Warner Home Video presents
Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 3 (1946-52)
"You don't get information being careful."- Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), in On Dangerous Ground
Stars: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Robert Montgomery, Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Lizabeth Scott
Other Stars: Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Alfonso Bedoya, Vincent Price, Tim Holt, Charles MacGraw, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Tom Tully, Leon Ames, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper
Director: Anthony Mann, John Farrow, Robert Montgomery, Nicholas Ray, John Cromwell
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 08h:08m:05s
Release Date: 2006-07-18
Genre: film noir
DVD ReviewTough guys and the molls who love them. Bad men doing bad things, some of whom wear badges and know better. The city, any city, at night, and in black-and-white. It's film noir, friend, from a time that's long gone and isn't coming back. Warner favors us with five more titles from their archives, each one with its own fascinations; the set is resolutely put together out of chronological order, for reasons that remain opaque. Here's a look at each of the five, available only in this quintet and not individually. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
Border Incident (1949)
"I'm hotter than a firecracker, I tell ya."
—Bearnes (George Murphy)
This movie is, sadly, at least as relevant today as when it was made, over fifty years ago—the tagline screaming across the DVD case—The Shame of Two Nations!—is just as applicable today. Smiles, everyone, smiles—Ricardo Montalban stars as Pablo Rodriguez, an officer in the PJF, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, as his agency teams up with their colleagues north of the border in an operation spearheaded by Agent Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). Rodriguez goes undercover as a bracero, a Mexican laborer who pays for illegal passage to the U.S. in the hope of finding a better way to earn a living. Of course the braceros are ruthlessly exploited, and the Feds from both countries are looking for a way to bust up the smuggling ring—Bearnes is undercover, too, playing a shady character promising to provide INS documentation for the right price.
Director Anthony Mann is at least as well known for his Westerns as for his noir pictures, and this one decidedly has the feel of an oater. Mann has an able partner in cinematographer John Alton—much of the movie is set at night, the illegals being moved around under cloak of darkness, and Alton's photography illuminates and etches their features into the landscape. Montalban is very much the star, and he's charismatic in the leading role, even if his soft hands betray the fact that he's no day laborer. There are also strong supporting performances from Howard Da Silva, as the worst of the Americans exploiting the poor Mexicans, and from my old friend Alfonso Bedoya, who seems just as unhinged as he did in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made two years earlier. There are some absolutely brutal images in this film, with climactic gunplay overpowered by the horrors that farm equipment can do to flesh in the night; the movie is bookended as a PSA of sorts, but Mann's dark vision takes in much more than just a couple of bad apples looking to swindle poor Mexican laborers out of their wages.
His Kind of Woman (1951)
"I was just getting ready to take my tie off, wondering whether I should hang myself with it."
—Milner (Robert Mitchum)
This isn't quite a film noir that pulls its punches, but it does waver between being a classic picture in the genre and a sendup of all its conventions. It's also a deeply, deeply confusing movie, for like the main character, we're in the dark for almost all of the running time about just what's going on here. Lightening the load for us, though, are a couple of smoldering pieces of eye candy, depending on your taste: Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.
Mitchum stars as Milner, who gets the proverbial offer he can't refuse—$50,000 simply to leave the country for a year. A prologue and some hints throughout help us piece to together just what's what: Raymond Burr plays mobster Nick Ferraro, who's been deported and is angling to get back to the U.S., though why he wants to leave his Neapolitan villa isn't entirely clear. Ferraro is to pass himself off as Milner, apparently, who will be kept busy, liquored up and his mouth shut, at some impossibly posh resort south of the border. The mobster story quickly fades into the background, though, when Milner arrives at Morro's Lodge, which is part Club Med, part Magic Mountain, a playground for the idle rich—among those Milner encounters is Jim Backus as a Wall Street sort, and Vincent Price as a thinly fictionalized Errol Flynn, a matinee idol hiding from his wife and stealing some time with his mistress of the moment. That's where our interest, and Milner's, lies, for the lady in question, Lenore Kent, is played by Russell, who's just flat-out smoking hot in this movie, and knows it. The middle of the movie is devoted to the cat-and-mouse courtship of Mitchum and Russell, and a noir fan couldn't ask for anything more.
The chickens come home to roost in the last act, though, and Russell is pretty much AWOL; there's some fun to be had with Price, who faces genuine danger and real bullets for the first time, and not just between "Action" and "Cut." But there's a whole mess of characters who are impossible to keep straight, and an insanely intricate, Dr. Evil-like plan to dispose of Milner with a debilitating serum developed by the Nazis—like much of the movie, this is absurdly complicated, though we're rewarded for our efforts by a final sequence that attempts (vainly) to tie up all the loose ends. All is not lost, though, because Jane comes back on screen.
