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Kino on Video presents

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood (Sudden Fear, The Long Night, Hangmen Also Die, Railroaded, Behind Locked Doors) (1943-52)

"He doesn't know anything about how to lie."- Joe (Henry Fonda), in The Long Night

Stars: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price, Brian Donlevy, Anna Lee, Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Sheila Ryan, Hugh Beaumont, Richard Carlson, Lucille Bremer, Tor Johnson
Director: David Miller, Anatole Litvak, Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 07h:55m:16s
Release Date: 2006-09-12
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
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DVD Review

She was there. She looked good. She asked me for a drink. I gave her one. No need for me to go on, for Kino brings together five disparate pictures from the 1940s and 1950s in this box set, each of which more or less qualifies as a film noir—though certainly some are noirier than others. They're all dark and moody and stylish, if not of the first rank of the genre—still, if you're a fan of this kind of filmmaking (and goodness knows, I am), there's a lot of fun to be had here. Let's have at it.

Sudden Fear (1952)

"A woman has to wear lipstick. I feel positively naked without it."
—Myra (Joan Crawford)

Confirmation comes early that this will be a noir in high dudgeon, for the opening credits list a platoon of five devoted to Miss Crawford's wardrobe. Joan Crawford established long before that she can chew it up with the best of them, and she gets a chance to rip it up here, in a tale of domestic psychological undermining that frequently warrants comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.

Crawford plays Myra Hudson, who is not only a fantastically rich San Francisco heiress, she's a playwright and the toast of Broadway—and the action starts on the right coast with rehearsals for her latest offering. The leading man in her play is supposed to be devastatingly handsome and impossibly charming, and Myra simply doesn't think that Lester, the young fellow that's been cast, is up to the task—so she exercises her playwright's prerogative and has him dismissed. He storms off, and the play is another Myra Hudson triumph without him, but wouldn't you know it, the writer and the actor she has deemed inadequate meet up on a cross-country train trip. A couple of Scotches and a few hands of stud poker salve most of his wounds; he even becomes Myra's new beau, and shortly thereafter her new husband.

But since he's played by Jack Palance, we can be reasonably confident from the jump that this will be more than just a storybook romance with a meet-cute story. Much attention is given over to Myra's will—what if they divorce? What of her plans to give the bulk of the family fortune to charity? And Lester soon reconnects with a former partner in crime—Gloria Grahame plays Irene, who has read Lester's press clippings and knows what a gravy train smells like.

This is pretty lurid stuff, and bears a woman-in-jeopardy plot line that's become a staple of Lifetime movies; and though it's clearly made on the cheap, it's done pretty artfully, with many dollies in on our sweaty Joan as a desperate housewife. The staccato editing style contributes to the tension, as do the many Dutch angles at which director David Miller has shot the movie; the film propels forward to a sharp climax as Myra tries to undo the damage she inflicted on herself while blinded by love. It's pulpy and from its period, but it holds up pretty well, and is a reminder to beware of anyone who's got Dictaphones in every room in the house.

The Long Night (1947)

"You know you love me. Why don't you be yourself? Why hold back?"
—Joe (Henry Fonda)

We take noir's German pedigree as a matter of course, but here's a reminder that there are other European influences on this genre that seems so resolutely American, as this film is a remake of a French one, Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève. The action has been moved to the heartland, in an unnamed industrial town much like Gary, Indiana or Youngstown, Ohio, and, literally, it starts off with a bang: Joe (Henry Fonda) blasts some bullets through the door of his top-story cubby in a rooming house, sending Maximilian (Vincent Price) stumbling down the stairs to his death, and besides the camera, the only witness to the crime is a blind man, played by Elisha Cook, Jr. The cops quickly come in and start blasting; the standoff between Joe and the authorities becomes the frame for the movie's flashback structure, filling us in on how a decent fella ended up in such a desperate situation.

It has of course to do with the affections of a particular young lady. Joe grew up in the orphanage, and now works the factory line; he meets Joanne, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, also an orphan, now working for and living with the family that owns the florist shop in town. It seems like these two crazy, lonely kids are just meant for one another, but gosh darn it, circumstances intervene. Maximilian is a nightclub magician who gets Joanne to fall, at least a little bit, for his syrupy charm; Joe takes some comfort in the arms of Charlene (Ann Dvorak), a gal who has seen just about all of it before, and more than once. Fonda is typically such a standup guy that one of the fascinations of this movie is watching how his Joe becomes unhinged—it's an emotional journey we associate more with James Stewart. And it's a reminder that Hollywood hasn't always done especially well in portraying working-class characters—everything's just a little too pretty.

But director Anatole Litvak has a keen sense of the tensions of the baying mob, which is not to be trusted, and he's rightly contemptuous of the hotheaded trigger-happy cops who are looking for the flimsiest excuse to start shooting. And having the most fun seems to be Price, who gets to play a loquacious Lothario who's also a compulsive liar. How deeply charming!

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

"Freedom is not something one possesses, like a hat or a piece of candy."
—Svoboda (Brian Donlevy)

This is an intriguing war movie for a bunch of reasons, but you sort of have to push the boundaries of the definition of noir to include this one in the genre. Perhaps being directed by Fritz Lang is qualification enough; his M might be regarded as the first film noir, but by this time he has already fled the Third Reich and was making movies in Hollywood. You'll find another great expatriate name in the film's credits, as sharing billing for the screenplay is "Bert" Brecht—the great playwright contributed to a story that takes on the Nazis at a time when the outcome of the war was certainly in doubt, and the movie brims with a rousing patriotism, or anti-Fascism, at least, from those who have been done wrong and forced to flee their homeland.

