When it came to film noir, few studios did it as well as RKO Radio Pictures. During the heyday of the genre, the studio turned out several pictures in the genre, featuring budding talents in front of and behind the camera as well as established stars – some of whom would give career defining performances and pictures. All four of the films in this set (Murder, My Sweet, Out of the Past, The Set-Up & Gun Crazy – the latter released through United Artists, the other 3 released by RKO) were all previously released separately on Blu-ray in the Warner Archive Collection, but now are given a new release here in this collector’s set.
The Production: 4.5/5
Murder, My Sweet (1944; 5 out of 5)
Private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) thinks that he’s been given just another typical case when he’s hired by ex-convict Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to locate his former girlfriend Velma Valento. However, what starts as a missing persons case quickly turns into a whirling maelstrom of ransom, deception and murder that finds Marlowe involved with a psychic healer and blackmailer as well as the wife of a wealthy man and her sister. With more twists and turns than Mulholland Drive, this case could either put Marlowe six feet under or find him the fall guy for murder…
While Philip Marlowe has gone through many onscreen incarnations over the years (with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum having portrayed the hardboiled gumshoe in different films), he may have gotten his most definitive incarnation in former musical star Dick Powell here in Murder, My Sweet. As one of the most important films the genre, director Edward Dmytryk should deserve a lot of credit for staging the movie in the style that would come to define the noir genre; cinematographer Harry Wild also deserves credit for the sharp and moody atmosphere as well. While John Paxton (who would later become a victim of Hollywood’s blacklist along with Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott) made some changes to Raymond Chandler’s novel in bringing it to the screen, he largely keeps intact the prose and plot elements that would later become crucial in noirs to come; Powell’s performance, along with the likes of Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki and Anne Shirley, really help bring the serpentine story to life. In short, Murder, My Sweet – later remade in 1975 under its original title Farewell, My Lovely – is a hugely important film in showing how film noir would become a crucial part of American cinema in the post-WWII and would truly pave the way for others to follow.
Out of the Past (1947; 5 out of 5)
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is living a quiet life as a gas station owner in a small California town at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. However, his pasts comes a calling in the form of Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a gambling kingpin who hires Jeff to find his missing girl Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) as well as $40,000, although Jeff has his doubts about the latter. As he finds Kathie across the border in Mexico, Jeff soon starts to fall for her and ends up deeper into Whit’s clutches as the stakes raise higher. It’s a job that may just build the gallows high for both Jeff and Kathie…
Jacques Tourneur may be well known for his work on Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942) and the supernatural chiller Night of the Demon (1957), but Out of the Past is likely by far the best film of his directorial career and one of the greatest noirs of all time. Based upon the Daniel Mainwaring novel Build My Gallows High (which is also what the film was released under in the UK) – Mainwaring also penned the screenplay under the nom de plume Geoffrey Homes – the movie may just be the high watermark of the genre as nearly all the critical elements are here and played to the hilt in a complex yet grand fashion. The movie also makes great use of the Sierra Nevada locations used in the film, giving it a beautifully haunting and realistic quality that really makes it stand out amongst the pack (not too surprising since cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca had previously worked with Tourneur on Cat People). Throw in some outstanding performances, especially from Mitchum, Jane Greer (who would play the mother of her character here in the 1984 remake Against All Odds) and a young up and comer named Kirk Douglas and you have a near perfect example of the genre at its finest. To put in layman’s terms, Out of the Past really is a gem of the genre and of American cinema, one whose luster has not diminished in over 70 plus years since its initial release.
Gun Crazy (1950; 4.5 out of 5)
Bart Tare (John Dall) always had an obsession with guns and has always been a great shot, but a traumatic childhood event has made him hesitant to use guns to harm any living animal or human being. At a carnival, his shooting prowess impresses ace sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and she gets him a job at the carnival; this mutual attraction first leads to marriage and then to a life of crime. However, when Bart tries to leave the criminal life, Laurie persuades him into one more job that will ultimately seal the fate of these two lovers once and for all…
Joseph H. Lewis is a cult director best known for his works in the film noir genre – having previously worked on My Name is Julia Ross (1945) and So Dark the Night (1946) for Columbia Pictures – and Gun Crazy is his masterpiece. Working from a script by Dalton Trumbo (fronted here by Millard Kaufman due to the blacklist) and MacKinlay Kantor – from the latter’s story published in The Saturday Evening Post – Lewis sets up and executes this Bonnie and Clyde styled story with great skill. He also manages to get two career defining performances from his leads; John Dall had previously been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Corn is Green (1945) and played a sociopathic murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), but he and Peggy Cummins never really got a more plum part than they did here. Finally, the centerpiece of the movie – the climatic bank robbery sequence – is a tour de force of noir filmmaking; it was shot in one continuous take and the dialogue was improvised, making it one of the most memorable set pieces of any noir movie. Gun Crazy is a frenetically paced and highly entertaining noir that’s deserving of its reputation as one of the greats of the genre.