Lady in the Lake (1946)
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
—Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery)
This is one of the strangest, most sustained exercises in point-of-view filmmaking you'll ever see. Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, this Philip Marlowe story is told, quite literally, from Marlowe's perspective—that is, with the exception of a couple of bits of narration, when Robert Montgomery, who plays Marlowe, talks directly to the camera, the film shows us exactly and only what Marlowe sees. If there's a noise on the other side of the room, the camera swish pans over; when Marlowe talks on the phone, we see only a couple of fingertips and the bottom of the receiver; and we learn that he likes to close his eyes when it's time to kiss a pretty girl. On some level, it's a pretty fascinating exercise; but you can't help but think that the storytelling is hobbled by the technique, that it's a stunt that runs far too long. Montgomery is the director, too, and other than the narrative bits, the only time we see Marlowe square in the face is when he passes in front of a mirror—when he does, you half expect to see a film crew tailing him.
It's an odd movie in a number of other respects, as well—for one thing, it's set during the holidays, so it's a film noir wallpapered with Christmas music and sprigs of holly. (Nudge this a little, and you're in the territory of a Saturday Night Live sketch, or Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and I was hoping that Montgomery would chime in all hardbitten at one point: "The name's Marlowe. Fa la la la la, la la la la.") This is a Marlowe with literary ambitions, and the plot gets underway when he submits a short story to a pulp magazine; the editorial response is overly enthusiastic, and the detective rightly suspects that he's wanted for more than merely his literary skills. It's less urban than most noir pictures, taking Marlowe up to the mountains, and the dark energy of the city is a little bit missed. This probably isn't Chandler's finest book, though screenwriter Steve Fisher (a pretty fair pulp novelist himself—I Wake Up Screaming is a terrific read) does his level best. As a director, Montgomery coaxes good performances out of his cast, who pretty much have to speak directly to camera—this is of course a movie in which everybody, conveniently, has their names emblazoned on their doors, and in which there's a seeming avalanche of monogrammed handkerchiefs. Especially noteworthy is Jayne Meadows, as a nosy landlady trying to catch up with a deadbeat tenant.
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
"Why do you make me do it? You know you're gonna talk."
—Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan)
You can take the thug cop out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the thug cop. On some level that's the overriding lesson of this strangely bifurcated movie, which comes with a pretty highbrow pedigree—it's directed by Nicholas Ray (best known perhaps for Rebel Without a Cause), was produced by the redoubtable John Houseman, and features a resonant and percussive score from Bernard Herrmann, making this almost a study for his more familiar work for Alfred Hitchcock. Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson, a big-city police detective churning with anger—he's mad at the world and keeps everybody at arm's length, which makes him a tough one to partner up with. The whole PD is in an uproar, for two weeks ago one of their own was shot and killed, and there have been no significant leads yet. Wilson gets a couple of tips and rounds up some suspects—but he's clearly working out some issues, and he roughs up the perps, leading to a stern talking-to from his captain. Even that doesn't take, and soon Wilson is farmed out to a police department some seventy miles away, where, in a country town, a young girl has been killed and her murderer is on the loose.
Wilson may be a flat-out sadistic psycho, or harboring some awful secret; we never learn, though in another time he might be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, full of the postwar anxiety that freely floats through so many noir films. (He's also a clear antecedent to Travis Bickle, the hero of another film with a great Herrmann score.) Up in the country, he's paired up in a de facto manner with Fred, the crazed father of the dead girl, and the two of them are after some frontier justice—when you've got a vigilante cop working with a vengeful parent with a shotgun, niceties like the rights of the accused are likely to go out the window.
The movie even leans on that hoary old cliché of the blind woman who can see the pain in Wilson's soul; she's actually nicely played by Ida Lupino, and her relationship with Wilson dominates the second half of the picture. It's a movie with a weird kind of amnesia—when Jim is on the case of the killer in the country, it's almost like the first portion of the film didn't even happen. Robert Ryan is a solid hero, giving us both Wilson's lunacy and his unexplained pain; the ending gets a little maudlin and feels unearned, but the whole movie pulses with whatever it is that's under Wilson's skin, and ours.
The Racket (1951)
"This is my city, bright boy."
—Nick (Robert Ryan)
This movie could serve as a paradigmatic film noir for those unfamiliar with the genre, because it's crammed with everything we've come to expect from one of these pictures: dangerous nights on dark city streets, with tough hoods and equally tough cops on their tail, against a background of nightclubs, dames and corruption. This one is almost more style than substance, and sometimes has a patched-together feel, but it's a perfectly squalid journey through a world of questionable morality, everything we want out of a noir. This time, Robert Ryan is working the other side of the street—he plays Nick Scanlon, the local mob boss who insulates himself from the big house by buying off more than his fair share of public servants. He goes toe to toe with Tom McQuigg, the law-and-order police captain new to his precinct, played by Robert Mitchum, and this one is truly a clash of the titans.
