Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5
Cornered (1945), Desperate (1947), The Phenix City Story (1955), Dial 1119 (1950), Armored Car Robbery (1950), Crime in the Street (1956), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Backfire (1950)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Aspect Ratio: 4:3, 16:9
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Release Date: July 13, 2010
For four consecutive years from 2004 to 2007, Warner Home Video spoiled film noir fans with a new box-set of first-time-on-DVD noirs every summer. After a 2007 installment that included 10 films in a single set, things went quiet for 2008 and 2009, and fans wondered if the remaining noirs in the studio's catalog would go unreleased or be limited to burn on demand releases through the Warner Archive. The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5, puts an end to that speculation by presenting eight new to DVD films in a single attractively priced package culled from the studio's catalog of Warner, MGM, RKO, and Allied Artists films.
Desperate (1947 - RKO - 73 minutes)****½
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Starring: Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, Raymond Burr, Douglas Fowley, William Challee, Jason Robards
In Desperate, truck driver Steve Randall (Brodie) takes what he believes to be a legitimate trucking job only to be duped by former acquaintance Walt Radak (Burr) into driving a getaway truck for a robbery. When a police officer is killed in the robbery and Walt's kid brother is arrested, Steve and his bride of four months, Anne (Long), find themselves on the run both from the police who are looking for the rest of the robbery suspects and Walt's gang, who threaten to punish Anne if Steve does not take the fall for the shooting of the officer.
Desperate is an early noir from Director Anthony Mann. The press release for this box set calls it his first, but it was preceded by Strange Impersonation which I believe qualifies. In any case, Desperate is an excellent entry in the genre and arguably the highlight of this DVD collection. Mann's penchant for explosive and viscerally felt violence is on full display here and is embodied by dependably imposing noir villain Raymond Burr. Steve Brodie and Audrey Long make for a charmingly square couple of newlyweds, and the screenplay, editing, and direction do an effective job of drawing the viewer into their escalating desperation and paranoia. The supporting cast is outstanding, with Douglas Fowley a stand-out as an ethically challenged private eye who dances on Burr's character's last nerve and Jason Robards (Sr.) unleashed to steal every scene in which he appears as a Police Detective who seems just a little to happy about the prospect of using Brodie's character as live bait when fishing for criminals.
While Mann's collaborations with cinematographer John Alton on subsequent film noirs are justly celebrated, his work on this film with cinematographer George E. Diskant is no less remarkable for how it seems to use light to carve images out of the shadows. Mann would re-work many of the successful elements of this film, adding elements of classical drama, ramping up the moral and romantic ambiguity, and casting Raymond Burr as an even more sadistic head case, in Raw Deal a year or so later.
Cornered (1945 - RKO - 102 Minutes)****
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Starring: Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, Edgar Barrier, Steven Geray, Jack La Rue, Gregory Gaye, Luther Adler
In Cornered, Dick Powell plays Laurence Gerard, a Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot discharged at the end of World War II. His first and apparently only order of business as a civilian is to track down Marcel Jarnac, the Nazi collaborator who ordered the execution of his wife in France. Jarnac has been reported as dead, but Gerard becomes convinced by his Free French contacts that he is still alive. Gerard has no knack for subtlety or intrigue, which makes him a fish out of water when his search for the elusive Jarnac leads him to a Buenos Aires, Argentina filled with the likes of amoral information broker Melchior Incza (Slezak), supposed widow Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Cheirel), and the duplicitous Señor (Geray) and Señora (Vale) Carmago . His single minded bull in a China shop tactics threaten to expose and derail an ongoing undercover investigation into Nazi activities in South America, but his bluntness has an effect not unlike poking a stick into a hornet's nest which may just expose the Vichy collaborator he seeks with the risk of a lot of people getting "stung".
Cornered continues the "image rehab" of Dick Powell begun successfully with 1944's Murder My Sweet that established the actor previously known for his cheery musical roles as a cinematic tough guy. While Murder My Sweet managed to transform Powell's impish grin into a wryly ironic Philip Marlowe sneer, Cornered, teaming Powell with the same producer, director, and screenwriter, replaces it with a permanent scowl. Powell is effective in the role, although the character is such a one note humorless automaton that any particular scene is only as effective as his co-star's reaction to him. For the most part, the cast is up to the challenge with Walter Slezak being a particular stand-out as the entertainingly amoral Incza. Nina Vale has a small part made memorable by a form fitting gown that seems to defy the laws of physics and probably deserved its own credit in the film's opening titles. The weak link in the cast is Micheline Cheirel, who takes a confusingly conceived character and fails to find a way to make her interesting. Unfortunately, a lot of screen time is invested in her character with very little pay-off. While the screenplay paints Powell's ex-flyer as not particularly bright or amusing, it manages to create some empathy for him by illustrating his complete devotion to his wife of only a few months and by having just about every character in the film lie or try to conceal information from him at some point. The latter results in a shared confusion between character and audience that occasionally makes the film seem too clever for its own good (especially when all of the pieces do not quite add up when the film is considered in retrospect), but nearly all is forgiven when the converging mysteries come together in a surprisingly brutal climax.
