- May 7, 2001
The Asphalt Jungle/Out Of The Past/Murder, My Sweet/Gun Crazy/The Set-Up
Shadows, Lies, and Private Eyes - The Film Noir Collection, Volume #1
Studio: Warner Brothers
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 462 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.37 Academy
Audio: DD Mono
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
MSRP: $49.92 – Boxed set or $19.97 individually.
Package: 5 films in individual keep cases within the boxed set.
Okay, so I decide to look in on the HTF chat with Warner Brothers a few months back and admittedly, I get caught up in the excitement. I thought with the recent news of the Fox Film Noir line that had been recently announced, that perhaps Warner might have plans for something similar. I decided to rattle off a question to the good folks at Warner, expecting the typical “sorry, we have no plans for those titles right now”, response… Their response almost knocked me off my chair. It was at that point we learned of the upcoming Film Noir boxed set that would contain the following titles: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Out Of The Past (1947), Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Set-Up (1949) and Gun Crazy (1949). Being the “noirhead” that I am their news of the release pretty much made my month…
“Film Noir” (meaning black or dark film) is a term that was coined by French film critics who noticed a trend of how dark and black the themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France following the war. Generally, these films became prominent during the post war era and are generally thought to have lasted up and until 1960. Having said that, you’ll find many who classify true film noir titles between the timeframe of 1940 through to 1960 having evolved from the crime/gangster genre of the 30’s with such films as Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Asking somebody for a specific definition of “film noir” is similar to asking ten different people about buying a computer – you’ll get ten different responses. Generally, you won’t get any wrong answers as to what the genre is, but you will get differing views and opinions as what elements should be inclusive and whether or not a specific film fits that criterion. Film noir might be the only genre that is defined by the mood or the atmosphere of the film rather than the specific plot itself.
The principle mood of classic film noir is generally that of bleakness, pessimism, disillusionment, morally corrupt, and generally contain characters that are corrupt themselves, in some facet of life i.e. hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, small time criminals, and murderers. These protagonists (usually “chumps”) are quite often smitten and usually lack morals leading to theft, quick-get-rich schemes, extortion and even murder. Another common element is the presence of femme fatales who frequently possess one of two traits; the dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women or the mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous vixens.
More often than not, the protagonist in the film makes a decision based on his feelings for the female character, which inevitably is a fatal error. The overall appearance of a film noir usually possesses characteristics of dark lighting rendering various shadowy images, off center camera angles, low rent/flop house/seedier type accommodations and plumes of cigarette smoke. Many of these stories are told by way of a series of flashbacks or reflective voice-over narration and tend to contain repartee of sharp witted barbs, heavy on sarcasm.
Some don’t consider color films to be true examples of film noir. If such were the case, films like Slightly Scarlet, Niagara, Leave Her To Heaven, House of Bamboo and A Kiss Before Dying would all be wrongly excluded. While the biggest ingredient in common with the genre seems to be the element of crime, even that quality can be noticeably absent from time to time. There are a number of modern day titles that possess many of the qualities found in classic noirs such as Blade Runner, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and The Man Who Wasn’t There, these are usually referred to as neo-noirs. There is often discussion as to whether certain western films classify as noir. Films such as Pursued, The Return Of Frank James and even Winchester ‘73 often find their way onto various noir lists. However, I have a hard time buying into a western being noir, but that’s just me. Don’t get me wrong, I love westerns I just have a hard time thinking of them as noir. Clear as mud, right? Like life itself, just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, there are exceptions to every rule…
If you’re interested in the genre, I’d also recommend a couple of books; “Film Noir Reader” written by Alain Silver and James Ursini (and we’ll see their names appear again in the special features section), and if you’re into poster art at all, Eddie Muller released a book entitled “The Art Of Noir” which is a huge collection of beatifically photographed posters of the genre. He also released a book entitled “Dark City”; all of these are recommended reads. I’d also heartily recommend a website called "The Blackboard" which is a film noir site frequented by many enthusiasts including film collectors, writers and authors. The site is a friendly place to hang out where a wealth of interesting and intelligent discussion takes place daily.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Duration: 112 Minutes.
