Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5
spans the style's middle years to its finish in titles from Warner Bros., RKO, MGM and Allied Artists, featuring controversial titles as well as good work from some of noir's most interesting actors -- Charles McGraw, Edmond O'Brien, Richard Kiley. We see Dick Powell consolidating his screen image change and witness the arrival of the beat-era hoodlum represented by John Cassavetes. Some of the most notable blacklisted writers, producers and directors are here, along with up-and-coming hot directors like Anthony Mann, Richard Fleischer and Don Siegel.
The changing DVD market takes the blame for the absence of the lavish extras that graced earlier Warners noir volumes, and I'll miss listening to the illuminating commentaries by committed experts like Alain Silver, James Ursini and Eddie Muller. But I have to say that some of the featurettes were beginning to get stale anyway -- how many times can we watch yet another earnest face tell us about dark corners and the influence of German Expressionism? Viewers intrigued by the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5
won't have to search the bookstore racks very long to learn more about these exotic crime and mystery pictures.
followed closely on the heels of Dick Powell's second career breakthrough Murder, My Sweet
, his impressive transformation from rosy-cheeked Busby Berkeley crooner to one of noir's most conflicted tough guys. This time around Powell is Canadian Laurence Gerard, an RCAF flyer seeking vengeance against the murderer of his French wife of only twenty days. Gerard tracks the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac all the way to Argentina, only to find himself surrounded by shady French expatriates and characters like Melchior Incza, a sleazy agent for hire who dodges questions about his national origin. Dispensing cynical asides, Gerard hounds Jarnac's widow (Micheline Cheirel) and encounters a group of agents also dedicated to catching the war criminal Jarnac. The villains almost trick Laurence into killing an innocent man. Gerard's inner rage shows itself in brief episodes of psychic stress, an instability that aligns him firmly to the noir sensibility, immediately post-war.
is the kind of film that would be used as evidence of disloyalty, when the HUAC witch hunters went after writers John Paxton and John Wexley and director Edward Dmytryk. Producer Adrian Scott would later be imprisoned as one of the Hollywood Ten, never again to work on a feature film. After producing plenty of anti-Fascist, pro-Soviet movies during the war, Hollywood's agenda abruptly reversed polarity. The filmic suggestion that Axis war criminals were slipping through the fingers of post-war justice was regarded as subversive propaganda. Various heroes would of course continue to confront escaped Nazis, etc., but rarely would the political emphasis be as pronounced as in this picture, which suggests that escaped, unregenerate Fascists are everywhere.
Director Dmytryk did his best work in this period. The show also benefits from top RKO production values and a house style that shows the influence of Val Lewton's mysterioso lighting, especially in the Buenos Aires night exteriors. Much of the cast is unfamiliar. Micheline Cheirel (of Jacques Feyder's Carnival in Flanders
) is a black widow with a complicated story to tell. The obscure actress Nina Vale (disc cover, top left) makes a convincingly imperious femme fatale. She fails to seduce the wary Gerard, who regards her with a contemptuous exit line: "Tell your husband I dropped around but I couldn't wait. I got bored".
Favorite Walter Slezak has the most colorful role as an unwelcome partner who might sell out Gerard at any moment. Classic noir villain Luther Adler makes a brief but impressive appearance, and is awarded with a credit card of his own.
has a fault, it's a plot that quickly gets murky if one doesn't pay close attention. The biggest reward comes from Gerard's unending string of cynical cracks. Señora Camargo: "Shall I be honest?" Gerard: "Don't strain yourself". As the traumatized Gerard is at any moment liable to explode into violence, his remarks aren't casual asides. A Belgian asks Gerard if he's visited his country, and Gerard answers, "No, but I flew over it. It looked pretty shot up."
Warner's print of Cornered
is in good shape but some of the audio is a bit distorted, mostly at the beginning. It's very likely that prime transfer sources no longer exist for this nitrate-era RKO picture, as it was popular enough to enjoy more than one reissue.
