DVD for the Week: Bad Girls of Film Noir

The leading ladies of the two-disc, four-film collection Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume One (Sony)—Lizabeth Scott, Evelyn Keyes and Gloria Grahame—are indeed some of the great bad girls of film noir. It’s just that the films don’t show these femmes off at their most fatale and it’s a stretch to call some of them “noir.” Such as Bad For Each Other (1953), starring Charlton Heston a military surgeon who returns home (a mining town outside of Pittsburg) and falls for a flighty spoiled society dame (Lizabeth Scott) with a history of bad marriages and broken husbands. Which sounds more sinister than it is: she’s less femme fatale simply a bad influence, sucking the ambition and integrity of the men she pulls into her little world of money and distraction. Written by Irving Wallace and Horace McCoy (from a story by McCoy), it’s not a crime drama or even a portrait of social malaise or corruption, and whole chunks of the front-loaded narrative (Heston’s social-climbing brother died under suspicious circumstances and in a cloud of criminal suspicion) are left hanging as Heston learns how painless it is to trade his integrity for financial success as doctor to the neurotic and bored socialites of Pittsburg, and is jolted back out by the actions of a good girl (Dianne Foster) and an idealistic young doctor (Arthur Franz). Heston is quite watchable in a fairly lazy performance and but Lizabeth Scott doesn’t have much to do and the film get lost in distracting subplots that go nowhere, and director Irving Rapper can’t even feign a sense of urgency or gravity to any of it.

Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott in "Two of a Kind"
Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott in "Two of a Kind"

Two of a Kind (1951), also starring Scott and directed by Henry Levin with a better feeling for the world of scoundrels, is more satisfying, a minor noir with a fun performance by Edmond O’Brien as a career bad boy, an orphan who scams his way through life until he’s drafted by Scott and her lawyer partner (Alexander Knox) in an inheritance scam involving an rich couple and a missing child from decades back. Yep, he’s posing as the long lost son, snatched away and left to grow up in a series of orphanages and juvenile detention centers until kismet (and a carefully plotted scheme) sweeps him back into their lives. O’Brien isn’t so much charming as intriguingly confident and cool as a former carny who knows how to play a situation and is willing to lose a finger (a great scene) in a gamble for a bigger score, but has been knocked around enough to know when to play and where to draw the line. And, of course, he kind of likes the old man. It’s a soft-boiled noir with lots of tough-guy attitude from O’Brien (who delivers in spades) and an entertaining twist involving his unconventional romance with the niece of the old couple (Terry Moore), a sweetheart of a social activist who decides to make reforming O’Brien her new cause.

In The Killer That Stalked New York (1953), Evelyn Keyes is a jewel smuggler with a two-timing husband, but the killer of the title is the smallpox she unknowingly carries with her and spreads through the city. The film follows the twin investigations—the cops tracking the smuggler and the diamonds, and the health authorities tracing the infection back to patient zero—as they zero in on the same suspect, while the authoritative narrator extols the tireless work of the benevolent authorities. Though based on a true story, it plays as a kind of low-budget retake on Panic in the Streets and Earl McEvoy spends more time with the officials than with the crooks, who are far more interesting. Keyes becomes more fidgety and vengeful as the disease takes hold, hunting her thieving husband (who has been scheming his getaway from the beginning as a solo venture) while the cops close in on her. And while the film belongs more to the docu-realist tradition of The Naked City than the expressionist urban noir, the shadowy sensibility returns for the climactic vengeance of a woman scorned. I wish the rest of the film was as fun as the final few minutes.

The Killer That Stalked New York

“This past March,” begins the narration of The Glass Wall (1953), a ship brought “1322 displaced persons” to America. The gem of the collection is not a crime film per se, but the backdrop of the drama of an immigrant stowaway on the run in New York City is as dark as any great noir. Hungarian Peter Kaban (Vittorio Gassman) survived the camps and life on the run in the battlefield of Europe and escaped the iron curtain that fell across his home country, only to be turned back from the promised land of America. Forget the title of the collection, Gloria Grahame isn’t bad, she’s just down-on-her-luck (she makes her entrance in a diner eating scraps left behind by another customer and then stealing another patron’s coat) but rouses from her suspicion and self-pity to help Peter evade the cops and track down a guy named Joe—a former American soldier playing clarinet in the Time Square clubs and the only person who can back Peter’s story and keep him in the U.S. Set mostly over a long night as Peter scurries through Times Square and makes his way to the U.N. building (the “glass wall” of the title), it’s got the urban energy, nocturnal thrum and high stakes of the best noir without the crime or corruption of the genre. It offers a marvelous portrait of immigrant culture in New York in miniature and the references to the camps of World War II provides a dark backdrop to the drama and our hero’s desperation to stay in America. Directed by Maxwell Shane and co-written and produced by Ivan Tors, it co-stars Jerry Paris as Joe, the clarinet player, and Douglas Spencer (cult alert: he’s the reporter in Howard Hawks’ The Thing) as the immigration officer whose opinion of Peter shifts over the long night. The collection also features an episode of the half-hour TV anthology Ford Television Theatre (written by Blake Edwards) with Howard Duff as a smart-talking private eye and an interview with good girl actress Terry Moore. Two-discs in a standard case.

You could call Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 2 (Sony) a tribute to Cleo Moore, the “B”-est of tawdry blonde bad girls. She’s part of a lively ensemble in the set highlight Women’s Prison (1955), a perfectly and enjoyably tawdry little prison drama, a minor classic of the disreputable (and yet irresistible) “women in prison” subgenre thanks to the smart-alecky camaraderie of the inmates and the classy slumming of Ida Lupino as the ruthless warden of the women’s wing, a real piece of work who wields power with a sadistic satisfaction. There’s a hysterical middle-class woman utterly at sea inside, an injured hand in a laundry press, a riot, and a pregnant woman beaten to death by Lupino, plus all the curvy bleached-blonde cons you could hope for (is peroxide part of the program?). Jan Sterling is a brassy con who stands up to her abuse, Howard Duff a kindly doctor and Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter co-star. Moore is decidedly more mercenary in One Girl’s Confession (1953) and Over-Exposed (1956), and plays a shallow beauty in a bonus episode of Ford Television Theatre, but the surprise find of the set is Night Editor (1946), a genuine B movie (it times out at 65 minutes) with a more generous budget than usual. Based on a radio series, it was designed to launch film series that never materialized (thus the extra studio attention). The result is a punchy little thriller with William Gargan as a compromised cop in a case that could ruin his career and Janis Carter as a hard-bitten society beauty who gets her kicks by being really, really bad. It may be short on style but the low budget gives the night scenes a dark austerity and the web of lies and corruption gives it a real noir dimension of cheap, tawdry lives. And Janis Carter finally justifies the title of the collection: in this film, she is the poster girl for the bad girls of film noir.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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