DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Crime Wave/Decoy: Film Noir Classic Collection Double Feature

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  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    Crime Wave/Decoy: Film Noir Classic Collection Double Feature
    Crime Wave (1954)/Decoy (1946)

    Studio: Warner Brothers

    Year: 1946-1954

    Rated: Unrated

    Film Length: Various

    Aspect Ratio: 4:3

    Subtitles: English SDH, French (Feature films only)

    Release Date: July 31, 2007 2007

    The Films

    Crime Wave (1954 – Warner Bros. - 73 minutes)

    Directed By: André De Toth

    Starring: Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk, Ted de Corsia, Charles Buchinsky (aka Charles Bronson), Jay Novello, Nedrick Young

    "Crime Wave" tells the story of parolee Steve Lacey (Nelson). A former pilot, Steve is trying to go straight with the encouragement of his wife, Ellen (Kirk). This becomes difficult when Gat (Young), "Doc" (de Corsia), and Ben (Bronson), three former prison-mates of Steve who have recently escaped, botch a gas station robbery near his home and kill a police officer. A fatally wounded Gat arrives at his door insisting at gunpoint that he allow him to hole up until he can get medical attention, but dies before the crooked doctor (Novello) arrives. These suspicious circumstances draw the attention of hard-nosed Detective Lieutenant Sims (Hayden), but despite Sims' strong-arm tactics, Steve refuses to turn rat. Things deteriorate further when fugitives Doc and Ben show up at Steve's door and pressure him, via threats against Ellen, to first put them up and then be their getaway driver, and pilot, for a planned bank heist.

    André De Toth's "Crime Wave" is a gritty and efficient thriller. De Toth was reportedly offered an "A" picture budget to make the film, but instead shot it on a thrifty two-week shooting schedule with no big-name stars. The resulting film manages to distinguish itself despite what seems like a fairly standard crime plot thanks to its breakneck pace and cinema verité-style use of location photography.

    Sterling Hayden is perfectly cast as the amusingly smug no-nonsense detective who is either at least one step ahead of the criminals or just slightly behind them breathing fire down their necks. Even though the film is centered on the dilemma of Gene Nelson's character, a significant amount of screen time is devoted to scenes demonstrating how law enforcement manages to out-maneuver the criminal element through technology and intelligence, which was standard practice for procedurals in the 50s.

    Talented hoofer Gene Nelson may seem like an unlikely noir protagonist, but he is actually quite convincing as a smarter than usual variation on the archetypical man who cannot escape his checkered past. The supporting cast is very well chosen by De Toth, even down to small roles such as Dub Taylor as a gas station attendant, the odd but strangely comforting Hank Worden as Lacey's boss, and the scenery chewing and possibly insane Timothy Carey as the thug who holds Ellen hostage while the bank heist occurs. Stanley Kubrick must have liked the casting as well, as he would use Hayden, de Corsia, and Carey in his own noir, "The Killing", two years later.

    Decoy (1946 – Monogram - 76 minutes)

    Directed By: Jack Bernhard

    Starring: Jean Gillie, Edward Norris, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Sheldon Leonard

    Jean Gillie plays voracious man-eating Margot Shelby. Margot's beau, small-time crook Frankie Olins (Armstrong) is currently on death row. This troubles her not so much on a personal level as because Frankie is the only one who knows where he has stashed $400,000 from the robbery-murder for which he was convicted. Frankie is leveraging this fact to keep big time gangster Jim Vincent (Norris), who has recently taken up with Margot, paying his legal bills. When Frankie's appeals run out, Margot seduces a prison physician, Dr. Craig (Rutledge), and convinces him to use a drug called methylene blue to revive Frankie after his body is retrieved from the gas chamber. A murder in the course of snatching Frankie's body attracts the attention of police Sergeant "Jojo" Portugal (Leonard), who continues to follow a trail of double crosses and dead bodies in the wake of Margot's relentless pursuit of the $400,000.

    Based on a story by Stanley Rubin and scripted by Nedrick Young who played Gat in "Crime Wave", "Decoy" is a highly original genre-bending exercise in low-budget filmmaking. Produced by Monogram Pictures Corporation, which was at the time somewhere in the upper bracket of the "Poverty Row" low-budget studios, the film is proof-positive of how an original idea and a dedication to getting it on film can overcome technical limitations. The film plays like a straight-ahead noir until it takes a startling left turn into a resurrection scene that feels like it could have been lifted from a classic Universal Frankenstein movie. It then quickly snaps back into its noir groove with a breakneck series of deaths and betrayals that carry through to the films ironic but dramatically satisfying conclusion.

    Gillie is a revelation as the cold-blooded Margot. She forgoes even suggesting a tender or sensitive side to her femme fatale. If her mercenary heart was hardened due to some past emotional trauma, she certainly does not want to bother talking about it while there is money for the taking. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but the performances tend to belie the film's low budget origin. One gets the sense that little time was dedicated to rehearsals, non-superficial directing of actors, or even second takes, which makes Gillie's out of nowhere performance all the more impressive.


    The Video

    Both films are presented in 4:3 black and white transfers appropriately representing their original theatrical exhibitions.

    The video transfer for "Crime Wave" shows a pleasing grayscale with excellent sharpness and light film grain.

    The transfer for "Decoy" is noticeably less sharp than "Crime Wave" belying its even lower budget origins and displays occasionally "blown out" highlights in bright white areas of the screen.

