Review: Angel on the Amazon (1948)


Republic's Angel on the Amazon is perhaps most notable for its scarcity in the digital age, not for plot, performances, or production--but then again, such is the case for many of the programmers that flooded out of Poverty Row during Hollywood's Golden Age. At the very least, Angel offers a lot of fun elements and a metaphysical plot device that could have been used for cheap thrills, but which is in service of something more mature here. 

When their airplane goes down in the Amazon, Jim Warburton (George Brent) and Dr. Karen Lawrence (Constance Bennett) are found and rescued by a group of big game hunters, led by the fearless (and emotionless) Christine Ridgeway (Vera Ralston), resulting in a smitten Jim, who becomes obsessed with this mysterious woman. What he doesn't realize is that she's carrying a dark secret, one that prevents her from letting anyone get too close. No sooner has he set her in his sights (with a libidinous fervor that would make Pepé Le Pew proud) when she flees back to civilization and the bright lights of Rio de Janeiro. Jim pursues, relentless in his desire to have her at all costs, regardless of her rebuffs. 

The reason for Christine's skittishness is right there on the poster, so I suppose it's no great spoiler to mention it here: after an extreme shock decades ago, she has stopped aging and is much older than she appears. Much has been written about Vera Ralston's acting ability (or inability, if you prefer), but I think she's adequate here, with her detachment somehow serving her emotionally-distant character. A brief history of salacious tidbits that shouldn't matter, but actually do: in 1948--the same year as this production--Republic Pictures founder Herbert J. Yates left his wife for Vera Ralston, a figure-skater-turned-actor from Czechoslovakia. They were married a few years later, but it really hit the fan in 1958 when he was accused of putting his wife's film career before the health of his movie studio. The allegation was that 18 of Vera's 20 films had been flops, but he continued to give her starring or co-lead roles, despite her apparent lack of box office appeal and limited acting ability. 

What does any of this have to do with Angel on the Amazon? Well, if one believes that Vera Ralson had a total lack of charisma and movie star charm, her casting as the exotic-yet-aloof beauty of the jungle seems questionable. Surely the role might have been better served by a Ruth Roman type. But that's not what we got; instead we got Ralston, and she delivers a serviceable turn in the role which might have been given more life by someone else. Then again, Ralston's casting is just one of several elements that feel slightly askew. After all, this is an unconventional movie: a jungle picture that doesn't actually spend much time in the jungle, a romance plot with a subverted conclusion (I haven't mentioned an estranged husband, played by Brian Aherne), and an anti-aging phenomenon that adds ennui, not horror or mayhem. This is a movie that feels equal parts noir, melodrama, jungle adventure, and romance. Given the number of times Angel on the Amazon manages to swerve our expectations, maybe it's more memorable than one might think. 

Angel on the Amazon makes a worldwide Blu-ray debut as part of Imprint's Tales of Adventure Blu-ray box set and has been given a beautiful new transfer, sourced from a 4K scan, and a new commentary by Philippa Berry. 

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