The Asphalt Jungle was one of the few noirs to come from the MGM Studios. The film was co-written and directed by one of my favorites, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and Key Largo). The film was a major source of contention between the eccentric director and the autocratic studio mogul, Louis B. Mayer who claimed not to have liked Huston’s films and was even quoted while referring to The Asphalt Jungle by saying, “I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a film like that”.
While there's no shortage of heist films, there is no denying The Asphalt Jungle was ultimately responsible for a number of similar and contemporary versions that followed i.e. Ocean’s Eleven, Topkapi and The Italian Job to name but a few. The quintessential heist feature consisted of an ensemble cast such as Doc (played by Sam Jaffe), who has just been released from prison, and has concocted a fantastic plan to steal a large sum of jewels.
Louis Ciavelli (played by Anthony Caruso) is picked as the safecracker, Gus (played by James Whitmore) is hired as the getaway driver and tough guy Dix Handley (played by Sterling Hayden) is the hooligan. After the team is handpicked by Doc, the operation is financed by a sleazy bookie, Cobb (played by Marc Lawrence), and Alonzo Emmerich (played by Louis Calhern), who is a respectable and successful attorney, is the fence for the gems. Marilyn Monroe also makes a couple of brief appearances as Angela and plays Emmerich’s mistress. Another film with similar characteristics is the 1956 heist film, The Killing which was an early directorial work for Stanley Kubrick, both of which star Sterling Hayden – both of which are must see films.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Duration: 95 Minutes.
There is probably no other person who is more responsible for writing novels or screenplays that were adapted into films noir than Raymond Chandler. Chandler authored a number of novels and was responsible for the legendary private eye character, Philip Marlowe. Murder, My Sweet was adapted from Chandler’s novel, Farewell My Lovely but changed for American audiences so as not to mistake it for a musical which Dick Powell had been known for. While Murder, My Sweet may have been the original Marlowe mystery, there were a number of familiar capable noir staples to play the part including (probably the most popular of the series), Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), Robert Montgomery in The Lady In The Lake (1947) and George Montgomery in 1947’s The Brasher Doubloon.
More contemporary versions would include James Garner in a similar pre-Rockford Files type role in 1969’s Marlowe, Elliott Gould carried the torch in The Long Goodbye (1973) and legendary tough guy, Robert Mitchum would reprise the role a couple of times in the late 70’s. Chandler was also responsible for writing a number of other noir screenplays such as The Blue Dahlia (1946), Hitchcock’s, Strangers On A Train (1951) and was credited as a co-writer for the 1944 classic, Double Indemnity.
While many feel that Bogart’s portrayal of the Philip Marlowe character from The Big Sleep is the definitive role, I'm of the opinion Dick Powell is the Marlowe. Powell brings a lighter side to the character who was wittier and much more impulsive than Bogart ever was - and I guarantee, you’ll not find a bigger fan of Bogart on this forum than this reviewer! The film was originally an RKO production and was directed by Edward Dmytryk who was responsible for other such noirs including Crossfire (1947), Cornered (1945) and The Sniper (1952).
The story begins with recent parolee, Moose Malloy (played by Mike Mazurki) a dim-witted lug who hires private eye, Philip Marlowe (played by Dick Powell) to track down his former girlfriend Velma, while another man pays him to accompany him in the retrieval of a jade necklace he claims was stolen from a wealthy friend of his. At the place where the exchange is to take place, Marlowe is knocked out and awakens to find the man has been murdered. Shortly after that, he is pursued by the owner of the necklace along with his wife Mrs. Grayle (played by Claire Trevor), to recover them. Marlowe suddenly finds himself surrounded by a group of malefactors who all seem less than credible and all of whom have something to hide until he is able to track down what they all have in common.
The Set-Up (1949)
Duration: 72 Minutes.
Perhaps the least known of the titles included in the set, The Set-Up was adapted from a poem written by Joseph Moncure March, starring long time noir favorite Robert Ryan and was directed by the legendary Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Haunting and The Sound Of Music). The film is interesting in that it is 72 minutes in length, but the entire film takes place in 72 minutes real time. As the film begins, we see a large clock just outside the arena which reads 9:05 pm, when the movie concludes, the camera pans across showing the time at 10:17 pm.
