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DVD reviews: Film Noir edition

Two recent DVD releases have cast a dark but welcome shadow over our summertime viewing. For a look at these new Film Noir sets, here's local critic Sean Axmaker: The Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5 (Warner) The most famous artifacts that we have retroactively branded as film noir, from the iconic (The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity) to the cult (Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly) to the rediscovered oddities and minor classics (Murder By Contract, Blast of Silence) have largely arrived on DVD but the joys of exploring this unique cinematic slice of American cinema in the shadows is discovering nuggets of lesser-known films and their own attitudes and shades of gray. This set of eight films features one bona-fide classic of the genre and one minor masterpiece of noir mood and doom. Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955) is one of the most hard-hitting crime films of its era, a ripped-from-the-headlines drama of a town (Phenix City, Alabama, located near an army base to serve of less savory needs of our men in uniform—booze, girls and gambling) run by the rackets, inspired by real-life events and directed in a semi-documentary style with a tabloid punch. In fact it opens with real documentary reporting (by Clete Roberts) in an arch, overlong prologue that seems designed more to justify the violence to the censors than prepare audiences for the film to follow, but it serves its purpose in reminding us that the stakes are not just movieland stories but a real community under the thumb of the rackets. To further the identification, Karlson shot the film on location in the town and included locals as extras and bit players in the cast. Richard Kiley (whose most famous noir role is as a sweaty, cowardly Communist spy in Pick-up On South Street) is the film's unlikely hero, the son of a local lawyer (John McIntire) home from service in post-war Germany who resists taking on the forces of organized crime (and the police department that it has thoroughly corrupted) until the violence touches him personally. He's no vigilante—the film makes a point of non-violent resistance—but he campaigns for State Attorney on a platform of cleaning up and he does. Karlson builds his portrait of corruption and capitulation slowly, with matter-of-fact violence in the gambling dens and roughneck bars leading up to brutal acts upon genuine innocents, including the murder of a child. Karlson's crime bosses are not the trigger-happy thugs of the thirties gangster films or the showy would-be kingpins of the usual mob thriller, but men who look and act just like the local businessmen of the Chamber of Commerce, which makes their actions even more unconscionable. His superb handling of brutal violence that seems all the more terrible in the small town setting, but he also makes a more subtle point about segregation and racial violence. This is one of the great noirs from the "realist" ends of the spectrum. Deadline At Dawn (1946), a wrong-man nightmare noir set over a long night in an urban jungle, is a film of shadows and secrets and moments of street poetry. It's the only film directed by Harold Clurman, the influential theater director and producer who formed the Group Theater with Lee Strasberg, and comes from a Cornell Woolrich's novel adapted for the screen by Clifford Odets, but the performances and dialogue are secondary to the tremendous mood, created in large part by the beautiful budget expressionist lighting of Nicholas Musuraca, who turns the backlot street sets into a nocturnal world of its own with pools light and shadow for the characters to emerge from and disappear back into. Bill Williams is a small town soldier in trouble in the big city, not much of an actor or a dynamic presence, but his stolid, gee-whiz flatness helps make him genuinely in need of protection from the predators of the city, especially when he wakes up with no memory of how came into possession of $1,400 and why there's now a dead woman in the apartment he was in. Susan Hayward is a dime a dancer who longs for hearth and home and looks after the kid not out of romantic impulses but maternal/filial streak: her brother is in the Pacific and she see the kid as just a puppy. Her tough grace brings the character to life beautifully. The script fluctuates wildly, with clunker lines amidst street poetry and tough guy jargon, but it only adds to the madness of the mood, with its sudden plot turns, wild goose chases, blind alleys and supporting characters who careen about until their action come back in unexpected ways. The inconsistencies and sudden acts of kindness—and the weird feeling that there is more to this little boy lost soldier that meets the eye—become a part of the unbalanced atmosphere over a long night. Paul Lukas is superb as a philosophical cab driver with his own benevolent streak (and his own secrets) and the eccentrics and suspicious characters that weave through the film are all given an element of humanity by Odets and Clurman. Not a masterpiece, but a marvelous mood piece wound through with character and texture. The balance is a collection of cult pieces and noir oddities. Cornered (1945) reunites the Murder, My Sweet team of director Edward Dmytryk and star Dick Powell for a post-war mix of detective movie and war crime thriller. Desperate (1947), a bare-knuckle heist picture, is Anthony Mann's first real film noir and a stand-out B-movie, starring Steve Brodie and great second-tier noir heavy Raymond Burr. Armored Car Robbery (1950) is a superb marriage of gangster getaway thriller and police procedural with gravel-voiced Charles McGraw on the trail of the crook (future Perry Mason co-star William Tallman) who shot his partner. Crime in the Streets (1956) is less film noir than stagey social drama, but it's the film debut of John Cassavetes in a twitchy bit of juvenile delinquency on the road to murder. I wasn't able to see the final films in the collection: Backfire (1950) with Virginia Mayo and Gordon MacRae and Dial 1119 (1950) with Marshall Thompson. The films I did see look terrific and The Phenix City Story and Crime in the Streets, the two productions from the fifties when all film were going widescreen (to differentiate themselves from TV), are matted to TV widescreen (16×9) dimensions, better approximating (if not quite matching) the original theatrical presentation. And as a side note, four of the films are from RKO and two from the independent studio Allied Artists; only one in the set is an actual Warner Bros. production.