Art rears its fuzzy head in 1946's Deadline at Dawn
, a one-time film directing fling for the lofty New York stage director and critic Harold Clurman, who brings to RKO both the spirit and key personnel from The Group Theater. Another production effort by Adrian Scott, Deadline at Dawn
reunites Clurman with playwright Clifford Odets, who had written and directed his own RKO picture, 1944's None But the Lonely Heart
. Even after ejecting Orson Welles and declaring that they would emphasize "Showmanship in Place of Genius", RKO continued to distribute non-commercial 'art' pictures, like the Dudley Nichols/Eugene O'Neill Mourning Becomes Electra
Deadline at Dawn
is an exceedingly well-directed noir infused with the proletarian spirit of progressive 30's theater. Some may consider its stylized dialogue a literary conceit, and conclude that its author is patronizing the working class. Taking place entirely between 2 and 6 a.m. on a hot New York night, Odets adapts Cornell Woolrich's original story to take in a cross section of Manhattanites embroiled in a strange search for a mystery murderer.
The narrative gathers characters like a snowball. Naíve sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams) passes out in the apartment of Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) and later discovers that she's been murdered. Alex is so vulnerable and guileless that he charms June Goth (Susan Hayward), a tough dance hall girl, into helping him clear his name so he can rejoin his ship at dawn. Joining their investigation is Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), a sympathetic, philosophical cabbie. The trio encounters a host of nocturnal wanderers. Edna's brother Val (Joseph Calleia) is a dangerous gangster. Mystery blonde Helen Robinson (Osa Massen of Rocketship X-M
) seems unconnected to the murdered woman. Alex chases down a "nervous" man running with a large box (Roman Bohnen). Lester Brady (Jerome Cowan) is a stage producer connected to the murder victim by a bounced check. June is harassed by an odd little man who won't take his gloves off (Steven Geray). An alcoholic baseball star (Joe Sawyer) shouts at Edna's apartment window, begging her to give him a bottle.
This parade of interesting personalities becomes more interesting through Clifford Odet's odd, poetic approach to dialogue -- Odets would later write The Big Knife
and have a hand in the even more stylized Sweet Smell of Success
. Gus continually spills nuggets of philosophy. Alex speaks a mix of bad grammar and $10 syntax whoppers like, "... a girl of whom I cared a great deal." June says rather ornate lines: "It's all right to live in a cocoon if you hope to be a butterfly someday." "Time is on the wing, Gus. Don't waste it." A random cabbie comes up with the observation, "I work. I'm just a parasite on parasites." The tough Val shoves a woman to the floor with the words, "That's all the love I'm giving away this morning", and follows it up with "People with wax heads should stay out of the sun."
Some of these odd lines seem halfway to the Kerouac "beat" ethic. At two separate awkward moments, June suddenly recites the words "I hear the whistle blowing", as if she were performing to an espresso crowd. Alex's lack of experience shows in the way he hangs onto his portable radio, no matter how desperate things get. As instant character shorthand, the radio roughly corresponds to the floppy doggy purse dragged around by Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running
Filmed entirely on the RKO city lot, Deadline at Dawn
is given a superb look by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. The evocative music score is by Hanns Eisler, who would soon flee back to East Germany when HUAC came after him. For all of its artifice and stage calculation, Deadline
builds a touching romance between a tough girl and her sweet sailor, and comes off as very affecting. The pervasive feeling of lost souls drifting in an amoral night world keeps the show in noir territory.
Deadline at Dawn
is in fantastic shape, audio and visual-wise. Many two-shots, particularly when the youthful Susan Hayward is pictured, are stunning works of art.
