Home Video Hovel: Dark Film Mysteries, by West Anthony
#Noirvember may be over, but who are we kidding? Anytime’s the right time for desperate schnooks who are in over their head, wrapped around the little fingers of ruthless dames who’ll stop at nothing to get more than their fair share of this bitter little world, each and every one of them trapped in a web of deceit and treachery where the spiders are wearing fedoras and packing heat. Dark Film Mysteries is a collection of eleven film noir specimens that are in the public domain. The good thing about public domain is that you can get a bucket of movies on the cheap, which is good for novices who are looking to delve into noir for the first time as well as die-hard aficionados always on the lookout for more goodies to add to their collection. The bad news is that the video transfer quality is all over the map from one film to the next.
Scarlet Street, from director Fritz Lang (The Big Heat, Metropolis), is one of the most deliciously sour noir confections ever devised. Edward G. Robinson – who is all over this collection – stars as Christopher Cross, a mild-mannered dope who falls under the spell of Kitty (Joan Bennett), as fatale a femme as there ever was. Kitty and her boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea) play Cross for a sucker left and right until he gets wise, and everything goes south for everyone. (Noir remains a potent reminder of the hypocrisy of the film production code of the era: married couples had to sleep in separate beds, but Cross brutally stabbing Kitty to death with an ice pick is A-OK.) This film is an ideal introduction for noir newbies because it has so many of the classic elements – a poor sap, an amoral dish with a skeevy hipster pseudo-pimp, crime, sex, violence and flashes of the blackest humor. The cut from the lights dimming in the prison hallway as Dan Duryea fries for a murder he didn’t commit to the flashing neon sign outside Robinson’s fleabag hotel room is one of the great edits in cinema history — for my money, it’s right up there with Kubrick’s bone in 2001 and Peter O’Toole blowing out the match in Lawrence Of Arabia.
Scarlet Street is pretty snazzy for a public domain title, with a clean print and a clear soundtrack; the DVD’s distributor likely had access to the first-rate Library of Congress transfer that Kino Video released in 2005. Woman On The Run, on the other hand, looks as though it was pulled directly off archive.org and slapped onto a disc without so much as a nod or a wink to quality control. Ann Sheridan stars as a resentful wife searching for her husband; she’s convinced he wants to ditch her, but he’s actually on the run because he witnessed a guy being murdered and doesn’t want to end up likewise. Dennis O’Keefe co-stars as a nosy reporter who’s not what he seems. This film plays more like a mystery, with the truth being revealed gradually, leading to a wild finish on a rollercoaster (filmed in the same Santa Monica amusement park where another rollercoaster climax was shot for Man In The Dark, the first 3D noir). The plot intrigues, and there’s some zippy banter between Sheridan and O’Keefe, but the crummy quality of the transfer prevents full enjoyment of the movie.
The video quality improves somewhat (but not enough) for Quicksand, directed by Irving Pichel (whose directorial career zigzags from The Most Dangerous Game to Destination Moon). The picture lives up to its title: Mickey Rooney stars as a hapless auto mechanic whose attraction to a standard-issue femme fatale (Jeanne Cagney, sister of James) leads him into an ever-escalating series of crimes and dangers and Peter Lorres… well, okay, there’s only one of him, but one’s plenty. It’s the kind of story that unfolds with the inexorable clockwork fatalism of a Coen Brothers movie (only not as funny) or a Fawlty Towers episode (only not as violent). Quicksand alone is worth the price of admission.
Edgar Ulmer’s Detour may be one of the all-time classic noirs, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the substandard copy on this DVD. The film follows the classic premise of the dumb cluck (Tom Neal) who has the colossal misfortune to be around when something bad happens, and is convinced that no one will believe he wasn’t responsible. So he tries to pull off a scam, which woulda worked if it weren’t for a lowlife she-devil (Ann Savage) who’s wise to his act and puts him through the wringer. Detour is a hypercheap masterpiece of anger and ill will. Neal? You can have him. Ann Savage IS this movie, a tornado of vicious hatred that remains one of the truly indelible film noir performances. Sadly, this version of Detour is marred not only by a poor video transfer, but a couple of ill-advised added video fades that make nothing better (I suspect this transfer was created for television some time ago – those fades are probably where commercial breaks would go). Image Entertainment’s 2000 DVD features the unexpurgated film with greatly improved picture quality.
Inner Sanctum, derived from the then-popular radio series, pits a hard-boiled killer against one of cinema’s most feared adversaries: a goony kid wearing a propeller beanie. You heard me. This towheaded, freckle-faced bag of blandness was inadvertently the sole witness to a murder; the killer (Charles Russell) can’t get out of town due to flooding, and ends up sharing a boarding house room with – wait for it – the kid. One of the more slight entries in this collection, it looks better than Woman On The Run but is far less entertaining. As kid-in-danger noir goes, Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window is way better than Inner Sanctum.
Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential is one of the better noir thrillers. A masked kingpin recruits three of the great 50’s character faces – Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef and the eminently bitch-slappable Jack Elam – to rob an armored car; John Payne (co-star of slightly more suitable holiday fare Miracle On 34th Street) is the flower truck-driving patsy who gets fingered for the job. Rather than take it lying down, he instead resolves to track down the thieves and bring them to justice. His search leads him to Mexico, where everything naturally gets more complicated and violent.
Kansas City Confidential looks fine, no doubt thanks to a recent high-definition transfer recently released on Blu-ray. Orson Welles’ The Stranger also benefits from such treatment; good thing too, because this tense thriller deserves nothing less. Edward G. Robinson returns as an investigator who appears in a small Connecticut town, suspecting mild-mannered teacher Charles Rankin (Welles) of being none other than fugitive comedian Andy Kindler!
