Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski might make it into the "bad girls" club herself, with this set's lax admission standards.
Our review of Two Of A Kind, published July 20th, 2004, is also available.
"Made of Sugar and Spice and Everything but Nice."
What are the two key elements you'd expect to find in a set calledBad Girls of Film Noir? Call me crazy, but I was expecting: 1) bad girls, and 2) film noir. Though it features some worthwhile movies from the Columbia's vault, this release is light on both of the above ingredients.
Facts of the Case
This first volume of the Bad Girls of Film Noir duo consists of four films, split between two discs that are housed in a single keep case:
• The Killer that Stalked New York A well-dressed blond arrives in New York City by rail carrying something sinister: stolen diamonds. Oh, and also smallpox. The latter proves more dangerous as the blond, Sheila (Evelyn Keyes, 99 River Street), spreads the deadly disease everywhere she goes. She doesn't know what she's sick with, and the health department doesn't know who's spreading this potential outbreak, so their life-or-death investigation unfolds alongside her petty thieving operation.
• Two of a Kind
A cagey broad named Brandy (Lizabeth Scott, Pitfall) recruits a washed up gambler for a long con: convincing a rich old couple that he's their long-lost son, and eventually collecting lots of inheritance. But complications could arise for this gambler, Lefty (Edmond O'Brien, D.O.A.), from Brandy's cynical business partner or from the bubbly niece of the old couple that he's tasked with seducing.
• Bad for Each Other
Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) stars as Tom, an army surgeon just returned from Korea to his poor, coal-mining hometown—conveniently named Coalville. While his mother tries to sell him on its small-town values, a sexy society woman (Lizabeth Scott again) convinces him to join a big-city private practice instead. While he rakes in the dough treating rich wives with drinking problems, a scrappier doctor acquaintance treats the less glamorous mining folk of Coalville.
• The Glass Wall
Poor Peter (Vittorio Gassman, Sombrero) escapes Europe's concentration camps and sails for America only to be threatened with deportation as a stowaway. Desperate to stay, he escapes his ship and goes looking for an American soldier he saved during the war who can support his request for asylum. Finding a guy named Tom who works in Times Square proves more difficult than Pete expected, but he gets help from a down-and-out dame named Maggie (Gloria Grahame, It's a Wonderful Life).
Don't wear yourself out looking for bad girls in this strangely organized collection of '50s films; there are no femme fatales here that could hold a candle to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Without giving too much of the plots away, I'll just offer one example: when we meet Maggie in The Glass Wall, she swipes another woman's coat at a restaurant. That's the "baddest" thing she does, and we find out it's because she's in dire straits after losing her job. Equally odd, it's hard to characterize any of the films in this set as solidly film noir. Most of them have noir elements (crime, hard lighting, paranoia) but these are often overshadowed by distinctly anti-noir elements (sunny beach settings, happy endings, moral redemption).
If we put aside critiques of this set's misguided marketing, what we're left with is three enjoyable '50s films and one clunker. Two of a Kind was my favorite of the bunch, and probably the most recognizably noir. Using an interesting caper that involves the sacrifice of a fingertip, it sets up a nice little nest of jealousy and potential betrayal among its characters. O'Brien is fun to watch as the easygoing gambler along for the ride, and Alexander Knox gives a memorable turn as the greedy accountant who sets up the scam. Unfortunately, Terry Moore (who gives an interview for the special features) is given a very annoying role in Two and doesn't do much to alleviate its annoyingness. It seems like there could have been more to her little rich girl who's so excited to be tied up by a burglar. Still, Two gets in a lot of nice noir one-liners, like Lefty telling Brandy, "I don't trust women any more than you do," or Brandy snapping at him, "I'm glad there's enough money in this deal to make you unimportant."
The Killer that Stalked New York and The Glass Wall are also both enjoyable, and both feature the added attraction of on-location shooting in mid-century New York City (though parts of Glass use awkward backdrops or rear projection instead). Killer's spin on noir darkness, with a medical outbreak rather than a murder, is unique and interesting to see unfold, though its tone can get a bit histrionic at times. Its opening narration about the arrival of this "killer" is particularly over-the-top, but in an amusing way. One of its most engrossing features is the tone of dread it creates regarding the smallpox virus Sheila is carrying—especially in a memorable scene where two little boys race toward a water fountain the diseased woman has just drunk from. It makes for a great horror movie for germophobes! Glass infuses the bulk of its story with extreme noir cynicism, putting its protagonist through the wringer as a wanted man who's just trying to escape the Nazis. On an audiovisual level, it's fairly ambitious, with some flashy montage sequences of Times Square and a prominent jazz soundtrack (justified in the story by Tom's job as a jazz clarinet player).
Bad for Each Other proves bad for everyone: it neither fits the set's theme, nor is it a good movie, in general. Pure melodrama with hardly a drop of noir, it's a slow-paced bore about a doctor's drawn out moral dilemma. If that doctor were at all sympathetic we might care about whether he chooses greed or altruism in his practice, but Heston plays him as a smug, self-involved jerk throughout. A prime example is the way he treats his faithful nurse, whom he questions, "What do we have here? A nurse with ideas?" The movie meanders without much of a direction and characters' motivations are often murky or inconsistent. You will get a dose of unintended humor, though, when Tom and another doctor finish up a surgery and then immediately light up two cigarettes in the operating room.
On a technical level, these '50s films are cleaned up pretty nicely. Though each of them suffers from some scratches and flecks, there are few more noticeable problems—the worst being some strange lines of interference in Killer. Crucially for (supposed) noir, contrast levels are very good, with black levels looking quite rich. Sound holds up all right in each film, though I had some balance issues with the narration and score in Bad.
Special features include the original theatrical trailers for each film, which are interesting in the way they sell each picture. Killer and Wall hawk their on-location shooting, while Bad uses scare tactics, claiming to expose the shocking "ghost surgeon" practice that could happen to any one of us (gasp!). There is also a 7-minute interview with Terry Moore accompanying Two, which is more generally biographical than focused on this particular film. The second disc throws in a bonus episode of The Ford Television Theatre called "The Payoff" that fits the bad girl, noir theme. It's a 25-minute story about a gumshoe (Howard Duff) with a simple assignment—pick up an envelope for a lady (Janet Blair) and deliver it to her—that gets complicated, and the original TV ad for the episode is tagged on before the show itself.
Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 1 offers a few interesting films in a misleading package. Sony would have done better to split these movies into two pairs: Killer and Glass share a "manhunt in post-war New York City" theme, while Two and Bad are both "greedy man falls for Lizabeth Scott" stories. Though on second thought, Sony's best plan would have been to leave Bad for Each Other in the vault!
Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 2 might be more promising. I saw two of its four films—One Girl's Confession and Women's Prison—at San Francisco's Noir City film festival this month and had a lot more fun with them than with the offerings in Volume 1.
These "bad girls" are not nearly guilty enough!
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Scales of Justice, The Killer That Stalked New York
Perp Profile, The Killer That Stalked New York
Distinguishing Marks, The Killer That Stalked New York
Scales of Justice, Two Of A Kind
Perp Profile, Two Of A Kind
Distinguishing Marks, Two Of A Kind
Scales of Justice, Bad For Each Other
Perp Profile, Bad For Each Other
Distinguishing Marks, Bad For Each Other
Scales of Justice, The Glass Wall
Perp Profile, The Glass Wall
Distinguishing Marks, The Glass Wall
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