Director Anthony Mann worked his way to the big time from near the bottom of the heap. His career finally caught fire at the tiny Eagle-Lion studio with the innovative T-Men
and Raw Deal
, but immediately previous to that he turned out a pair of creative noirs at RKO. The better of the two is Desperate
, a movie so skillfully directed that its comparatively low budget never becomes an issue. The no-star cast is headed by Steve Brodie, an actor mainly known for westerns and immortalized as Robert Mitchum's detective partner in Out of the Past
. Mann's evocative direction, aided by George Diskant's raw cinematography, produces a steady string of iconic images: hulking criminals lit by swinging light sources; a fist and a broken bottle thrust at the camera.
HUAC friendly witness Harry Essex's screenplay is no winner either. Newlywed veteran Steve Randall (Brodie) is tricked into driving a truck for a warehouse robbery that goes bad. Crook Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) threatens to kill Randall's pregnant wife Anne (Audrey Long) if Steve won't take the rap for Radak's brother Al, who was captured in the heist. A cop was killed, and Radak is determined to see his brother go free.
In between startling bits of threatened violence, director Mann plays out a rather glamorized version of the "young lovers on the run" plot. Steve Randall and his sweet wife should run straight to the cops and take their chances, but he's determined to first get Anne safely to her aunt's farm. Events conspire to make it "necessary" for Steve to steal two cars and leave a rural sheriff unconscious by the side of the road. Pessimistic noir themes surface when the fugitives ditch a train because Steve becomes convinced he's been spotted; and when a venal used car salesman gets Steve to fix a broken-down jalopy and then refuses to sell it to him. Frankly, the crazy events that complicate Steve and Anne's situation seem a screenwriting substitute for the real reason "ordinary folks" might not run to the local cops: It's always possible that they're in cahoots with the local crooks.
Anthony Mann's sure hand maintains a high level of tension. Raymond Burr is excellent as the moody gangster, with Freddie Steele and Douglas Fowley making good impressions as a dumb thug and a slippery detective. Jason Robards Sr.'s police detective initially seems wholly cynical, but eventually becomes the Best Friend of the Unjustly Accused. The underlying message is that American Law can be trusted. Also, the ethnic names given to the slimiest villains (Radek, Lavitch) are offset by an immigrant-friendly Czech wedding ceremony, complete with folk dancing. Yet Steve Randall's hopeless plight makes Desperate
a mainstream noir.
must have been the recipient of a recent re-master, as both picture and sound are nearly perfect. The clean, clear images pop off the screen. Paul Sawtell's dramatic music is felt strongly in director Mann's more expressive passages, such as a montage of extreme close-ups when Radek counts off the minutes to a murder.
was advertised as a follow-up to White Heat
, when it was actually filmed and completed two years earlier. Star Gordon MacRae would later make a big splash in Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations, but Backfire
didn't set Hollywood on fire for the popular radio and big band singer.
The story is awkward at best. Three years after the war, tank corps soldiers Bob Corey and Steve Connolly (Gordon MacRae & Edmond O'Brien) are still waiting for Bob's back injuries to heal so he can be released from the Veteran's Hospital. Nurse Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo) has fallen in love with Bob; the plan is that they will all become ranchers. But Connolly disappears, and is suspected in the murder of a high-rolling gambler (Richard Rober). Barely out of his bed, Bob tries to solve the case on his own. Nobody in the hospital believes that Bob had a mystery visitor on Christmas Eve, a woman named Lysa (Viveca Lindfors) who told him that Steve was in terrible trouble.
Films noir are prone to odd contrivances and coincidences but Backfire
doesn't make any more sense than its title. Flashback episodes only make the story seem more confusing. Edmond O'Brien's Steve may or may not regress to a pre-war "crooked" personality after a blow on the head. And a main character's disappearance is explained away by introducing a second severe back injury
into the mix. It's fairly laughable when this crippled man, strapped into a neck brace, wins a wrestling match.