The Phenix City Story (1955 - Allied Artists- 100 Minutes)****
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Starring: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Meg Myles, James Edwards, Lenka Peterson, Biff McGuire, Truman Smith, Jean Carson, Katherine Marlowe, John Larch, Allen Nourse, Clete Roberts
The Phenix City Story tells the "ripped from the headlines" tale of the efforts to clean up the notorious titular "sin city" in Alabama across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia near Fort Bening Army Base. When Army lawyer John Patterson (Kiley) returns from prosecuting war criminals in Germany, he finds his home town of Phenix City even more in the grip of politically connected vice merchants than when he left. His father, Albert "Pat" Patterson, is a respected lawyer and former politician who has adopted a defeatist attitude when it comes to taking on the corruption in his town. John is initially content to practice civil law with Pat until he witnesses law and order "association" head Ed Gage (Smith) being assaulted by goons under the employ of gambling house owner and de facto "Vice King" Rhett Tanner (Andrews) while a local police officer declines to get involved. John convinces his father to run for State Attorney General, which unleashes a mercilessly violent opposition from Tanner and the rest of the local underworld.
Despite awkward elements inclusive of a dull thirteen plus minute prologue in which tele-journalist Clete Roberts interviews several real life people connected to the events dramatized in the film and technical gaffes such as major continuity errors indicative of the film's low-budget origins, The Phenix City Story still plays as an effective, suspenseful, and surprisingly brutal picture of an American town under the suffocating grip of organized vice. Much of the credit for its success resides with its small name/big talent cast top-lined by John McIntire and Edward Andrews who paint entertaining portraits of a noble but battered man and a charismatic sociopath respectively. The supporting cast is also filled out by actors who make interesting choices including Kathryn Grant as a likable dealer at Tanner's gambling house whose pragmatic acceptance is pushed past its limits, Jean Carson as the tough cookie trust no-one blond who runs Tanner's floor, John Larch as the none too bright muscle for Tanner who remains untouchable by the law despite a series of escalatingly heinous acts, James Edwards as an employee of Tanner's who suffers horrific consequences when he helps John Patterson out of a jam, and Allen Nourse as a "mole" for Tanner in Gage's neighborhood association. Richard Kiley's nominal lead role inclusive of wholly unnecessary voiceover narration in a few points is a bit thankless by comparison to some of the colorful character parts, but he gets a chance to shine when the film's relentlessly brutal plot developments push him to the edge of reason by the film's final reel. The only completely sour note in the cast comes from Lenka Peterson as John's alternately hysterical and submissive wife.
Dial 1119 (1950 - MGM - 75 Minutes)**
Directed by: Gerald Mayer
Starring: Marshall Thompson, Virginia Field, Andrea King, Same Levene, Leon Ames, William Conrad, Keefe Brasselle, Richard Rober, James Bell
In Dial 1119 [which more or less translates into "Dial 911" in modern US parlance], escaped mental patient Gunther Wyckoff (Thompson), steals a gun and kills a bus driver before hiding out in a bar across the street from his former psychiatrist Dr. Faron (Levene). When a news report on the bar's new television identifies him, he shoots bartender "Chuckles" (Conrad), and takes the rest of the patrons and staff hostage. These include barfly Freddy (Field), young bar employee and impending father Skip (Brasselle), burned out reporter Harrison Barnes (Bell), a smooth-talking philanderer Earl (Ames), and Helen (King) the uptight Mama's Girl with whom Earl was planning a weekend getaway. From the moment the hostage situation begins, the film plays out in real time with the interactions of Gunther and the hostages being intercut with the efforts on the outside of Police Captain Henry Keiver (Rober) to handle the situation inclusive of Wyckoff's demand to see Dr. Faron.
