...it's not all bad, just distressingly hammy.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

No film starring Orson Welles can be all bad. The guy was bigger than life, and the older he got, the bigger he became; at least, physically. So, no, the 1959 British comic-adventure film "Ferry to Hong Kong" is not all bad; it's just distressingly hammy.

Noted director Lewis Gilbert, the man responsible for "The Good Die Young," "Sink the Bismark," "H.M.S. Defiant," "Alfie," "Educating Rita," "Shirley Valentine," and the Bond epics "You Only Live Twice," "The Spy Who Loved Me," and "Moonraker" helmed and co-wrote the project. Would that "Ferry to Hong Kong" had any of the excitement or charisma of his better-known pictures.

The thing is, by 1959 Welles's best films were behind him: "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Journey into Fear," "Jane Eyre," "The Lady from Shanghai," "Macbeth," "The Third Man," "Othello," "Touch of Evil." By 1959 he was doing whatever he could to survive--bit parts, narrations, character roles--and raise enough money for the personal movie projects that almost never materialized. Thus, we get a rather labored performance from him in "Ferry to Hong Kong," the actor never quite sure whether he wants his character to be serious or funny or absurd. It turns out to be mostly the latter.

In any case, Welles is not really the only star of this one; he's got German actor Curt Jurgens by his side. Jurgens plays Mark Conrad, a charming, layabout drifter whom the Hong Kong police kick out of town for disorderly conduct. They put him on a ferry for Macao, the boat owned by a pompous, fastidious Captain, Cecil Hart, played by Welles. Hart and Conrad take an instant dislike for one another, the Captain describing Hart as "a drunken brawler."

Captain Hart is only too happy to unload Conrad on the other side, except that when they arrive at Macao, the police there won't allow Conrad to debark. They don't want him, either. So the poor guy's stuck on the boat with nowhere to go, much to Captain Hart's dismay. What to do? Conrad becomes a human boomerang, shuttling back and forth between the two ports and apparently happy to do so because it's the first time in quite a while he's had any peace of mind. The Captain becomes perpetually frustrated and flustered.

Aboard the boat, Conrad meets a beautiful schoolteacher, Liz Ferrers (Sylvia Syms), and what do you mean, do they fall in love? Also, we get the requisite colorful characters, like Chief Engineer Joe Skinner (Noel Purcell), who has a wife and family in both cities, and Miss Carter (Margaret Withers), a cranky old prune of a spinster.

Before too long, Conrad becomes a celebrity of sorts, the local newspapers getting wind of his dilemma and making him a symbol for all the displaced people of the world. Conrad wants none of it. He just wants people to leave him alone.

As you can see, the film plays most of this plot for laughs. Small laughs. Almost invisible laughs, but comic nonetheless. The film doesn't get serious until the final half hour, when a storm at sea, followed by an invasion of pirates livens things up, and Conrad must prove his worth and redeem his ill-spent life.

Clearly, writer-director Gilbert would do better tongue-in-cheek business with the Bond movies; here, he's just floundering around, hoping something will work. It doesn't.

Welles, who practically chews the scenery in his attempts at wit, affects a ridiculous, presumably snooty British accent that comes and goes, providing the only (unintended) humor in the film. It's a role that would have seemed better suited to someone like Theodore Bikel, who might have pulled it off. Then, there's Jurgens, who usually played far more-sophisticated, debonair characters (remember him as the mastermind villain in "The Spy Who Loved Me," also directed by Lewis Gilbert?). He seems an odd choice for the brash loafer. He does what he can, but like the rest of the cast, he seems to be in the film only for a free trip to Hong Kong.

About the only thing that does work effectively in "Ferry to Hong Kong" is Hong Kong itself. The J. Arthur Rank Organization shot the entire movie there, and it's fun to see the city the way it used to look back then. Otherwise, the film runs out of gas about ten or fifteen minutes in.

VCI Entertainment chose to retain the movie's native 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, which is good. Unfortunately, they chose to transfer it to DVD in non-anamorphic widescreen, which is not so good. It means that for those of you with widescreen TV's, which is most of you, you'll have to put up with black bars surrounding the image on all sides, top, bottom, left, and right. My guess is that it wasn't worth the cost for VCI to enhance the picture for 16x9 televisions, despite over half the nation owning such sets (and probably 100% of DVDTOWN's readers). I suppose they figure that people interested in older films such as this one are themselves older folks still using tube sets. I dunno.

VCI digitally restored and remastered the picture as best they could, but the result, while tidy and free of egregious age defects, is still rather soft and bland in appearance. So don't expect the very best detailing, definition, or object delineation. Otherwise, black levels are fine, the Eastman Color looks decent, and skin tones are realistic.

The disc reproduces the audio using 2.0 Dolby Digital. It's nothing special, but I'm sure one could say the same thing of the original soundtrack. The music and sound effects come off well, clean and clear. It's the voices that suffer, sounding rather hollow and nasal much of the time, especially with Pro Logic putting too much of it into the rear channels. Beyond the dialogue, music, and a few sonics effects, there's little else of note.

Not much here, either. We get a main menu, a few promos at start-up, and twelve scene selections.

Parting Shots:
The location shooting in Hong Kong, as I say, is the real star of "Ferry to Hong Kong," with the story and cast left to fend for themselves. I'm not sure what director and co-writer Lewis Gilbert, who usually knew what he was doing, was up to here, but it ain't pretty. The film is neither funny enough to be a decent comedy nor exciting enough to be a decent adventure; instead, it just sits there hoping something will happen that never materializes. It's kind of a clunker, actually, one that not even the usually dependable Orson Welles can salvage.


Film Value