Likeable Gordon MacRae comes off well enough but does very little with his hazy character. Edmond O'Brien's time on-screen is limited and Virginia Mayo (more beautiful than ever) has little connection to the film's key action -- the script may have been rigged to require a minimum of their services. That leaves us with Warners contract players and star hopefuls that didn't pan out: Dane Clark, Viveca Lindfors, Richard Rober. The beautiful Lindfors is once again made to look downright ugly through odd makeup choices, and Dane Clark's transformation into a jealous madman doesn't come off well at all. A strong leading man might have held Backfire
together, but it really looks as if director Vincent Sherman got stuck with a lemon.
takes place in Los Angeles but manages to avoid interesting locations. Gordon's wife Sheila MacRae has a nice scene as a murder victim in a Hollywood court apartment building. The murder of the shady gambler appears to be modeled on the then-recent slaying of mobster Bugsy Siegel, who was gunned down while reading the paper in his own living room.
Warners' transfer of Backfire
is again flawless in picture and sound --- this one may not have been out of the vault since it was released.
TCM has given Armored Car Robbery
a separate review here
1950's Dial 1119
is a low-budget MGM picture that resembles a one-act play expanded to short feature length. With economic pressures coming down hard on the studios, the expense of something like An American in Paris
had to be balanced by making other studio producers come up with something for nothing. Thus we have Dial 1119
, a taut little suspense item that uses only a couple of sets and utilizes the services of contractees already on the payroll.
The show also resembles a typical live TV production from a few years later, the kind that garnered attention for the likes of James Dean. Clean-cut young mental patient Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) comes to Terminal City to kill Dr. Faron (Sam Levene), the psychologist who saved him from the electric chair on a plea of insanity. Gunther kills a bus driver and holes up in a bar, committing a second murder and taking five patrons hostage. They include a man whose wife is having a baby (Keefe Brasselle), a bothersome barfly (Virginia Field), a slimy Lothario (MGM stalwart Leon Ames) and the young woman he's talked into a weekend fling (Andrea King of Red Planet Mars
). Down in the street, police captain Keiver (Richard Rober) holds back the crowd and sends a police sniper into an air duct to pick off Gunther. The deranged young man insists that he's going to kill everyone in the bar.
was probably quite novel when it was new. Marshall Thompson is no James Dean, and is just okay as the "unmotivated" killer. Gunther is eventually revealed to be driven by feelings of inadequacy -- he was 4F in the big war and has constructed a personal fantasy that he's a mistreated veteran. First-time feature director Gerald Mayer is (surprise!) Louis B.'s nephew. The competently shot film is also unusually violent for an MGM product -- Gunther Wyckoff guns down four people with a .45 pistol, three of them point-blank. His last target is equally a victim of the Production Code -- as soon as Gunther pulls the trigger, the camera cuts away from the presumably bloody corpse and never shows him again. We almost expect the character to pop up in the next scene, saying, "I'm glad I dodged that one!"
script reserves some nasty criticism for TV. The has a large projection set, and the bartender (familiar face William Conrad) curses its bad reception and stupid programming. The live TV truck that covers the siege almost gives away the police strategy, as in Die Hard
38 years later. The TV reporter promotes panic among the bystanders to make the "show" more exciting.
Ten years earlier Marshall Thompson might have been given a big buildup like Van Johnson, but the collapse of the contract system sent him and most of the other players on to the less glamorous world of Television. Sam Levene, the star of Broadway's Guys and Dolls
was probably the celebrity on the set. The interesting Richard Rober was building a solid foundation for a starring career when he was killed in an auto accident two years later.
The established classic in this collection is Phil Karlson's 1955 The Phenix City Story
, a searing, sordid real-life exposé of a "Sin City" taken over by corruption and vice. The movie is alarmingly topical. The story of Phenix City, Alabama was indeed covered in pictorial spreads in major magazines, and the Columbus Ledger
won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the assassination of political candidate Albert J. Patterson.
