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Default Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4



Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: July 18, 2007

Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 7/31/2007
MSRP: $59.98
Region 1 NTSC
Full frame 1.33:1
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes (Illegal)




inline ImageSure, there were horror movies in the forties and fifties, but the real horrors came from the shadows of film noir. The war had just finished, and masculinity was in flux, as war torn veterans came home to women excreting their skills in the jobs they used to command, and with violence haunting their lives forever. This extended onto the public as a whole, which saw the advent of Playboy as a way to condition men back into their prefigured roles in society. Something was irreconcilable though, and lurking behind those venation blinds and those black and white areas of blackness were the real horrors of humanity. Warner has been the leader in presenting film noir on DVD, thanks to their massive catalogue of MGM, RKO and their own pictures. This newest set, Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 is their biggest score yet at ten pictures. Some feature direction by men responsible for some of the most iconic horror films of the era, while the rest of them feature that dark and mysteries aesthetic we’ve all come to love. Light up a cigarette and step back with me to the precarious time of the post-war noir.

The Story


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Act of Violence begins not with the titular act, but instead with the aftermath that act has caused. Frank R. Enley (Van Heflin) is a war vet trying to live out a regular life with housewife extraordinaire Edith (a young Janet Leigh). The war may be over, but for Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), the events still live on as if they occurred yesterday. While under captivity, Frank was an informer to the Nazis, and Joe was the only man to survive the resulting slaughter. He vows to honor his men by committing one final act of violence to right all the wrongs. One of the first films to address the moral issues surrounding veterans from World War II, this is thankfully done with artistry by the Oscar decorated Fred Zinnemann. In his film, the noir shadows serve as remnants from the past. They haunt the characters, looming behind them, on them, in them, demonstrating that the perils of war are never to be forgotten. The performances are solid, the politics timely, and the conclusion a near-masterpiece of silent film editing. The wind dominates the soundtrack, where two men whose souls are now empty, must confront the looming past.


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Mystery Street does well by its title, offering up a genuine whodunit rather than noir’s typical conceit of a man becoming unraveled. Here the mystery is shown nearly in full – on a dark night a prostitute leaves with one man, runs into another, and ends up at the bottom of a lake. Thanks to the noir aesthetic, the killer was shrouded in shadow, and it’s up to Lt. Pete Morales (Ricardo Montalban) and a Harvard forensics doctor (Bruce Bennett) to find out just who it was. The opening murder and its discovery shortly after is down with extreme prowess along the lines of Fincher’s similar setup in Zodiac. However, the film gets blunter as it rolls along, ultimately ending predictably and without a proper climax. Historically it is notable for having a Hispanic lead rather than for addressing any pertinent social or cultural issues, making it timeless in the way that it still safely resembles bad made for television whodunits more than anything else.


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Where Danger Lives transposes the noir to the most basic of premises – a hospital bed. It is there a woman, dubbed only Margo (Faith Domergue), lies ill, with trusty Dr. Cameron (Robert Mitchum) to nurse her back to health. Next thing you know, she kills her husband to be with him and the two flee for the Mexican border. At only 80-minutes, it’s one of the faster-paced noirs, and the speed of the aesthetic descent into those crazy black shadows is referenced by Mitchum’s sudden sedation throughout the course of the film. The twists are cookie cutter noir, but Mitchum’s improvised and mannered performance really keeps the whole thing interesting. Director John Farrow gives him ample time to act too, utilizing with great skill some lengthy takes. Even before Brando would turn the cinema over to the Method, Mitchum was making it look like child’s play on those dingy RKO lots.


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Tension starts with the stretching of a rubber band and keeps that elasticity throughout. Richard Basehart plays the nerdy convenience store worker, Warren Quimby, who suddenly transforms into the suave and confident Paul Sothern in a bid to get back at his two-timing wife. Under his new alias he plans to kill the new beau of his former Mrs. Quimby (Audrey Totter), but after striking up a new love with Mary (Cyd Charisse) he starts to turn back on his plan. Tension is just that, not because of the suspense, but more because the film is constantly snapping into different directions. It starts with the planned murder of the rich guy, but when that goes down thirty minutes in, all bets are off, and the film stretches amusingly to every scenario imaginable. There’s a good bit of commentary on the fragility of the post-war man here, where image suddenly becomes so important as a projection of masculinity, and a mask for the fragile self hiding inside. The noir sets encapsulate this too, making visual those psychological tensions within.