While dramatized hostage situations offer great opportunities for both "pressure cooker" suspense and "slice of life" studies of diverse characters, Dial 1119 comes up a bit short on both counts. Its chief shortcoming is its sketchy screenplay which fails to make the inherently dramatic situation compelling. The back-stories of the various hostages and law enforcement representatives are too sketchy to generate much empathy for them, and the chief antagonist's only real motivation is that he is crazy. Casting can sometimes smooth over some of these details, and William Conrad, Virginia Field, Leon Ames, and James Bell make a game effort to bring something to their characters beyond what is on the page. Unfortunately, Marshall Thompson never quite connects with his crucial role as hostage-taker Gunther Wyckoff enough to suggest any hidden depths or complexities. One critical scene between Marshall and Sam Levene as his former psychiatrist is so poorly written, staged, and played, that all of the intended suspense feels drained from the situation. There are a couple of amusing pieces of "on-the-nose" foreshadowing in the film's first act including the identification of a local radio station's call letters as "WKYL" and the establishment of the name of the city where the bus line ends and the hostage drama plays out as "Terminal City".
Crime in the Streets (1956 - Allied Artists - 91 Minutes)***½
Directed by: Donald Siegel
Starring: James Whitmore, John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo, Mark Rydell, Denise Alexander, Virginia Gregg, Peter Votrian, Will Kuluva, Malcolm Atterbury, Dan Terranova, Peter Miller, Steve Rowland
In Crime in the Streets, John Cassavetes plays troubled teenage gang-leader Frankie Dane. Frankie lives in a postage-stamp-sized low-rent tenement apartment with his mother (Gregg) and younger brother, Richie (Votrian). After one of Frankie's pals is arrested for threatening a rival gang member with a zip gun, Frankie focuses his anger on the neighbor named McAllister (Atterbury) who called the police. When Frankie decides to kill McAllister, he gets no support from his fellow gang members with the exception of the sociopathic Lou (Rydell) and "Baby" (Mineo), the son of a local store owner who idolizes Frankie and wants to prove his manhood. As Frankie and his co-conspirators formulate their murder plot, social worker Ben Wagner (Whitmore) senses something is wrong and tries to get to the bottom of what is really troubling Frankie before he reaches a point of no return.
While most would consider Crime in the Streets an odd choice as an example of film-noir, it is quite a good choice as an example of 1950s juvenile delinquent films. The film is an adaptation of a teleplay which aired the previous year as part of "The Elgin Hour". Cassavetes and Rydell reprise their roles from the live drama for cinematic posterity. Don Siegel provides efficient direction and manages to effectively convey just about as much teenage brutality as one could get away with under the Motion Picture Production Code. Siegel and his crew use the back-lot locations effectively to convey an authentically oppressive atmosphere of urban poverty.
While still a dated characterization by modern standards, James Whitmore manages to make something relatively interesting out of his somewhat thankless role as a social worker. He seems perpetually on the cusp of a major monologue except for two or three instances where he actually launches into one. Sal Mineo barely skips a beat from his Plato character from the previous year's Rebel Without a Cause in the role of another troubled but fundamentally decent teenager. Despite looking a bit old for the part, Cassavetes gives an impressive lead performance in a production designed by Siegel to showcase his talents.
Armored Car Robbery (1950 - RKO - 67 Minutes)****
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, William Talman, Douglas Fowley, Steve Brodie, Don McGuire, Gene Evans, Don Haggerty, James Flavin
Armored Car Robbery follows the aftermath of a meticulously planned heist outside of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Square-jawed Police Lieutenant Jim Cordell (McGraw) relentlessly pursues the criminals who shot his partner during the robbery. He is teamed with the much less experienced Detective Danny Ryan (McGuire). Meanwhile, mastermind Dave Purvus (Talman), does everything he can to elude capture and escape with the money, even if his success comes at the expense of partners Benny (Fowley), Ace (Evans), and Mapes (Brodie). A determined Cordell and a double-crossed Mapes both conclude that Benny's wife, burlesque queen Yvonne LeDoux (Jergens), may be the key to tracking down the elusive Purvus.
Fans of Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin will likely enjoy this re-teaming of the director with Charles McGraw for another fast-paced film-noir. The heist and subsequent cat and mouse pursuit provide plenty of opportunities for action and suspense, and Fleischer's knack for working with his writers, actors, and editors to establish strong characterizations with minimal screen time lends itself well to this film's colorful gallery of rogues and cops. To the extent that Dial 1119 made it look difficult to integrate strong characterizations with the plot necessities of a short feature, Armored Car Robbery makes it look effortless.
