Judge Maurice Cobbs lives his life in shades of grey.
Into the shadows. 8 nights of noir.
At this point, Warner Bros. has pretty much gotten their most famous film noir movies out on DVD, either individually or in their Film Noir Classic Collection box sets. In this latest set, the studio offers up some lesser-known gems and oddities; while the quality of the eight films represented in this collection may vary, they are all nevertheless excellent examples of noir.
Facts of the Case
The Film Noir Classic Collection continues with Volume 5, offering up eight tales of murder, corruption, betrayal, and postwar sin and cynicism: Desperate, Cornered, The Phenix City Story, Dial 1119, Crime In The Streets, Armored Car Robbery, Backfire, and Deadline at Dawn.
Volume 5 starts out with Desperate, a solid crime drama from film noir fixture Anthony Mann; better known perhaps for his collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, like Winchester '73 and The Glenn Miller Story, Mann was a deft director who also made quite a memorable run of dark crime thrillers, such as Raw Deal and The Border Incident (which is available in Vol. 3, FYI). In Desperate, Steve Randall (square-jawed stalwart Steve Brodie, who flitted in and out of the noir world with supporting roles in films like Crossfire and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye when he wasn't riding across the wild, wild B-movie western range) is an honest, hard-working man thrust unwittingly into this dark world of shadow, crime and…well, desperation. His beautiful wife, Anna, is played by the fresh-faced Audrey Long, no stranger to the world of noir; she'd appeared the same year in the Robert Wise classic Born To Kill as Lawrence Tierney's hapless good-girl socialite wife. She fares a little better this time—matrimonially speaking—until her husband gets the call. A lot of money driving his truck for one night (of course it's a set-up) and straight-arrow Steve finds himself in the middle of a robbery. He alerts a passing cop, but everything goes wrong; the cop winds up dead and one of the robbers ends up in the hands of the cops. Naturally, the hood's going up on a murder charge. Naturally, he's the brother of a big-shot hoodlum, played (naturally) by Raymond Burr, who always seemed to be playing a hoodlum, menacing everybody from Frank Sinatra (Meet Danny Wilson) to The Marx Brothers (Love Happy) before he squared up and became everybody's favorite undefeatable defense attorney. This hoodlum, Walt Radak, ironically lacking the services of an undefeatable defense attorney, wants Steve to take the rap in his kid brother's place, or it'll be just too bad for the pretty little missus. Steve sees only one way out, and weirdly enough it's not going to the police and telling them everything and protesting his innocence and fingering the big-shot hoodlum. Then again, this is noir-world. People don't go to the cops in noir-world. Instead, he goes on the lam with his wife in tow, running from the cops who now think he's a killer and the crooks who need him to take the fall. Radak might not have an undefeatable defense attorney, but he does have a breezy, sleazy private eye in Pete Lavitch, played by prolific character actor Douglas Fowley. We'll get back to Douglas later on in this box set; Brodie, too—the boy just can't seem to stay out of trouble. Desperate is a solid picture, but not a particularly inspired one story-wise (in fact, the rather ridiculous story is one of the things keeping this film pinned firmly down in B-movie status), though Mann makes up for it with a few interesting visual flourishes…particularly the heavily-shadowed stairwell shootout that brings the film to its violent conclusion.
The second feature on Disc One is a bit less satisfying; Cornered finds Dick Powell, who was shedding his image as a light comedy and song-and-dance man after the previous year's surprise hit Murder, My Sweet, reuniting with director Edward Dmytryk and writer John Paxton. Alas, the results aren't as magical the second time 'round; the limp story begins at the end of WWII as Canadian pilot Laurence Gerard travels into the ruins of postwar France to hunt down the Nazi collaborator who was responsible for the death of his resistance fighter wife; they'd only been married for twenty days when she was betrayed. At first, it is thought that the Vichy traitor, Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler, The Magic Face), had been killed during the war, but Gerard is so desperate to get revenge on somebody that refuses to believe it and eventually tracks the sorry S.O.B. to Buenos Aires, where he agitates Nazis during the search and gets conked on the head every ten minutes or so. Why they don't just kill him and be done with it is beyond me. This weak revenge story is definitely one of the set's less scintillating offerings, though of course fans of Dick Powell might be interested in it; I found it to be a fairly tedious hour-and-a-half. Powell would go on to subsequently do much better stuff, such as Johnny O'Clock and To The Ends of The Earth, though you could argue that his turn as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (available in Vol. 1) was the high point of his noir work. One thing is undeniable, though: There's an awful lot of Nazis in Argentina.
