I've got a riddle for you: what do you get when you mix a tough guy with a soft heart, a soft dame with a cold heart, a bunch of coppers, a stool pigeon or two, a whole lot of people of dubious intentions and morality, maybe some dough or a big heist and what do you have. You've got a formula for a great film noir classic. I gotta tell ya, there's something great about watching a great B flick on the screen that will take you places dangerous, dark, fun and sometimes unpredictable, but always enjoyable. If you are already a fan of the genre, you know what I'm talking about. If you are just discovering the genre of films for the first time, it won't be long before you are sucked in. Either way I've got some great news for you: Warner Brothers has released their fourth volume of Film Noir classics in a DVD box set. The aptly named, Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4, was released last week and we've got the straight dope for you. Is the set worth your hard boiled bucks or ill-gotten gain. Are the femmes really fatale and are the guys all that tough? Is the set a Shelf Classic or a dud? Find out in this DVD review of Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume 4.
The Hard Facts:
Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4
10 Films: 2 films each on 5 Discs in keep cases
Studio: Warner Home Video
Black and White
Original Studios: MGM, WB, RKO and Monogram
Release Date: June 31, 2007
Rated: NR for All Films
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Edward G. Robinson, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Sterling Hayden, Jean Gillie and more.
Film Noir. If you can find a concise, universally accepted definition- well, just let me know. Some critics and film scholars will tell you one thing, and I’ve heard quite a few fans say “I’ll know when I see it.” Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. I am definitely a fan of the genre, but in some ways it is a “post-genre” convention. It is a term that was coined by French critic, Nico Frank in 1946. American film makers were unaware of the term and the writings of the French about Film Noir, until well after a bulk of the films often considered part of the genre were made. In other words, more specifically, the words of writer Stanley Rubin (Decoy); “When I wrote the original story for Decoy, I had never heard the term ‘Film Noir.’ I was writing, basically, a film of suspense, of melodrama, of terror.”
Film Noir is as much about the style and look as it is the story and characters. And there are many, many fans and many films out there. You might think there are only a few standouts, but true devotees of the genre know for every one that finally hits DVD, there are at least five others that should be on DVD or are missing altogether. And truthfully, there are some films that fans and scholars alike claim are Film Noir, but are really a stretch to fit it in the genre. So, what we are left with is a fluid, indefinable genre of American film, loosely categorized by French film critics, and loved by many.
Well, maybe that’s not quite accurate. There are few tangible characteristics that we can identify. Generally speaking, Film Noir is a genre of films that were produced in the 1940s and 50s, and they usually run the gamut of procedural police dramas, detective films, potboiler romances gone wrong, hard boiled cop films, gangster flick to the societal crisis film. The have distinguishing features: shadows and unconventional lighting; stereotypical characters like the femme fatale and the private eye; and they really push the envelope of conventional cinema. While the law may usually prevail, there is almost always a cost, and it's not always gonna be a happy ending...or pretty. There are some films where you are hard pressed to find a character with a conscience, or even good intentions. Most of them would be classified as "B" pictures; even the films that we think of today as classics were probably "B" pictures in there day. One thing is for sure, they are different than most of your typically flicks today. And, as Martha ( a hard boiled dame herself) would say: that's a good thing.
Wolf and I took each disc as a double feature and we'll review a disc at a time. The films include: Act of Violence, Mystery Street, Crime Wave, Decoy, Illegal, The Big Steal, They Live by Night, Side Street, Where Danger Lives and Tension. We'll look at some in brief and discuss others at length and list the extras included on each disc. Each disc has two films with extras and each is in a keep case.
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk and a young Charles Bronson
Crime Wave is a great Film Noir that combines the ex-con and the police procedural angles. Parolee Steve Lacey is trying to live out his life in peace with his wife, Ellen. He's got a job, an apartment: he's got a straight life. Then comes trouble. Some former "friends" from the big house call on him one night after an attempted gas station robbery goes wrong. Soon the cops, lead by no-nonsense Detective Lt. Sims (Hayden), are on top of the crime, tracking down the crooks. Lt. Sims narrows down their hide out choices to former contacts and number one on that list is Steve Lacey. Sims and his crew are all over Steve and his wife, watching their every move. It isn't long before Steve's former cellmates force him into helping him with a bank robbery, with Ellen on ice to make sure he goes through with the job. It's a mess Steve's been forced into, but he's determined to find a way out and be left alone.
Extras: Commentary by James Ellroy and Eddie Muller, Making of featurette: Crime Wave: The City is Dark and the theatrical trailer.