The cast is filled with great character actors such as Steve Brodie, ever dependable as a criminal henchman, and Douglas Fowley, equally dependable as a schmuck who is being cuckolded by his newly recruited "partner in crime". William Talman effectively steals the picture as the criminal mastermind who tries to stay three steps ahead of his pursuers and co-conspirators at all times. Adele Jergens does not infuse her burlesque queen with an excess of personality, but underplaying is the right choice for the part, and she remains effective as the siren leading Talman and Fowley to shipwreck. As the closest thing to a straight-up femme fatale in this entire box set, Jergens' importance extends even beyond the film in which she appears.
Note: Fans of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing will no doubt notice a number of similar elements between that film and this one from six years earlier, inclusive of a finale that involves an airfield and a lot of paper money liberated from a suitcase.
Backfire (1950 - Warner Bros. - 91 Minutes)***
Directed by: Vincent Sherman
Starring: Virginia Mayo, Gordon MacRae, Edmond O'Brien, Dane Clark, Viveca Lindfors, Ed Begley, Frances Robinson, Richard Rober, Sheila Stephens, David Hoffman, Monte Blue, Ida Moore, Leonard Strong
In Backfire Gordon MacRae plays injured war veteran Bob Corey. Upon returning home, Corey's war buddy Steve Connolly (O'Brien) promises to be waiting for him after he undergoes multiple spinal surgeries and an extended convalescence so that they can start a new life as business partners in a ranch. Upon being released from the hospital, Bob finds that not only has Steve disappeared, but he is the prime suspect in the murder of gambler Solly Blayne (Rober). Despite a warning from Police Captain Garcia (Begley) to leave the sleuthing to the professionals, Bob doggedly investigates the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and murder with the help of Nurse Julie Benson (Mayo) who attended him during his convalescence. Along the way, Bob and Julie manage to trace Steve's activities in the weeks preceding the murder through interviews with a number of colorful characters who interacted with him including Solly's widow (Robinson), former Army buddy now working as a mortician named Ben Arno (Clark), a hotel maid named Sybil (Moore), a mysterious woman named Lisa (Lindfors) who visited Steve in the hospital while he was heavily sedated, and a mortally wounded Chinese man named Lee Quong (Willis). A trail of evidence and newly minted corpses leads frustratingly to a gambler named Lou Walsh for whom the police cannot find a picture, tax return, bank account, or drivers license.
Although primarily known for his musical roles, Gordon MacRae acquits himself well in this straight dramatic role from early in his initial Warner contract period. Top-billed Virginia Mayo is underused for most of the film, but gets her chance to shine in a suspenseful sequence in the film's latter half where she sneaks into a doctor's office in an effort to uncover evidence. I do not know how much it helped recruiting, but the Hollywood practice of dramatizing VA Hospital nurses who look like Virginia Mayo falling in love with their patients may have created some unreasonable expectations for actual convalescing soldiers. Veteran Warner director Vincent Sherman keeps things moving along at a measured pace even as the plot threatens to get tangled in its own complications. The suspense and sense of danger is not sustained as well as one might expect considering the escalating body count as the film progresses. That being said, the aforementioned sequence featuring Mayo and the revelation of the killer in the final reel prove satisfying enough to forgive the film its unnecessary complications and few early lulls.
As a bit of trivia, about halfway through the film, MacRae plays a scene with his real-life wife, billed in the credits under her maiden name of Sheila Stephens, who plays the roommate of Viveca Lindfors' character. This is their first and only appearance together in a feature film. although they would later become a popular duo in nightclubs and on television.
Deadline at Dawn (1946 - RKO - 83 Minutes)***½
Directed by: Harold Clurman
Starring: Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Bill Williams, Joseph Calleia, Osa Massen, Lola Lane, Jerome Cowan, Marvin Miller, Roman Bohnen, Steven Geray, Joe Sawyer, Constance Worth, Joseph Crehan
In Deadline at Dawn, Sailor Alex Winkley (Williams) awakens from a drunken revelry on the floor of a newsstand with $1,400 in his pocket. He pieces together as much as he can remember of the previous evening while talking to a world weary dancehall girl named June (Hayward). Despite his foggy recollection, Bill becomes convinced that he stole the money from a woman named Edna Bartelli (Lane) after being cheated by her gambler brother, Val (Calleia). Bill decides to return the money, and June, following an uncharacteristically sympathetic impulse, agrees to accompany him to Edna's apartment. They arrive to discover that Edna, who lives inconveniently across the street from a police station, has been murdered. Convinced that Bill is not the killer despite his lack of memory of how his first visit to Edna's apartment ended, Bill and June attempt to figure out who the real killer is before Bill's leave ends at dawn. As their flailing investigation develops, they are eventually assisted by Gus (Lukas), an uncharacteristically eloquent cab driver they initially employ to follow potential suspects. When they discover a stack of letters indicating that good-time girl Edna was in the business of blackmail, the number of suspects with motives balloons considerably, inclusive of a blind pianist named Sleepy Parsons (Miller), Edna's brother Val, and a statuesque blonde named Helen (Massen).