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II (Collector's Choice) (Sony) The second collection of film noir classics from the golden age of Columbia Pictures picks up where the first one left off, even if the word "classics" is used in the generic sense (as in, they are all over fifty years old). What's so marvelous about the set is that it spotlights lesser known and under-appreciated titles in the genre. The best known of the quintet is Fritz Lang's Human Desire, adapted from Emile Zola's La Bete Humaine and featuring his The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame (so perfectly tawdry), and the unknown factor belongs to City of Fear, an interesting but disappointing thriller from the director (Irving Lerner) and star (Vince Edwards) of the first set's rediscovery Murder By Contract, but the other three are the set's true gems. Richard Quine's Pushover plays like a low-rent Double Indemnity, with Fred MacMurray as a tired cop who falls for a gangster's girlfriend (Kim Novak in her film debut), but under the doomed plot is a touching romance and loyalty. Quine finds a scuffed dignity in their connection, despite the tawdry path they take and makes the anonymity of the low-budget sets work to his benefit. Phil Karlson's The Brothers Rico is a family drama set within the world of organized crime, where the loyalty to the organization collides with to loyalty to blood, and Richard Conte is superb as the brother blindsided by the difference. My personal rediscovery is Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall (1956), a classic noir nightmare with Aldo Ray as the innocent man on the run from the police (who think he's guilty of murder) and brutal bank robbers (who framed him) and Anne Bancroft as the emotionally bruised model who puts her trust in the tormented innocent. It's adapted from a novel by David Goodis, whose best work plumbed the despair and helplessness of innocents wrapped in webs of violence and persecution that dragged down their souls along with their lives, while Tourneur brings out the fighting side of this victimized innocent with a tough/tender performance from Ray, an artist by trade living in the shadows of society where every stranger is a potential enemy. "Why me?" asks Bancroft when she stuck in the web after sharing a not-so-innocent (but far from guilt) drink that leads to a run-in with a pair of thugs. He tosses off his answer like a man living the question: "I ask myself that every night." Crisply directed, scripted with gems of hardboiled lines ("You're asking for it" / "I'm in an asking position") and superbly paced, it's a film of darkness and light that ends up in the snowy mountains of Wyoming, where violence throws its long shadow over the purity of the snowy hills. James Gregory brings a paternal warmth to his dogged insurance investigator, almost a guardian angel over the man he's shadowing, driven as much by an innate sense of justice as by his responsibility to find a cache of stolen money, and Brian Keith plays the most affable yet deadly criminal of his career. He doesn't leave witnesses, but that doesn't mean he enjoys his work. The supplements are far less lavish that the previous Columbia noir collection, limited to brief interview featurettes with Martin Scorsese (on The Brothers Rico), director Christopher Nolan and actress Emily Mortimer, but the star attractions are the five films making their DVD debuts in superb transfers, all of them in their correct aspect ratio for the first time on home video.

Cross-published with Parallax View and If you haven't had enough noir, tickets are on sale here now for AFTER MIDNIGHT: THE FILM NOIR CYCLE series at Seattle Art Museum. It doesn't start until September, but tickets always go fast. Pick up a series flyer and your tickets here at Scarecrow.