A local crime commission is looking to clean up the streets, but its investigators pull its punches, as a number of them are on Nick's payroll. Tom isn't having any of that, though—he's got his best men on the case, and is going to do the people's business, consequences be damned. The whole movie is hurtling us toward the necessary confrontation between the two leads, but there are a bunch of nice little stops along the way—she's sort of extraneous to the plot, but smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott has a nice turn as Irene, a nightclub chanteuse whom Nick's brother has unwisely decided to marry. Nick goes ballistic when he finds out that his brother Joe has taken this tart as his intended, and the depth of his wrath has got to provide fodder for queer theorists. Similarly, it's hard not to see the crime commission as a metaphor of some sort of anti-Communism investigations; the analogies may not be precise, but this gets at the anxiety that churns through all the movies in this set.
The cast is filled out with great character performances, too—William Conrad gives a world-weary turn as a corrupt police investigator; Robert Hutton is all gee whiz and smitten with Irene as a newspaper reporter new to the beat; William Talman is righteous without being a prig as a beat cop who wants to do the right thing. But the most swagger comes from Ryan, who rips it up as the mob boss, fantastically violent, a man who doesn't care to be crossed; Mitchum is a classic standup guy, but his part isn't nearly as showy. Even after it's over, you'll be eager to see these two go another couple of rounds.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
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Image Transfer Review: It's a treat to have these movies on DVD, but it's a disappointment that they don't look better. The best of the bunch is Border Incident—despite lots and lots of scratches and debris, John Alton's photography retains much of its power. His Kind of Woman looks hideously bad, and is certainly the worst of the lot—it's an awful transfer, full of vertical scratches, debris, discoloration and distortion. The other three, while not quite as egregiously transferred, are closer to the shoddy end of the scale.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: Lady in the Lake is the only one of the five to have a French-language track; the rest are English mono only, and these, thankfully, sound better than they look. Border Incident is the most spare with soundtrack scoring, so there's more hiss to be heard; but generally these are pretty clean.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 127 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
5 Feature/Episode commentaries by Dana Polan (Border Incident), Vivian Sobchack (His Kind of Woman), Alain Silver and James Ursini (Lady in the Lake), Glenn Erickson (On Dangerous Ground), Eddie Muller (The Racket)
Packaging: Box Set
- Five Crime Doesn't Pay shorts (see below)
The familiar tag team of Alain Silver and James Ursini provide the commentary for Lady in the Lake, and their back and forth is informative particularly on the parallels between Marlowe and his creator, for Chandler also came to writing relatively late, and spend more than his fair share of time dickering about money. Interesting, too, is their compare and contrast on the different onscreen Marlowes we've seen over the years—hard to think that Montgomery can hold a candle to Bogie in The Big Sleep, though. Glenn Erickson takes the reins for On Dangerous Ground, with thorough biographical sketches of almost all of the participants in the film, a chronology of reshooting and editing this sometimes troubled production, and a careful comparison between the film and the novel (now out of print) on which it's based.
Eddie Muller brings up the rear with a smart commentary on The Racket, the principal subject of which is Howard Hughes' influence; this is in fact a remake of a 1928 picture that Hughes produced, one that was based on a stage play that originally starred Edward G. Robinson. He's very funny about some of the ironies that must have been inherent to original audiences—for instance, Mitchum's own time in the big house on a pot bust was a recent memory, so seeing him as a straight-arrow cop had to bring some snickers. Hughes commissioned much rewriting and reshooting, and Muller talks us through the behind-the-scenes participants, a list that included Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller.
The three original trailers are for Border Incident, Lady in the Lake and On Dangerous Ground; you'll find the rest of the extras on a 6th bonus disc. Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light (01h:07m:31s) is jammed with clips and interviews, in an attempt to define the genre—for most, it's like Potter Stewart on pornography: you can't say what it is, but you know it when you see it. Among the many interviewed are directors Sydney Pollack, Frank Miller, and Christopher Nolan; writers James Ellroy, Christopher McQuarrie, and Brian Helgeland; and some of our friends from the commentary tracks, including Eddie Muller and Glenn Erickson. There's speculation about what qualifies as the first film noir—The Maltese Falcon? M? Is film noir defined as being a story told from the criminal's point of view? Nobody's quite sure, but everybody here has an evident fondness for the genre.
Finally, Crime Does Not Pay (01h:43m:49s) is a collection of five vintage shorts, all with a noir pedigree, each dealing with a social issue in a hardboiled manner—it's striking how many of these problems are still with us, and how little the public dialogue has progressed in sixty years. Our host for the first three is a standup guy identifying himself only as "The MGM Crime Reporter," which has got to be a great gig. Women in Hiding deals with the shame of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and though it can't use the word, alludes to abortion. You, the People is all about election fraud, minus the hanging chads. Forbidden Passage, directed by Fred Zinnemann, is about the perils of illegal immigration, in a tale that would do James Sensenbrenner proud. Perhaps most noiry of all is when a cop goes bad with A Gun in His Hand, directed by Joseph Losey, and finally, a fellow who tries to gamble away everything, then kill his wife and himself is dubbed, with obvious and heavy irony, The Luckiest Guy in the World.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsFive from the classic era of noir—they're of varying degrees of accomplishment, and the picture quality on these discs is frequently compromised, but it's a blessing to have them on DVD, and the package of extras is especially impressive.
Jon Danziger 2006-08-03