One's enjoyment of Deadline at Dawn will be directly proportional to one's enjoyment of its heightened Clifford Odets dialog. Personally, I had a mixed reaction to it as some of the cast seem to be tuned into the appropriate wavelength to make it work (Hayward, Lukas), while others, especially Williams, can't seem to get the words out without sounding completely stilted. The Alex character is supposed to be a naive rube with just a hint of self-awareness, but Williams overplays both aspects to the point of annoyance. Fortunately, the film is filled to the brim with interesting character parts for the vast array of red herrings and night-owl weirdoes demanded by the plot. My personal favorites are Steven Geray as a white-gloved creep who stalks June and Roman Bohnen as a man frantically seeking medical attention for his cat. The film is the sole film credit for New York theater director Harold Clurman. He works effectively with veteran cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca to create a shadowy environment representative of a hot summer night in the city.
The Video ***
All titles are presented in black and white 4:3 video appropriate for their original theatrical presentations except for Phenix City Story and Crime in the Streets which approximate their original theatrical aspect ratios by filling a 16:9 enhanced frame. Most of the titles appear to be derived from third or fourth generation source elements as evidenced by contrast build-up and coarseness of grain. In terms of source contrast and grain, Desperate, The Phenix City Story, and Deadline at Dawn look better than the rest of the films, although they all have light signs of visual wear and tear throughout their running time. Desperate has two instances where a vertical scratch on a negative element becomes visible and has some density fluctuations in the last reel when the lighting gets especially dark (and the negative gets especially thin). The Phenix City Story's prologue section appears to have been shot by a newsreel crew and has a correspondingly softer and grainier appearance than the rest of the film. Crime in the Streets appears to have been transfered from multiple sources of different quality. Several reels of the film end with visible "cigarette burn" reel change markers. Compression is generally very good, although critical viewers watching on large screen projection set-ups will definitely notice some "wobbling" in the grain structure from time to time as the compression algorithm is confounded by natural film grain to create light artifacts. There is some noticeable mpeg ringing along high contrast edges, but it is infrequent and mild in intensity . The films were not given the level of digital touch up to remove scratches and other film artifacts to which some higher profile catalog titles have been treated over the years, but a lot of effort appears to have gone in to getting the contrast and densities just right for a consistent appearance from reel to reel from source elements of varying quality. There are rarely any signs of blooming in bright areas or indsitinct blacks in the all important shadowy areas of the frame.
The Audio ***
All films are presented with English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks. Most feature moderate background noise indicative of a light hand on the digital noise reduction. The only title with serious problems is Cornered which sounds like it was sourced from a print element and has a significant amount of distortion that increases with the signal level and creates a buzzing "edge" around quiet dialog passages. Dial 1119 and Backfire are the best sounding track of the bunch, and coincidentally are from the two biggest studios (MGM and Warner Bros. respectively). There is some light distortion on Deadline at Dawn that may have contributed to confusion about the name of Susan Hayward's character. The Internet Movie Database lists the character's last name as "Goth", while the subtitles for the film list it is as "Goffe". My vote goes with the subtitles, but listening to the track, I can understand the confusion.
Theatrical Trailers for Cornered (1:56) and Dial 1119 (2:36) are the only extras.
The discs are assembled in a four panel digipack with plastic trays on each of the panels that hold a single DVD-9 disc with two films on each. The digipack itself slides into a thin cardboard slipcover. Disc menus do not include scene selection access, but the films are encoded with a handful of chapter stops each. Navigation from one film to the other is laid out sensibly with no "dead ends" forcing viewers to "re-boot" discs if they want to switch films. The on-screen menus for each film are adapted from vintage promotional art.
The fifth entry in the Warner Film Noir Classic Collection is short on extras, but long on value with eight films never before available on pressed disc with presentation quality from good to great, limited only by the quality of the source elements. While one title in the set, Crime in the Streets, seems out of place and more of a 50s juvenile delinquent drama than an example of film noir, it is a good film and in this era of dwindling catalog releases, I support the release of quality classic films on pressed disc by any means necessary.