Hell’s Island is a film noir filmed in VistaVision, a statement that seems utterly ridiculous but with the advent of television during the 1950’s, colour was apparently all the rage and as such, filmmakers had to adapt in order to get people back in the theater. Surprisingly, Phil Karlson who was no stranger to the genre would be able to pull it off, though the finished product would end up being part Maltese Falcon and bits and pieces culled from a dozen or more other noir films. In the end Hell’s Island would feature many of the same tropes and clichés seen in many a movie released previous to this one, but while not wholly original, it still managed to be fairly enjoyable no thanks in part to the performers featured within – namely from John Payne and Mary Murphy.
The story concerns a man named Mike Cormack as played by Payne, a fellow down on his luck after finding himself single once again as his fiancé has left him. He is soon offered a job which he decides to take as it just so happens to involve the woman who dumped him and a very wanted ruby. Cormack is a broken man and one who is still in love with Murphy, so in love that he fails to realise that she is playing him like a fiddle and almost before it is too late. Cormack soon wakes from his heartsick dream though and it is not he that will end up paying the price when all is said and done.
While some films and genres were built for colour, film noir is ultimately not one of them and though Hell’s Island tries its best, there is something missing that only black and white can deliver. It is a good thing then that Payne and Murphy decided to star as they completely make the film what it is with their performances. Payne is perfectly cast as the grizzled and jilted lover, a man asked to be a detective in order to ferret out the truth of the missing ruby. Murphy is the femme fatale of the piece, giving a truly great go of it as a woman who is definitely more than she seems to be. To Cormack, she is one thing and to her husband another, but to all she is a beautiful woman – a woman that any red-blooded man would do anything for and it is that spell she casts that works both for her and against her. Together, Murphy and Payne have a great on-screen chemistry between them and as such, it makes their cinematic relationship all the more real. Murphy is utterly seductive as the devious Janet Martin and she twists Payne’s character around her finger so easily that by the time the end of the film rolls along, one is actually surprised that he has the spine to stand up to her.
Despite the familiarity of it all, particularly the involvement and location of the ruby, there is enough here for audiences to be entertained with even if it has all been seen before. Featuring double-crosses, a mysterious villain, a fall guy, the damaged hero and the goddess with a heart of coal, Hell’s Island is an interesting if slightly mundane affair.
3.5 out of 5