Three more Universal-International noirs are unearthed from the vaults in the 11th installment of Kino’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema series. First, when a man’s wife dies of a heart attack, gossip and jealously could cost him his own life in A Woman’s Vengeance. Next, a young woman is blackmailed into working for a ruthless pawnbroker’s crime ring in I Was a Shoplifter. Finally, an honest prison warden finds himself giving into temptation and getting into a major problem in Behind the High Wall. All three films are making their Blu-ray debut in this set.
The Production: 4/5
A Woman’s Vengeance (1948; 4.5 out of 5)
Henry Maurier (Charles Boyer) is a well-to-do man whose grief over the death of his wife Emily (Rachel Kempson) is ended when he marries his mistress Doris Mead (Ann Blyth). This is upsetting to Henry’s neighbor Janet Spence (Jessica Tandy), who has loved him from afar; when Emily’s nurse (Mildred Natwick) confides to Janet her suspicions that Henry may have sped up Emily’s death by poisoning her, Janet encourages Nurse Braddock to report this to the police. This leads to Henry being arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to die for killing Emily, but Dr. Libbard (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) is convinced of Henry’s innocence and sets out to find Emily’s real killer.
Zoltan Korda – the brother of noted producer Alexander Korda – made some solid films on both sides of the Atlantic, such as The Four Feathers (1939), Jungle Book (1942) and Sahara (1943), but A Woman’s Vengeance might just be his best directorial effort overall. Adapted from the short story “The Gioconda Smile” by Aldous Huxley (who also wrote the script from his story), the film neatly straddles the line between noir and melodrama while also maintaining the satirical aspects of the original story. The movie also has the pluses of a great production team behind the camera to give the story a lush and shadowy look, including the distinguished cinematographer Russell Metty, composer Miklós Rózsa, production designers Bernard Herzbrun and Eugène Lourié, set decorator Russell Gausman and costume designer Orry-Kelly. Best of all, Korda has a great handle on the story and gets great performances from his cast, including Charles Boyer, Jessica Tandy, Ann Blyth, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Rachel Kempson and Mildred Natwick, with solid support from the likes of Cecil Humphreys, John Williams, Leyland Hodgson and Harry Cording with notable uncredited contributions from Wilton Graff, Holmes Herbert, Marjorie Eaton and Frederick Worlock. Overall, A Woman’s Vengeance is a brilliantly underrated noir movie that’s worthy of rediscovery.
I Was a Shoplifter (1950; 3.5 out of 5)
After getting picked up by department store security for trying to get a five-finger discount on a few items, Faye Burton (Mona Freeman) – the daughter of a prominent and retired judge – is warned to not shoplift again. However, Faye is approached by pawnbroker Ina Perdue (Andrea King) with a coercive and devilish quid pro quo: she’ll make her signed confession disappear if Faye works for her in her criminal ring of shoplifters. Undercover cop Jeff Andrews (Scott Brady) is also part of the ring, but he’s working incognito to expose and bring Perdue’s sticky-fingered crooks – and the ruthless ringleader herself – to justice. However, Jeff’s growing attraction to Faye may complicate matters…
Prolific director Charles Lamont was better known for directing comedies at Universal and I Was a Shoplifter was the veteran’s only brush with the film noir genre. Another entry in the “ripped from the headlines” subgenre of the crime and noir genre, screenwriter Irwin Gielgud takes us through the world of petty theft and extortion in the similar manner that Dragnet would take on TV later in the decade. The film does benefit from the contributions of cinematographer Irving Glassberg and production designer Bernard Herzbrun, both regular contributors to the Universal Noir style. While at first glance, Lamont might seem to be the odd director to take on film noir, but he acquits himself well here by maintain a fast yet steady pace to the proceedings; he also manages to get some decent performances from the cast, including a gleefully nasty turn from Andrea King as the unscrupulous Ina Perdue. In the end, I Was a Shoplifter is a notable – if only – change of pace for a comedy director who proved to be just as effective in telling a noir story on film as he was in making people laugh.
