“In the 1940’s and 1950’s the juiciest roles for actresses in Hollywood were often in B pictures that explored the dark side of life, staring roles as cool, calculating girls who could stick a knife in a man’s back and make him like it.”
And so Sony collects 8 of these films as part of what looks like is going to be an ongoing series. But what exactly is Film Noir? You hear the term used from time to time, but what does it mean?
Film Noir officially started in the 40’s, but the movement was well under way by the early 30’s. You can trace its roots to the Great Depression and the arrival of the dime pulp magazines. These were highly stylized, mostly mystery stories that provided cheap escapism for the masses who were not having a good time of it. Writers like Raymond Chandler crafted the mold that was easily transferred to the silver screen. These were low budget films that were intended to be second billing with the more mainstream releases. They were shot quickly. Many have a very flat look, created intentionally. The lighting was often minimal, crafting odd shadows and unusual textures. The dialog wasn’t intended to be natural or realistic. These characters usually spoke in clichés and had names like Mac, Griff, or Dollface. There was often a shade of gray to these characters. Good and evil were not always so clear cut. Gangsters became common themes of the genre. And while the dialog might have been cheesy, the cinematography was often gritty and almost ultra-realistic. At times the films played out like documentaries, often including narration. The narrator would always be a voice of authority; often film reel stars were used. The films were heavily influenced by German expressionism, perfected by the likes of Fritz Lang in the silent era and carried over to more modern themes. The films always contained a steady supply of stock characters and actors. It was smoky rooms and neon lights. It was a reflection on the times. It was Film Noir.
Here are the films collected here:
Volume 1/ Disc 1
The Killer That Stalked New York (1950):
“It began on a November day in 1947. Death didn’t sneak into town riding the rails or huddled in a boxcar. It came on a streamliner, first class, extra fare, right into the Pennsylvania Station, big as life. And when it finally stepped out of its drawing room and onto the platform, it was something to whistle at. It wore lipstick, nylons, and a beautiful tailored coat, souvenir of Cuba. Its name was Sheila Bennet, a pretty frame to match. Worth following… The blond was a killer. Oh no. She didn’t deal death out of the end of a gun or a knife. She delivered it wholesale, just by walking through a crowd, climbing some stairs, pushing through a turnstile, standing in the station. Better than wholesale. For free. No charge.”
Sheila (Keyes) has just returned from Cuba where she has stolen and smuggled diamonds into the United States. Her partner is her husband. But while Sheila’s been gone, he’s been putting the moves on her sister Francie (Albright). He plans to sell the diamonds and ditch the dames. Now the feds are looking for Sheila, who trusted the guy enough to ship the diamonds on ahead. She’s left holding the rap. But the Feds aren’t the only ones looking for Sheila. She picked up more than precious gems in Cuba. She picked up smallpox, and now it’s spreading through New York. While the health department searches for an unknown carrier, she’s looking to get revenge on her husband.
This film is one of the best examples of the whole film noir genre. The dialog has that Mickey Spillane feel that is almost too cheesy and melodramatic to believe. The characters are hardnosed, and the city itself is an important element to the story.
This one also features an appearance by Jim Backus in an uncredited but critical role.
Two Of A Kind (1951):
“A long time ago a wealthy Pasadena couple lost their son, an only child, who’d lost the tip of his little finger when he was a small boy. While she was shopping with her three year old son, Mrs. McIntyre fainted on a downtown street, and when she was revived, the child had disappeared.”
So Brandy (Scott) and her two accomplices Todd (Anderson) and the McIntyre family lawyer Vincent (Knox) hatch a scheme to get the McIntyre fortune. That’s $10 million worth of fortune. They track down orphan Lefty (Obrien) and get him to cut his pinky finger off with a car door to infiltrate the McIntyre home and get accepted as the long lost boy and only heir to the estate. Their way in appears to be through the couple’s niece Kathy (Moore) who Lefty can’t seem to get interested until she believes he’s a crook, or worse. Suddenly she falls for him in the hopes of rehabilitating him. Once she “discovers” his finger, she tells her Uncle, and the scam is right on target. Of course, there’s no honor among thieves, and a love triangle is forming between Lefty, Vincent and Brandy.
Terry Moore really lights up the screen in this film as the naive Kathy. She was better known for her role as an orphan herself in the original Mighty Joe Young. Later she’d team with Mighty Joe Young’s animator Ray Harryhausen for a cameo in the disastrous remake. Here her innocence is such a stark contrast to the criminal activity and con game going on around her. This is one of the best films in this collection and very much worth your attention.