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The Big Steal sees Robert Mitchum again, this time paired up with his Out of the Past partner, Jane Greer, in a sort of road movie/rom-com/noir amalgam. Think of it as It Happened One Noir. Vincent Blake (William Bendix) tries to steal Mitchum’s money, but instead Mitchum steals Blake’s identity in his hunt to get what’s rightfully his back from Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). Greer is Fiske’s squeeze, but after Mitchum forces her on a ride across the Mexican outback, love blossoms as bodies pile up. Interesting more for the genre confusion and for being one of Invasion of the Body Snatchers director Don Siegel’s first films than for anything else. Mitchum is pretty ho-hum here, save for some witty exchanges between he and his charismatic cohort. The fact Mitchum can’t speak Spanish and Greer can is yet another dig at the male psyche following World War II, but unlike the norm for the era, the Mexicans are actually presented in an amiable light. Still, light and noir don’t really mix, and ultimately the listless car chases and comical banter give the film a vapidity that makes it immediately forgettable once the lights come up.


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Illegal has one of noir’s most memorable veterans, Double Indemnity’s Edward G. Robinson, playing a tough lawyer with his hand in the pocket of the enemy. He plays Victor Scott, the best D.A. in the city on his way to become the next governor. A false sentencing has a man wrongfully executed and Scott vowing to protect the guilty from that point forth. One of the accused turns out to be an old fling and an old friend, and Scott vows to defend her against the mob, even if it may mean his life. Illegal is guilty for not being a noir, but being penned by one of the great pot boiler writers, W.R. Burnett, it plays like one of the best. The story moves quick, with several intricately plotted and wonderfully outrageous court scenes, and Robinson commands the floor and the film with his short but empowered stature. Jayne Mansfield does nothing but look beautiful, but this is her debut, so that adds to the intrigue. The aesthetics are nothing like noir other than the fact that the film is black and white, but with plotting this tight, who cares?


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Crime Wave features another classic horror director, Andre De Toth, of House of Wax fame, delving into the dark and delirious. Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) has been rebuilding his life since a lengthy prison sentence. He’s got a great job and a better wife, but his morality is again put to the test when some old cellmates kill a gas station clerk and look for Lacey for protection. Thinks get worse when they ask Lacey to get involved in One Last Heist. While the story is as clichéd and threadbare as the synopsis makes it out to be, there are a few flourishes here to make the proceedings watchable. Sterling Hayden, as the detective hot on Lacey’s tracks, plays heavy here and gives every scene he’s in a jolt of energy. The most miraculous thing about that too, is he does it without a single cigarette. The detectives always puff it up for the mise-en-scene, but Hayden’s battle with a smoking addiction is oddly the most touching part of the film. No smoking in a noir? It’s not as weird as it sounds, since De Toth goes for a gritty realism with the proceedings, sucking any bit of gloss out of the crime caper to immerse the audience in the sad and sorry world of small time crooks.


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Decoy gives new meaning to the term femme fatale, since Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) plays lead to the usually center crook. The film starts with a man in agony, washing his hands of sin like a Lady Macbeth. It’s only after he shoots down Margot that we realize his malice, and from there she tells her story of deceit as she slowly bleeds to death. Decoy is one of those subversive surprises to somehow sneak its way through the blacklist era Hollywood. Gillie’s antihero is perhaps noir’s strongest femme, gunning down and double crossing any man who stands in her hunt for success. So motivated is she that she even devises a plan to bring her dead husband back to life(!) for a big money exchange. Yeah, zombies and feminism, intersecting in one crazy attack on post-war male insecurity. Whether it’s her husband crying at the sight of being brought back to life in such confusing times, or her avenger staring tragically in the mirror in the opening shot, it’s clear that men have surrendered society to their resourceful women, and that Jean Gillie is more than up to task.


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They Live By Night tackles the generation gap before America even knew they had one. This is fitting, too, since it is directed by future Rebel Without a Cause helmer, Nicholas Ray. It follows Bowie (Farley Granger) and his gal, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), two fugitives falling in love while they run from the law and their petty crook accomplices. Keechie gets pregnant, and Bowie wants out of the crime world for good, but you know what happens in noir. This was Ray’s debut, and although the story seems at times overly sentimental, his direction here is as good or better than the films upon which he’d base his reputation. For every generic noir scene, there’s another with lyrical quality, a bird’s eye aerial shot, a slow walk into farmyard shadows, that elevates the film above its melodramatic material. Ray has such a compassion for his youthful leads (here and near every film he’s made) that even when the film reaches its predictable conclusion, one can’t help but feel an air of compassion for these star-crossed lovers who’d like nothing more than to be the middle-class adults that want them dead.


