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)


  1. LadyEve, I'm really looking forward to adding this Noir box set to my DVD collection.. I hope you do not mind if I add your review to Noir and Chick Flicks page.

  2. Eve, your fabulous review has inspired me to head to my favorite online discount DVD dealer to place an order! Unlike with most of the film noir collections, I haven't seen many of these movies. As you know, I am a big fan of CORNERED and Anthony Mann has become (later in life) one of my favorite directors. The creatively lighted backroom scene in DESPERATE sounds like classic early Mann (a great contrast to his outdoor Westerns with James Stewart). It will be interesting to see perennial good guy Marshall Thompson as a "crazed killer" in DIAL 1119 (it can't be...he was "Daktari" on TV!). On the other hand, I can envision the versatile William Tallman as a "reptilian" (love your descriptions) baddie. DEADLINE AT DAWN sounds especially intriguing to me because of the people behind it. Does it feel "theatrical" in any way, given the involvement of Clurman and Odets? By the way, Cornell Woolrich wrote the novel that was the basis for LEOPARD MAN, one of my favorite Val Lewton movies. All in all, this was an illuminating write-up of what sounds like a terrific film noir DVD set.

  3. Dawn, please do add my review to Noir & Chick Flicks (and thanks).

    Rick, I imagine Marshall Thompson, considering all those good-guy roles he played, had some fun portraying a deranged maniac in DIAL 1119 (it was William Conrad who got my sympathy..."Chuckles" the bartender). Talman was great in ACR, completely vicious. As for DEADLINE AT DAWN, it didn't strike me as overly "theatrical." Lots of atmosphere (the sense of a hot, humid and dangerous night is strong) and depth in the supporting cast (Edward Calleia, Jerome Cowan, Lola Lane, Osa Massen, Marvin Miller) add to the mix. It doesn't speed along like the Mann and Fleischer films, but has its own charms.

  4. Great reading about this collection! Finally, The Phenix Story makes it to DVD.

  5. Eve, you have done an outstanding job profiling this collection for us. I am also an Anthony Mann fan and have not seen his first work. I think "Armored Car Robbery" sounds fascinating and would enjoy seeing William Talman on the opposite side of the law. "Deadline at Dawn" intrigues me because of Odets and Clurman. I am also intrigued to see Gordon Macrae in film noir.
    Thank you for introducing us to a collection that sounds like it may be worth the investment.
    Remarkable write-up, Eve!

  6. Kim's post reminded me that THE PHENIX CITY STORY is coming up this month on TCM (Sat., July 17)...and a thank you to Toto...

  7. Cassavetes as a "overheated teenage gang leader"? That's a spot-on description! He was a little overheated in most roles. But "Crime in the Streets" is classic Siegel. It's great to see it included in a promising DVD set.

  8. Eve, what an in-depth profile! Thank you so much for this detailed review. I've never seen "Backfire" but admire Vincent Sherman's work, and it also has Viveca Lindfors, who is never boring. "Dial 1119" is an entertaining killer-on-the-loose drama starring Marshall Thompson of "Daktari" and "Clarence, The Cross-Eyed Lion" fame, and it is amusing to see some of his earlier work. (He played Wolf in "Good Morning, Miss Dove," and Bill in "The Clock.")
    You are entertaining and informative, as usual, Eve!

  9. Hi Christy! Glad you enjoyed the review - & it's good to hear from you. Viveca Lindfors was interesting in BACKFIRE, but her career in the US didn't seem to jell as it could've. I remember her mostly for her TV work - and WELCOME TO L.A., THE WAY WE WERE - her later career. Marshall Thompson stared and glared and sweated his way through the mad killer role in DIAL 1119 - he wasn't bad, but entirely different from the more affable parts he was known for.