Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

BigHeat_BD_EncoreThe Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.

Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).

It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.

GildaBDRita Hayworth is at her most iconic as the forties sex-bomb in Gilda (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1946 film noir classic co-starring Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, an American tough guy in Buenos Aires, and George Macready as Ballin Mundson, the owner of a nightclub and illegal casino who hires Johnny as his club manager. Just as in Casablanca, another Hollywood melodrama of an American tough guy abroad during the war, the gambling room is hidden in the back room of the nightclub and is pretty much an open secret. “Gambling and woman don’t mix,” is the owner’s motto, which is just fine with Johnny, who makes himself Mundson’s right hand man. Then Mundson breaks the pact when he returns from a trip with a glamorous wife.

Rita Hayworth’s entrance is pure Hollywood starcraft: a perfectly lit close-up as she whips her head into frame, her hair lashing back and revealing her bright face and wide, mischievous grin. It turns out that Johnny and Gilda have history and Gilda makes a point of flaunting her indiscretions in front of Johnny, who does his best to keep them hidden from Mundsen. There’s a criminal plot involving a monopoly on Tungsten and German investors who may be Nazi criminals in hiding (apart from a headline reading “German Surrenders,” there’s no mention of the war) but the drama revolves around the sexual tension and vicious punishments they inflict on one another. Hayworth plays the prowling sex kitten, slinking around the dance floor, laughing with a new pretty boy on her arm, even performing a symbolic striptease on the nightclub floor while singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” and Ford is younger and leaner and meaner than we’re used to, which makes him a little unpredictable.

The sexual indiscretions are suggested rather than shown but director Charles Vidor is quite forthright in his suggestions, and they they are ultimately denied in contrived happy ending that contradicts everything leading up to it. Which is not uncommon for Hollywood films of the era, which often turned on a dime to placate the production code. This is one of the most suggestive films of the era—not just for Gilda’s seductive taunts and frequent (offscreen) trysts but for the way Johnny competes with Gilda for Johnny’s favor—and the emotional violence between Johnny and Gilda still draws symbolic blood.

Previously released on DVD by Sony, it makes its Criterion debut is a gorgeous transfer with a new interview with film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller and an archival 1964 made-for-TV documentary “Hollywood and the Stars: The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth,” plus (carried over from the earlier DVD) observant commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel and a video introduction by Martin Scorsese and Baz Lurhmann. The booklet features an essay by Sheila O’Malley.

WhereSidewalkTTOtto Preminger’s Where The Sidewalk Ends (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) reunites the stars from his breakthrough film Laura (1944), the most elegant of early film noirs, for a more streetwise cop drama with a bare-knuckle attitude. Dana Andrews is Det. Mark Dixon, an angrier version of his Laura character (also a police detective named Mark) who takes out his resentment for his criminal father on the hoodlums, thieves, and gangsters he sweeps off the streets. When he accidentally kills a suspect—a former war hero who has already been framed for murder by smarmy crime boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill)—and covers up the crime, Mark’s unstable moral high ground gives way. Gene Tierney is the wife of Mark’s victim, a clothing model who has separated from the sleazy guy and moved in with her dad (Tom Tully), and guilt starts eating Mark alive when his actions throw suspicion on Tierney’s protective father.

Andrews was one of Preminger’s favorite actors for that ability to walk the tightrope between American forthrightness and over-the-edge darkness. That chiseled face made him convincing as both a working class cop and a master of industry and paired nicely with Tierney’s sculptured features: scar tissue and smooth glamour brought together by violence. The script, written by Ben Hecht, plays with the idea that it takes the overly-passionate (and borderline psychotic?) cops like Mark to take on Scalise. His new boss, a by-the-book commander played by Karl Malden, is committed but lacks imagination and insight and Merrill’s Scalise is certainly imaginative, or at the very least opportunistic. Standing out in the supporting cast is Craig Stevens, a decade away from Peter Gunn, sweating cheap, desperate charm as Tierney’s heel of a husband and veteran character actress Ruth Donnelly as a diner matron with a sharp tongue and a warm heart. Her affection of Mark helps us see the better angels of his nature.

Preminger shoots largely on studio sets, the better to sculpt his version of night in the city, and sets the climax in a parking garage with a car elevator that he uses to superb effect. All that heavy machinery becomes something akin to weaponry under noir conditions.

It’s previously been on DVD from Fox Video. Twilight Time’s edition offers a superb Blu-ray debut, with a sharp image and rich contrasts. Film noir historian Eddie Muller’s commentary, originally recorded for the DVD, is carried over for this edition, and as with all Twilight Time releases, it features an isolated score and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo, and is limited to 3000 copies.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *