“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.”
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.
Kino Lorber has been releasing films in this genre for a while. I’m sorry that I come to this collection on the 11th entry. I have a soft spot for this stuff and find there’s very little of it out there, particularly on Blu-ray. This is the 12th entry in the series that I hope continues for many years to come.
Here are the films collected here:
Hold Back Tomorrow (1955)
“Why do people always have to mix in other people’s business? If you want to live, they won’t let you. If you want to die, they won’t let you either. It could have been over by now …”
Cleo Moore is Dora. As the film opens, she jumps into the drink in order to kill herself. But a someone jumps in and saves her, leaving her alive but distraught. Jump to the local prison, and we find John Agar playing Joe Cardos, an infamous killer convicted of strangling three women to death. He’s denied any commutation of his sentence, and tonight he’s about to hang for his crimes. He’s abusive to the warden and guards who are trying to make him as comfortable as they can in his last hours. He refuses to see his sister or the padre. When he’s told the law requires they grant pretty much any last wish, he refuses that. After a second thought he decides to make a last request. He wants company. He doesn’t want the padre or his sister. He wants a woman to keep him company until the end. The guards try to find a woman, mostly among the ladies of the evening, but no one will take the job for fear of their own lives. When Dora is mentioned she jumps at the chance, perhaps hoping he will kill her.
The rest of the film plays out in the jail cell between Joe and Dora. There’s a lot of awkwardness at first, and Dora gets under his skin a time or two, eventually bringing her own death wish out in the open. The conversation eventually deepens, and of course, there’s the typical Hollywood romance beginning. When he finally does call for the padre, it’s to marry them before he hangs. During their conversation, Joe reveals he’s had a recurring dream. That when they hang him the rope breaks and that his life must be spared. The last part of the dream is the ringing of the prison bells. When Joe is taken away to meet his fate, we’re left with the possibility that the dream came true, but the question is appropriately left unanswered.
The movie is loaded with improbabilities and two very Hollywood versions of law which were never true. The first is the idea that if an execution doesn’t quite work the first time, it’s considered a sign of providence, and the condemned’s life is spared. All death sentences are read with the final admonishment “until dead”. That means you keep doing whatever you’re doing until the criminal is dead. No broken rope loopholes exist, at least in American law. The second common Hollywood invention is the last wish and meal. While it’s true most states allow a final meal, most prisons have put restrictions on the value or availability. As for anything else, there has never been a final wish being granted in any state. Of course, the real improbability here is that a warden would allow a girl to enter a cell and keep a guy company in his last hours. The liability and potential for hostage-taking make it quite laughable. That’s put together with the two falling in love so quickly and under these circumstances. But you’re going to forgive all of that, and I’m going to tell you why.
John Agar was an underrated actor in his time. That’s likely because of his many roles in the horror/sci-fi genre. Films like The Mole People, Tarantula, and Revenge Of The Creature have labeled his talents with a genre taint. People forget that he was also in films like this and The Sands Of Iwo Jima and Fort Apache. This film gives Agar the opportunity to show that he can carry a film. It’s a small room and very little else, but Agar puts in an Oscar-worthy performance throughout. He’s compelling, and he’s the reason we’ll buy all of the other nonsense.
Cleo Moore does enough to hold her own, but Agar lifts her performance beyond anything she’s given before or since. She would quit Hollywood just a couple of years later, getting married and settling down with a family. This would not be the only collaboration between John Agar, Cleo Moore, and director Hugo Haas. They had worked together just a year earlier on Bait.
The film bucked the conventional studio system at the time. Haas wrote and directed the film before he had a distributor. While that’s quite common today, it was not done so much in the 1950’s. The working title was No Tomorrow, and he eventually sold the film outright to Universal. The film also took over six months to earn the code seal, necessary at the time.
The film also has a lot of elements of a silent film, with several scenes showing characters talking but no sound to go with it. The only thing missing were dialog cards. It’s a film that looks and feels older than its 1955 release date. It’s likely the best of the three pictures in this collection.
“Every bullet in Chicago had his name on it.”
Tony Reagan, played by Scott Brady, has just returned from his hitch in the war. He’s about to invest in a hunting lodge owned by the father and brother of a brother in arms who did not make it back from the war. While in Reno he runs into an old “friend” from Chicago who is now running a casino in Reno for Big Jim, a hoodlum who had run Tony out of Chicago because he was in love with Big Jim’s niece and they planned to marry. He tells Danny (Russell) that he’s headed back to Chicago to propose to Sally (Hart) and move them to Reno and be in the lodge business. What he doesn’t know is that Danny has designs of his own.
On the flight back to Chicago he meets Ann (Dow), and they have a friendly conversation until he mentions why he’s returning and that deflates any ideas Ann might have had. But the cops are waiting for him. They’ve heard he’s coming back to bump off Big Jim and try to get him to leave. Then when Big Jim turns up dead, he’s the main suspect, and he was hijacked and made to look like the killer. The only place he can turn? You guessed it. Ann. Ann treats his wounds and offers him sanctuary while he tries to clear himself. But it looks bad. Who would want to frame him? You probably have it figured out by the third reel.