The Set-Up (1949; 4.5 out of 5)
Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a down on his luck boxer who thinks he’s one victory away from a better life. So when he agrees to take on an opponent for a $500 prize, he thinks that this may be his chance to get that better life for himself and his wife Julie (Audrey Totter). However, his manager has been paid by a big time gangster to arrange for Stoker to take a dive at the match; when Bill learns of this, he makes a decision that could either set him up for that better life or end up the target of a gangster’s wrath…
Robert Wise had already cut his teeth as a director working for producer Val Lewton on horror films like The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), but The Set-Up may just be his best overall effort at RKO. Based upon a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, the script largely keeps intact the heart of the story despite some changes; the most notable change of all was that the race of the main character was changed from black to white due to the fact that RKO didn’t have an African American star actor under contract at the time. Controversy on that fact aside, the film is notable for effectively applying the real time narrative structure effectively; this was well before High Noon (1952) would also use it to great effect as well. Finally, there great tension and excitement generated from the climatic fight scene, which Wise used three different cameras to capture all the details of the action from the ring to something as simple as a boxing glove making contact with the body. Though it falls under the shadow of more notable boxing films of the era such as Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) and Mark Robson’s Champion (1949), The Set-Up is still a gritty and wonderfully made noir that depicts its subject matter in an uncompromising light.
3D Rating: NA
All four films are presented in their original 1:37:1 aspect ratios for this release, taken from HD transfers originally prepared for each film’s individual WAC Blu-ray release. Film grain is organic on each, with fine details, shadows and gray scale also given a faithful representation; there’s minimal issues like scratches, flickering, dirt or tears present here. In short, this release showcases each film in their best home video presentation.
All four movies’ original mono soundtracks are presented on DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for this release, also originally created for each film’s initial Blu-ray release. Dialogue is strong and clear on each film, with sound effects and music scores (Roy Webb for Murder, My Sweet & Out of the Past, Victor Young for Gun Crazy, and Constantin Bakaleinikoff’s use of Webb’s stock music for The Set-Up) each given faithful representations as well. Each track exhibits minimal to no cases of distortion, crackling or hissing present, which means that this is likely the best each movie will sound on home video.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Murder, My Sweet
Commentary with film historian Alain Silver – Ported over from the Warner DVD, Silver talks about the movie and its history and themes along with what was carried over from the Chandler novel in its adaptation.
Theatrical Trailer (2:09)
Out of the Past
Commentary with film historian James Ursini – Carried over from the Warner DVD, Ursini goes over some of the production details and offers up some insight into how this movie is considered a classic example of noir in the wide ranging genre.
Commentary with film critic Glenn Erickson – Carried over from the Warner DVD, Erickson talks about the movie, the production and some of the themes as they’re illustrated through the many techniques Lewis used.
Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light (1:07:37) – Ported over from Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 3 release, this feature length look at the film noir genre illustrates a few of the qualities that defined the genre and its movies; among those interviewed include author James Ellroy, Eddie Muller, directors Christopher Nolan, Paul Schrader, Sydney Pollack, and even archival interviews with director Edward Dmytryk, cinematographer John Alton, and actresses Audrey Totter and Jane Greer, just to name a few.
Commentary with directors Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese – Carried over from the Warner DVD, Scorsese and Wise share their feelings about the movie, the former talking about his personal experience with encountering the movie and the latter sharing why this was one of his personal favorites.
While Warner Bros. have already given Murder, My Sweet, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy & The Set-Up individual Blu-ray releases in the Warner Archive line, the fact that they’ve bundled them together in this 4 film collection is not only a great value, but gives those who may have missed out on getting them the first time around a second chance. With great HD transfers and carrying over the legacy commentaries and the feature length documentary on the genre, this set is highly recommended and essential for any film noir lovers. Bring on more of these themed collector’s sets on Blu-ray!
Amazon.com: 4-Film Collection: Film Noir [Blu-ray]: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Edward Dmytryk, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Joseph H. Lewis: Movies & TV
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