It’s easy to understand why the studio bosses at Paramount would pair Gail Russell with Alan Ladd in Calcutta. She seems to fit the same mold as Veronica Lake, with whom Ladd struck gold on numerous occasions: beautiful, reserved, demure, and vulnerable.
Russell was paired with Ladd because the two of them did very well in a 1945 film called Salty O'Rourke. In 1945, when the film was shot, Lake was unavailable due to pregnancy.
Russell was tragically hampered by her nerves. She was cripplingly shy and suffered from what today would certainly be called a severe social anxiety disorder. Her story is one of Hollywood’s saddest. She was discovered while still in high school and placed under contract with Paramount as soon as she got her diploma. Her beauty was special in that she bore no particular resemblance to any existing famous faces. Her doe eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips were hers alone, and Paramount had high hopes.
In short: those hopes didn't pan out. Despite many opportunities afforded by her looks and a certain ethereal quality, Russell was never able to achieve true stardom. She only found the courage to get in front of the camera through alcohol, which escalated into career-interrupting problems (including crashing her car through a window at a Hollywood drive-in). In a testament to her personality, numerous people from the industry, including John Wayne, tried to help her get past her troubles, but it wasn’t in the cards. Russell ultimately drank herself to death in a West Los Angeles apartment in 1961: she was just 36.
Russell's valiant but doomed attempt to salvage her life and career is captured in Stephen Glenn Ochoa's biography, Fallen Star. It is quite thorough, and very sad.
A demure, even girlish, leading lady can certainly be effective as a black widow in the right picture, but it doesn’t work in Calcutta. The exotic mystique of a film such as this demands an equally exotic leading lady: a highly sexualized, larger than life type--Hayworth, Mayo, Gardner--maybe even the other Russell...you get the idea. Someone involved in the production recognized this early on and tried to spice up the movie with a sexy second lead. In this case it’s June Duprez, who gives the film a shot in the arm and has a real spark with Ladd.
[Others suggest that Russell's role is a refreshing variation on the stereotype of the overtly alluring femme fatale; the viewpoint Mark expresses here is now in the minority amongst film critics, who've had a chance to see a much better print of the film thanks to a 2020 Kino release. As for Duprez, she is undeniably attractive, but her role in the film is actually the "understanding type" despite her glamorous trappings--she's a night club singer--and her spark with Ladd is rather intermittent.]
In 1947 Alan Ladd was still on top of the world. He looks great in Calcutta, like a man who is in his prime and knows it. [NOTE: The film was shot in 1945.] He is very comfortable playing the brooding, morose, tightly wound hero who seems to have no time for women and is struggling inwardly to get over the war. He is Neale Gordon, American ex-pat pilot now flying the Chungking to Calcutta route with air corps buddies Pedro (William Bendix) and Bill (John Whitney). When Bill turns up strangled, Neale and Pedro take a leave of absence from the airline to hunt for his killer.
They get mixed up in all sorts of far eastern intrigue, crossing paths with a variety of colorful Indian habitués, from the colonial authorities to urbane casino owners to jewelry smugglers. Neale also gets involved with Virginia Moore (Russell), Bill's fiancé, who turns out to know more about his death than she lets on. (One of the popular conventions of film noir, so far as bad girls are concerned, is that the hero’s first impression of the woman tends to be correct—even if she initially manages to pull the wool over his eyes. That’s certainly the case here, and it plays out through a good deal of the running time. Neale’s first impression of his dead buddy’s girl is that she’s a no-good gold digger, though her girl-next-door facade thaws him out as they get to know each other better.)
[Virtually all analysis of Calcutta overlooks the fact that the film's script is underwritten, leaving Russell little time to manifest some of the qualities in her character that surface at the end of the film that would be a good bit more hair-raising if they'd been fully prepared for. Some of this is likely due to the fact that a good print of the film, which provides a better opportunity to note Russell's use of averted glances and other character-indicating cues, was unavailable for viewers for more than half a century.]
In the end Calcutta is little more than routine. John Farrow’s direction and John Seitz’s cinematography are competent yet uninspired--which is disappointing considering that each made numerous quality film noirs, including two pretty good ones together: The Big Clock and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Farrow’s pacing is a too deliberate and the middle of the picture drags. Seitz does a fine job of masking the back lot locations, though he isn’t able to reproduce any of the exhilaratingly noirish shots in The Big Clock.
There are some good lines in Seton Miller’s script, though there aren’t nearly enough of them. The best one comes in Ladd and Russell’s first scene, when she tells him he’s “cold, sadistic, and egotistical.” His response, “Maybe, but I’m still alive.” The two key co-stars, Bendix and Duprez, don’t get nearly the screen time they deserve. There are lengthy stretches that unfortunately contrive to keep big Bill out of the film: this is unfortunate, since it's often the case with Ladd and Bendix that their movies only got going when they were on the screen together.
[I don't know if Mark had a chance to see the Kino blu-ray of Calcutta, which gives us a better sense of the film's production values and has consistently elevated the film in the eyes of those who've given it a re-watch. That said, it is nowhere near a great film, given how derivative and under-formed the script is, but we do get to see that the 20-year-old Gail Russell makes a much more successful attempt at negotiating a sketchy part than she's been given credit for over the years.
As Joseph Losey noted (despite his traumatic experiences with her on THE LAWLESS), there's something in those eyes--and a good print of Calcutta reveals that there is more of that at work than was apparent to us during the fifty or so years we were only able to see a dodgy TV print of the film.]