Disc Two's first offering is The Phenix City Story, an explosive crime exposé chock full of "Based on Actual Events" goodness; the filmmakers seem so desperate to have the audience believe this unbelievable story of racketeering, corruption, vice and murder that the film is prefaced with a 13 minute reel of documentary footage featuring broadcast journalist Clete Roberts interviewing some of the people who actually lived through the brutal events depicted in the film. It's a dark, lurid tale of a criminal syndicate in a small Alabama town that has run rampant for decades; the townspeople are too frightened or too corrupt to stand up to good ol' boy syndicate boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) as he cleans up with crooked gambling and prostitution, preying on the soldiers stationed across the river in Georgia at Fort Benning. It's all too much for young ex-G.I. John Patterson (Richard Kiley), who gets fed up and goes up against the mob with his fists, sparking reprisals. When murderers go free because the jury is too afraid to render a guilty verdict, John's father Albert (John McIntire) decides to run for State Attorney General; the violence escalates and the newspapers spin into focus until Albert is murdered in the street and John must pick up his father's work and smash the rackets once and for all. This is a stark, grim, no-nonsense picture that nevertheless almost swerves into exploitation, so shocking and brutal are the events depicted, but director Phil Karlson holds the film in check with his frank documentarian style. Casting the film with unknowns, bit players and character actors completes the illusion, and the movie gets bonus points for not going out of its way to portray all Southerners as backwards hicks or degenerate racists.
Next up is Dial 1119, a by-the-numbers but nevertheless engaging hostage drama that has an escaped psychopath holding the patrons of an inner-city bar at gunpoint while the police tear their hair out and try to figure out how to save the citizens trapped inside. Convicted killer Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson, who would go on to star in the cult classic Cult of the Cobra,) has escaped from the looney bin and the cops have put out the alert: If anyone spots the killer on the loose, don't approach him, don't try to stop him, just dial 1119! Which is what 911 used to be. The crazed Wyckoff…a paranoid, shell-shocked G.I. who had a complete mental breakdown (or is he?)…holes up in a bar and begins to terrorize the patrons, a diverse cross-section of 'types', as the hapless victims of crime and disaster tend to be in these sorts of movies. The ensemble of frightened B-movie leads and character actors includes the vastly underappreciated Virginia Field as the floozy barfly Freddy; Andrea King as buttoned-up, pinned-down virginal beauty Helen; Leon Ames (usually seen matching wits with Mr. Moto) as the caddish salesman trying to seduce her; Val Lewton refugee James Bell as just-retired reporter Harry Barnes; William Conrad (Cannon) as the unlucky bartender Chuckles; and Keith Brasselle as young waiter and expectant father Skip. Wyckoff wants a showdown with the psychiatrist whose testimony put him away, and he's given the authorities until 9 p.m. to make it happen, or he's going to start blasting away. Marshall Thompson does what he can with the role of nutty-as-a-fruitcake Wyckoff, which is to say, not much; often cast as an upright, forthright, clean-cut sort of fellow, he seems to be a bit out of his depth playing such a wild character. And besides, this trapped-with-a-killer stuff has been done so many times, and so much better, usually with Humphrey Bogart on one side of the gun or the other: The Petrified Forest, Key Largo, The Desperate Hours (and who can forget Dick Powell's superb 1953 cold-war thriller Split Second, which throws the added tension of an impending A-bomb explosion into the mix!). But Dial 1119 still manages to succeed thanks to crisp direction by Louis B. Mayer's son Gerald and the presence of the fascinating Virginia Field, who very nearly steals the picture. It's not a classic film, but it is a film well worth seeing, and this collection is certainly better off for having it included.
