Calcutta stars Alan Ladd as Neale, an American pilot shipping cargo between the eponymous city and Chungking shortly after World War II. He and his two copilots rank in ascending order of age and sagacity. Bill (John Whitney), the youngest and most naïve, suddenly announces his engagement to a woman neither of the men knows who lives in Calcutta. When Bill is killed, Neale and the oldest pilot, Pedro (William Bendix), go to investigate. As Neale gets to know Bill’s seemingly innocent but reticent fiancée, Virginia (Gail Russell), his initial vigilance lowers and he finds himself falling for her. Meanwhile, Pedro seems to be the only one with a level head. A medley of surly characters embroils the two in an international jewel smuggling scheme which they are quickly framed for.
The name of director John Farrow may not be instantly recognizable, but his work on classics like Around the World in 80 Days and Hondo, as well as his overall prolific output, establish him as a solid old-Hollywood director. This is evident in the film’s efficient direction. Farrow utilizes a fluid and versatile shooting technique and invisible editing. A number of low-key long takes and entire scenes done in one master shot display terrifically sharp use of space and set design to tell a visual story with as few cuts as possible. Cinematographer John F. Seitz, known for his masterful work with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Lost Weekend works wonderfully in tandem with Farrow, creating a quintessentially noir visual palette that transforms basic sequences into showcases of economic filmmaking.
For all its adeptness in form, Calcutta lacks in the script department. Nothing stands out from the by-the-numbers hardboiled plot other than a few select performances, and not those of the lead actors. Alan Ladd makes little use of his spot as the main character, coolly delivering the clipped, acerbic lines expected from a cynical post-war monolith of masculinity. William Bendix builds more nuance into his character, but unfortunately receives a dearth of screen time. The real standouts are Gail Russell as the doe-eyed Virginia and June Duprez as the sultry and aloof nightclub singer Marina. Russell pulls off an effortless looking performance as a shaken and deeply vulnerable woman whose darkness doesn’t form a moral antithesis to her innocence, but rather stems from it. Her less-than-honorable actions arise from a basic sense of powerlessness and immaturity. Duprez impressively wrings out much more from her supporting role than there likely was on the page, acting as more than a convenient informant at the service of the plot. Her confidence and sensuality belie a deep compassion, all told through Duprez’s dewy eyes and soft smile.
Overall, Calcutta works as a suitable black-and-white movie fix, the kind of thing that might play on TCM in the daytime. Still, most of its greatest attributes exist in other, better stories. The cinematography matches the level of Seitz’s best work as it appears in superior films, and Ladd has embodied far more memorable characters. It’s difficult to recommend this film, but also difficult not to. Although amounting to less than the sum of its parts, those parts attain varying level of merit on their own, enough that they ought not to be dismissed. | Nic Champion
This release contains a commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton.