Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger's feet are tired.
Our review of Illegal (2010), published July 5th, 2011, is also available.
Warner Brothers…Film Noir Classic Collection. Those two phrases are enough to quicken the pulse of a large, voracious subset of the film-loving populace. Film noir is a high-water mark in cinematic discourse. Noir-heads can endlessly, creatively—and, most importantly, rewardingly—argue the merits and flaws of obscure films noir that were released decades ago. Noir's odd mixture of structure and decay, subversive themes and cinematography, surface meaning and hidden intent can send the noir fan's mind reeling. We can't get enough of this stuff, and Warner Brothers has delivered many a square carton of noir euphoria in the past.
The fourth square carton of noir euphoria has just arrived, and it's my job to tell you about it. And I will, if you skip down there to Facts of the Case. But if you'll forgive me, the rest of this opening statement is not strictly related to this boxed set and its prized contents. Consider it metacriticism; a behind-the-scenes, personal note about this review to place it in context. After all, film noir is all about how the past dooms the present.
See, as is true of any decent film noir protagonist, there's a burden of guilt hanging around my neck like a dead albatross. There's no hiding it. I'm in the wooden chair, surrounded by you and judges past with the interrogation light shining into my eyes.
The words you're reading now were published at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, Aug 14. It is now Wednesday, July 25. I've just returned home from a two-day drive from upstate New York with a stack of letters and work as high as my nose waiting for me. I'll spend the next two weeks at a conference. And there in a hefty manila envelope is my assignment, Film Noir Classic Collection (Volume 4).
Staring at it with a mixture of elation, trepidation, and guilt, savoring the bittersweet mixture of emotions, I remember Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection.
That set was a big deal. Film noir had never gone completely out of style, but it wasn't exactly mainstream. Yet several of the judges on staff nursed secret noir fetishes. We cursed fortune under our breath while seminal noirs sat languishing in studio archives, unlucrative and unreleased. Suddenly, winds were shifting. Our beloved, marginalized genre was getting attention. Then the best of all news came through: in addition to Fox's Noir line, Warner Brothers was releasing a set of five noirs in a boxed set. Not little ones, either, but critical noirs like Out of the Past and Gun Crazy.
Behind closed doors, the tone at DVD Verdict was like a thinly polite pack of wild dogs staring at a hunk of choice meat. "You take a nibble. No, I insist. I just dined on a bare-bones Artisan horror flick starring two hip-hop artists and a chick with a huge rack. I'm well sated, thanks." Michael Stailey had a potential blood bath on his hands. The review had to go out soon because it was a red-hot title. At the same time, this was our chance to support a studio release we were all behind 100 percent. Like a judge splitting up kids between two parents, he doled out the set to Supreme Court panel of interested judges who had time to turn the titles around over the weekend so we could get the review posted by street date.
That panel boiled down to Mark Van Hook, George Hatch, and myself. In a true spirit of collaboration, we divvied up the titles, came up with a cohesive reviewing strategy, and forged a unifying intro for the review. We passed our work to each other and pored over every word to get it right. George was particularly painstaking, looking for just the right phrase to impart his intent. The films themselves were exhilarating, but the spirit of shared energy and the intense desire to get it right was an early highlight of my Verdict tenure.
The set paid off for Warner Brothers and they released a second volume. Though the supreme court review of Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes had been rewarding for all involved, it was also like giving birth. Michael did the smart thing and sent individual titles out to judges for review. With the exception of a real dud, Dillinger, the set had good films in it. But it prompted Judge Joe Armenio to say of film noir "the term has been used so expansively—sometimes it seems that any film from classic Hollywood with a gloomy atmosphere has been branded a noir—that it hardly seems useful anymore." In addition, the initial giddiness over noir on DVD had been dulled by market saturation of marginal releases hyped as noir because it was a hot buzzword.
Time passed. For good reasons, Verdict policy changed so that boxed sets were assigned to one judge for review. There are simply too many great boxed sets (Warner Brothers is particularly guilty of this charge) to deal with the logistics of breaking them up into individual titles. So Dan Mancini got the whole hog when he reviewed Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume Three. The set prompted this summary:
The second volume of Warner Brothers' Film Noir Classics Collection failed to match the quality of the first volume. This third volume isn't as good as the second. Flawed scripts, odd directorial decisions, and lower video quality conspire to ensure that none of the five films here is entirely satisfying.
In other words, though diehard noir fans still had some rewarding nuggets waiting for them in the set, the bloom had fallen off the rose somewhat.
