Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5
Released today by Warner Home Video, Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 is a four disc set showcasing eight double-featured films, a sampling of thrillers ranging from the iconic to the obscure.
Disc one is strong, pairing Edward Dmytryk's Cornered (1945) with Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947). Cornered was the second hit teaming of star Dick Powell with director Dmytryk, and it followed their private-eye noir masterpiece, Murder, My Sweet, by a year. In this outing, Powell is a Royal Canadian Air Force vet doggedly tracking his wife's killer across the globe. To read Rick's in-depth review of Cornered at the Cafe last month, click here.
Desperate was a breakout film for director Anthony Mann, the first in a series of late-'40s noirs that launched his career. Mann's signature is his strong visual style, and this fast-paced story of an innocent man on the run is told seamlessly, boosted by stylish set-pieces (including the classic of a fierce back room beating that sets an overhead light swaying), a smart script and George Diskant's cinematography. Steve Brodie, as magnetic as he is powerful in the role of an honest truck driver turned fall guy, delivers a stand-out performance. With creamy Audrey Long as his bride, menacing Raymond Burr as his nemesis and Jason Robards, Sr., as the cynical/affable police lieutenant. Desperate, a staple at noir festivals and Mann retrospectives, is one of the gems of this collection.
Disc two is more eclectic and opens with a fact-based crime expose, The Phenix City Story (1955), directed by Phil Karlson. Veteran LA newsman Clete Roberts kicks it off with a 13+ minute news report plus interviews. Then the dramatized story of the 1954 assassination of an Alabama politician begins. It's a brutal (with a capital 'B') chunk of history. With John McIntyre, Richard Kiley and the future Mrs. Bing Crosby, Kathryn Grant. Next up, Dial 1119 (1950), a mad-killer-on-the-loose tale directed by Gerald Mayer (Louis B's nephew). The crazed killer (Marshall Thompson) holes up in a neighborhood bar and holds its staff and patrons hostage during a police stand-off. Virginia Field takes a nifty turn as a barfly/seductress and William Conrad appears briefly as "Chuckles," the bartender. Otherwise, this one's mostly interesting for its depiction of the era's bar culture and attitudes toward the "insanity defense."
Disc three features the formidable down-and-dirty Armored Car Robbery (1950). Taut and intense, it runs a very fast 68 minutes - that's no surpise with action/suspense master Richard Fleischer directing. Gravel-voiced noir stalwart Charles McGraw stars as a grimly determined LAPD lieutenant bent on avenging the murder of his partner during an armored car robbery. William Talman, a few years before he became a familiar face as D.A. Hamilton Burger on TV's "Perry Mason," is chillingly reptilian as the heist mastermind; hard-boiled, slightly worn femme fatale Adele Jergens isn't quite Virginia Mayo, but she's not bad at all. With solid Steve Brodie, this time as the getaway car driver. Armored Car Robbery is ferocious noir that works from start to finish; the film ends with buddy moment as the jaded lieutenant shares a cynical laugh with his new (and newly manned-up) partner. I imagine Jean-Pierre Melville must've watched this a couple of times before he made Bob le flambeur (1955).
Also included on disc three is Crime in the Streets (1956), a juvenile delinquent drama directed by Don Siegel, starring John Cassavetes. The story originally aired as a teleplay and the film looks and feels like Golden Age TV. Cassavetes' performance as an overheated teenage gang leader on the verge of mayhem is the main reason to watch this one. He's spellbinding. With Sal Mineo and James Whitmore.
Disc four offers the final double-feature, Deadline at Dawn (1946) and Backfire (1950).
Deadline at Dawn, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich/aka/William Irish (Rear Window), boasts a screenplay by Clifford Odets and is the only film New York theater legend Harold Clurman ever directed. It got my attention with an opening shot of a sleeping woman's face...and the fly crawling over it...Bill Williams stars as a corn-fed sailor on shore leave who may be guilty of murder and has only till dawn to clear himself. Susan Hayward plays the taxi dancer who helps him out and Paul Lukas is their cabbie sidekick. While quirky dialogue and various red herrings pique interest, it's primarily evocative cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca) and Susan Hayward's vibrant performance that keep things moving.
Backfire stars Gordon MacRae before he rose to film stardom in a pair of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. It features two future Oscar winners, Edmond O'Brien and Ed Begley, plus Virginia Mayo - this time as a good girl, MacRae's nurse. Vincent Sherman directed and, though the film is erratic, it's enjoyable...like a carnival ride. MacRae is effective as a fresh-faced veteran who dreams of a farm of his own as he recovers in a VA hospital. When his Army buddy (O'Brien) disappears and is implicated in a murder, he sets out to clear his pal's name. The flashback-driven story twists and turns and, oddly, the final plot twist may be given away by images on the product package and DVD. Also starring Viveca Lindfors and Dane Clark. Noteworthy original music by Daniele Amfitheatrof who scored Max Ophuls' legendary Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948).
From 2004 - 2007, Warner Home Video released a film noir collection every July, like clockwork. Then nothing...for three years. It's not surprising, then, that Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 is being greeted with much fanfare. We, the classic film loving people, must have our noir!
There are two must-see films in this collection, Anthony Mann's Desperate and Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery. Also worthy are Edward Dmytryk's Cornered and Harold Clurman's Deadline at Dawn. Vincent Sherman's Backfire goes off the rails but has enough B-star power and plot packed into it to keep it entertaining. Once the news story and interviews end, Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story begins to build. It's violent, but fascinating. A historical footnote adds interest: After the candidate (John McIntyre) was murdered, his son (Richard Kiley) ran for Attorney General of Alabama in his place. The son, John Patterson, won and went on to become Alabama's youngest governor.
(available on DVD and Blu-ray)