Combustible Celluloid
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With: Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patrick Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen, Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe, Jane Mansfield, Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter, Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett, Elsa Lanchester, Marshall Thompson, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains, Maureen O'Sullivan, Charles Kemper, Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk, Jean Gillie, Edward Norris, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Sheldon Leonard, Marjorie Woodwarth, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, William Phipps, Ian Wolfe, Helen Craig, James Craig, Paul Kelly
Written by: Robert L. Richards, Collier Young, Sydney Boehm, Richard Brooks, Leonard Spigelgass, W.R. Burnett, James R. Webb, Geoffrey Holmes (Daniel Mainwaring), Gerald Drayson Adams, Charles Bennett, Leo Rosen, Allen Rivkin, John Klorer, Crane Wilbur, John Hoskins, Ward Hoskins, Ned Young, Stanley Rubin, Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray, Edward Anderson
Directed by: Andre de Toth, Don Siegel, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Fred Zinnemann, John Sturges, Lewis Allen, John Farrow, John Berry, Jack Bernhard
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 833
Date: 18/03/2013

Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Noir Gang

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 on DVD

These Warner Home Video DVD box sets have been pretty great so far; each volume has included at least one masterpiece or at least one personal favorite, but Volume 4 outdoes them all. This set comes with five double-feature discs for a total of ten movies, at least four of which are essential viewing. Most of them are shorter, grittier, lower-budget "B" productions that refreshingly lack the pomp and glitz of some of the earlier DVDs.

Andre de Toth's Crime Wave (1954) leads the pack as the set's nasty little masterpiece. Made just after de Toth's celebrated 3D horror film House of Wax (1953) and featuring some of the same cast and crew, Crime Wave is about a former criminal, Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson), now married to Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) and trying to go straight. Three prison escapees kill a cop at a gas station. One is wounded and shows up, unwelcome, at Steve's place for help. The other two, Doc Penny (Ted de Corsia), Ben Hastings (Charles Bronson, then known as Charles Buchinsky), eventually worm their way into the picture as well, while Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) is hot on their trails. De Toth shoots with realism surprising for the time; actors will share dialogue on a sidewalk, then climb into a car and drive down a real street -- all without a cut. Dialogue echoes when spoken in bare rooms and the lighting cuts across the center of the frame, as if emanating exclusively from table and desk lamps. De Toth has a gift for thuggish violence, and a tense pace, punching through his story with all meat and no fat. The great, sneering Timothy Carey turns up as a thug in the final reel, and Hank Worden -- best known for his roles in John Ford films -- has one scene on an airfield. (I was lucky enough to see this movie on the big screen back in 1997, with Mr. De Toth in attendance.) Crime Wave features an enticing commentary track by James Ellroy and Eddie Muller and comes paired on a disc with Decoy (1946).

Another reason to applaud this box set is the appearance of Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949), one of the greatest debut features in movie history. Ray's extraordinary use of physical space as a representation of the characters' emotional state is already fully in place, as if he were born to moviemaking. Farley Granger plays Bowie, a young escaped convict accompanied by two veterans. When he's wounded, he's taken to a safe house where he meets and falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). Neither Bowie nor Keechie have much experience in the ways of romance, but they decide to run away together. Unfortunately, the gang presses Bowie into one last job, which goes horribly wrong and Bowie becomes a hot target. Ray concentrates mainly on the relationships in this film, and his greatest achievement is transforming O'Donnell from a beastly-looking wretch to a warmly sexy woman -- with just a hint of weariness. In one scene, the couple wakes up together in a hotel room, and she stretches and sighs in such a way that the screen practically sighs with her. Ray's use of close-ups here -- used only when necessary and for emotional effect -- should be studied. John Houseman was a producer. This movie comes with a commentary track by Mr. Granger and writer Eddie Muller.

They Live by Night is paired in a double feature with Anthony Mann's Side Street (1950), also starring Granger and O'Donnell. Director Mann was on the verge of breaking away from "B" film noirs to "A" Westerns, and this was his final blow to the genre. Granger plays a part-time mail carrier who spots a drawer full of cash in the office of one of his clients. He's living with his in-laws and his wife (O'Donnell) is about to have a baby, so he can certainly use some extra money. When he returns and finds the door unlocked, he decides to snatch it, without realizing that it's not a mere $200, but more like $30,000. Panicked, he tries to figure out what to do next, but everything goes wrong. Mann uses real New York locations and a lighting scheme borrowed from his earlier collaborator, cinematographer John Alton, with stark lighting streaked across the middle of the screen. All in all, it's probably a minor Mann, but still very much worth seeing.

Finally, we get Don Siegel's early feature The Big Steal (1949); Siegel began as a montage editor for Warner Brothers, cutting together pictures of maps and stock footage for movies like Casablanca (1942). His directorial career ran along the edge of "B" movies, slowly creeping up in quality and budget until his 1971 hit Dirty Harry. The Big Steal is notable for its brightness and its realistic Los Angeles and Mexican locations. Lt. Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum) arrives looking for Fiske (Patric Knowles), who apparently stole a bag full of army payroll. He teams up with Fiske's former girl (Jane Greer), who is looking for $2000 she once loaned to Fiske and never saw again. Halliday's superior officer Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix) is also on the trail. Characters pretend to be other characters and no one is precisely who they seem. Siegel packs lots of chases and action into 72 minutes, with a great ending. Mitchum, Greer and writer Geoffrey Homes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring), had also worked on the great Out of the Past two years earlier. The Big Steal comes in a double bill with Illegal (1955).

The other two discs are Where Danger Lives (1950), with Tension (1950) and Act of Violence (1948), paired with Mystery Street (1950). Each disc comes with a featurette, and most come with commentary tracks and trailers.

See also reviews of the previous Film Noir Classic Collections. Volume 1: The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, The Set-Up, Volume 2: Born to Kill, Clash by Night, Crossfire, Dillinger, The Narrow Margin, Volume 3: Border Incident, His Kind of Woman, Lady in the Lake, On Dangerous Ground, The Racket

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