The storyline is rather simple in nature. Stoker Thompson (played by Robert Ryan) is a 35 year old boxer whose better days are now behind him. Tired of watching the unrelenting beatings Stoker takes, the love of his life, Julie (played by Audrey Trotter) can no longer bear to watch another match. Even though Stoker gave her tickets for the event, she can’t do it. The disappointed boxer keeps his eye on the empty chair, hoping she’ll appear. Stoker is the underdog in a match with a much younger opponent and feels he can take the kid. What he doesn’t know is that his slimy manager, Tiny (played by George Tobias) has taken money and promised organizers that his boxer will take a dive after the second round. Of course he takes the cash for the set-up but what he fails to do is tell Stoker of the plan…
Gun Crazy (1949)
Duration: 86 Minutes.
The next installment in the set is Gun Crazy (also known as Deadly Is The Female). Originally a U.A. production, the film was directed by Joseph H. Lewis who was also responsible for a number of other significant noirs such as My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), The Undercover Man (1949) and one of the quintessential noirs, the 1955 classic, The Big Combo.
Bart Tare (played by John Dall) has always possessed somewhat of a fetish for guns. After his recent release from the army, he winds up at a carnival, and in a competition with Annie Laurie Starr (played by Peggy Cummins), who is a sharp shooting sideshow performer, and is just as passionate about guns as that of her competitor. Their new relationship winds up getting the pair canned from the act and they take off for Vegas, but they soon wind up penniless and unable to pay for even the onion toppings on their hamburgers.
Unhappy with her abysmal financial situation, Annie has made it quite clear that she doesn't plan to stick around while Bart finds "respectable" work. She craves the finer things in life and that type of respectable work won't feed her desires. Fearful of losing her, Bart decides to go along with Peggy as they embark on a cross-country spree of robberies knocking over banks, gas stations and liquor stores. At odds with his conscious, Bart decides to go along with one last job - a big job that will net the pair the financial payoff they both crave. As you can imagine, things don't go quite as planned.
The film is exceptional in its ability to show the true naivety of a young man who is rather stiff and straight laced who has just been discharged from the service. Bart is the epitome of clean cut and wholesome who becomes absolutely consumed with the wickedness of his evil partner (soon to be) in crime. Dall's roll is quite a contrast to that of his previous cool and calculating character that he portrayed a year earlier in Hitchcock's Rope. While the film might be classed as a "B" noir, don't let that deter you from watching this underrated gem, a classic example of the genre.
Out Of The Past (1947)
Duration: 97 Minutes.
So by now you're asking yourself, what about the film noir masterpiece, Out Of The Past? Well I have saved the best for last. The film is not only one of my favorites of the genre, it is one of my favorite movies, period. Originally an RKO production, the film was directed by Jacques Tourneur and stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming. It was based on the novel written by Daniel Mainwaring (aka as Geoffrey Homes), “Build My Gallows High”. For those who might not necessarily be familiar with the original version, a remake was made in 1984 called Against All Odds which was loosely based on the 1947 classic and features Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward. Not a bad film in its own right but possesses very few similarities of the original. It was Interesting however, to see Jane Greer also appear in the remake as Mrs. Wyler.
Common with many noirs, much of the film is told in a series of flashbacks. As the film starts about half way through the story, the flashbacks are used as a method to bring us up to speed on Jeff's past. In the small town of Bridgeport in Northern California, Jeff Bailey (played by Robert Mitchum) runs a gas station. A young boy working for Bailey becomes suspicious when a man stops at the garage making inquiries as to Jeff's whereabouts. He is forced to tell his new sweetheart of his past which includes having worked as a private detective for Whit Sterling (played by Kirk Douglas), who is a thug with a less than respectable reputation. After Whit's girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (played by Jane Greer) absconds with forty thousand dollars, he hires Jeff to track her and his money down on a journey that leads him to Acapulco. Although, he is able to track her down with very little effort, what he doesn't count on is falling in love with her.