The action takes place in Prague, occupied by the Nazis, where the commanding officer is the hateful Reinhard Heydrich, a.k.a. The Hangman. The Czech underground pulls off a sly and successful assassination of the Hangman, and the trigger man, Dr. Svoboda, is the most wanted man in the city. The Nazis will interrogate and execute and humiliate to get their man, with no regard for the body count, and anybody who aids and abets Svoboda, even unknowingly, is in for it, as are their friends and families. Which is trouble for Nasha, who sees Svoboda fleeing and sends the pursuing brownshirts in the other direction.

The movie is a complicated matrix of interrogations and double-crosses; you may not always be able to keep everybody's cover story straight, but there's no doubting who the good guys and the bad guys are. Brian Donlevy is a straight arrow as Svoboda, and Anna Lee is the poor young thing who may have put her family in jeopardy; less convincing is Walter Brennan, always a welcome presence but not exactly fitting the bill as a bespectacled Czech academic. And it becomes a morality play of sorts, as the Czech rebels frame one of the Germans for the crime—he gets his just deserts, surely, but winning that battle doesn't have the satisfaction that expelling the Germans from their homeland would. The steely resolve of the Czechs in the face of the monsters is in many respects what the movie is all about, and it must have functioned as a firm pat on the back to those who were fighting the good fight.

Railroaded (1947)

"What are you trying to do, frame me?"
—Steve (Ed Kelly)

Dollar for dollar and frame for frame, Anthony Mann must have been the most efficient and successful filmmaker in Hollywood history. This picture clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes, and it's headspinning, from its opening shot panning past Your House of Beauty to its climax. A couple of toughs with scarves over their mouths are looking to boost Clara Calhoun's hair salon, but the job goes bad, and a passing cop takes one to the belly and dies. Clara is no innocent, though, as she's making book between dye jobs, and her higher-up, local tough Duke Martin, needs to hang this on somebody. That's where poor Steve Ryan comes in—he's supposed to be the patsy, but of course he doesn't care to play along.

The investigating officer, Detective Mickey Ferguson, sees that all the evidence (planted or not) points to Steve, but he can't help but notice that Steve's sister Rosie, busy trying to clear his good name, is quite a looker. It's a movie fascinated with police procedure, and surely looks Paleozoic by the standards of today's prime time fare; still, you can't help but get hooked by the forensics, by the interrogation techniques, and by the other tools of the trade.

The most familiar face is Hugh Beaumont's, who plays Ferguson; he does fine as a hardbitten cop, but after all these years of reruns, it's hard to see him as anything other than Ward Cleaver. Everybody seems to be telling lies and lies and more lies to everyone else; you'll make yourself loony trying to keep them all straight, and there are more than a couple of moments when you may feel like a stoned William Hurt in The Big Chill, watching an old movie, the screen full of fellows in fedoras, who offers the plot recap: "I think the man in the hat may have done something terrible."

Behind Locked Doors (1948)

"I'm not getting myself locked up in any nuthouse on a hunch."
—Ross (Richard Carlson)

Let's get crazy. Literally. This cheaply made and mighty efficient (it's 61 minutes, with credits) picture loves the crazy, and I admit to having a taste for this stuff—it obviously anticipates some of Samuel Fuller's full-blooded work (notably Shock Corridor), and is as savage about mental health professionals as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Richard Carlson stars as Ross Stewart, a wet-behind-the-ears L.A. private detective who seems to have entered into the profession to meet chicks. And amazingly, it works—his first client is Kathy Lawrence (Lucille Bremer), a San Francisco newspaper reporter who has come downstate on a manhunt of sorts. She's on the tail of a corrupt judge, who seems to be holing up in a private asylum—she can't pay Ross's fee, but if he comes back with evidence that the judge is in fact in the nuthouse, she'll split the $10,000 finder's fee with him.

So they pose as husband and wife in an effort to pass him off as crazy and get him sent to the same facility. Ross is awfully good at it, and the doctors are pushovers—they're patronizing, infantilizing and exploitative, psychiatry at its most primitive and suspect. And their enforcers in the hospital are ward orderlies with healthy doses of sadism, the worst of whom, Larson (Douglas Fowley), messes with the heads of the patients for sport.

Most of the movie is spent inside the hospital, and it's all pretty lunatic—vouching for the madness is the very presence of Tor Johnson, Ed Wood's sometime muse, as a delusional former boxer ready to throw down. As you might expect, things spiral out of control for smooth-talking Ross. It's kind of stupid stuff, but it is one to savor.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The transfers are adequate at best, and the source material seems to be seriously compromised, resulting in some very tough going visually. Lots of rips mar The Long Night, though Hangmen Also Die! is probably the worst of them, which is a shame, since the cinematographer on the picture was noir master James Wong Howe. Railroaded is probably the best of a bad lot.

Image Transfer Grade: C-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Hangmen Also Die! is awful, hideously muffled, frequently to the point of inaudibility. Lots of static compromises Sudden Fear, interfering both with the dialogue and Elmer Bernstein's score; the same happens to Dimitri Tiomkin's contribution to The Long Night.

Audio Transfer Grade: C- 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 70 cues and remote access
Packaging: Box Set
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. making-of essay (see below)
  2. two clips from Le Jour se lève
  3. photo gallery
Extras Review: The Long Night is the only one of the five with an extra content, and it's confined to two clips from the French film on which it's based—a nice opportunity to compare and contrast, with Jean Gabin in the lead rather than Fonda; Designing the Night a visual making-of essay with clips, stills and storyboards; and a photo gallery of lobby cards and stills.

Extras Grade: D

Final Comments

Five fantastically smoky, dark pictures; they're almost entirely without extras and the technical values are pretty compromised, but don't let those shortcomings dissuade you from enjoying the many pleasures to be had here.

Jon Danziger 2006-10-12