This brings us to Wednesday, July 25, six days from the street date of Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4. There are two key differences between this volume and the last two, Volume 2 and Volume 3. First, this volume has not five, but ten feature-length movies with extra features. Second, and more importantly, each film in this set is a true noir. None of them enjoys the stratospheric reputation of an Out of the Past or a Gun Crazy, but they are thematically cohesive, dyed-in-the-wool films noir with gangsters, wrong choices, femmes fatale, murder, grime, and stabbing lances of shadow and light. They are matched with commentaries by renowned experts with detailed knowledge of the genre.
And I've never seen a single one of these movies.
So there are choices and, in true noir fashion, none of them is satisfying. Cram ten films and ten commentaries into the next couple weeks and then write up a hurried review. Or take my time, savor each film as it deserves, and write up a detailed review that will show up several weeks hence—which makes it less effective from both your and Warner's perspective. Or I can watch the highlights, spot check the rest for quality, and determine whether you should purchase yet another Warner Brothers Film Noir boxed set or grab the individual discs that interest you.
I'll take the latter choice, because the choice I really want is unavailable to me. Mark isn't an active judge (though he hangs out in our forum), and George has died. There's no time to give these films the attention they deserve, pore over each word in shared glee with the great minds and talents of Mark and George—or even the passionate, capable judges currently on staff. But I'll say this: with this release, Warner Brothers has returned the sense of euphoria and pure, noirish joy that made Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes such a treat.
Facts of the Case
The perps walked in front of the photographer one by one, holding their black-and-white placards like protective shields. I eyed them critically, wondering what tidbits I could glean about these toughest of the tough cases. They didn't reveal much with their carefully lidded eyes and grim faces. All I had to go on was rumor, innuendo, and old-fashioned leg work.
Perp 1: Act of Violence
Perp 2: Mystery Street
Perp 3: Crime Wave
Perp 4: Decoy
Perp 5: Illegal
Perp 6: The Big Steal
Perp 7: They Live By Night
Perp 8: Side Street
Perp 9: Where Danger Lives
Perp 10: Tension
Doomed lovebirds Bowie Bowers and Keechie Mobley spend much of They Live By Night dreaming about a life "like regular folk." Though at first glance the two appear conventional, regular folk quickly get nervous around them and creep away at the first opportunity. They walk around in normal society, but are separated from it completely.
Film noir has a similar effect on "regular folk." Even when posing as regular films, films noir creep under your skin, making you uncomfortable on a primal level. Subtle subversion of cinematic language, cloying darkness, and unbalanced characters set your mind on edge. Boxed sets like this one obviously condense films with this vibe into a cohesive package. But at the time, noirs were balanced out by reams of "normal" movies and stood out for their darkness and upsetting content. Even today—perhaps especially today—noir is a hard sell for most people. Given a choice between a mainstream film from today or a gritty, dark morality fable from the fifties, the majority will understandably select the former.
Of course, noir fans actively seek out this sense of destabilization, menace, and tension. We embrace the doomed characters and enjoy our brief time with them. For a noir fan, there's no worse feeling than becoming inoculated against this tension. It's what makes noir tick; without it, the films are laughable, boring, and predictable exercises in cinematic excess.
They Live By Night does a good job of establishing and maintaining tension. Implied menace is everywhere and more effective than the brief snippets of violence and sexual aggression which pop the slowly inflating balloon at regular intervals. The more explicit moments in the film usually belong to Howard Da Silva's Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley, whose milky white bad eye and piercing black good eye set up a constant, effective creep out with moral undertones. Chicamaw can barely suppress or camouflage his depravity and violence. Coated in a layer of grime, stale sweat, cigar smoke, and alcohol fumes, Chicamaw staggers through the picture like a wounded bull.
Bowie seems oblivious to the dual trap of the criminal underworld and straight society; he thinks he can escape the former and join the latter. Keechie is at least cognizant of the odds, but she too has hope. This hope and the moments of normalcy it encourages in their private time are the key ingredient to tension that is more subtle in They Live By Night than it is in more blatant noirs. We audience members know what is coming, and to its credit They Live By Night doesn't sell out. The inevitable doom falls, They Live By Night proves its fidelity and enters the noir canon.
In contrast, Side Street is less effective at maintaining tension. The comparison is interesting because Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell reprise their doomed love in a noir that follows They Live By Night by a scant two years. Granger again portrays a thief being pursued by the law and the underworld, more innocent and less competent that everyone around him. O'Donnell again portrays the pregnant wife that is the impetus for her husband's misguided actions. Side Street is practically a sequel on those terms. But Side Street has a different director and a different focus. That director, Anthony Mann, loves camera craft; he gives us some of the most memorable images and movement in the set. The story and acting are not up to the same standard, but they are serviceable enough to support the fantastic camerawork. Mann jumped on the burgeoning bandwagon of aerial footage to deliver stunning helicopter shots of NYC. Side Street is worth seeing for the sake of comparison and cinematography if nothing else.
