Port Afrique (1956)
With what I assume to be some second unit work in Morocco and plenty of stage work at Shepperton Studios in England, this technicolor murder mystery makes for a diverting ninety minutes of entertainment from director Rudolph Mate’. It stars the very beautiful though tragic Pier Angeli and Philip Carey (billed as Phil) in the leading roles with able support from the likes of Dennis Price, Eugene Deckers, Rachel Gurney and Anthony Newley. Then there’s the main reason I finally caught up to this minor entry in the careers of those included, Christopher Lee. Lee turns up briefly as a possible suspect just one year prior to his iconic role as the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein that would seriously change the trajectory of his acting career.
Following a stint in the war that’s left him with a pronounced limp, Carey, has returned to the title Port to reunite with his wife and assume duties on his half of a plantation he co-owns with Price. Just prior to his arrival we’re to see the lovely Miss Angeli as an entertainer in a local cantina. She’s under some serious pressure from the club’s slimy owner, James Hayter, to make her home in his bedroom as opposed to rooming with Carey’s wife. Everything is to be turned upside down when Carey arrives at his home to find his wife’s dead body on a cot in what appears to be suicide by a self inflicted gunshot wound.
And so our mystery begins.
Carey’s friend and local lawman, Deckers, writes the death off as a suicide despite his harboring some secrets that he isn’t giving up. Carey of course wants to know why she’d commit suicide and comes to believe there is no way she’d have taken her own life. He wants answers and when the official report goes down as a suicide, Carey, will open his own investigation which doesn’t sit well with any of our leading players.
One thing that no one is telling Carey is that his wife was easy with her sexual favors in his absence. This is where Chris Lee comes in. While Carey is bullying his way into Hayter’s club for details on why the bar owner was seen with his wife just days before her death, Deckers, is quietly checking the dead woman’s movements which includes visiting Lee. Our soon to be Dracula has about a five minute scene as a painter with a nude model in the foreground. For the record, Lee, looks good here in his goatee and mustache pointing out that the dead woman dropped him and moved on to her next lover.
Then there’s Dennis Price playing for me what he was best at. A spineless, weak character. It’s a job I guess. Turns out he’s been dealing with Hayter who wants to buy the plantation. Price is willing to sell but doesn’t believe Carey will. This is central to the hatred between Carey and Hayter which is only escalating now that Carey has noticed the lovely Angeli in his midst. Yes sir. Just days after his wife’s death he’s taken notice of the singer with the big brown eyes that Hayter covets.
Not yet Philip, we have a murder mystery to solve.
When two attempts are made on Carey’s life he knows he’s getting to the truth and proving his wife was a murder victim as opposed to a suicide. The script from writers Frank Partos and John Cresswell does a solid job at casting suspicions on all our leading players from Miss Angeli right over to Colonel Deckers in a very Claude Rains like role. Each character including Hayter, Price and his wife Miss Gurney come across as withholding secrets from Carey which only serves to heighten this who done it.
The key to the mystery lies in two major plot points for our American leading man. The murder weapon and a missing diamond necklace from his wife’s security deposit box.
I’m going to take an educated guess that Philip Carey was overseas as were many of his fellow American actors taking advantage of a tax loophole making films abroad. He would film two movies in England that were released in 1956. Alongside Port Afrique, he’d co-star with Arlene Dahl and Herbert Marshall in Wicked As They Come for director Ken Hughes. I generally associate Carey with westerns but that isn’t necessarily fair. He had a large body of work in most genres including a stint on TV as Philip Marlowe in the TV season of 1959-60.
Italian beauty Pier Angeli was to be another of Hollywood’s tragic stories. Despite flirting with superstardom after key roles opposite the likes of Paul Newman and Stewart Granger, her star declined in the 1960’s and sadly she’d be dead in 1971 at the age of just 39. Knowing this somehow makes her performance here that much stronger. In the film she’s trying to maintain her dignity as a “good girl” and not give way to Hayter and ultimately prostitution.
I’m thinking this is a rather rare title and if it were not for a late night showing on TCM I’d probably still be wondering if I’ll ever be able to place a checkmark beside this title on the catalog of Christopher Lee films. As I’ve said in the past, I’m a fan of the horror icon and have done my best to collect the films and TV appearances he made over a career spanning eight decades. On the topic of the director, Rudolph Mate’, he was on a run of entertaining films from 1947 through to 1958. Well known titles include D.O.A., Union Station, When Worlds Collide, The Violent Men and The Deep Six. All these mixed with a couple of Tony Curtis costume pics, The Black Shield of Falworth and The Price Who Was a Thief make Mate’ a specialist in delivering solid entertainment for the movie going crowds of the 1950’s.
Admittedly Port Afrique is no classic and I’m not even sure if it qualifies as a Noir but it’s worth a look if it presents itself.