Crane Wilbur and Daniel Mainwaring's screenplay portrays a sleepy Southern town's domination by mobsters as an affront to everything Americans hold dear. Army lawyer John Patterson (Richard Kiley) returns from prosecuting at the Nuremburg trials to find his hometown in desperate straits. Phenix City is right across the river from Georgia's Fort Benning, and its notorious 14th street, overseen by the venal Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) have locked up the illegal profits from crooked gambling and prostitution. The "fix" is in with the local police and courts, so that Tanner's crime lords can murder with impunity. Honest citizens are beaten in the streets for trying to vote against the Mob candidates. A Soviet propaganda movie couldn't paint a more ugly picture.
While his wife screams in protest, John sticks his neck out and goes to war against the Tanner mob, with the help of Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant). She's a card dealer at Tanner's Poppy Club, a dive run by a tough lesbian. Ellie gives John inside information because Tanner's thug Clem Wilson (John Larch) murdered her fiancé. John's dad Albert (John McIntire) is an elder statesman determined to let things alone until the escalating violence motivates him to run for state attorney general. While the Pattersons hope to rally support outside of the county, Rhett Tanner's men prepare a deadly ambush.
Noone who has seen The Phenix City Story
will forget moments stronger than any in horror movies of the time. One scene involving violence toward a child is almost obscene in its impact. Ellie rushes to an emergency room to find out what's happened to her boyfriend, only to be asked, "Where do you want the body sent?" A voter beaten by thugs spits blood against a wall, and assassins blast down a defenseless old man on a warm Alabama evening. After a night of vigilante violence, the U.S. Army moves in and enforces martial law.
Our reaction is outrage, which is exactly what the makers of The Phenix City Story
want. But the outrage is very selective, especially considering that these were the years of the Civil Rights movement. Although almost no blacks appear, a bayou confrontation featuring the Poppy Club's janitor (James Edwards) plays up the racial element, along with a church theme perhaps added to mollify the Production Code censors. The movie preaches restraint "Don't resort to violence... that will make us just like them
." Just the same, by the end of the movie we're ready to take up arms, annihilate small-town gangsters and their mouth-breathing goon killers, and start waving the flag.
The movie emphasizes its own topicality. The real "Ma Beachie" appears in a bit with Edward Andrews; she owned a strip club with gambling and liquor. Always cut for TV screenings, Warners' presentation restores an original twelve-minute prologue with Clete Roberts conducting man-in-the-street interviews during the subsequent trial. The "good" residents of Phenix City fear that the crooks will escape justice and take reprisals. An epilogue adds a direct address by Richard Kiley, still in character as John Patterson, announcing that he'll run for office in his father's place and clean up the corruption forever.
Anybody with a brain should be able to surmise that Phenix City stayed crooked because bigger powers wanted it crooked. Nobody asks the General in charge of Ft. Benning why places like the Poppy Club weren't put off limits, as was routine for clip joints and trouble spots around other Army bases. (General George Patton was quoted in 1940 that he wanted to "level the town.") The Phenix City Story
also doesn't admit that low-key corruption was common in many, many American towns. Before his brave stand as a reformer, the real Albert Patterson had once been a candidate for
the syndicate mobsters. What's more, John Patterson used the movie in his subsequent political campaigns, replacing actor Kiley's end speech with one by himself. John Patterson defeated a young George Wallace in a run for Governor, but was likewise a segregationist with backing from the Klan.
Yet The Phenix City Story
at least condemns vigilantism, an evil that is celebrated in Phil Karlson's much later film Walking Tall
, starring Joe Don Baker. Almost a replay of the same plot, Walking Tall
uses the same combination of exploitation and moral outrage. The violent story of Buford Pusser and his ax-handle vigilantism solidly endorses Fascist values dressed up in rural "morality".
Warners' transfer of this Allied Artists film is an excellent enhanced widescreen presentation that adds much to the film's impact. The movie starts with a cooch dancer singing a song called "Fancy women, slot machines and booze", and ends with a newsreel montage of the Army destroying rigged slot machines and card tables. I imagine that theater owners in 1955 might have thought to keep small children out of Phil Karlson's violent shock-fest -- it's very disturbing.
Recommended factual reading: Jack Culpepper's Phenix City series from the Shelbyville, Tennessee Times-Gazette (2005).
