Monday, August 30, 2010

War buddies! Widowers! Barflies! Gay gangbangers!: Film Noir Collection Vol. 5

Is it my own perverse nature that prompted me to start and now end my summer DVD binges with box sets of noir, hardly the most Frisbee of cinematic corpuses? I wouldn’t put it past me, yet noir isn’t entirely antithetical to summer—it’s so often about generating heat. Truthfully, not everything in Warner’s
Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5 can rightfully be granted noir or even gris status. There aren’t many classic examples of the movement/style/thematic here, though there’s a pleasing majority of forgotten gems, however you classify them. The only real disappointment is the absence of supplements, given that Warner’s previous collections boasted consistently lively and informative audio commentaries from the likes of Martin Scorsese, James Ellroy, Eddie Muller, Alain Silver and Peter Bogdanovich. To be fair, I guess assembling such material must be costly, and I’d rather have these movies available than not... Anyway, there are eight titles to cover, so I'll keep my comments for each of them brief.

Former song-and-dance man Dick Powell seemed an odd fit as the cinema’s first Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s superb Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet (1944), yet as the freshly widowed Canadian pilot and newly released POW Laurence Gerard in Cornered (45), unshaven, cold-eyed, with that severe haircut, he’s so at one with his vengeful protagonist it’s chilling. This reunion with Dmytryk, who displays an exacting sense of atmosphere and detail, is an all-round success, if unrelentingly harrowing. As the war winds down Gerard travels from Europe to Argentina in search of the ostensibly deceased Vichy official responsible for the death of Gerard’s young French bride. Gerard’s single-minded—he’s got noting left to live for—so the trip’s strictly business, yet numerous shady types he encounters provide ample colour, especially the marvelous Walter Slezak.

Deadline at Dawn (46), inspired by a Cornell Woolrich novel, is considerably lighter. It’s a sweltering New York night when taxi dancer Susan Hayward feels compelled to look after a young sailor on shore leave who mistakenly robbed and maybe murdered a woman while drunk. The sailor had a near-death experience at the age of 12, so maybe that somehow contributed to his almost absurd air of innocence. The script comes from socialist thespian Clifford Odets and abounds in corny ethnic working-class types and cornier dialogue. Still, it’s quite diverting, at times intriguingly loopy and, best of all, swathed in the chiaroscuro imagery of cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, best known for Out of the Past (47) and his work with Val Lewton.

Desperate (47) was director Anthony Mann’s first noir and fully exercises the sort of muscular expressionism and bracing brutality he’d become known for: Steve Brodie’s truck-driving hero is beaten in some dingy basement under a swinging lamp whose hard light slices the assailants’ faces before we’re treated to a tight close-up of a broken bottle held by Raymond Burr, who really resembles Victor Mature—if Mature ate donuts and hunkered over Wittgenstein instead of going to the gym. Newlywed Brodie is framed by Burr’s thugs but proves highly resourceful—his desire for pleasantly dull domesticity is that strong.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this set is
Dial 1119 (50), a terrifically menacing little hostage drama I’d never heard of, though fellow noir addicts with welcome the sight of William Conrad, James Bell and Sam Levene like old pals. Conrad plays Chuckles, the proprietor of the ironically titled Oasis, the bar under siege, while Bell’s a lonely older nerdy type who shamelessly propositions a drunk blonde, and Levene, as always, is the resident doctor. The sound of wrestling on TV is the only scoring in the movie, even during the beautiful, long reaction shot of all the barflies when formerly institutionalized Marshall Thompson says out loud that he’s going to kill everyone. We believe him—he’s already iced a bus driver. Very effective, taut, and worth checking out just for the loving attention it brings to the sad night lives of the Oasis clientele.

Backfire (50) is another title I’d never come across, somewhat surprising given that noir mainstay Edmond O’Brien’s one of its pair of war buddies hoping to go in on a ranch together once Gordon MacRae gets out of the veterans’ hospital. Some fox with a sexy foreign accent comes to the hospital one night to tell a doped-up MacRae that O’Brien’s been debilitated and is suicidal. The next morning everyone thinks the lady messenger was a hallucination, but O’Brien’s missing and MacRae immediately starts to play detective upon checking out. It’s a picture full of interesting relationships and ominous clues that would have appealed to Polanski.

Armored Car Robbery (50) meanwhile looks forward to Stanley Kubrick’s early feature The Killing (56), whose plot is nearly identical. Helmed by Richard Fleischer, it’s a bracingly efficient 67-minutes—the titular heist unfolds with barely a word of dialogue spoken, even when one of the robbers gets shot in the guts—yet leaves plenty of room for imaginative character development. Charles McGraw would reunite with Fleischer for the more famous Narrow Margin (52), but anticipates that film’s protagonist here with his charismatically gruff Lieutenant Jim Cordell, a cop so useless with sentiment he can barely offer condolences to his partner’s widow. He’s complimented superbly by the froggy-eyed criminal mastermind played by William Talman, a really interesting actor whose work I'm only started to track but am hungry to see more of.

“Fancy women, slot machines and booze,” go the lyrics to ‘Phenix City Blues’, the song performed near the top of
The Phenix City Story (55), Phil Karlson’s appallingly violent docudrama about the seemingly impossible task of driving organized crime out of a notoriously corrupt Alabama town. It features the always likable John McIntire—the sheriff from Psycho (60)—as a crusading DA undeterred by threats as unabashed as having a murdered black girl tossed on his front lawn from a moving car in broad daylight. Something tells me they mightn’t have gotten away with that if it weren’t for the story’s foundation in fact.

Though it opens with a riveting and very stylishly wrought confrontation between rival youth gangs,
Crime in the Streets (56), all too much the “social problem” picture, is both the chronological last and probably least powerful movie in Film Noir Vol. 5. Having said that, I’m fascinated that the gang leader seems to deliberately select the most obviously gay kids in his group—among them Sal Mineo—to be part of his nutso murder conspiracy. Admirers will surely be curious to see a very young John Cassavetes as Frankie Dane, though, speaking as one of those admirers, I can’t say he looks very comfortable in this psychotic, not altogether convincing role.

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