Monday, January 10, 2011

Focus on Film Noir: Warner Home Video's Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5

Released by Warner Home Video in 2010, Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5  is a four-disc showcase of eight double-featured films, a sampling of thrillers ranging from the acclaimed to the all-but-forgotten.

Disc one is a strong pairing of Edward Dmytryk's Cornered (1945) with Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947). Cornered was the second hit teaming of star Dick Powell with director Dmytryk, and it followed their private-eye noir masterpiece, Murder, My Sweet, by a year. In this outing, Powell is a Royal Canadian Air Force vet doggedly tracking his wife's killer across the globe.

Steve Brodie in Desperate
Desperate was a breakout film for director Anthony Mann, the first in the series of late-'40s noirs that launched his career. Mann's signature is his strong visual style, and this fast-paced story of an innocent man on the run is boosted by stylish set-pieces (including the classic of a fierce back room beating that sets an overhead light swaying, see clip below), a smart script and George Diskant's cinematography. Steve Brodie, a powerhouse as the honest truck driver turned fall guy, delivers a stand-out performance. With creamy Audrey Long as his bride, menacing Raymond Burr as his nemesis and Jason Robards, Sr., as the cynical/genial police lieutenant. Desperate, a staple at noir festivals and Mann retrospectives, is one of the gems of this collection.

Disc two is more eclectic and opens with a fact-based crime expose, The Phenix City Story (1955), directed by Phil Karlson. Veteran LA newsman Clete Roberts kicks it off with a 13+ minute segment of news report/interviews. Then the dramatized story of the 1954 assassination of an Alabama politician begins. It's a brutal (with a capital 'B') piece of history. With John McIntyre, Richard Kiley and the future Mrs. Bing Crosby, Kathryn Grant. Next up, Dial 1119 (1950), a mad-killer-on-the-loose tale directed by Gerald (Louis B's nephew) Mayer. The crazed killer (Marshall Thompson) holes up in a neighborhood bar and holds staff and patrons hostage during a police stand-off. Virginia Field takes a nifty turn as a barfly/seductress and William Conrad appears briefly as "Chuckles," the bartender. Otherwise, this one's mostly interesting for its depiction of the era's bar culture and attitudes toward the "insanity defense."

William Talman and Adele Jergans in Armored Car Robbery
Disc three features the formidable down-and-dirty Armored Car Robbery (1950). It runs a very fast and intense 68 minutes - that's no surpise with action/suspense master Richard Fleischer directing. Gravel-voiced noir stalwart Charles McGraw stars as a grimly determined LAPD lieutenant bent on avenging the murder of his partner during an armored car robbery. William Talman, a few years before he became D.A. Hamilton Burger on TV's "Perry Mason," is chillingly reptilian as the heist mastermind; hard-boiled, slightly worn femme fatale Adele Jergens isn't quite Virginia Mayo, but she's not bad at all. With solid Steve Brodie, this time as the getaway car driver. Armored Car Robbery is ferocious and works from start to finish; the film ends with buddy moment as the jaded lieutenant shares a cynical laugh with his new (and newly manned-up) partner. I imagine Jean-Pierre Melville must've watched this a couple of times before he made Bob le flambeur (1955).

Also included on disc three is Crime in the Streets (1956), a juvenile delinquent drama directed by Don Siegel, starring John Cassavetes. The story originally aired as a teleplay and the film looks, sounds and feels like Golden Age TV. Cassavetes' performance as an overheated teenage gang leader on the verge of mayhem is the main reason to watch this one. He's spellbinding. With Sal Mineo and James Whitmore. Crime in the Streets airs today, Jan. 10, on TCM at 4:15pm Eastern/1:15 Pacific.

Disc four offers the final double feature, Deadline at Dawn (1946) and Backfire (1950).