Volume 1/ Disc 2
Bad For Each Other (1953):
“Back home at last. Coalville, USA. 5 miles from Pittsburgh. Empty cars heading for the mines, soon to return loaded with thousands of tons of coal. How long had it been since I first left? Ten years and two weeks ago and only two short leaves in between. The Reasonover Coal Company. The sky always gray with smoke, the miners, the huge trucks. Everything covered with soot and dirt. Mountains of coal, black against the sky. It has been the same ever since I could remember. I wondered if anything had changed, if anything ever could change in this town. The street where I lived, exactly as I left it…”
Colonel and medical doctor Tom Owen (Heston) has come to his hometown upon the death of his younger brother. He is immediately greeted with hostility as a result of his brother’s perceived blame for the death of some miners in an accident. He was in charge of equipment and had apparently been skimming and taking kickbacks for shoddy work. The doc decides to stay in town after getting caught up in the glare of the high society. He turns down an associateship with the local doctor, only to join with a high society doc in Pittsburgh. Before long Owens has been blinded by popularity, success, and money. He takes on a high-maintenance woman and begins to become what he once most hated. The town is headed for another tragedy, and Owens might not be on the right side to help.
The Glass Wall (1953):
“On March 27th last, 1322 displaced persons sailed past the Statue of Liberty into the safe harbor of New York. Rescued by the International Refugee Organization of the United Nations, their eyes filled with tears of happiness as they were welcomed to America. From the teeming shores of an unsettled world, they had come in search of human dignity, in search of freedom from want, from fear, from persecution. At last the hope and the dream had come true. They had found a home and peace. Forgotten was the nightmare of war. Erased was the torment of concentration camps. A golden door had opened. A new life had begun. For all except one of them. For he had come so far only to be locked out.”
Peter Kaban (Gassman) has stowed away on an American rescue ship to escape a repressive government. He once helped a downed American pilot during World War II. Under American law that should have qualified him to come into the country. The trouble is that Peter doesn’t have a lot of details about the pilot other than his first name and that he was a musician who once played at a club on Times Square. There are no records or proof of any kind to prove his claim. So he jumps ship to avoid being sent back to certain death. He’s determined to find Tom (Paris) and stay in the country. If the case is not resolved by 7:00 the next morning, when the ship is set to sail, he will be considered a fugitive and never be allowed to stay. It’s a 10 hour manhunt to find him or for him to find Tom. Along the way he hooks up with a hungry woman named Nancy (Robinson), and they try to help each other. When Tom discovers what is going on, his conscience is tested as he has an audition for a big gig. He’ll have to decide if he’s willing to blow his big chance to help the man who once saved his life.
This was quite a brave film for the time. It attempted to show the flaws in the American immigration system, but more importantly the film dispels many of the beliefs the wave of immigrants had at the time. Peter becomes quite disillusioned when he realizes that the “land of opportunity” has poor who can’t afford to eat. He gets a look at the underside of the city and bears witness to the suffering and poverty he didn’t expect to find in America. It’s a great ticking clock film that once again utilizes New York as an important element to the story.
Volume 2/ Disc 1
Night Editor (1946):
“ In the middle of a kiss…Murder!”
Tony (Gargan) is a detective with a good job, a wife, and a young kid. But he’s not content with having it pretty good. He’s got to have a little hot dish on the side. One night he’s at a lover’s lane with his mistress Jill (Carter) when they witness a man murder a woman. Tony hesitates when trying to stop the killer because of his fear of getting caught. The case becomes a huge one, because the victim turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy and influential man. Tony’s on the case but is more interested in hiding evidence that he was there than finding the killer. The guilt continues to build when the wrong man is convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.
This film is an exercise in guilt and morality. It’s a character study of the Tony character, and it’s handled quite nicely by William Gargan. It’s a dark piece that doesn’t have as much of the urban overtones that was typical of film noir. There isn’t even a lot of the cliché dialog. It’s the most straightforward film in the collection.