Crime Wave is an excellent procedural film and one in which Sterling Hayden shines. Hayden is not often commended for his acting, but this one of the films in which he inhabits the role so well (the other is The Killing). It's interesting to note that LA Confidential author, James Ellroy, discusses on the commentary track how he based his Bud White character partly on Hayden and his role in this film. In fact he talks alot about how much this film influenced his work. The cinematography is excellent as well, with many of the scenes shot on location in LA. Most interestingly is how Ellroy and Muller identify many of the real locations used in the film, including the actual old LA police department. Crime Wave is one of the best films in this awesome set.
Stars: Jean Gillie, Sheldon Leonard, Herbert Rudley and Edward Norris.
Decoy is one of the more different films in this genre that you'll see. The film is told mostly in flashback, told by a dying women named Margot Shelby (Gillie) to police Sergeant Joe Portugal (Leonard). Margot was shot by a mild-mannered Dr. Craig (Rudley), who she had roped into helping her revive her gangster boyfriend after he died in the electric chair. (I told you it was different!) Her boyfriend had hidden the money from his last job, but refused to tell anyone where it was. Margot seduces Dr. Craig and gets him involved in the scheme by having him revive the boyfriend with a concoction called methylene blue. When she is able to get the money's location out of the boyfriend, she kills him. Dr. Craig is stricken with a case of conscience, and realizes the problem he's in and the type of women he's fallen for. The story of the femme fatale, the money, and how the Doctor manages to take out Margot is the sorry story Sgt. Portugal hears as Margot dies in his arms.
Extras: Commentary by Decoy author Stanley Rubin and Glenn Erickson (the DVD Savant!), Making of featurette: Decoy: A Map to Nowhere and the theatrical trailer.
Decoy is definitely different, but it's a fantastic piece of noir. It takes some of the more conventional elements and ratchets them up just a bit. Margot is no ordinary femme fatale; she is powerful and in control, and is homicidal all at the same time. The reviving of the executed gangster boyfriend with drugs is unconventional and also presages the "fantastic" element of Pulp Fiction. The commentary is the best of all the commentaries of the set. Glenn Erickson is very informative and engaging as usual, but it is his conversation with the author of Decoy, Stanley Rubin that is so good. The two talk about his career, the film, the genre and the different aspects of the film without every really resorting to just describing what's on the screen. Decoy is worth seeing several times, just for one the more unique femme fatales on film. And while you know it's a "B" picture, it's perhaps, technically and story wise, one of the better films from Monogram studios.
Act of Violence
Stars: Robert Ryan, Van Heflin, Janet Leigh and Mary Astor
Frank R. Enley (Van Heflin) has returned from the war a broken and changed man. He was captured and interned in a German POW camp for a period of time. Now that he's home and the war is over, he wants to try and adapt back to family life. Then his life is turned upside down when a former fellow soldier, Joe Parkson (Ryan), comes into town. When Enley discovers Parkson is around, he panics. Parkson is intent on killing Enley, for reasons that Enley's wife doesn't understand. It seems that Parkson and Enley were in the POW camp together and there is quite a bit of Enley's war story that he hasn't shared with his wife. A story for which Parkson is determined to make him pay.
Extras: Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper, Making of featurette: Act of Violence: Dealing With the Devil and the theatrical trailer.
Act of Violence was directed by Fred Zinnemann, who directed many hits in different genres like: A Man for All Seasons, Oklahoma!, From Here to Eternity and High Noon (he was also recently portrayed by Peter James Haworth in last year's Hollywoodland). It's an interesting and highly dramatic film from such a talented director. The film also one of the darker films of the set.
Stars: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett and Elsa Lanchester
Vivian, a girl working at a joint called The Grass Skirt, is eager to get away from her life, her boarding horse room, and meager existence. Her hope is her rich. married boyfriend, whom she believes will take her away from it all. After her shift one night she takes a drunk customer and his car for a ride, heading to meet her boyfriend. After she dumps the drunk out of his own car and drives off stranding him, she is never seen from again. Six months later a skeleton is discovered on Cape Cod. Lt. Pete Morales (Montalban) of the Boston PD is assigned to track down who the remains were and what happened to the victim, and brings the remains to Harvard University forensic specialist, Dr.Dr. McAdoo (Bennett). Using forensic methods, Dr. McAdoo and Lt. Morales determine what really happened to Vivian and discover the identity of her killer.
Extras: Commentary by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Making of featurette: Mystery Street: Murder at Harvard and the theatrical trailer.