Moving on to Disc Three, we start off with a sweltering story of inner-city youth-gone-wild committing Crime In The Streets, of angry, violent gang kids looking for trouble and the social worker desperately trying to help them. James Whitmore (The Asphalt Jungle) is Ben Wagner, a guy who's been around and seen a few things, and he knows that there's something dark and sinister brewing in the Hornets, the local street gang…but he can't seem to reach these troubled teens. Sal Mineo is fantastic as Angelo "Don't Call Me Baby" Gioia, and future On Golden Pond director Mark Rydell frankly creeped me out a little as the slack-jawed sociopath Lou Macklin. And, introducing…John Cassavetes! Look at that baby face! Uhhhh…never mind. He looks about thirty. Because he was about thirty! The surly intensity that Cassavetes would become famous for is already well in evidence as Frankie, the sociopathic teenager who hates to be touched. From top to bottom, this production looks and feels more like a stage play than a film, and in fact it is based on a play for television by Reginald Rose. But the general staginess adds to the overall dramatic effect, heightening the intensity of the story. Under the sure direction of the legendary Don Siegel, who uses every trick in the book to keep ratcheting up the tension, this is a no-frills, no- nonsense, no-holds-barred drama: cheap, simple, cruel, bloody and effective, just like a back-alley shank.
Richard Fleischer made his first appearance in the Warner Bros. film noir sets way back in Vol. 2, with the taut 1952 thriller The Narrow Margin, starring rock-jawed, gravel-voiced noir staple Charles McGraw; Disc Three wraps up with another of Fleischer's collaborations with McGraw, Armored Car Robbery, another sparse, tightly-directed crime picture brimming with tension and suspense and snappy, saw-edged dialogue as straightforward and direct as the title suggests. McGraw…such a great movie tough-guy cop, I never understood why nobody tapped him for Dick Tracy (he even has the comic-strip detective's hawkish nose!)…makes the most out of his role as Lt. Jim Cordell, blowing a two-dimensional character up to pulp-novel proportions, even though the story itself is nothing too spectacular. Still, the no- nonsense direction that made The Narrow Margin such a terse, fast-moving ride is well in evidence here, even though the movie understandably lingers just long enough for us to get a load of the luscious Adele Jergens (The Fuller Brush Man) as Yvonne LeDoux, AKA Mrs. Benny McBride, AKA Trouble, sashaying her way through a mild strip-tease number. When it becomes obvious that we've pretty much seen all of Adele that we're going to, we can turn our attention to her cuckolded husband Benny…remember our pal Douglas Fowley, the shady P.I. from Desperate?—and the bad boys he's throwing in with for the big payday (one of whom happens to be Steve Brodie from Desperate, wearing the black hat this time). High-class dames like Mrs. McBride don't come cheap, but she's poison, as curvy glamorous dolls with long legs tend to be in noir-world. Slick gangster Dave Purvis enters the picture, played by William Talman, the future D.A. Hamilton Burger on TV's Perry Mason; but first he'd go on to star in one of the defining classics of noir as the psychopath serial killer Emmett Meyers in Ida Lupino's The Hitch- Hiker. Purvis has a meticulously planned robbery lined up, an armored car job worth half a million dollars, plotted out with a detailed diagram and involving a trick exploding car and gas masks and all such as that, as all half-million dollar robberies should. But it wasn't enough (is it ever, really?) and the robbery goes awry, and Purvis finds himself on the run with the gang, pursued by Cordell, who wants the would-be mastermind to hang for the murder of his partner. Backing Cordell up is his new partner, baby-faced Don McGuire, who found more success behind the camera than in front of it (his screenplay for the Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie scored him an Oscar nomination). The movie zips along far too quickly (67 minutes!) to ever get tedious, though at about halfway through we return to the enticing Adele as she shakes her moneymaker…but the scene, like her act, is more tease than anything else: We spend more time gawking at burly men in suits in the audience than at Adele's shapely legs. Poor Doug Fowley: He spends a lot of time in this box set getting shot in the belly. "No loose ends, baby!"
Finally (and I know you're glad to see that term) Disc Four kicks off with Vincent Sherman's goofy Backfire, a convoluted 'thriller' with more flashbacks than a bad LSD trip. Popular singer Gordon MacRae hadn't yet established himself with musical roles in films like Oklahoma! and Carousel when he was cast as injured WWII vet Bob Corey. Corey is recuperating from severe back injuries in a V.A. hospital, but things are set to turn around for him: He's understandably in love with his perky nurse, played by Virginia Mayo, and he'll be buying a ranch with one of his close army pals, Steve Connolly (Edmond O'Brien, Johnny Midnight). Except Connolly goes and gets himself disappeared, and Corey is left to track him down. His only clues: A series of bad dreams and a mysterious nighttime visit from Connolly's exotic lounge singer girlfriend Lysa Radoff (Viveca Lindfors) (which ought to be enough to perk any man up, even one doped to the gills on painkillers), who tells Corey that his pal is hurt bad and in trouble with the law. But he couldn't have killed any big-shot gambling kingpin…could he? Before you know it, Corey is hip-deep in vice and gambling and intrigue, and we are hip-deep in flashback sequences. What is this, anyhow? The Killers? Citizen Kane? Try "none of the above." The movie tries hard, and so does MacRae, but while it's an entertaining watch, it's far from being a classic. Rather than taking the viewer on a thrill-a-minute ride, this picture kind of rambles along amiably, hoping you'll hang on until the end but not really seeming to care if you do or not.
