Like so many film noirs, 1957’s Hell Bound opens with a narrator. As we watch scenes of a group of thieves robbing a Naval ship of World War II narcotics, the narrator explains to us what each criminal is doing and how their plot will hopefully lead to them getting rich. Again, this is something we’ve seen in a countless number of film noirs. What makes Hell Bound unique is that the narration keeps going long after one would expect it to stop. And the expected cops and federal agents are never introduced….
That’s because we’re watching a film within a film! Jordan (John Russell) has made and produced the film himself, all to convince a gangster named Harry Quantro (Frank Fenton) to support his plan to …. well, to rob a Naval ship of narcotics. Jordan promises that the real-life theft will go just as smoothly as the theft in the movie! And, it must be said, Jordan’s movie was really well-made. He hired actors and everything. Harry agrees to give Jordan his backing on the condition that Jordan use Harry’s girlfriend, Paula (June Blair), in the operation. That, of course, means that Jordan won’t be able to use his own girlfriend, Jan (Margo Woode). That’s going to be awkward.
Anyway, Jordan starts to assemble his crew and they’re the typical film noir collection of misfits. One of the more fun things about Hell Bound is that it’s full of odd and eccentric characters, the types who would you actually expect to find trying to rob the U.S. Navy of narcotics in the 1950s. My favorite character was the blind drug dealer named Daddy (Dehl Berti). He has the perfect attitude for someone who had the luxury of not having to see the damage caused by his professions.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect plan. Whenever you get a bunch of criminals together to pull off the perfect heist, there’s bound to be some betrayals and some paranoia. We’ve all seen the ending of Goodfellas and we all know what the piano coda from Layla means. Complicating matters is that a big part of the scheme requires Paula to fake being an ambulance nurse and that means that she’s going to have to work with an honest ambulance driver named Eddie Mason (Stuart Whitman). Eddie is a good, working class guy who just wants to help people and make the world a better place. How can Paula go through with her part of the plan when she’s got Eddie looking at his hands and saying that he wants to use them to be a healer!?
I really liked Hell Bound. I wasn’t expecting much from it but it turned out to be a really effective and clever 50s film noir. Clocking in at 70 minutes, it doesn’t have any time for excess padding or anything else. As soon as the film-within-a-film comes to an end, it jumps right into the action and it doesn’t let up. Add to that, you’ve got John Russell giving a tough and gritty performance as the wannabe criminal mastermind and then you’ve got Stuart Whitman managing to make his self-righteous character likable and June Blair doing a great job as the femme fatal. Hell Bound is bit of an unsung classic, a tough and gritty film noir that packs a punch.