In a way, Mystery Street is CSI before there was CSI. Still a mystery story, it doesn't adopt many of the more conventional noir aspects, but Mystery Street has atmosphere and suspense. It's also a good film that crosses between standard police police procedural and shadowy noir. It's got a good script by former crime reporter, Sydney Boehm, and it's crime and detecting methods portrayed are ahead of it's time.
Where Danger Lives
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains and Maureen O'Sullivan.
Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) life is headed in a good direction. He has a woman, Julie (O'Sullivan), who loves him, despite his constantly working, he has an easy way with patients and the respect of his colleagues. Then one night a suicidal patient,Margo Lannington comes into the hospital. She's a beautiful woman who intrigues Dr. Cameron. He treats her and it isn't long until he falls for her. One night Margo tells Jeff that her overbearing father won't let her be with him and Jeff goes to their house to confront him, which Margo begs him to stay away. Jeff goes anyway, perhaps a little drunk, but enboldened to talk to her father. But when Jeff arrives he's surprised to discover that Frederick Lannington (Raines) isn't her father, but her husband. An argument ensues, but Frederick tells them they can run away together, but pushes Jeff's buttons, telling him he doesn't know what he's getting into. A short fight breaks out and leaves Frederick unconscious on the floor and Jeff with a cracked skull. He goes to get some water to revive Frederick, but when he returns, Margo tells him he's dead. The two leave the mansion and run off towards Mexico. All the while, Jeff is fighting the effects of his concussion, and trying to stay one step ahead of the police. The only thing he should have done was to listen to Frederick. He doesn't know Margo as well as Frederick did.
Extras: Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Making of featurette: Where Danger Lives: White Rose for Julie and the theatrical trailer.
Where danger lives really puts Robert Mitchum through the paces, and it's interesting to watch him play someone gradually weakening throughout the picture due to the concussion. He's actually very good in this film. The story is excellent and while the twist at the end is somewhat expected, it still pays off well. Faith Domergue was a Howard Hughes "protegee" at the time, and he wanted to feature against Mitchum, one of his biggest box office draws. She's capable in the film, but with Mitchum, Raines, and John Farrow directing she benefits from being in able hands. One feels that several other actresses could really done something with the role and made it even better. Claude Raines has a very small role, but it adds a bit of class to the story in a scene that was perhaps a couple of hours of work for the old pro. John Farrow does an excellent job in directing and keeping the pacing of the film tight. Before you have time to try and really figure things out, something else is happening. Farrow also cast his wife, Maureen O'Sullivan in the film in the small role as Mitchums love interest in the beginning. Most of the time she has on screen is spent behind a surgical mask or on the phone. Farrow may not have thought highly of any close up scenes with Mitchum! Where Danger Lives is a good film, because it has talented people involved, but could've been a great film if a few more talented people were involved.
Stars: Richard Basehart, Audrey Trotter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan and William Conrad
Tension begins as a domestic sob story. Long suffering milqtoast Warren Quimby (Basehart) has been working night after night as a pharmacist, saving everything he can to be a humble home for himself and his wife Claire (Trotter). His wife isn't exactly the settling type. In fact, she's not really anyone's type but her own. Claire has been going out with other men while Warren works, and "earns" many a trinket from her beaus. One day Claire runs off with another man, Barney; and Warren barely puts up a fight. Warren is heartbroken and obsessed with figuring out how to get Claire to come back to him. One day he goes out to Barney's beachhouse to try to talk Claire into coming back, but ends up getting his face punched and pushed into the sand. At that point, all Warren can think of is revenge and getting away with killing Barney. He decides to create a new identity for himself: Paul Sothern. He trades in glasses for contacts, buys a new wardrobe and even rents another apartment. His plan is to kill Barney, have it blamed on Sothern, and then get rid of any trace of Sothern and return to Warren Quimby blame-free. Two things get in the way of his plan: he meets and falls in love with his nice new neighbor, Mary Chandler; and he discovers at the moment of truth that Claire isn't worth killing for and wrong. He goes back to Mary and intends to forget Claire and spend the rest of his life his new found love. But this is Film Noir! It can't possibly end all happy like this! And it doesn't. Soon after Warren's epiphany, police Lts. Collier Bonnabel (Sullivan) and 'Blackie' Gonsales (Conrad) show up asking questions. It seems Barney was killed after all and the number one suspect is the jilted ex, Warren. But Warren didn't kill him. When he left the beachhouse, Barney was alive... wasn't he?
Extras: Commentary by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward with Audrey Trotter, Making of featurette: Tension: Who's Guilty Now? and the theatrical trailer.
