before taking the money from her purse .
In a river village, they check into a hotel that is a converted rubber plantation. They also meet, and are shadowed, by a suspicious local police officer, Lieutenant Keon.
Larry goes to Susan’s room where, despite the information on her police card stating she only has $78, he finds $500 000 in the briefcase she has been guarding so jealously. Susan claims she was unaware of what was in the briefcase, but Larry is unconvinced. He makes her leave the hotel and go to the boat bound for Saigon.
But when Mike moons over Susan, Larry goes to the boat and blackmails her, by using the disparate amount of money stated on her police card and the money in the briefcase, to blackmail her into submitting to Mike’s courting. However, despite Larry’s ill treatment of her, she’s fallen in love with him.
The next day aboard the boat, Susan tries to gently warn Mike to be more guarded about women, but he is too in love with her to appreciate her advice and realise that she is talking about herself. When Inspector Keon appears on the boat and asks for Susan’s police card, Larry covers for her, before the boat’s engine fails and Mike and Pete help the Captain (who is really a doctor and knows nothing about engines) fix it.
Whilst everyone is distracted, Larry finds the $500 000 in Susan’s room and mails it to himself before Keon can discover that Susan’s police card isn’t entirely accurate. Larry finds Keon in his room, and the Inspector, upon finding Larry’s medals for courageous and honourable war service, expresses a grudging respect for the other man.
Susan accuses Larry of stealing the money, but he explains that he had to mail it to himself before Keon found it. Susan then learns from the Captain, who had examined Mike when the young man collapsed in the engine room, that Mike is dying. Larry warns Susan to keep to herself, and she is clearly upset over the news.
They arrive in Saigon, where Keon is still shadowing them, as he knows about the $500 000. Larry, Pete and Mike dress formally for the evening, as does Susan. Larry genuinely compliments her, and their attraction to each other becomes more apparent, but Larry leaves Mike and Susan so they can go on a date.
Despite being on a double date with Pete and some local girls, Larry dances with Susan before going onto the veranda with her. Susan says that she’s no good, especially not for Mike who is “such a nice, unspoiled boy”, before she kisses Larry, who then gives in and kisses her back. Pete witnesses this, but keeps quiet about it.
Mike asks Susan to marry him, but she is reluctant as Mike idolises her and she doesn’t wish to hurt him. She then tells Larry that she will marry Mike in order to make the short remainder of his life happy, although it is clear that she and Larry long for one another.
Susan finds Alex in her room, and he tells her that he knows Larry has his money. He plans to hold Larry hostage until the post office opens the next morning. But when Pete comes to Larry’s room, Pete and Alex’s henchman have a fight, which ends with them both falling off the balcony to their death.
Susan has realised that her employer isn’t who she thought he was, and has decided to work with Keon. It is revealed that Alex made his money from being a Nazi collaborator, and the police have been after him for some time for killing one of their own. Mike and Alex are then both shot in the ensuing struggle, which leaves Larry distraught, as he feels he brought about Mike’s death.
After Mike and Pete’s funeral, Susan consoles Larry by telling him not to blame himself for events beyond his control, and they leave the cemetery hand in hand.
After watching Lake and Ladd’s more famous and highly regarded pairings, I only recently discovered Saigon. But I feel that the film deserves far more attention than it was given both upon its initial release and since then. It may not be quite as good as The Blue Dahlia in terms of plotting, but is extremely entertaining and Lake and Ladd are absolutely wonderful together. By this film, their onscreen chemistry had really locked and there are many scenes in the film where the air between them positively sizzles.
Two of my favourite scenes are as follows:
Upon discovering that Susan is carrying a large amount of money in her briefcase, Larry does indeed seek to use it to his advantage to make Mike happy, but it is clear during Susan and Larry’s interaction that there is a boat load (har har) of sexual tension between them. Susan says that she won’t allow Larry to strike her as Pete did. Larry replies by identifying where Pete hit her and kissing that part of her face, Susan is clearly livid but also reluctantly thrilled by Larry touching her. This bit shouldn’t sit well with me, but the way in which Lake and Ladd play the scene stops it from being cringe inducing or offensive. Later, when Larry sees Susan in her white evening gown, he pulls the delicate hood on her dress up, but finds that he prefers it down, because he thinks that she has beautiful hair. Ladd did indeed have lovely hair, and the tenderness between the two characters and the two leads in this scene is just so wonderful.
Be still my beating heart.
Lake and Ladd are also supported by a very competent cast. Douglas Dick plays the sweet, naïve, Mike right down the line, and his death scene is very poignant. My mother even said “poor baby” when he died, and we were both rather misty eyed.
Wally Cassell is quite amusing, but his cracks sometimes get slightly wearing. He is given his opportunity to show his acting capabilities far more when the story becomes more serious. His death scene is also very upsetting.
Morris Carnovsky, as usual, is very competent as the villainous Alex Maris, making a part that could have easily been rather forgettable far more memorable through a subtly ominous and threatening performance that hints at his psychopathic inclinations rather than maniacally flaunting them.
But it is Luther Adler as Lieutenant Keon who really steals the show. Although it is very unfortunate, and unsurprising, that they whitewashed the part of the Vietnamese inspector, Adler does not play the part in a ridiculous, or inadvertently racist, manner. He speaks with an accent that has a slight inflection, but at no point is he made to look uneducated or incompetent because he is supposed to be the only “non-white” main character. Adler shows that Keon is wise to what is going on the entire time, and manages to make his character three dimensional and interesting throughout the film. My favourite scene of his is when he purposely keeps misremembering Alex’s assumed name, and then reveals to Larry who Alex really is. He manages to switch from being subtly humorous to introducing the film’s final dramatic tension without being jarring or melodramatic.
Unfortunately the film is not available in physical media or to stream, and so one must settle for less than pristine prints on the internet. Despite this, the film is well worth seeking out, as it is a very enjoyable and well made addition to Lake and Ladd’s highly successful pairing. It was to be their last film together, which I find to be a great pity, as they are my favourite film noir pairings, and one of my favourite in general. As with their previous films, in Saigon, they show why they proved to be such a memorable romantic pairing.
Any other fans of the film out there? If you have or do manage to see the film, please let me know your take on it.