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DVD Review: Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5

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Get ready to give yourself to the Dark Side — of cinema, that is — with the Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5, another in a line of excellent releases of classic crime dramas from Warner Home Video. Culled mostly from the RKO Pictures vaults, Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 contains the following oft-forgotten gems (many of which have never been released on DVD in the U.S.): Cornered (1945), Desperate (1947), The Phenix City Story (1955), Deadline At Dawn (1946), Armored Car Robbery (1950), Crime In The Streets (1956), Dial 1119 (1950), and Backfire (1950). All eight films are housed on four single-sided, dual-layered discs.

Disc One begins with Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan fave, Steve Brodie, as an innocent man who winds up on the run from both the good guys and the bad ones in Desperate (1947). Called in on the night of his wedding anniversary to deliver some “perishables,” truck driver Steve Randall (Brodie) discovers he’s been hired to transport some stolen goods instead. But when Steve’s botched attempt to alert a passing patrolman leaves the law officer dead and one of the thugs in the hospital, he takes it on the lam with his wife (Audrey Long), while the authorities (including Jason Robards, Sr.) and the brutal gangster that pulled him into the whole mess (Raymond Burr, in exceptionally fine form here) both search for him. Douglas Fowley, who has always epitomized the very look of a film noir heavy in my opinion, co-stars as a disgraced private eye who helps Burr hunt Brodie down.

Feature two of Disc One, Cornered (1945), was one of the first features to give Dick Powell a chance to escape from his tired old song-and-dance man image. Here, Powell plays Laurence Gerard, a former Canadian Royal Air Force pilot who is on the hunt for the Nazi-lovin’ bastard that murdered his bride. With the war over, Gerard travels from France to Switzerland and all the way down to Buenos Aires in an attempt to get his hands on a man known only as “Jarnac,” whom nobody seems to be able to describe efficiently enough for the poor guy to get a good description! Some truly atmospheric photography can be found in this rather anti-Fascist propaganda film from director Edward Dmytryk. Walter Slezak co-stars as the main bad guy (always a good choice) with the familiar mug of B-Movie heavy Jack La Rue also popping up as the hotel valet.

Disc Two opens with The Phenix City Story (1955), one of two features here that were filmed in a widescreen ratio. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the real-life events that inspired this motion picture, Phenix City, Alabama was once dubbed “the wickedest city in America” due to its rampant crime and corruption. Beginning with the sometimes excised 13-minute newsreel-style intro, The Phenix City Story tells the plight of attorney Albert Patterson (John McIntire), who ran for office of attorney general and vowed to clean up the diseased city — only to be assassinated following his induction into office. Richard Kiley portrays Patterson’s son, John, who steps into his father’s shoes to make things right. Extremely gritty for its time, The Phenix City Story still holds up well today — even in an era where violence can be found simply by logging onto YouTube!

Second on Disc Two is Dial 1119 (1950), which — despite the way it may sound to modern audiences — is not a dyslexic person’s cry for help, but is instead an antiquated method of our modern 911 system. After escaping from an insane asylum, deranged killer Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson, whom many ‘50s sci-fi lovers will recognize from Fiend Without A Face and It! The Terror From Beyond Space) takes the staff and patrons of a local watering hole hostage. Delivering an ultimatum to the authorities, Wyckoff promises to kill his unwilling guests unless they deliver the doctor whose testimony sent him to the loony bin to him within the hour. This appears to be one of the first films to make use of live news coverage via those television thingies. Co-stars include Leon Ames (Mister Ed), Perry Mason regular Andrea King, Sam Levene (Lt. Abrams in several Thin Man films), and William Conrad as the aptly-named bartender, Chuckles.

Moving onto Disc Three, we find ourselves amidst an Armored Car Robbery (1950). At first, this seems like it’s going to be just another average heist B-thriller: a gang of thugs, led by William Talman and his cold-blooded greedy moll (Adele Jergens), decide to hold up a truck o’cash — with a hardnosed copper (Charles McGraw) out to stop them after they gun down his doomed partner. What sets Armored Car Robbery from many of its competitors, however, is the intricate amount of subplots and character development — especially when you consider that this is a 67-minute movie. Well-read (or is that well-viewed?) crime film aficionados will probably see several similarities between this movie and a number of later ones. Steve Brodie and Douglas Fowley appear in this entry as well.

Don Siegel’s Crime In The Streets (1956) (the second feature on Disc Three) is the only other widescreen film included in Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 — and features James Whitmore, Sal Mineo, and John Cassavetes as the leads. Originally filmed as a part of the television anthology series, The Elgin Hour (wherein it was directed by Sidney Lumet), Siegel directed this big-screen adaptation of the surprise hit, with many of the actors from the show reprising their roles here. After a clash with a rival street gang, Frankie (Cassavetes) — leader of The Hornets — sets a deadly plan in motion to slice up a stool pigeon with the assistance of his trusty blade and gang members “Baby” (Mineo) and Lou (Mark Rydell). Overhearing the plans to commit a premeditated murder, Richie (Peter Voritan) alerts social worker Ben Wagner (Whitmore), who attempts to stop the crime before it is committed.

Ah, the dangers of drinking too much and not remembering what the hell you did the night before… Winding the clock back a few years to 1946 (honestly, would some chronological orderliness on these discs have hurt any?), Disc Four opens with Deadline At Dawn, wherein honest sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams) wakes up with a bad case of alcohol-induced amnesia and a shitload of money in his pockets; money that belongs to a woman that is now dead. With the help of a friendly cabbie (Paul Lukas) and a potentially dangerous dancer named June Goth (played by top-billed Susan Hayward), Alex attempts to piece together the puzzle he’s in — before he either a) misses his 6:00am bus out of New York, or b) is wrongly convicted of a murder. Joseph Crehan, Lola Lane, and Marvin Miller co-star in this film based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich.

The final feature on Disc Four (and in the entire set, for that matter) is Backfire (1950). Recovering from spinal-cord injuries acquired during the war, veteran Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) receives an impromptu visit late one night from a mysterious lady, who informs him that his old army buddy, Steve Connolly (Edmond O’Brien), has gone missing — and is mixed-up in the murder of a syndicate gangster. Determined to clear Steve’s name with both police and gangsters alike (all Bob wants to do is finally set out to buy a ranch together in the country with Steve, as they had planned to do during the war, after all!), Bob walks right into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles along with his nurse, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo). Viveca Lindfors and Ed Begley, Sr. co-star in this tale of deceit from director Vincent Sherman.

All eight features presented in Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 were filmed in black and white (hey, it’s just not noir if it’s in color) and are presented in their original Academy aspect ratios (the two widescreen efforts — Crime In The Streets and The Phenix City Story — are shown in 16×9 widescreen). While each film may show its tiny share of grain (it’s just not noir without a little grittiness, either), Warner does a commendable job with their transfers. Accompanying each film is their original mono soundtrack, each of which come through just fine. English (SDH) subtitles are also on hand.

The one downside to Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 is the lack of any “new” special features. Previous sets in the Film Noir Classic Collection contained a few commentaries here and there, while Volume 5 is only adorned with theatrical trailers for Cornered and Dial 1119.

Despite the “frown” some may give this set for its sorry selection of bonus materials, Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5 is nevertheless a fantastic set of equally fantastic gems. Highly recommended.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.