Calcutta was filmed in 1945, but released only in 1947. It is a noir movie that tries at being an adventure movie – or maybe it’s the other way around, an adventure yarn pretending to be a noir.
Neale, Bill and Pedro are three friends that soon after the end of World War Two are flying CNAC planes across the Hump, the flight route between Calcutta and Chungking.
Bill is about to get married, but is killed in Calcutta – strangled thug-style. Neale and Pedro start investigating. They will uncover a jewel-smuggling racket, and get into a lot of trouble.
And this is more or less it. Or maybe not.
Calcutta is noir in its portrayal of uncertain loyalties and friendship and love betrayed, and in the misogyny of its main character as portrayed by Alan Ladd: a man that does not trust women and whose tough-guy act often borders on just being boorish.
But the set-up is classic Oriental Adventures: Calcutta as a city of mystery and dark traffics, the opening with an emergency landing in the Himalayas, even an “Indian” dance number backing June Duprez (as singer Marina Tanev… a White Russina?) sings a song in French.
One is almost tempted to coin a term for a new genre – exotic noir. But genre tags are for the weak.
The back lot of Paramount studios doubles for Calcutta, and the producers went to a certain length to ensure that the background was as authentic as possible, and actually enlisted four technical consultants – Joe Rosbert (a member of the Flying Tigers who had crashed on the Hump), Major Whyte (a veteran of the Eighth Burma Rifles), Mrs Madge Schofield (a former resident of Calcutta) and Dr Singh (a resident Hollywood expert on Indian affairs). Two hundred Indian sailors from the Royal Navy were enlisted as extras.
One has to appreciate the effort.
And the cast is not half bad – apart from Ladd as Neale Gordon, we get the highly underrated William Bendix as his sidekick Pedro Blake, and the aforementioned June Duprez of The Thief of Baghdad fame in a small but very sympathetic role. The way the movie implies she is sleeping with Ladd’s character is quite surprising in its almost “pre-Code” casual attitude. One wonders what the censors were doing during their projection.
A pity the plot is messy, and somewhat predictable.
But there’s a few nice set-pieces, and the mise-en-scene is quite good.
Calcutta will never be regarded as a masterwork, but it is a product of its time, and a quite entertaining way to spend an hour and a half.
And then yes, it’s exotic noir.