Deadline at Dawn, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich/aka/William Irish (Rear Window), boasts a screenplay by Clifford Odets and is the only film New York theater legend Harold Clurman ever directed. It got my attention with an opening shot of a sleeping woman's face...and the fly crawling over it...Bill Williams stars as a sailor on shore leave who may be guilty of murder and has only till dawn to clear himself. Susan Hayward plays the taxi dancer who helps him out and Paul Lukas is their cabbie sidekick. While quirky dialogue and various red herrings pique interest, it's primarily the evocative cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca) and Susan Hayward's vibrant performance that keep things moving.

Virginia Mayo
Backfire stars Gordon MacRae before he rose to film stardom in a pair of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. It features two future Oscar winners, Edmond O'Brien and Ed Begley, plus Virginia Mayo - this time as a good girl, MacRae's nurse. Vincent Sherman directed and, though the film is erratic, it's a fun-house ride. MacRae is well-cast as a recovering war veteran who dreams of a farm of his own. When his Army buddy (O'Brien) disappears and is implicated in a murder, he sets out to clear his pal's name. The flashback-driven story twists and turns and, oddly, the final plot twist may be given away by images on the product package and DVD disc. Also starring Viveca Lindfors and Dane Clark. Noteworthy original music by Daniele Amfitheatrof who scored Max Ophuls' Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). Backfire will air Monday, Jan. 24, on TCM at 4:00pm Eastern/1:00pm Pacific.

From 2004 - 2007, Warner Home Video released a film noir collection every July, like clockwork. Then nothing...for three years. It's not surprising, then, that Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 was greeted with much fanfare.

The must-see films in this collection are Anthony Mann's Desperate and Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery. Also worthwhile are Edward Dmytryk's Cornered and Harold Clurman's Deadline at Dawn. Vincent Sherman's Backfire goes off the rails but has enough B-star power and plot packed into it to keep it entertaining. Once the news story and interviews end, Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story begins to build. It's violent, but fascinating. A historical footnote adds interest: After the candidate (John McIntyre) was murdered, his son (Richard Kiley) ran for Attorney General of Alabama in his place. The son, John Patterson, won and went on to become Alabama's youngest governor.

 (available on DVD and Blu-ray)

When Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol 5 was released, Warner Home Video provided me with a review copy of the DVD set


  1. “Armored Car Robbery” is a terrific little noir boasting an evil performance by William Talman and some great location shots of a long gone L.A. Anything noir directed by Mann is worth seeing and as you mention fine performances from Brodie and Lang and one bad ass performance from the future Perry Mason who seemed to have made a career in his early days of being BAD (Rear Window). I liked “Crime in the Streets” but it is really does not fit into this collection. Cassavetes makes a good JD. I agree with you on “Dial 1119,” low budget, good for one viewing. The two films in the collection I have not seen are “Deadline at Dawn” and ‘Backfire.” Thanks for the heads up on the Jan 24th showing of “Backfire” on TCM!!!

  2. THANX...EVE..a whole package of noir goodness!! especially the first two discs!! ANTHONY MANN...favorite film...EL CID...I love his 40s noir/crime dramas....dislike his westerns!!!!

  3. What a great set, Eve! I'd love to get it. Just as an aside, it always bothers me when I see the title The Phenix City Story. I've never seen it, so I don't know if it is supposed to be a different city, but I always want to correct the spelling to Phoenix!

    Oh, and Doc, you like El Cid? Gag! LOL

  4. Eve, thank you for letting us know about, Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5. I hope to add it to my DVD collection soon.

  5. Eve, I really enjoyed seeing MacRae in th film noir, Backfire. I mostly know him from his performances in musicals. The rest of cast members all give good performances and there are plenty of flavorful character actors in supporting roles. I thought the film was suspenseful and very entertaining. Thank you for the heads up.

  6. Hi Dawn, Thanks for checking back and sharing what you thought of BACKFIRE. I enjoyed it, too...liked MacRae in a noir lead and the supporting cast was great.