Like all of the discs in this set, the They Live By Night/Side Street two-fer has no forced trailers, animated menus, nor any fluff of any kind. The disc space has been maximized and every spare bit eked out to support one film on each layer of the dual-layer discs. As a result, both films are grainy and have the faintest traces of mosquito noise in the background. They Live By Night has the contrast, clarity, and detail we've come to expect from Warner Brothers, and represents the baseline high quality of the set. Side Street is unlike most of the discs because it has flat contrast that diminishes the impact of fine camerawork. Each of the films in this set also has a mono English track that is surprisingly clear given its vintage. The presentation should please all but the pickiest. The disc, like all the discs in this set, has a couple of brief featurettes and two commentaries. Eddie Muller guides Farley Granger through an alternately fawning and salty discussion of the film that is a treat for noir fans. Richard Schickel's commentary is perhaps more informative, but has many gaps and play-by-play moments.
Most of the films in this set maintain a level of quality that approximates these two. None of them are essential noirs (though the commentators might say otherwise); none are genre-defining, pitch-perfect balancing acts of menace and false hope like The Killers or Laura. Yet most movies in any genre fail to meet such lofty standards. Perfection is rare, especially in a genre that is practically defined as a "B" genre.
Noir fans are accustomed to the corny, low-budget aspects of the genre. Crime Wave's Sterling Hayden gnaws toothpicks like a live-action reincarnation of Bugs Bunny. Decoy would have us believe that a man would draw up a map to the loot and consider a ripped up half of it "insurance" against death. None of these corny touches are mood-killers—they are simply dissonant notes that serve as cinematic shorthand for an actual budget. These noirs are more notable because they create actual suspense and tension with the same shoestring budgets. Charles Bronson's malignant sneer is more effective in Crime Wave than a thousand toothpicks. Decoy uses a puff of smoke and a tilting camera to represent an execution. The economy of the scene with its first-person viewpoint and the fade to black creep us out better than any overplayed execution scene would.
Decoy is most notable for Jean Gille. With her impossibly arched brow, classic beauty, and shifty eyes, she's just mysterious enough to be alluring instead of dime-a-dozen. Her character stands out for her complete lack of sympathy or scruples; she lies, kills, seduces, and betrays without the merest flicker of remorse. Of course Decoy is also notable for its Outer Limits-like sci-fi bent, a rarity in noir, but Jean Gille grounds the film in grimy reality. Though Crime Wave doesn't have a standout like Gille, casting is also its major coup; each character is memorable, even if the basic plot is tried and true. André de Toth maximizes every resource at his disposal to create a respectable undertow for the trapped hero.
Like They Live By Night/Side Street, Crime Wave/Decoy is comparatively loaded because it has featurettes and trailers in addition to the commentaries. These four-minute snippets feature modern directors and other insiders lauding the feature. They aren't in and of themselves reasons to buy the set, but provide a much-needed change of pace from the darkness of the set. Yet again Eddie Muller hosts a pleasant commentary informed by detailed knowledge and appreciation for the film. Glenn Erikson hosts a commentary with writer Stabley Rubin, who unsurprisingly focuses on his script and his writing. If you're a fan of Rubin, you'll get a lot out of this track. Decoy has one extensive gap in the footage, but otherwise the two films live up to the standard of the set.
Mitchum's good doctor in Where Danger Lives has a cadre of young patients he reads bedtime stories to like a saint. The next moment he's cheating and scheming in a nightclub. Though such character turns are unbelievable, Where Danger Lives is otherwise a compelling noir that finds an upstanding citizen mired in trouble before he can say "femme fatale." Mitchum and Faith Domergue create a complex relationship in scant minutes. Claude Rains takes over the film in his one scene. For these reasons Where Danger Lives is rather front-loaded, but fantastic cinematography oozing with shadows and grime makes the film watchable throughout. Domergue's unstable character Margo becomes more and more unbalanced as the plot wears on. Meanwhile, innocent incidents that seem like threats drive them to desperate measures. Where Danger Lives is probably the kind of film you came to this set for.
Though its sister film Tension has a better IMDb rating, it is a rather muddled and pedestrian murder plot with an extremely hokey plot device that ruins its credibility. Audrey Totter does her level best to create a femme fatale that is simultaneously nasty and sympathetic. Some of the dialogue crackles, but the cinematography and plot pull Tension away from true noir.