The movie was shot under the working title Frame-Up and later The Big Frame. It was decided that the titles gave too much away too soon.
One of the unexpected performances comes from Big Jim’s servant, Gene, played by Daniel Ferniel in a pretty big role for a black actor in that era. He ends up being the one person who saves both Tony and Ann in the end out of his loyalty to Big Jim.
The film was directed by William Castle in the days before he became the marketing genius of horror films. He would rig theater seats with a wild shock during The Tingler and have skeletons flying down from the rafter in The House On Haunted Hill, both with Vincent Price. Here he’s playing with a much more serious theme, and it’s almost like I wouldn’t have recognized his work.
Rock Hudson in only his second appearance and first film credit has a short time as one of the police detectives. He was billed as Roc Hudson for the only time in his career. It’s also the first appearance of Robert Easton, who would work until he died in 2011. You might recognize him as the Klingon judge in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country or the priest in Pet Sematary. Finally, you gotta love any film that has that line: “Follow that cab.”
Outside The Walls (1950)
“This is Philadelphia, the City Of Brotherly Love, where the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. This is Philadelphia seen from a vantage point which few Philadelphians care to visit. But just 45 years after the birth of American freedom, the founding fathers of the city chose a site in a district known as Cherry Hill, and there built a prison modeled on the lines of a medieval fortress. Its grim walls have stood since 1821, and within them, many men have paid the price of crime. Its records are rich with strange stories, but none more strange than the one we’re about to tell.”
I grew up in a town near Philly, and I’ve seen the old prison. It’s no longer a prison. It was a museum for some years, and I suspect it still is. When I was a kid they celebrated Bastille Day with locals throwing Tastykakes at the wall and shouting “Let them eat Tastykake”. If you don’t know what they, are it’s a shame. I recently went home and brought back a good many Tastykake pies. The problem with all of this is that it really has little to do with our story, except as a background for the opening scenes.
A young Richard Basehart plays Larry Nelson. He has been imprisoned in that Cherry Hill favility since he was 14. That was 15 years ago when he killed a guard at a boy’s reform school. Now he’s being given a pardon. He should be overjoyed, but he’s apprehensive. He doesn’t know what the world looks like anymore. He knows traffic has gotten worse, because the sounds from the street have gotten louder over the years. He leaves with a recommendation to a hospital doctor as a lab assistant, a skill he’s learned and performed in his 15 years inside. When he goes for the job, the doctor is out, and he can tell by the secretary he doesn’t have a chance. Then he starts learning life lessons.
He doesn’t even know how to cross the streets with the lights. In a bar he’s almost rolled by a woman who gets him drunk and tries to steal the 600 bucks he earned inside. So he moves on to a small town where the quiet is more to his liking. He answers an advert at a TB sanitarium as a lab assistant. The rather drunken Dr. Stone (Antrim) takes him at his word, and he gets the live-in job. There he meets two nurses. Marilyn Maxwell, played by Charlotte Maynard, is a temptress, while Ann Taylor (Hart) is a nurturing woman. Before he can get his legs, a patient is brought in under an assumed name because he’s hiding from the law. Jack Bernard (Hoyt) and his gang got away with a million bucks, and he’s very hot. Larry recognizes him but stays silent. Jack’s in bad shape but has a strong will to live because of the loot. He asks Larry to help him get some to his girl, but Larry doesn’t want to get involved; that is until Nurse Maxwell tells him he needs to be rich to get a girl like her. Before long he’s in over his head with both bad guys and Maxwell. M*A*S*H’s Col. Potter, Harry Morgan stars as a hood who resorts to torture with Larry. In the end it all falls apart, and when the cops come a dying Hoyt tries to incriminate Larry but has a second thought thanks to the nurturing of Ann. There’s also a cool cameo from Joe Besser of Three Stooges fame. He plays a cook who hires Larry until the place gets robbed and Larry takes out the crooks.
It’s quite a coincidence that Basehart’s character is named Nelson. We know him best for his several years on Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea ,where he played Admiral Nelson. This is such a younger and very different Basehart for me and a very impressive performance that never received the attention it deserved. Larry Nelson leaves quite scared of the world and quite naive. We watch him learn more and more until he becomes a bit jaded. Big personality change when he starts spending big thanks to the holdup money. It’s not often you’ll see a performance this good in a low-budget film like this. The evolution of Basehart’s character is compelling and a rather emotional ride. This one comes close to the best in the collection, with Undertow being the bottom of the rank.
I hope that Kino continues to release these collections. I know they likely have limited appeal, but if you allow yourself to be open to these wonderful gems of cinematic history, you’ll find you might like them. There’s so much here. A little bit for everyone. “They can be sweet and wonderful, and they can tear your heart out. Somewhere there’s a right one for every guy.”