And last, but certainly not least, is a curious little film called Deadline at Dawn, a fascinating, almost dreamlike noir from Harold Clurman; this would be Broadway director Clurman's only effort at film, but it's so interesting that I can't help but wish he'd done more. It's a strange story filled with dead ends and odd turns of events and characters who are more than they seem. Fresh-faced sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams, The Adventures of Kit Carson) comes to his senses after a blackout with no idea how he managed to get a hold of the $1400 that's stuffed into his waistband…hey, we've all been there before on a Saturday night. He wanders into a dance hall and arouses the sympathy of cynical, world-weary dime-a-dance girl June Goth, played by an awfully bosomy Susan "I Want To Live!" Hayward, who suggests that he just take the money back to the woman he took it from, Edna Bartelli, a hard-faced tramp played by the wonderful Lola Lane, who first stole my heart as plucky gal reporter Torchy Blane (stealing the role briefly from Glenda Farrell); however, when the duo arrive at Bartelli's apartment, they find the woman dead. Did Alex kill the woman in a fit of rage? He can't remember…but his sense of honor won't let him just drop it…and he has to catch a six a.m. bus so that he can report for duty on time. And they can't call the cops, even though the station is right across the street…Noir-world, remember? But if he didn't do it…who did? They're not the only ones who want to know; Edna's brother, big-shot gangster Val Bartelli (Joseph Calleia, The Glass Key) is pretty interested in the answer to that one, too…and Alex lost a bundle to Bartelli earlier that night in a rigged card game. With the help of a kindly cab driver (Paul Lukas, from the 1935 version of The Three Musketeers), the two might just find some answers…and maybe even just a bit of redemption. This is a haunting murder mystery, a fantastic film stuffed full of odd characters and interesting suspects wandering almost desolate city streets in the wee hours of the night, and it's a fine film to finish up this fine collection of classic noir, ending, as it does, with the breaking of dawn…and ushering us out of noir-world and back into the light of day.
Presented in 1.37:1 full screen—with the exception of Crime in the Streets and The Phenix Story which receive the 1.85:1 widescreen treatment—the image quality is what you might expect from 50-60 year old sources; film stock grain, some dirt and scratch, varying levels of contrast, and so on. In short, there was not great restoration effort made here. Same goes for the audio—single channel Dolby tracks; a moderate amount of snaps, crackles, and pops; but it serves the imagery well enough not to distract from your enjoyment of the films, which by Volume 5 is all you can ask for. Since these are flipper discs, you won't find much in the way of bonus materials, save theatrical trailers for Cornered and Dial 1119.
A mixed bag? Sure it is. This isn't the set that I'd recommend to get your
friends hooked on noir; it's the set I'd buy for friends who already love noir
and are looking for some new thrills. Some of these are better than others, no
doubt about that, but they are all unusual…the kind of stuff you used to
be able to catch as filler programming back when the term "Late, Late
Movie" actually meant something.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Cornered
Perp Profile, Cornered
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Cornered
Scales of Justice, Deadline At Dawn
Perp Profile, Deadline At Dawn
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Deadline At Dawn
Scales of Justice, Desperate
Perp Profile, Desperate
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Desperate
Scales of Justice, Armored Car Robbery
Perp Profile, Armored Car Robbery
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Armored Car Robbery
Scales of Justice, Backfire
Perp Profile, Backfire
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Backfire
Scales of Justice, Dial 1119
Perp Profile, Dial 1119
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dial 1119
Scales of Justice, The Phenix City Story
Perp Profile, The Phenix City Story
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Phenix City Story
Scales of Justice, Crime In The Streets
Perp Profile, Crime In The Streets
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Crime In The Streets
Review content copyright © 2010 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.