Literally: some of the dialogue crackles. Tension has a couple of skips in the transfer and sketchy audio moments, but again nothing unreasonable for the age of the source. Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, and Audrey Trotter infuse their commentary with several amusing quips; Ward sets up a gentle antagonism with Silver over Trotter's character.
Like Tension, Illegal is not a pure noir. It is more of a legal-themed fall from grace; the alternate universe version of Perry Mason. Edward G. Robinson is the disgraced DA at the center of Illegal, and his "mini-Michael Corleone" character arc is fun to watch. Illegal strings several tense confrontations and legal coups into an overly convoluted plot that often strays. Yet Illegal is always giving you something new to examine, from DeForest Kelley in his pre-Bones McCoy days to an early, curvy turn by Jayne Mansfield (who fills out a black dress better that almost any other noir floozy). Though director Lewis Allen doesn't guide Illegal with a firm hand, per se, he throws a surprising amount of pure noir imagery into the mix. Hot gunplay, oppressive shadows, and snappy, jaded one-liners pepper the film.
Illegal is not a pure noir, but The Big Steal makes even less of a case for itself. This caper in Mexico is half tense pursuit and half corny pratfalls. Mitchum's massive dimple is as watchable as ever and he's paired up with the luminous Jane Greer. Together they shine. Even better, director Don Siegel manages to reestablish tension when it should by all rights have dissipated with the forlorn echoes of misguided jokes that appear in The Big Steal with regularity. Nevertheless, The Big Steal is more noirish comic relief than compelling. Maybe someone will release a 45-minute cut with some teeth.
If Richard B. Jewell's dense, informative commentary is correct, Siegel was thwarted by overzealous censors. He had a much darker, more brutal vision that might have looked more like his superlative noir The Killers. Jewell is full of such tidbits and his commentary threatens to become the main feature. Nina Foch and Patricia King Hanson have a low-key, humorous banter that is populated with piercing cinematic insights. The two tracks are different, but both are worth listening to. Illegal has several moments of extreme softness and print damage (presumably near reel changes) and is the only widescreen film in the set. Tension passes a challenging test of presenting a houndstooth jacket with a minimum of cross-coloration and aliasing.
As you might expect of the director who brought us High Noon and The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann infuses Act of Violence with a nearly unbearable tension. This post-war noir is unlike most of the films in this set in that it eschews corny elements in favor of palpable fear and guilt. Again, Act of Violence is not a seminal noir, but it is a highly underrated, pleasant inclusion in the set that might not have seen release otherwise. It's a fitting partner to Mystery Street, which is helmed by the uncompromising director John Sturges (of Bad Day at Black Rock fame, among others.) Ricardo Montalban completely sheds the cheesiness that would plague his '70s television efforts. Though Mystery Street strays from some central noir tenets, it is worth a look for the harder-edge fans.
So, should you cherry pick or buy this whole set outright? The set is remarkably consistent in terms of film quality, transfers, featurettes, and commentaries. The Illegal/The Big Steal disc is the least purely noirish of the bunch, but otherwise if you like one of the discs you'll probably like them all. Ten noirs at this price is a no-brainer.
The verdict is clear: pick up the set.
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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, Decoy
Perp Profile, Decoy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Decoy
• Commentary by Glenn Erickson and Stanley Rubin
Scales of Justice, Act Of Violence
Perp Profile, Act Of Violence
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Act Of Violence
• Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper
Scales of Justice, They Live By Night
Perp Profile, They Live By Night
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, They Live By Night
• Commentary by Farley Granger and Eddie Muller
Scales of Justice, The Big Steal
Perp Profile, The Big Steal
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Big Steal
• Commentary by Richard B. Jewell
Scales of Justice, Mystery Street
Perp Profile, Mystery Street
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Mystery Street
• Commentary by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
Scales of Justice, Side Street
Perp Profile, Side Street
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Side Street
• Commentary by Richard Schickel
Scales of Justice, Tension
Perp Profile, Tension
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Tension
• Commentary by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, and Audrey Trotter
Scales of Justice, Where Danger Lives
Perp Profile, Where Danger Lives
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Where Danger Lives
• Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini
Scales of Justice, Crime Wave
Perp Profile, Crime Wave
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Crime Wave
• Commentary by Eddie Muller and James Ellroy
Scales of Justice, Illegal
Perp Profile, Illegal
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Illegal
• Commentary by Nina Foch and Patricia King Hanson
• DVD Verdict Review of Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection
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