Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says this collection of hard-boiled crime tales ain't half bad. And if you don't agree you can dummy up because he ain't in the habit of taking lip from mugs like you.
Our review of Academy Collection: The Envelope Please, Volume 1, published March 8th, 2010, is also available.
Deeper into darkness…
This third volume of Warner Brothers' Film Noir Classics Collection digs deep into the MGM and RKO vaults for some lesser-known flicks. The result is a collection not up to the standards of the previous two, but one that fans of crime and noir will enjoy nonetheless.
Facts of the Case
The following five films are included in the set:
• Lady in the Lake (1947)
• Border Incident (1949)
• His Kind of Woman (1951)
• The Racket (1951)
• On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Though short on pure film noir, this third volume of Warner Brothers' Film Noir Classics Collection is packed with entertainment. The set kicks off with the strangest, most unique entry in the series so far. Lady in the Lake—Robert Montgomery's directorial debut—is a famously unusual noir experiment. An adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name, the story is told quite literally through the eyes of jaded private investigator Philip Marlowe (played by Montgomery). The actor-director's use of an entirely subjective camera was daring to say the least—especially since this was his directorial debut. In their excellent commentary, Alain Silver and James Ursini rightly register wonder that the suits at MGM allowed the production to move forward. Montgomery probably used his attachment to the film as its star as leverage for hoisting himself into the director's seat, yet the picture's gimmick limits his actual screen time to a prologue, epilogue, and a couple mirror shots.
Sadly, the picture's gimmick also severely limits its visual style. Expect little in the way of noir's trademark chiaroscuro, unique framing, or clever camera angles. Lady in the Lake often looks like a hokey television show. Compositions are flat and visually drab. Actors spend an inordinate amount of time looking directly at us from the center of the frame. Camera dollies evoke the feel of old soap operas so effectively one almost expects melodramatic organ sweeps to accompany plot-point revelations.
Since it's a fairly faithful rendition of Chandler's book, Lady in the Lake's story is convoluted but gripping. Its turns of plot aren't quite as baffling as The Big Sleep's, but it's a movie that demands full attention. Once we get past a stilted prologue in which Montgomery (as Marlowe) introduces its "you'll see what I see" conceit, the picture brims with snappy, intelligent, and caustic dialogue. Verbal sparring matches between Fromett and Marlowe are particularly entertaining. She's a typically venomous, lethal noir femme fatale; he's a chauvinist heel, pure and simple—unafraid to call a dame a dame, and to show her the back of his hand if need be. Line delivery is occasionally stilted because of the oppressive subjective camera, but the actors mostly do a fine job handling stylized dialogue delivered as they look directly into the camera. Montgomery's performance suffers the most. He often sounds more like a director barking orders from a canvas chair behind the camera operator than a character in the film.
Unfortunately, the romance that blossoms between Fromett and Marlowe throughout Act Three just doesn't work. In terms of plot, it feels shoe-horned, and it delivers a finale that couldn't be more anti-noir in style and tone (despite the fact that it's rooted in the source, which drew inspiration from Chandler's becoming a writer after he married and settled down with Cissy Pascal). Obviously, both Montgomery and Audrey Totter are attractive and charismatic enough to be romantic leads in a Hollywood feature, but it's a little difficult to deliver sizzle and spark when one partner in the romance is just a disembodied voice. In the end, Lady in the Lake is a crackling detective story whose goofy style and sly substance are a mismatch.
Compared to Montgomery's picture, director Anthony Mann's Border Incident offers a more traditional noir visual style, though its story is a weird blend of noir, western, and policier. Most of the first act is comprised of awkward exposition as a voice-over brings us up to speed on the problem of illegal farm labor. We're hammered over the skull with cardboard morality—the downtrodden braceros are uniformly saintly and decent, while the smugglers are black-hearted villains. But this and the denouement are the only parts of the picture that feel like a Hollywood whitewash. Once Rodriguez sets off on his mission, the film picks up both narrative speed and quality. Intrigue, suspense, danger, and violence are abundant.
Border Incident's world is gritty and lived-in. Characters are both picaresque and picturesque, their compelling visages presented in slanted angles and stylish chiaroscuro. Alfonso Bedoya (who played the bandit Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Arnold Moss (Viva Zapata!) turn in solid character work as a couple low level smugglers who are sometimes comic, sometimes scary, always authentic. Howard Da Silva and Charles McGraw are appropriately wicked, sly, and brutal. In terms of the two cops (both of whose hearts and motives are too clean to make them true noir heroes), Ricardo Montalban's Rodriguez is the picture's hero. George Murphy's Bearnes is a secondary character, though his undercover gambit—which puts him face-to-face with the bad guys—crackles with tension and well-written dialogue. He's also involved in the movie's most gripping and memorable setpiece, a sequence best not discussed here.
Mann's raw sensibilities and ultra-cool camerawork aren't enough to save the picture from a by-the-numbers prologue and a finale that makes one wonder why we're still talking about illegal immigration today when Ricardo Montalban solved the problem once and for all nearly 60 years ago. But they are enough to make Border Incident a hard-nosed good time for the most part.