This is a potboiler of a film noir and noir vets Richard Basehard and Audrey Trotter are excellent, and that's in spite of a subpar script. Film Noir does typically have these psychological-type underpinnings a struggle between Warren's desire for Claire and desire to be free of the hold she has on him is the primary one here. But the struggle is a bit of a mystery: why does he even want Claire back after he finds peace and happiness with Mary? Claire doesn't even show much affection for Warren and he seems aware of what she does behind his back- well, it's beyond me. Another problem: Lt. Bonnabel, who narrates the story is at one point an all knowing narrator and then when the story changes to a murder story, the narration stalls and he seems to be in the dark. The back and forth doesn't work. Also Bonnabel seems to know Claire, which is never really explained, and all of the sudden he's the one seemingly falling for her. We later learn he's trying to apply pressure (Bonnabel begins the film by explaining how he applies tension to make his suspects crack) to Claire to get at the truth. The film was enjoyable, and the actors were good, but I kept getting distracted by the inconsistancies. I also couldn't get over the fact that Warren would seriously pick cheatin' Claire over Cyd Charisse. Seriously? Cyd freakin' Charisse! Okay fan-boy nerd moment over.
They Live by Night
Stars: Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell.
'Bowie' Bowers (Granger) is an escaped convict who wants nothing more than to hide somewhere and live the rest of his life with his girlfriend, Keechie (O'Donnell). But his fellow escapees will have none of that (sound familiar?) and bring Bowie and his girl in on some more jobs. While Bowie isn't exactly a model citizen, he isn't all bad, but he can still be surprisingly cruel. Eventually the cops zero in on Bowie and Keechie as the leaders of the group and the two stay on the run. As the cops close in, and their fate seems inevitable, Bowie and Keechie keep niavely thinking that their ideal life may still be ahead.
Extras: Commentary by Farley Granger and Eddie Muller, Making of featurette: They Live By Night: The Twisted Road and the theatrical trailer.
Adapted from the book by Edward Anderson, They Live by Night is the film noir version of many other types of rebellious boy and girl criminal couples we've seen over the years. The movie was also later remade by Robert Altman as the film Thieves Like Us. It also shares some similarity with Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the film is seen as a sort of precursor to director Nicholas Ray's later teenage rebellion film, Rebel Without a Cause.
Stars: Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell.
Joe Norson (Granger) is a mail carrier with a pregnant wife, Ellen (O'Donnell), who is just trying to scrape by. One day, Norson comes across a lot of money and succumbs to temptation and steals it. Unfortunately, the money belongs to some gangsters who want it back...badly. Norson, without knowing the true nature of the money, has a pang of guilt and decides to return the money. When he comes to return the money he eventually finds himself caught up in a murder mystery and stuck between the cops and the gangsters.
Extras: Commentary by Richard Schickel, Making of featurette: Side Street: Where Temptation Lurks and the theatrical trailer.
Hoping to cash in on their previous success with They Live By Night, MGM borrowed Granger and O'Donnell for Side Street. Filmed on location in New York, the film is slickly noir, but retains some Hitchcockian elements of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The noir twist is by adding the man making the wrong choice at the wrong time. Entertaining and suspenseful, Side Street is a good flick from director Anthony Mann.
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe and small roles with DeForest Kelley Jayne Mansfield.
District Attorney Victor Scott is a good, but cocky attorney. He's won more cases he can count, but unfortunately his most recent case sends an innocent man (DeForest Kelley) to the chair. Even though Scott tries to stop the execution once he finds evidence of the man's innocence, he is too late. Racked with guilt, Scott drinks himself into a dull stupor. His reputation is ruined, he loses his office and he turns away his only supporter, Ellen Miles who used to work for him and loves him. Scott encourages Ellen to marry her co-worker, Ray Borden, stating that he feels more like a father to her. Having reached bottom, Scott only his way when he finds himself in the drunk tank. Scott discovers that he can defend just as well as prosecute, and tries to restart his career. Soon Scott crosses paths with gangster Frank Garland, whom he once tried to bring down. Garland offers him a sweet deal to serve as his attorney on retainer, but Scott refuses. But when Scott is defending another man, he discovers that Garland his employer. For good or ill, Scott becomes Garland's "mouthpiece". The new district attorney has his suspicions about Scott and believes that someone in the D.A.'s office is a leak. What he doesn't know is that Ray Borden, now Ellen's husband, is the leak and on Garland's payroll. With all the pressure on, Borden is soon discovered dead and Ellen is now on trail for his murder. Scott decides to defend Ellen at all costs, even if that means bringing Garland, and himself, down in the process.
Extras: Commentary by Nina Foch and Patricia King Hanson, Making of featurette: Illegal: Marked for Life, original television show: Behind the Cameras: Edward G. Robinson and the theatrical trailer.