There are several qualities about this film that separate it from the many of the ordinary films from the same genre. The film possesses absolutely every element necessary that identifies it as a film noir. The stylized nature in which the story is told is accomplished with great effect. The film also highlights what I would refer to as career performances for Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Greer’s performance is often compared to the other ultimate femme fatale performance of Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck in the 1944 classic, Double Indemnity. And on top of everything else, I can’t think of many other films from the period (regardless of the genre) that possess an atmosphere which compares to Out Of The Past. Simply put, this film is a must have for any fan of classic film.
The Asphalt Jungle: 4.5/5 :star::star::star::star:
Murder, My Sweet: 4/5 :star::star::star::star:
The Set-Up: 4/5 :star::star::star::star:
Gun Crazy: 4/5 :star::star::star::star:
Out Of The Past: 5/5 :star::star::star::star::star:
Unfortunately for many of us who share an affinity for the genre, we haven’t had much to boast about since the inception of our beloved format. Not only have the released titles been rather sparse, but the presentations have been somewhat mediocre at best. To add to our sense of trepidation, it’s no secret that many of the original elements from the RKO vaults are in less than favorable condition, so I screened these titles, hoping for the best. My fears were quickly allayed as these transfers are visions of beauty. Not quite Casablanca or Bad And The Beautiful beauty, but we have very little to complain about.
Obviously each film has it own unique look and distinguishing characteristics, so I’ll list what they share in common and briefly outline the qualities that separate each title individually as I found myself writing many of the same comments for all of the pictures.
Black levels were excellent in all of the films – near exceptional, the only film that was somewhat lacking in that department was Murder, My Sweet. Whites were contrasted nicely always appearing stark and clean. Shadow detail on all of the films was very good while The Set-Up and The Asphalt Jungle was exceptional. There was an impressive level of grayscale exhibited on all of the films with Out Of The Past and Murder, My Sweet falling just short of the other three.
Image definition was for the most part fairly consistent throughout the set and was relatively sharp with occasional softness, including the typical softness associated with the female lead close-ups. The stand-outs here are The Set-Up and The Asphalt Jungle. There are examples here where facial hair and skin pores can be counted (if you’re so inclined) – very impressive. The level of dimensionality was very nice indeed with Murder, My Sweet being the least impressive in that regard.
All of the films exhibited a very slight amount of fine film grain throughout each film while Murder, My Sweet was slightly granier with a grittier look to it. I felt all of the films had a satisfying film-look to them – with certain scenes looking more impressive than others. There were instances of film dust, dirt and scratches but they were rather sparse and were never bothersome.
While Gun Crazy had a very velvety smooth image, all of the films had infrequent occasions of light speckle. Out Of The Past seemed to suffer the most in terms of jumps and light instability – not significant, but worthy of mention.
All of these films have their strengths and weaknesses but I am absolutely delighted with the end result. I have rated each film individually.
The Asphalt Jungle: 4/5 :star::star::star::star:
Murder, My Sweet: 3.5/5 :star::star::star:
The Set-Up: 4.5/5 :star::star::star::star:
Gun Crazy: 4/5 :star::star::star::star:
Out Of The Past: 4/5 :star::star::star::star:
Similar to the video presentation, I found myself making identical notes from each of the films in the set. Each of the movies is presented in their original monaural soundtrack, all of which by and large, are up to the task.
All of the tracks sounded very natural and clean – free of any hiss, pops or other distracting anomalies, and free of any compression problems. Dialogue was always clear and intelligible and never were there any problems in that regard.
As one might expect, the overall range of the tracks are rather thin. There is very little to speak of however in terms of highlights, but beyond the inherent limitations of the technology, these are more than adequate.
While The Set-Up was the standout in the video department, it is the only film that bears an unenthusiastic mention in the audio department. Throughout the entire film there is a voice-activated static/hiss during dialogue which is present at times. This didn’t take me out of the film but I did find it slightly distracting.
Since the overall presentation of the tracks are virtually flawless, I’m going to give an overall grade to all four of the films, four stars with the exception of The Set-Up which I’m giving 3.5 stars.