The first two entries in this boxed set came from MGM's catalog. The remainder are culled from Howard Hughes's forays into filmmaking with RKO. Like the two films already discussed, His Kind of Woman is a not-quite-noir. Directed by John Farrow (Around the World in Eighty Days), it kicks off in standard noir fashion. Robert Mitchum plays a tough gambling mug who becomes dangerously involved with a group of gangsters. Potentially more lethal, though, is his going gaga over Jane Russell's femme fatale, a woman with a phony present and hidden past. The picture's noir veneer begins to fade when we exit the naked city for a getaway at a Mexican resort. By the final act, the movie has evolved (or devolved, depending on how you look at it) into an action-comedy.
Putting aside the question of whether or not His Kind of Woman fits some technical definition of film noir, the picture's real flaw is a hokey plot contrivance involving Raymond Burr's desire to steal not just Mitchum's identity but his face. The contrivance exists as set-up for a setpiece involving Mitchum, Burr, some goons, and a doctor with a hypodermic needle. The delicious and malicious little sequence could have been justified without resorting to a goofy faux-science fiction tale of wondrous plastic surgery. In fact, it probably didn't need to be justified at all amidst the gun battles, thrown knives, and tense chases in the cramped guts of the baddies' yacht that make the movie's final act a kinetic, 20-minute sprint to the finish. Instead of creating a logical foundation for the mayhem, the corny face-lift plot element highlights the absurdity of action that would otherwise have simply washed over us without us giving logic much thought at all.
Accepted wisdom is that Vincent Price's scene-stealing comic turn as a pompous but ultimately decent (heck, even heroic) movie star with a love for hunting rifles is the highlight of His Kind of Woman. There's no doubt that Price is magnificent in the film. He plays well off of Mitchum, and his comic/heroic antics in Act Three lend just the right amount of levity to what is essentially an extended action sequence (okay, the comedy goes a little over the top at times as when the Mexican police officers he's taken under his charge by sheer force of personality and effusive elocution remain seated as their dinghy sinks, Price posing on the bow like George Washington crossing the Delaware). Truth be told, though, Robert Mitchum is the real comedy revelation here. The repartee between Mitchum and Jane Russell is snappy and loaded with genuinely funny one-liners. Mitchum tosses them off with such casual charm and innate sense of timing it made me wish he'd done a film or two with Preston Sturges. Price's performance is more overtly funny, but Mitchum made me laugh just as much.
The bottom line on His Kind of Woman is that it may disappoint fans wanting noir in its purest form—heck, it may not even belong in this boxed set—but if you're up for a (mostly) smart action-comedy, and your muscles are toned for suspending disbelief through its entire third act, the movie is an awful lot of fun.
Director John Cromwell's The Racket—a remake of the 1928 silent film, also produced by Howard Hughes—is yet another semi-noir. It's also the worst of the five movies in this set. It might have been a fascinating exploration of a decent cop forced to protect a mobster he hates in the interest of a greater justice, but Robert Ryan's Nick Scanlon doesn't run afoul of the syndicate until the near the end of the picture. It might also have been the tale of a brutish mobster forced to rely on the protection of a shady cop he doesn't trust, but this is a do-goody policier not a nihilistic noir. In the end, The Racket is the story of a good cop and a bad mobster, each acting exactly as good cops and bad mobsters must. Mitchum tries to catch Ryan while maintaining his own sense of duty and loyalty to order by adhering to the code of the law. And Ryan tries to destroy Mitchum, either politically or physically depending on what the situation demands.
Even if we accept The Racket for what it is—a by-the-numbers policier—the film still has a couple major flaws. The first is that Mitchum and Ryan should have reversed roles. Ryan isn't an obvious choice to play a straight-arrow cop, but it's easy to imagine him bringing the same sort of dogged pursuit of justice (however one chooses to define justice), whatever the cost, that he brought to the role of the pug who won't throw a fight in Robert Wise's The Set-Up. Played by Ryan, Tom McQuigg wouldn't be the boy scout variety of good cop—he'd be tough and careworn and a little beaten down by life—but that would be a good thing. Mitchum is just strange in the role, so blasé that he doesn't even get riled when a fellow cop is murdered. He'd have been the perfect Scanlon, needling and goading Ryan's McQuigg.
The picture's second major flaw is that its ending only makes sense if McQuigg isn't a squeaky-clean cop, or if he's stupid. Neither is a possibility based on what's come before. After spending nearly an hour and a half watching a death match between McQuigg and Scanlon, we're given a non sequitur and end credits. It's a major disappointment.
The boxed set closes in style with director Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, easily the best of the films offered here (even if studio monkeying left us with a compromised happy ending, as detailed in Glenn Erickson's excellent commentary track). It would be hard for a movie to go wrong with a script by A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves' Highway), direction by Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), star turns by Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, and a prominent character role for Ward Bond.
