“In the 1940’s, a new genre – film noir – emerged from the world of hard-boiled pulp magazines, paperback thrillers, and sensational crime movies. These films, tough and unsentimental, depicted a black-and-white universe at once brutal, erotic, and morally ambiguous.”
And so Sony collects five more 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 underway 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:
Human Desire (1954):
“Korean War veteran Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) returns home to his old, familiar job as a railroad engineer, but he quickly succumbs to his boss’s wife, Vicky Buckley (played with frank, unvarnished carnality by Gloria Grahame). Thus begins a tangled web of suspicion, sex and murder involving Vicky and her thuggish husband Carl (Broderick Crawford, in a display of brutish physicality). Directed by Fritz Lang, adapted from Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (famously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1939), Human Desire evokes a powerful emotional landscape of envy, greed, lust and violent anger.”
This is one of Glenn Ford’s more sympathetic and subtle roles. He doesn’t really play a tough guy here. He’s a pivotal character, but it’s the couple of Grahame and Crawford that demand your attention here. The portrayals are magnificent.
A lot of credit has to go to Silent Era king Fritz Lang. He is a master at telling us important things without ever having to say a word. A perfect example can be found in this film. When we first see the bedroom of our couple, the two beds are pushed together. Later after the event on the train we get another look into the same room. The beds are now apart, separated by two nightstands. It’s a crucial piece of information, and Lang gives it to us without ever having to tell us.
Lang was once an award winning German expressionist director. Classics like M and Metropolis are still enjoyed today almost 100 years after they were made. He was forced to flee Nazi Germany after a film was banned and he knew that he was being set up to take a hard fall. He left his wealth and even his wife behind. In America he never had quite the same success, but Human Desire is one of his lesser known, but superior films. It’s the best film in this collection by far.
“Fred MacMurray, in a role reminiscent of his classic noir, Double Indemnity, plays one of the duty-bound cops who stake out the apartment of Lona McLane (Kim Novak), the girlfriend of a bank robber-killer. Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) gets close to the beautiful blonde in order to get the lowdown on her boyfriend and the stolen cash, but she turns on the heat and he falls for her, leading to a double-cross with fatal results. Directed by Richard Quine, screenplay by Roy Huggins (The Fugitive), with E.G. Marshall, Philip Carey and Dorothy Malone.”
This was pretty much Kim Novak’s first starring role in a film. She underplays the part quite a bit, but somehow it fits the picture perfectly. Fred MacMurray would be considered against type by a more modern audience, but this was the kind of film that helped him find a niche before he became Steven Douglas, all-American dad and eventual Disney staple. Look for an underused E.G. Marshall in this one.
“Directed by Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past), and drawn from one of the masterful, despairing novels of David Goodis, Nightfall is the tale of an innocent man trapped in a senseless and lethal web of seduction and crime. When a young man, an artist, is ensnared in a bungled robbery and murder, he flees from the killers who then relentlessly track him down in this taut thriller adapted for the screen by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night). The cinematography by noir specialist Burnett Guffey (In A Lonely Place, Human Desire, The Brothers Rico) ranges from the elegant, shadowy, neon-lit city to a vast and borderless winter landscape, ranking among his greatest achievements. Brian Keith, Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft star in this masterpiece.”
Half of this story is told in flashbacks and half in “real-time”. A good performance out of Brian Keith is about the best this film offers. It’s not near as stylish as you would ordinarily associate with the film noir genre. Part of it is how miscast Aldo Ray is as the central figure. He has far too much of the gee-whiz aspect that makes him look more like a Jimmy Olson than the hero of this kind of a story. There isn’t near the atmosphere here, and this is likely the weakest film in this collection.
The Brothers Rico (1957):
“Eddie Rico (Richard Conte), a “respectable” businessman and husband, receives a call in the middle of the night from his former mafia boss. Eddie’s deluded sense of loyalty allows him to agree to one last favor, pulling him back into the violence and terror of the mob and putting everything he loves in danger, including his wife (Dianne Foster), and brother (James Darren). Phil Karlson directs this cold, efficient noir, based on a story by Georges Simenon.”
You can just hear Al Pacino saying, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”. It’s that kind of a film. There’s another huge Godfather connection here in Richard Conte. Conte was a finalist for the role of the Don on The Godfather. Of course, that role went to Brando, and movie history was made on a huge scale. But it wasn’t a total loss for Conte, who got the part as the Don’s main nemesis Barzini in the same film. He has to really carry the load here. He’s in just about every scene. It’s a wonderful character study as well as a more cerebral gangster film. If you’ve never seen it, you have to buy the collection just to check this one out. You won’t be sorry you did.
City Of Fear (1958):
“Irving Lerner (Murder by Contract) again directs Vince Edwards, this time as Vince Ryker, a convict who breaks out of prison with a canister of what he thinks is pure heroin, hoping to make a big score. But this white powder turns out to be a deadly radioactive substance called Cobalt-60. As Vince tries to sell the “heroin”, he works through his sleazy contacts — all of whom are doomed by their greed and stupidity, with the police desperately trying to find him before he contaminates the whole city. The setting is the modern suburban landscape of Los Angeles, brilliantly photographed by Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch).”
The basic premise of this story can be found in the Streets of San Francisco episode, The Twenty Four Karat Plague. Instead of heroin, it’s gold that the crooks don’t know is laced with deadly radiation. This is one of those movies with renewed relevance as it harks to our own recent fears of terrorism or pandemics. A city in fear is one of those common film noir elements that could always be counted on for a thrill.
All of the films are presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios. The studio used relatively clean prints. The films are mostly alone on the discs, so you won’t find any compression artifact to distract from the prints. The contrast is quite high so these black and white prints look rather sweet, for their age.
All are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The films are mostly dialog-driven, so that’s really all that is serviced here.
Some of the discs come with short features:
Terror And Desire With Emily Mortimer: (9:38) She talks more about the emotional elements of the film and film noir in general.
The Brothers Rico
Martin Scorsese On The Brothers Rico: (3:31) No question that Scorsese has taken a lot away from this style of film. He’s the perfect filmmaker to offer up these worthy comments on the movie.
City Of Fear
Pulp Paranoia With Christopher Nolan: (6:22) He talks more about the film’s relevance and uses other films to further his own take on the film noir genre.
Again, it’s great that Sony is spending the resources to restore and bring this classic film form to the masses. Many of these films just haven’t been seen outside of late-night television releases. Certainly, it’s been decades since they have been seen looking so good. I expect that we’ll see more yet to come, and to that I can only say, “Jolly good show, my boy”.