Overall Audio: 4/5
I wouldn’t necessarily say the set is overflowing with supplemental features, I would state however, that collectively there is a very impressive gathering of noir aficionados who offer up an extraordinary array of facts and tidbits relating to these films.
The Asphalt Jungle
[*] The first special feature is a short but interesting Introduction By John Huston who introduces the characters. Duration: 50 seconds.
[*] The Commentary on this disc features author/film noir expert Drew Casper and actor James Whitmore. The commentary is mainly conducted by Mr. Casper himself with a couple of interview clips featuring James Whitmore which are introduced by Casper. Mr. Casper spends a great deal of time talking about the history of the studio at the time of the film, focusing on MGM and the RKO studios. It is interesting to hear Mr. Casper’s ideas and thoughts of the transformation of the MGM studio heading into 1950’s. He also spends a (welcomed) substantial amount of time discussing and taking an in depth look at Huston and his work as well including his brief history with the MGM studio. I’d be remiss if I didn’t report that he goes off on tangents, rambling about anything and everything that comes to mind, but Mr. Casper does a great job and is obvious an expert on film between the postwar era up to the early 1960’s.
[*] The Theatrical Trailer is also included which is in decent shape. Duration: 2:36 minutes.
Murder, My Sweet
[*] The Commentary on this disc features author and film noir expert Alain Silver. Mr. Silver’s approach is rather laid back and he is very easy to listen to. He is responsible for writing twenty books on film, seven of which are books relating to the noir genre. His knowledge of the film and of the genre is impressive to say the least and this is most worthy of your time.
[*] The Theatrical Trailer is also included but it is in pretty rough shape. Duration: 2:11 minutes.
[*] The Commentary on this disc features non other than the legendary director himself, Robert Wise and another legend, Martin Scorsese and it appears as though the participants were recorded separately. Surprisingly, this is probably the weakest commentary of the bunch. The aging Mr. Wise offers a number of interesting tidbits relating to his experience during the production but there are scads of dead time, while Mr. Scorsese spends a great deal of time explaining his fondness for the film, describing how it affected him after first viewing it and he discusses his respect for Mr. Wise and his work.
[*] The special feature on this disc is a Commentary which features one of my favorite DVD reviewers and fellow noir junkie, Glenn Erickson, aka DVD Savant. As you might imagine, similar to his thorough and in-depth DVD reviews, his commentary is no exception. From the time the commentary starts to the time it finishes, the energized Mr. Erickson is non-stop offering up a host of great information pertaining to the genre and the feature film itself. This is mandatory listening if you’re a fan of the film or the genre.
Out Of The Past
[*] The Commentary on this disc features author and film noir expert James Ursini who co-wrote Film Noir Reader with Alain Silver, a must read for fans of the genre. Mr. Ursini’s commentary is much more focused and film specific in his approach discussing each sequence as he also describes the various basic elements that are typically common in the genre. For someone looking for a visual introduction into noir, Mr. Ursini does a great job explaining the various elements and how they are used to paint the canvas.
Perhaps not a lot in terms of quantity but these are all solid commentaries and offer a multitude of interesting information.
Special Features: 4.5/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
Between films they produced, and the RKO library they now control, God only knows there is no other studio that has more quality films noir in their canon than Warner Brothers and it would appear that the vaults have finally been cracked. Had I been tasked to make the selections for this Volume One release and given carte blanche access to their library, I’m not sure I would have chosen differently - not only five extraordinary films, but five uniquely distinct and varying styles of the film noir genre.
Even though the special features aren’t necessarily abundant what has been included is solid and offers up a treasure trove of tidbits pertaining to the feature films from a number of respected participants who have an awful lot to contribute. Considering how the genre seemed to be the "red-headed stepchild" of most studios, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the presentation, but I am happy to report my expectations were vastly exceeded by this set.
This is another Warner example where purchasing individual titles makes very little sense if you are interested in the genre – and there’s not a stinker in the lot. Here’s hoping to an upcoming announcement of Volume 2.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (not an average)
Release Date: July 6th, 2004