…I’m sorry, I misread my notes. He suspects Rankin of being none other than fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler! Loretta Young is marvelous as the woman torn between her love for Rankin/Kindler and her deepening suspicion that he may indeed be the monster Robinson says he is. Notable not only for being Orson Welles’ first bona fide box office hit, The Stranger is also unique as the first film in Hollywood history to feature actual newsreel footage of recently-liberated Nazi concentration camps, which was almost certainly a considerable shock to viewers who had previously found it difficult to fathom that such atrocities had really taken place. Welles the director is in fine form, even working with one hand tied behind his back – he gave up a lot of money and control to save his Hollywood career by proving he could bring in a picture on time and on budget. Yet he still manages to wring some pretty impressive black-and-white cinematography from cameraman Russell Metty (who would later reunite with Welles on Touch of Evil) including an unbroken camera shot that, while not nearly as elaborate as the one in Touch of Evil, is in fact even longer.
Fear In The Night should probably best be remembered as the film debut of DeForest Kelley, who even my laundry bag recognizes as Dr. McCoy in Star Trek. That’s about the only interesting thing about this plodding story, in which Kelley plays Vince, a bank teller who dreams one night that he committed a terrible deed, only to discover that it MAY NOT HAVE BEEN A DREAM AFTER ALL! The truth of the matter, when revealed, seems pretty preposterous and silly, but so do a lot of things in this movie. In one of the most unintentionally hilarious bits of dialogue I have ever heard, Paul Kelly (as the protagonist’s detective brother-in-law) is urgently trying to get up to the hotel room where Vince is about to jump out the window to his death; going up in the elevator, he impatiently says to the elevator operator, “Can’t you go any faster?” To which the operator replies, “I’ve got ‘er wide open.” Really? Do elevators have accelerators? Can you modify them with a nitrous tank for an extra boost in case of such emergencies? Apart from a couple of visually interesting scene transitions, Fear in the Night is kinda dumb. It is also easily the worst transfer in the bunch – not only is the picture quality poor, but there is a low level of digital white noise permeating the soundtrack that is most distractingly audible during quiet passages.
Director Edgar Ulmer returns for The Strange Woman, which is not an accurate title for this period film set in Maine in the early 1800’s. Hedy (not Hedley) Lamarr stars as Jenny, a woman who is not so much strange as she is ambitious and ruthless to the point of sociopathy. Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart and George Sanders co-star as the men whose lives are disrupted by her shenanigans and goings-on. It certainly doesn’t feel like film noir on the surface – indeed, one may be reminded more of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. But Jenny is more harsh, steely and deliberately cruel, perhaps halfway between O’Hara and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. The Strange Woman is certainly as lurid as many a noir, and Ulmer shows he can get a lot done with more money (at least ten times more than was spent on Detour) – there was no skimping on the costumes and production design, and there is a fine melodramatic score by Carmen Dragon (father of one-half of The Captain & Tennille and one-fifth of the Surf Punks). For a public-domain title, the transfer is pretty good; there are certainly scratches and blemishes, but the overall image is sharp and the sound relatively clean.
Delmer Daves, director of the Bogart/Bacall noir masterpiece Dark Passage, makes an appearance in this collection with The Red House, another melodramatic tale and our third Edward G. Robinson picture; in this one, he stars as a grouchy farmer who’s trying to keep his niece (Allene Roberts) from discovering a terrible secret. As with The Strange Woman, it doesn’t feel as much like film noir, although several appropriate elements – murder, desire, bad girls, the past catching up to people – are definitely in place. In a way, with its troubled young romances (Roberts and Lon McCallister are the nice couple, Rory Calhoun and Julie London are the naughty couple), The Red House feels more like a precursor to Daves’ teen potboilers of the late 50’s and early 60’s like A Summer Place and Parrish, both starring white-bread heartthrob Troy Donahue. The underrated Daves delivers another solid product, one that includes a rare non-malevolent performance by Judith Anderson, fine cinematography from Bert Glennon (Destination Tokyo, Crime Wave) and an impressive score by Miklos Rozsa. The transfer, taken from another recent high-def remaster, looks and sounds very good, certainly for a film of this vintage.
Miklos Rozsa and Judith Anderson both return for the last film in this collection, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, a noir classic so good it’s a wonder that anyone let it fall into the public domain. Van Heflin stars as Sam, a wiseguy gambler who returns to Iverstown, a city he left as a youth on the night his girl Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) killed her domineering guardian (Anderson). In Sam’s absence, Martha grew up and took over the town with her milquetoast husband Walter (Kirk Douglas in his first film, and the last time anyone would associate him with the word “milquetoast”); when Sam returns, he is the physical embodiment of the past coming back to haunt the queen of Iverstown, and next thing you know it’s intrigue and danger ahoy. Lizabeth Scott (Desert Fury, Pitfall) co-stars as a hardened lass who catches Sam’s eye. Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front, Ocean’s 11) capably directed most of the film, except for some bits that were handled by Byron Haskin when Milestone refused to cross a picket line of striking set decorators for a few days; the script, by future blacklist victim Robert Rossen (The Roaring Twenties, Out Of The Fog), crackles with memorable lines (“Don’t look back, baby… don’t ever look back”); Rozsa’s score is iconic for the genre. The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers has it all… guilt, regret, love, hate, guns, Barbara Stanwyck. The video transfer is less than top shelf, but luckily not terrible or distracting.
Still with me? If so, you’re ready to take a walk on the dark side. With sixteen hours of film noir for under twenty smackeroonies, Dark Film Mysteries is as good a path as any on which to get started. But remember: once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will.
Isn’t it fuckin’ AWESOME?!