Hold on to your fedoras, film noir fans. Columbia Pictures releases Film Noir Classics II on July 6. The five films offered in this collection—Human Desire (1954), Pushover (1954), Nightfall (1957), The Brothers Rico, (1957), and City of Fear (1958)—are a treasure trove of golden moments from film noir.
Make no mistake, these are not the A-listers of film noir; in an unscientific survey of best-of lists, only one is mentioned (Human Desire, coming in at #72 on the DigitalDreamDoor list of “100 Greatest Film Noir Movies”). While only one of the films comes close to the gold standard of Double Indemnity, Laura, or The Maltese Falcon (which was not entirely flawless), all five are notable representations of a genre that is more popular now than when the films were originally made.
One of the better titles in the collection, Nightfall is the tale of an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its opening pre-titles sequence is noir at its finest. Aldo Ray plays the artist (hey, there have been stranger castings!) who shouldn’t have tried to help two guys who wrecked their car — two very bad guys. Anne Bancroft smolders (at a temperature that makes Mrs. Robinson look frigid) as his love interest. Telling three stories at once (the history, the current situation, and the investigation), it moves along at a rapid pace and includes such brilliance as “That’s your whole trouble… the top of your head never closed up when you were a kid. Neither did your mouth,” and “Nice place, I’ll try not to bleed all over everything.” The escape from the villains during a fashion show is worth the price of admission.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Nightfall offers an unlikely story supporting a familiar plot, but is redeemed by the cinematography of Burnett Guffey and true-to-noir performances by its experienced cast. Rudy Bond is outstanding in his portrayal of Red, a wacky bad guy. His gruesome demise on snow-capped mountains (which today’s filmmakers would have drenched in Red) leaves nary a drop of blood on the pristine white landscape.
“It’s been weird knowing you,” Kim Novak (in her debut) tells Fred MacMurray in Pushover. Viewers looking forward to a Double Indemnity experience will be disappointed. Pushover is so implausible it takes the fun out of the genre. Novak is no Barbara Stanwyck, and her character is no Phyllis Dietrichson. In fact, her potential as a duplicitous schemer is never developed, and in the end she’s just a sweet kid mixed up with the wrong crowd. MacMurray comes nowhere near his fabulous turn as Walter Neff ten years earlier; he doesn't have the same conviction he displayed in 1944. Nightfall may not be a five-star film, but it has its moments, and it’s in similar moments that all the films in Film Noir Classics II shine. To enjoy the collection, it’s best not to compare the films to beloved favorites but to, instead, allow them to stand on their own.
Perhaps no film noir cliché is left unturned in these five movies; those who love noir will enjoy them nonetheless. The Brothers Rico offers up Richard Conte as a former thug gone straight who is pulled in by his former boss for “one last favor.” Naturally, all he has done to redeem himself from his gangster past—wife, family, career—are in jeopardy. One of the special features is "Martin Scorsese on The Brothers Rico."
Vince Edwards, 1960s television’s gruff Dr. Ben Casey, stars in City of Fear, the story of a simple criminal who thinks he’s lucked into a large quantity of heroin. Silly boy, it’s really “a deadly radioactive substance called Cobalt-60.” Edwards quickly runs out of friends as his contacts fall victim to their contact with the radioactive horse. Noir despair is the real star here, as the cops try to catch the bad guy before Los Angeles is contaminated by a substance that is truly stronger than dirt.
Human Desire, the sexiest title in the collection, is also the best. It's directed by Fritz Lang, adapted from an Emile Zola novel (La Bete Humaine, filmed in 1939 by Jean Renoir), and features the intimate cinematography of Burnett Guffey. The Korean War veteran (veterans play a big part in noir, perhaps because war is nothing compared to what women have in store for these guys) in Human Desire is played by Glenn Ford. Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford shine as the slightly mismatched couple who provide the engine that moves this train, while Peggy Maley adds the spark with snappy lines that were not from the pen of Emile Zola.
Leaving much of the sex and violence to our steamy little imaginations, Human Desire crackles with both. Grahame sizzles as the temptress who lures Ford from the straight and narrow, involving him in all the things his mother warned this nice boy to avoid. He’s in “love” the moment he meets her despite the sweet young thing who grew up waiting for him while he was overseas. What this pair lacks in scruples they make up for in chemistry. Lots of familiar faces round out the cast and add dimension to the story. Well written and paced, Human Desire is a splendid example of film noir when it works. It’s the film that makes you want to own Film Noir Classics II.
In addition to Martin Scorsese’s piece, special features include digitally remastered audio and video widescreen; two featurettes, “Pulp Paranoia” with Christopher Nolan, and “Terror and Desire” with Emily Mortimer; and original theatrical trailers which are not to be missed.
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent Film Noir Classics II? Yes. Although the collection is uneven, what’s good is very, very good.