The prevailing wisdom is that a number of factors broke up the "noir style". By the late 1950s the place to look for private eyes stalking dark streets were shows like TV's Peter Gunn
. 1956's Crime in the Streets
began life the year before as a TV drama directed by Sidney Lumet. Besides the remarkable young actor John Cassavetes, actor Mark Rydell was carried over from the TV play, along with Will Kuluva as a candy shop owner. Robert Preston and Glenda Farrell were replaced by James Whitmore and Virginia Gregg.
Crime in the Streets
is hard-core 50s liberal theater, and not really film noir. Social worker Ben Wagner (Whitmore) can't get through to the almost psychotic leader of the Hornets gang, Frankie Dane (Cassavetes), who becomes obsessed with "getting back" at life by murdering a neighbor in his tenement. The socially progressive thesis is that loving understanding is the only hope for tough kids.
There's little or no doubt that Crime in the Streets
had a strong influence on Arthur Laurents' play West Side Story
. The situation is identical, with a gang of vaguely Italian-American punks misbehaving on the sidewalks and hanging out at a candy store. The owner's sweet daughter is even named Maria. Director Don Siegel's staging of the opening rumble is very much like the eventual movie battle between the Jets and the Sharks. The boys enter by climbing over fences, and the action cutting is similar. They even wield similar clubs and bats. What's more, Laurents & Co. hired actor David Winters straight from the Crime in the Streets
TV show to act in their Broadway musical.
The compressed story sees Frankie Dane's gang deserting him after he decides to murder Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury, the man at the prairie bus stop in North by Northwest
). But the perverse Lou Macklin (Mark Rydell) volunteers to help Frankie, and Frankie intimidates the impressionable young Angelo (Sal Mineo) into posing as bait for their victim. Frankie promises to stop calling Angelo "Baby" after he proves his manhood. Social worker Ben Wagner (James Whitmore) gets wind of the scheme from Frankie's frightened little brother Richie (Peter Votrian).
Crime in the Streets
comes with the expected position speeches about bad and good kids (also familiar from West Side Story
) but builds to some very powerful emotions. John Cassavetes is excellent as the disturbed malcontent, who can't stand to be touched and rejects every form of sympathy or communication. Writer Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men
, Man of the West
) made his reputation here as one of the top talents of the Golden Age of Television. There are plenty of dated "social comment" plays from this time, but this is one of the good ones.
Director Don Siegel was on a major roll with solid mid-range hits in Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
and The Lineup
. Although he adjusts his style for this dramatic format, Siegel employs a violent montage for the titles and graces many scenes with long takes on a moving crane. His camera moves quite a lot, but never draws attention to itself. Siegel handles the melodramatic finish beautifully, eliciting strong emotions from Frankie Dane's final encounter with his little brother. Little Peter Votrian is every bit as good an actor as Cassavetes. He's 14 years old but easily passes for ten.
Crime in the Streets
looks particularly good in Warners' enhanced widescreen transfer, which has only a bit of dirt and one rough frame in 91 minutes. The cropped 1:85 transfer really helps focus the drama, which played far too loose on old, flat TV prints. This may not be a real film noir, but it's the very best of the juvenile delinquency epics from the rock 'n' roll era: not as slick as Rebel Without a Cause
, perhaps, but not as overcooked, either.
Warners Home Video's DVD of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5
is a knockout, with off-the-beaten path noir gems and a couple of oddball titles thrown in for variety. Cornered, Desperate, The Phenix City Story, Deadline at Dawn, Armored Car Robbery
and Crime in the Streets
are so good that we don't miss the extras of earlier Warners noir volumes. It's been two years since the last collection, and now that the rough times of the recession are receding the series can perhaps continue on a more regular basis.
For more information about Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5
, visit Warner Video
. To order Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5
, go to
by Glenn Erickson
As the Warners Noir collections climb into the higher volume numbers, the films offered just seem to grow more interesting. This