One Girl’s Confession (1953)
“I work like a fool scrubbing these floors, washing dishes, serving, and all for a little food and a stuffy room. I’m not complaining, but every day I must hear, ‘if it wasn’t for the memory of my poor father’. I’m sick of it. I want to get out of this misery. I confess the robbery, but I couldn’t say how much it was. I didn’t have time to count it. I confess it, and I’m ready to accept my punishment. This man, Gregory, cheated my father out of his whole fortune. Maybe my father wasn’t a saint, either. He was mixed up in some kind of racket with Gregory. But, after all, he was my father and I loved him. Gregory ruined him, and I made up my mind that I’d get even. Now I’ve got the chance.”
Mary Adams (Moore) robs her “uncle” and stashes away the money. Her plan is to do her time and then recover the money later. She is a model prisoner and gets out early. She gets a job with the kindly but eccentric cafe owner Damitrov (Haas). She’ll find that collecting the money won’t be as easy as she’d thought.
This is actually a surprisingly good film with a lot of variety for film noir. There’s a prison segment and her release. Hugo Haas really steals the screen each time as the jovial gambler and cafe owner. The ending is a bit of a morality tale, and I wouldn’t call Cleo Moore so much of a “bad girl” as the others.
Volume 2/ Disc 2
Women’s Prison (1955)
“State’s Prison. All prisons look alike from the outside. But inside, each has a different character. In this one, caged men are separated only by a thick wall from caged women. The system is wrong. But, it goes on and on and on. Men and women behind the same wall with only concrete and rifle bullets trying to keep them apart.”
Helen Jensen (Thaxter) is entering prison for the first time. She’s been convicted of murdering a child. She claims it was an accident. She’s scared, and she’s almost to the point of hysterics. Dr. Crane (Duff) sedates her, tries to calm her, and asks that she not be placed in isolation. But this prison is run by a sadistic matron named Van Zandt (Lupino) who ignores the doc’s orders and nearly kills Helen. Van Zandt’s cruelty does finally lead to a death, and the women turn on her.
This film is populated by some very eccentric characters. There’s Dottie (Marshall) who entertains the ladies with her impersonations. Brenda (Sterling) is a blond bombshell back as a repeat offender. Joan (Totter) was convicted with her husband, who is doing time in the men’s side of the prison. He keeps breaking into the women’s side, causing problems to Joan. There is almost a shade of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest here, with Van Zandt a dead ringer for Nurse Ratchet.
“Take it. Hold on to it. It’s your springboard to something better, maybe a career. Use it right and it can take you any place in the world. But it can only see what you want it to see. It can even change that slum where you were raised by exposing it. Don’t forget that.”
Lily (Moore) has just gotten into town working at a nightclub when it’s raided on the first night and she’s thought to be a hooker. The cops decide to run the girls out of town rather than prosecute. Lily ends up at a local camera shop run by the old lonely Max West (Greenleaf). He ends up teaching her the ropes of photography and giving her a place to stay for a time. When she’s ready to leave, he gives her one of his prize cameras. Lily starts out taking pictures for a restaurant’s clientele. Eventually she becomes a highly sought-after high society photographer. It changes her personality, and eventually she’ll even stoop to blackmail.
This film could well be about the early paparazzi. Lily becomes the girl who can get the most reclusive socialites to sit for a picture. Cleo Moore, who had made a career out of these film noir movies (she’s in three of these) delivers one of her most prominent and entertaining roles here. It’s a fitting film to close out this collection. Hopefully, we’ll see more of her and the Bad Girls Of Film Noir in the future.
All of the films are presented in their original full frame aspect ratios. The studio used relatively clean prints. The films are doubled up on each disc, but relatively short, so you won’t find any compression artifact to distract from the prints. Many of the films are in remarkable condition with sharp images and excellent contrast. Black levels are also often impressive here.
All are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The films are mostly dialog driven, so that’s really all that is serviced here.
Each of the films comes with a trailer.
There are two episodes of the early television anthology series All Star Theater.
Terry Moore On Two Of A Kind: (7:15) The actress talks about her career and the film featured here, where she really does shine.
With the exception of the final film, these movies offer some historically significant insights into a filmmaking style that is all but lost today. Certainly, the influences remain, but you have to go to the source if you want the real thing. And why not? Years ago films like this were hard to see. You might catch one by luck and happenstance on a late night show on television. But the prints were always bad, and they were cut up worse than a sex-starved teen in a Nightmare On Elm Street flick. This is the only way to go. Sony did their job by bringing these to you in a convenient package with good looking prints. Now all you have to do is pick this collection up. “I think it’s the best.”