The first half of the picture offers perhaps the purest example of noir in this set, though the second half evolves into a sweet romance set in the wintry countryside of upstate New York. Genre definitions hardly matter, though, as Robert Ryan delivers a sometimes chilling, sometimes sympathetic performance as a cop so beaten down by his day-to-day battle against criminals that he's become a dangerous sadist. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, Ryan's detective Wilson spews venom at a gangster who refuses to turn informant and who Wilson is about to beat savagely: "Why do you do it? You know you're gonna talk. I'm gonna make you talk." There's an unhinged quality to Ryan's performance, a hatred in his eyes, that's as frightening as any of the overt violence in Frank Miller's Sin City.
Detective Wilson softens considerably across the second half of the film, but not in a narratively sloppy way. Bezzerides changes Wilson slowly and deliberately across the events of the manhunt in upstate New York, and through clever use of character. Ward Bond's grieving father effectively pushes Wilson out of the role of the hell-bent seeker of justice/vengeance. Having to baby-sit Walter Brent's worst instincts awakens Wilson's rational mind. He soon enough recognizes that his attraction to Mary Mulden may be his only shot at redemption, but that it requires that he make a stand for true justice. There's a satisfying irony in jaded, sadistic Wilson protecting a murder suspect from the determined rage of the victim's father. Unfortunately, said satisfaction is somewhat muted by an ending that is too one-dimensionally neat and happy—we feel that Wilson should pay a price for his new-found nobility, but he doesn't. RKO's tacked-on Hollywood ending diminishes On Dangerous Ground, but doesn't destroy it.
Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume Three differs from previous volumes in the series in that the films are not sold individually (not yet, anyway). The cardboard slipcase matches the style of the previous volumes, but inside you'll find six slimline keepcases. The cases are adorned with original poster art for each of the five films. A film noir expert supplements each film with an audio commentary. All of the tracks are incredibly informative, offering a wealth of information about the production of the specific films as well as crash courses in film noir style. Lady In the Lake, Border Incident, and On Dangerous Ground also preserve the theatrical trailers for their respective films. Unlike previous volumes, this set also contains a sixth disc of supplementary materials (more on that later).
Overall, image quality is not quite up to the standards of the films offered in the previous volumes of theFilm Noir Classics Collection. Lady in the Lake sports a fair amount of grain, and some flicker. The source print has loads of minor damage in the form of pocks and small scratches. Detail is fine, though. Border Incident's image is superior to Lady in the Lake's, but only slightly. Grain isn't as coarse, and the gray scale has more range, but the image is still speckled with minor damage, and there's some flicker. Nighttime sequences are sometimes muddy. His Kind of Woman has a great gray scale, and little damage or dirt. Grain is fine and minimal. There are some fine vertical scratches in some scenes during the shoot-out between Milner, Cardigan, and the gangsters, but that's the only bothersome print damage to be found. The Racket sports a low contrast image in spots, offering few true blacks or whites, and many shades of gray. In other spots, the image is cleaner and more detailed. There is minor damage throughout. On Dangerous Ground's muddy image is the worst in the box. Blacks are solid but there are few pure whites. For the most part, detail is decent despite the over-abundance of grays. Isolated shots are so soft they're almost blurry.
Audio is fine on all five features—much better than the video. The original mono tracks have been restored and are presented in single-channel mixes that place all sound in the center channel of surround systems.
As I previously mentioned, this volume of Film Noir Classics Collection has a sixth disc of bonus features. Let's take a look:
Disc Six also contains a collection of five short features from MGM's "Crime Does Not Pay" series. They can be played individually, or streamed together via a Play All feature (combined, they run 1 hour 43 minutes):
• Women in Hiding(1940)
• You, the People (1940)
• Forbidden Passage (1941)
• A Gun in His Hand (1945)
• The Luckiest Guy in the World (1947)
These shorts are mostly two-dimensional morality plays. They're certainly not films noir. That said, they're enormous fun for any viewer who's game. Women in Hiding and You, the People are so hamfisted in the delivery of their message that their main value is as camp entertainments. The other three manage to transcend their public service announcement origins to one extent or another. None are works of art, but they're worth preserving and their presentation here adds value to the set.
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. The sixth disc of quality supplements significantly sweetens the deal, though. Casual viewers will probably want to pass on this collection, but fans of noir and crime films will find it a worthy addition to their collections.
Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume Three is not guilty, but it'll probably be beaten by a dirty cop, wrongly convicted on false evidence, and sentenced to fry on ol' sparky anyway.
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Scales of Justice, Lady In The Lake
Perp Profile, Lady In The Lake
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Lady In The Lake
• Commentary by Film Historians Alain Silver and James Ursini
Scales of Justice, Border Incident
Perp Profile, Border Incident
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Border Incident
• Commentary by film historian Dana Polan
Scales of Justice, His Kind Of Woman
Perp Profile, His Kind Of Woman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, His Kind Of Woman
• Commentary by film historian Vivian Sobchack
Scales of Justice, The Racket
Perp Profile, The Racket
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Racket
• Commentary by film historian Eddie Mueller
Scales of Justice, On Dangerous Ground
Perp Profile, On Dangerous Ground
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, On Dangerous Ground
• Commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson
• IMDb: Lady in the Lake
Review content copyright © 2006 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.