This was another great film, and another instance where a performance by a solid and talented star rescues a mediocre script. Robinson and Foch deliver great performances, and the rest of the cast does well. Jayne Mansfield has a small, but as it turns out, pivotal role in the film: one of her first. This is a remake of an earlier film, The Mouthpiece, which in turn was based on a play. A fun bonus comes in the commentary with Illegal star Nina Foch, who, in addition to her career has taught acting at USC. Ms. Foch doesn't mince any words about all the shortcuts and quickie techniques they used to make the films under budget and under schedule. It's great listening to her and AFI's Patricia King Hanson apparently caught off guard by Foch's honesty and forthrightness. Listening to them is delicious fun. Illegal is not a classic, but good old noir fun.
The Big Steal
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and William Bendix
Duke Holliday (Mitchum) is an American army lieutenant, trying to track down a stolen army payroll in Mexico. He is being chased by army Captain Blake, whom he catches off guard and steals his credentials. Duke is after a smooth-talking hood and grifter named Fiske, who stole the money. Duke believes if he can catch Fiske he can get the money back and return to the army, who may believe Duke is the crook. Attempting to catch Fiske, Duke crosses paths with Fiske's former flame, Joan Graham, who's after Fiske for money he stole from her as well. Soon Joan and Duke are hunting down Fiske together, and they in turn are being chased by Blake and closely watched by police Inspector General Ortega, who is just trying to figure out who is the real bad guy. Duke intially has been pretending to be Blake, which adds to the confusion. Graham falls for Holliday as she learns more about him and learns to trust him. The money of course ends at a dangerous crossroads for all involved.
Extras: Commentary by Richard B. Jewell and the Making of featurette: The Big Steal: Look Behind You.
Out of all of the movies in the set, this is perhaps the least "noirish" of all. And yet, it's the film I enjoyed the most. It has a reputation as being a film that Howard Hughes used to get Mitchum released from jail early, when he was arrested on drug charges, and slapped together hastily. Hughes pulled Greer in to costar with Mitchum, with whom she had previous starred in the great noir, Out of the Past. Despite all of this, The Big Steal comes off as a chase movie than a noir, and great fun at that. It's great to see Mitchum and Greer together again, and their easy chemistry plays well and allows them to have fun with the material. The performance seems to be done sort of tongue in cheek by everyone involved. Bendix is also great and Ramon Novarro turns in a great and funny turn as the police inspector. The film also doesn't offer any pretensions and clocks in at a short 71 minutes. All in all, The Big Steal is great fun and worth watching again and again. Nevermind what the critics say.
The video transfers are excellent, with several of the films recieving excellent treatment with clear and crisp black and white prints. The audio is equally good. With a few exceptions here and there (there were a couple of discernable scratches on some of the prints, but not worth hollering about), but overall the set is quite good.
The Bottom Line:
If you are a Film Noir film fan, there is no question that you'll love this set. If you are new to the genre, or are trying to discover more, these aren't the classic noir films. But that's ok. There are a few "classics", but there are so many "great" and "good" films out there worth discovering as well. This set has a few greats and a lot of good flicks worth your time. It's been one of my favorites sets of the genre since the first volume of the series. The commentaries are fairly standard, but there are a few (Illegal, Crime Wave and Decoy) that are fascinating. The other making of features are worth a look and done stylishly with the participation of noir experts and enthusists alike. I wouldn't have any reservations about recommending this set to any film fan. There is something for every noir fan, and besides - what a deal! Ten great and good flicks for a standard 5 film set price. Definitely recommened.
Rating films has been more of a sticky widget with some Shelfers than I thought. A few have asked about the hows and whys, so let me briefly explain: we take alot of things into consideration: quality of the film itself, features and the relevance thereof, the story and performances, and more. We aren't comparing them to, say, Casablanca, but more so to there genre (or other films in the same set) and taking each film on on it's own merits.
That being said, individually grading the films, Wolf and I assigned the following:
Crime Wave: A
Where Danger Lives : B
The Big Steal: A+
Act of Violence: B
Mystery Street: B
They Live By Night: B+
Side Street: B
Overall rating: 4 stars (Groucho Glasses)
Many of the films are worth watching again, and this set is a worthy addition to any film collection. If you have the previous 3 volumes of this line from Warner Home Video, what are you doing reading this? Go out and get it!
Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 is a Must Have.
Once upon a time there was a little cat who had a little mouse right in his paws but he let the little mouse go that later he could follow that little mouse into a group of little "mouses"..."mice"!