Behind the High Wall (1956; 3.5 out of 5)
In an unnamed prison, the Warden Carmichael (Tom Tully) is an honest man amongst the convicts and guards. However, his circumstances change dramatically when – during a prison break – he’s taken hostage by a group of escaped convicts who killed a guard and absconded with $100,000; however, a car crash during the escape kills all except for Carmichael and a reluctant Johnny Hutchins (John Gavin). In a moment of opportunity (and a little bit of desperation), Carmichael decides to take the money and leave Johnny to face the consequences from the authorities, but will the formerly honest warden follow thru with letting Johnny take the fall – and ultimately face death row – or will his conscience win out in the end?
A remake of the Arthur Lubin movie The Big Guy (1939), Behind the High Wall taps more into the noir elements in the story’s second go-around. Director Abner Biberman – who already had some experience in the noir genre with Running Wild (1955) and The Price of Fear (1956) prior to this movie – sets up and executes Harold Jack Bloom’s script (adapted from the Wallace Sullivan and Richard K. Polimer story) with solid precision and style while maintaining a steady pace throughout the proceedings. There’s also the contributions of Universal stalwarts Maury Gertsman (cinematographer), Ted J. Kent (film editor) and Alexander Golitzen and Russell Gausman (production designer and set decorator, respectively) that add to the tense atmosphere of the story. However, the major reason why the movie works is the solid performances of Tom Tully, Sylvia Sidney and John Gavin – who was previously billed as “John Gilmore” in his debut film Raw Edge, released the same year as this movie – in the major roles, with solid support coming from the likes of Betty Lynn, Don Beddoe, John Larch and uncredited appearances by Phil Harvey, Bing Russell, Floyd Simmons and Amzie Strickland standing out as well. While still a relatively minor noir, Behind the High Wall still gets plenty of mileage from the story as well as some solid performances and production values typical of Universal noirs of the era.
3D Rating: NA
A Woman’s Vengeance and I Was a Shoplifter are presented in their original 1:37:1 aspect ratios while Behind the High Wall is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for this release; A Woman’s Vengeance has a brand new HD master taken from a 4K digital restoration done by Universal Pictures of the original 35mm nitrate negative while I Was a Shoplifter has a brand new 2K master created for this release. All three films exhibit a faithful presentation of film grain, gray scale and fine details with minimal cases of scratches, dirt, tears and nicks present. This release is likely the best all three films will ever look on home video and this release surpasses A Woman’s Vengeance previous Universal MOD DVD release.
All three films’ original mono soundtracks are presented on DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for this release. Dialogue, sound mixes and music scores (Miklos Rozsa for A Woman’s Vengeance, a score compiled from stock music cues composed by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Bronislaw Kaper, Miklos Rozsa, Hans J. Salter, Walter Scharf, Frank Skinner and Leith Stevens for I Was a Shoplifter and stock music composed by Henry Mancini and Frank Skinner for Behind the High Wall) are all presented faithfully with minimal cases of clicking, popping, crackling, flutter, hissing or distortion present. This release is likely the best all three films will ever sound on home video and again, surpasses A Woman’s Vengeance MOD DVD release.
Special Features: 3/5
A Woman’s Vengeance
Commentary by professor/film scholar Jason A. Ney – Recorded for this release, Ney explores the background on the film’s production, including where it fits in the careers of the cast and crew and the differences between the film and Aldous Huxley’s short story based thereon.
Theatrical Trailer (2:30)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Thunder on the Hill & Back Street (1941)
I Was a Shoplifter
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Detective Story, Night Has a Thousand Eyes & Cry of the City
Behind the High Wall
Theatrical Trailer (2:06)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – The Turning Point & The Price of Fear
Kino continues the Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema series of Blu-ray releases with another solid offering here, with great HD transfers of each film and an informative commentary track on A Woman’s Vengeance. Very highly recommended and absolutely worth upgrading for those who previously owned the Universal MOD DVD of A Woman’s Vengeance.
Amazon.com: Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XI [A Woman’s Vengeance / I Was a Shoplifter / Behind the High Wall]: Zoltán Korda, Charles Lamont, Abner Biberman, Charles Boyer, Sylvia Sidney, Scott Brady, Ann Blyth, Jessica Tandy, Mona Freeman, Tom Tully, Tony Curtis, Charles Drake, Rock Hudson, John Gavin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Andrea King, Mildred Natwick, Rachel Kempson, Betty Lynn, John Larch, Barney Phillips: Movies & TV
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