Directed By: William Dieterle
Starring: Bette Davis, Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay
Tag line: "You're on the way to one of the most exciting experiences you've ever had in motion pictures!"
Trivia: Film historian William K. Everson once called this "the fastest film ever made"
Man, oh man, is Fog Over Frisco a wild movie! Directed by William Dieterle, this crime / thriller features gangsters, beat reporters, cops, bankers, and two rich stepsisters, all of whom are participants in what proves to be a perplexing mystery, told at such a frantic pace that it’ll make your head spin.
Socialite Arlene Bradford (Bette Davis) is mixed up in some pretty bad stuff. A party girl who can’t keep her picture out of the paper, she’s also a key figure in a stolen bonds ring, using her fiancé, stockbroker Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot, Glen or Glenda), to help move the merchandise that her sometimes lover, gangster Jake Bellow (Irving Pichel, The Most Dangerous Game), steals on a regular basis. Not realizing he’s being duped, Spencer, who works for Arlene’s step-father, Everett Bradford (Arthur Byron, The Mummy), does what he can to sell the bonds, all the while knowing that, sooner or later, the law will catch up with him. As for Mr. Bradford, he’s none too happy that his step-daughter is such a loose cannon, and is further annoyed that she’s been spending so much time with his own daughter, Val (Margaret Lindsey, Lady Killer), who tries to convince dear old dad that Arlene has turned over a new leaf. But Mr. Bradford and Val’s boyfriend, reporter Tony Sterling (Donald Woods, 1969’s True Grit), know better, and do what they can to warn the naïve Val that her stepsister is a bad influence. But even they don’t realize how much trouble Arlene has caused, or how deeply Val will be pulled into this mess before it’s finished.
Produced a few months before Of Human Bondage, the movie that made Bette Davis a star, Fog Over Frisco gave the actress a juicy role to sink her teeth into: that of a vixen and thief who uses her influence, and her sex appeal, to get what she wants. As usual, Davis was superb, and her co-stars were also up to the challenge (especially Lindsey as the far-too-trusting Val), yet what makes Fog Over Frisco such an engrossing film is how it manages to tell such an intricate tale in so short a time.
Clocking in at a mere 68 minutes, the movie begins as an engaging crime story, with Arlene obtaining some stolen bonds from Jake, then talking Spencer into taking them off her hands. At the same time, we’re exposed to the Bradford’s family drama, with Mr. Bradford telling Arlene, in no uncertain terms, that she’s not welcome at the family home. From there, the film veers in several different directions, including a subplot involving a romance between Arlene and another of Bradford’s employees; and a thriller in which Tony Sterling and his cameraman, Izzy (Hugh Herbert, Footlight Parade), make a startling discovery in the family’s garage. Throw in a police procedural, with Alan Hale (The Adventures of Robin Hood) as an inspector trying to unravel this complicated case, as well as a surprise murder mystery and you have a movie that doesn’t slow down to take a breath.
What’s even more impressive than its pace is how cohesive Fog Over Frisco remains throughout (you won’t have a hard time following what’s going on), and how completely it grabs your attention (the last 20 minutes are positively exhilarating). Made during Hollywood’s pre-code era, when censors turned a blind eye to violence and sexuality, Fog Over Frisco is a sometimes racy hidden gem that I’m damn happy I found.