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When Alan Ladd parted ways with Paramount Pictures, the studio that had given him his big break as the assassin anti-hero of Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942), he was headed toward a sweeter deal with Warner Brothers. While Paramount had been somewhat parsimonious in funding its Ladd vehicles, Warners guaranteed the actor $150,000 per picture (at one per year), story approval, residuals, the freedom to work for other studios and his own production company. (Ladd's signature film, Shane , was part of his separation agreement with Paramount.) Headquartered on the Warners lot, Jaguar Productions was captained by Ladd and Delmer Daves, who not only directed their first venture but wrote the screenplay as well. Shot in CinemaScope, Drum Beat (1954) starred Ladd as rugged Indian fighter Johnnie MacKay, who accepts a commission from the US Government to negotiate a treaty with Modoc chieftain Charles Bronson and in so doing head off a bloody uprising on the California-Oregon border.
Ladd's artistic freedom would prove his undoing, with many of his pet projects underperforming and none of his TV pilots selling. By the August 1960 opening of Jaguar's All the Young Men (in which Ladd's thunder was stolen by second-billed Sidney Poitier), Warners had already cut off funding. Pushing 50, Ladd looked on in dismay as Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck got the best parts, while a newcomer named Peter O'Toole grabbed away his dream role as Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Despite having considerable wealth, Ladd needed to work. He played an embittered lawman in the Fox western One Foot in Hell (1960) and traveled to Italy to star in the trouble-plagued sword and sandal epic Duel of the Champions (Orazi e curiazi, 1961). Back in the States, Ladd set up Ladd Enterprises in an office on Wilshire Boulevard and went to work producing a film adaptation of the 1957 novel The Tiger Among Us by Leigh Brackett.
Leigh Brackett's second career as a screenwriter spans the three decades between The Big Sleep (1946) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). One of four crime novels written by a specialist in science fiction and fantasy, The Tiger Among Us is the story of an aerospace engineer who turns vigilante when attacked by a youth gang. Retitled 13 West Street (1962) and dumped into second feature Siberia by Columbia, this forgotten drama forfeits exploitative flourishes to carve a character study of a Camelot-era American whose devotion to work (in addition to rendering him childless) has cut him off from the world. Although the violence of 13 West Street is minimal, the film anticipates the cycle of vigilante films popular in the 1970s. Kicked off by Phil Karlson's fact-based Walking Tall (1973) and Michael Winner's aggressively exploitative Death Wish (1974), this subgenre spawned two Walking Tall sequels, four Death Wish sequels and numerous copycats made for television and the big screen.
Cast as the sympathetic Juvenile Division cop who counsels Ladd's solid citizen against taking the law into his own hands was Rod Steiger, who also was experiencing something of a career slump. After his successes in On the Waterfront (1954) and the musical Oklahoma! (1955), Steiger turned down offers of lucrative but binding multi-year contracts to remain a free agent; consequently, the actor lost out on the chance to recreate the role of Marty for the 1955 film adaptation produced by Burt Lancaster's company Hill-Hecht-Lancaster. No longer in demand, Steiger had to scramble for paying gigs for a decade before his Oscar® nominated comeback in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964). On the set of 13 West Street, Steiger found Ladd professional but distant. "Alan Ladd was a very sweet and a very kind and a rather sad man," Steiger told Ladd's biographer Beverly Linet. "He was an exhausted man... one had a feeling he was waiting for it to end."
His Golden Boy looks ravaged by alcohol and his career in decline, Ladd suffered further despair over the deaths of his Salty O'Rourke costar Gail Russell (of an alcohol-induced heart attack at age 36), former friend Dick Powell (whose wife, June Allyson, Ladd had fallen in love with while filming The McConnell Story in 1954) and director Frank Tuttle. Ladd himself was left near death in November 1962 as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while staying alone at his Hidden Valley ranch. The bullet had passed through Ladd's left lung and lodged in the muscles of his back, requiring a long and painful recuperation that may have led to his eventual death by accidental combination of alcohol and sedatives on January 29, 1964. Ladd's innate aloofness was perhaps best summed up by frequent co-star Veronica Lake, who likened Ladd's passing to "losing a piece of jewelry you never wore but enjoyed every time you opened the jewel case."
Bringing vitality to 13 West Street is its quartet of youth offenders. Having played plum roles in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Mysterious Island (1961), Michael Callan was pointed toward a career high as Jane Fonda's outlaw love interest in Cat Ballou (1965). Chris Robinson was one of John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages (1961) and still hadn't cleaned up his act by the time of The Cycle Savages (1969); cult film fans remember him best as the vengeful half-breed anti-hero of Stanley (1972), a ripoff of Willard (1971) that substituted rattlesnakes for rats. Blue-eyed Mark Slade later turned up as the sensitive son of Arizona cattleman Leif Erickson on the western weekly The High Chaparral while Adam Roarke went on to exploitation infamy in The Losers (1970) and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974). Memorable cameos are also contributed by Mary Tyler Moore's Ted Knight (as Ladd's brother-in-law) and Bernie Hamilton, later a regular on the hit series Starsky & Hutch.
Producer: William Bloom, Alan Ladd
Director: Philip Leacock
Screenplay: Robert Presnell, Jr., Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Leigh Brackett (novel)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: George Duning
Cast: Alan Ladd (Walt Sherill), Rod Steiger (Detective Sergeant Koleski), Michael Callan (Chuck), Dolores Dorn (Tracey Sherill), Kenneth MacKenna (Paul Logan), Margaret Hayes (Mrs. Landry).
By Richard Harland Smith