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Side Street lets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell have their baby together, but Granger is still a victim to the world of crime. Here he plays a modest postman trying to earn enough for his pregnant wife when temptation looks him in the eye. He sees a folder with a few loose bills in an office along his route. He takes it, but those two visible bills turn out to be thirty thousand once he opens the folder, and he ends up in pretty high water. Will his conscience get the best of him before the heavies looking for their money do? Side Street benefits from the pairing of the two stars from They Live By Night, using the subtext from that film as a starting point for this. Their characters are instantly empathetic, and the fatalism that dominated Ray’s film does so even further here with a string of high angle shots of New York City. To director Anthony Mann, the characters in a noir are all ants, insubstantial in the grand scheme and so fragile in life. When Granger tries to drive to his safety amidst those high angle city shots, you know that even if he finds it he’ll still be a victim in the grand scheme of life.


Image Quality

Warner treats their back catalogue better than any other major studio, and their treatment with the films here is no exception. All the films are presented in their original aspect ratio, which is 1.33:1 for all but Illegal, which is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Every print looks very sharp and full of detail that doesn’t usually lend itself to films aged over 50 years. There is a grain throughout, with Crime Wave and Illegal looking grainier than the rest, but it is mostly kept to a minimum. There are some bits of debris in Illegal and They Live by Night, with the latter containing some soft bits too, but for the most part these prints have been cleaned up handsomely by Warner’s renowned restoration team. Act of Violence is the standout, its fabulous cinematography given every bit of justice by its near pristine transfer. Considering most noirs can be found extremely cheap in those public domain multi-packs, Warner shows here why their releases command the big bucks.


Sound

All films are presented in their original English mono, and all are always audible. Where Danger Lies has a few audible crackles, but otherwise it, and the rest of the films in this expansive set, have all aged handsomely.

Supplemental Material

There are ten films here, and in honor of consistency, Warner has given each film its own commentary, featurette and trailer. Illegal even benefits from an enjoyable look inside the Hollywood fact checking business with a surprise cameo with Edward G. Robinson. Every featurette runs roughly 5-minutes, and all do a great job of summarizing the qualities of each film. More ought to be made of this caliber, a quick sort of companion piece that can be watched after each film. The participants range from noir historians to film critics like Richard Schickel to directors like Oliver Stone. In addition to the pointed commentary, each interview is shot with a noir aesthetic, giving the whole package a classy, vintage feel.



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As for the commentaries, they are executed with a similar quality, filled with historical knowledge, as per normal for Warner Brothers commentaries, but also with a welcomed variety. Almost all commentaries feature two participants together, one usually a historian, and the other either a writer like James Ellroy or Stabley Rubin or an actor like Farley Granger or Nina Foch. Considering how old these films are, the most fascinating tracks are with the actors, hearing their observations on how the industry was like in those days, indirectly showing us how much they’ve changed. Nina Foch, fairly overlooked as an actress, shows amazing skill as a speaker on the Illegal commentary, which is no surprise considering her jobs as AFI historian and USC professor. Her commentary is the highlight, but all of them are really great, with no silences and genuine love for these small little B-movies.


Final Thoughts

Warner’s Film Noir Collection Classics Vol. 4 set is about as consistent as box sets come. Each and every film has its share of qualities, and the difference between the worst film in the set, Mystery Street, and the best, Act of Violence, is not all that far. The transfers are all routinely clear and of high quality, restored in fine fashion. Consistency rounds itself of with the extras, with each and every film garnering a quality commentary, featurette and trailer. Not since the nine film Val Lewton set have so many short, classy thrillers been culled together in such a fine package. Their first noir set may have the high profile classics, but you can’t go wrong with double the films for the same price. Film noir was important for horror, not only in illustrating the horrors of America the way the seventies horror classics would take face on, but also for shaping the look and feel of fear from the forties onward in cinema. Highly recommended.


Rating

Act of Violence
Movie - A
Image Quality - A
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Mystery Street
Movie - C+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Where Danger Lives
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B-
Supplements - A-

Tension
Movie - A
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

The Big Steal
Movie - B-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Illegal
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Crime Wave
Movie - B
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Decoy
Movie - A-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

They Live By Night
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Side Street
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - A-

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 13 hours 28 minutes
  • Not Rated
  • 5 Discs
  • Chapter Stops
  • English mono
  • English subtitles
  • French subtitles

Supplements
  • Cast/Writer/Historian commentary on each title
  • Short featurette on each title
  • Theatrical trailers for each title
  • "Behind the Camera" vintage featurette for Illegal

Other Pictures



 

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