    Both films show no signs of edge enhancement, and compression artifacts are minimal, usually manifested as a slight smearing of film grain patterns.

    The Audio

    Both films are presented with English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio tracks with no alternate language dub options.

    "Crime Wave" has very low noise levels on its soundtrack and generally is very pleasing and well-balanced for its limited frequency and dynamic ranges.

    "Decoy" has low levels of hiss and other analog noise with occasionally noticeable distortion on its music track.

    The Extras

    "Crime Wave" includes a full-length screen specific audio commentary by film-noir historian Eddie Muller and crime-fiction novelist James Ellroy. Ellroy is fully into his "demon dog of American letters" persona, and Muller, for the most part, goes along for the amusing, mildly vulgar ride. If you are a fan of Ellroy's, you are likely to enjoy the commentary which does manage to touch on interesting specifics of the film and its production in between instances of Ellroy panting like a dog when Phyllis Kirk or any particularly choice piece of early 50s LA location photography appears on screen. There are plenty of other tangents, but they usually relate to Ellroy's encyclopedic knowledge of the LA, and the LAPD, that was, which are relevant to the film since it uses so many authentic locations inclusive of Police Headquarters. Once in a while, Ellroy will say something purposely inflammatory such as stating that he just watched "Chinatown" and it does not hold up, but Muller weathers the storm admirably.

    "Crime Wave also includes the five minute and 57 second featurette "Crime Wave: The City is Dark", which gives a brief, but informative, look into the film and its production via clips, stills, and new and/or archival interview segments with critic/historian Richard Schickel, Andre De Toth, filmmaker Oliver Stone, film-noir scholar Alain Silver, filmmaker Christopher Coppola, and film-noir scholar Elizabeth Ward.

    Finally, 'Crime Wave" also includes a two minute and 35 second theatrical trailer that includes footage of and narration by Sterling Hayden produced exclusively to promote the film.

    "Decoy" comes with a full-length commentary by writer Stanley Rubin and film critic/DVD Savant Glenn Erickson. Erickson moderates with deference to Rubin, and encourages him to discuss many elements of his long and interesting career above and beyond just "Decoy". Rubin is an engaging raconteur with a good memory, and while Erickson does not manage to work many screen specific observations into their discussion, he does manage to keep things lively and interesting for the duration of the track. The most interesting screen specific observation made by Erickson is how there is a longer print in circulation where, in a scene where one character runs over another with a car as it appears on the print used for the DVD, the driver then backs up the car and runs them over two more times.

    Also included is a brief featurette entitled "Decoy: A Road to Nowhere" which runs four minutes and 39 seconds. A brief history and analysis of the film and its production are offered up via clips, stills, and interview segments with Erickson, Rubin, talk-show host and film fan Dick Cavett, and film critic/historian Molly Haskell.

    Packaging

    The movies are included on a single dual-layered DVD-9. The main menu asks the viewer to first choose a film, and each film subsequently has its own "Play Movie" "Special Features", and Languages" menu page. There are no chapter menus for either title, although there are chapter stops accessible via a DVD remote. The disc is packaged in a standard Amaray style case with artwork derived from original theatrical posters for both films used as the basis for the cover graphics. The disc is also available with four other "Film Noir Double Features" in the "Film Noir Classics Collection Volume 4".

    Summary

    Warner presents us with two highly entertaining relatively unheralded classic noirs on a single disc with very good presentations, and modest, but informative, extras at an affordable price. What's not to love? Fans of crime cinema should see these films, and once they have, they will probably want to show them to their friends. As such, they warrant a purchase either as a standalone double feature disc or as part of the "Film-Noir Classics Collection Volume 4"

    Regards,
     
  2. TravisR

    TravisR Studio Mogul

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    My only complaint about this disc is that they bleep out the cursing on Ellroy and Muller's commentary. I know Warners wants the commentary's 'rating' to match the movie's but I'd rather hear the track unedited. That being said, that's an extremely minor problem and Warner Brothers does an outstanding job with all of their Film Noir Classic Collections.
     
  3. Steve...O

    Steve...O Producer

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    Ken, thanks for a great review!

    Costco didn't end up carrything this set so I had to order online and as a result I haven't received this yet. This has been one of my most anticipated releases of the year and I can't wait to dig into it.

    The DVD of "Decoy" sounds like WHV did the best they could for a Monogram. That studio did some very good work beyond their series films and it's nice to see that, like "Dillinger", some of the better films make it to a first rate DVD.

    Steve
     
  4. Steve...O

    Steve...O Producer

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    I've seen 6 of the 10 films so far and these two are among the best. All I can say about Jean Gillie is "Wow". That's a dame I wouldn't want to mess with. Ditto with Audrey Totter in Tension.

    Kudos for including Dick Cavett, who's seen far too seldom these days, in the special features. His comments are witty and insightful. One has to laugh at his admiration for Richard Basehart simply because he was a fellow short man [​IMG]

    Of the films I've seen the only one that didn't quite work as well as expected was Illegal (Edward G. Robinson). I got the feeling I'd seen it all before. For example, the scene of Robinson drinking poison knowing his stomach would be pumped later was done before in a 1940s Crime Doctor movie and of course Robinson trying to get the crime lord to give up his young gunman is a rip off of Maltese Falcon.

    All in all, based on what I've seen thus far, this has got to be one of the year's crown jewel releases. The films I've watched look good to great and they provide high entertainment for a bargain price.

    Looking forward to Vol 5 in 2008!

    Steve
     

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