Blu-ray: John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

The Criterion Collection

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.

Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.

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Blu-ray: Clara Bow meets Gary Cooper in ‘Children of Divorce’

Flicker Alley

Children of Divorce (1927) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of those silent films that isn’t exactly a classic but possesses an irresistible allure. The star power and cinematic charisma of Clara Bow, the definitive flapper of the silent era, and young Gary Cooper lights up this somewhat silly melodrama of the young, beautiful and idle rich who treat marriage as a game.

It opens on a “divorce colony” in Paris, where the recently single society players goes to pair off once again in hopes of upgrading. To grease the wheels of romantic negotiations, the kids are dropped off in an orphanage filled with the inconvenient children of the newly (and temporarily) single. That’s where little Kitty Flanders is abandoned to the nuns, and where she meets her new best friends: Jean Waddington and Teddy Lambie, also abandoned by divorced parents. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

Jump ahead to “America – Years Later” and Clara Bow is the party girl spitfire Kitty Flanders, raised by an oft-divorced mother to marry into money, and Cooper is her best friend Teddy…

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Blu-ray: Laird Cregar is ‘The Lodger’

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Laird Cregar is The Lodger (1944) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) in the third screen adaptation of the thriller by Marie Belloc Lowndes (the most famous was the 1926 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock) set in London during the reign of Jack the Ripper.

While the city panics in the wake of another murder of a showgirl by the knife-wielding madman, a man who identifies himself as Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes a room in the middle-class home of an elderly couple with financial difficulties (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood). Also living there is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), an attractive, flirtatious entertainer making the leap from music halls to more respectable theaters, and the Bible-quoting Slade can barely hide his fascination behind his admonitions of sin and temptation. George Sanders co-stars as the Scotland Yard investigator who becomes sweet on Kitty and suspicious of Slade. For good reason.

This is film noir by way of gothic thriller, a shadowy suspense thriller in the Victorian era of gaslight and horse drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, and director John Brahm gives the film a lively energy.

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Blu-ray: ‘Sudden Fear’

Cohen Film Collection

Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.

Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.

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Reimagining Sherlock Holmes

It took four seasons of Sherlock, the BBC’s re-imagining of the world’s greatest detective for the modern digital world, for creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to turn their “high-functioning sociopath” into a human being, not just a great man but a good one. But in the process they turned Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-ordered world of logic and deduction into a surreal universe of comic book supervillains and absurdly complex schemes in the realm of scriptwriter fantasy. As much fun as it is to watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the flamboyant misanthrope as a performance artist who holds his audience in contempt, this Holmes became a cartoon of Doyle’s consulting detective, only fitfully grounded by Martin Freeman’s warm, witty, and highly observant Dr. John Watson.

It’s wasn’t the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won’t be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle’s motto: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

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Blu-ray/DVD: Train to Busan

You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.

Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.

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Blu-ray: ‘Moby Dick’ restored on Twilight Time

Moby Dick (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – “Call me Ishmael.” John Huston’s 1956 film of Herman Melville’s whaling drama turned epic odyssey, a classic of American literature and a staple of high school and college literature courses, remains the most famous screen version of the novel. Gregory Peck plays the obsessed Captain Ahab, who lost his leg to “the great white whale” and is determined to hunt it down, and Richard Basehart is Ishmael, the young deck hand who narrates the tale. Huston gravitated toward literary adaptations throughout his career and Moby Dick was a personal project for Huston. He collaborated with Ray Bradbury on the screenplay—it was the celebrated author’s first feature screenplay—and remained faithful to language (Bradbury helps adapt the poetry of Melville’s prose to the spoken word of a script) and to the story with minor changes.

Peck plays Ahab with a stiff, emotionally unreadable determination, Orson Welles (who had directed his own stage adaptation of the novel) has a superb supporting role as Father Mapple, giving a sermon filled with whaling references in a pulpit designed like the prow of a ship, and Leo Genn is first mate Starbuck, who tries to resist Ahab’s obsessive drive. The film was not well received in 1956, much of the criticism leveled at Peck, but his stylized performance is more interesting 60 years later. Huston’s treatment is equally compelling. He shot much of the film on the sea with a full-sized ship and a massive model for the whale and devoted himself to recreating the physical labor of whaling in the 19th century with almost documentary-like detail. He also worked with cinematographer Oswald Morris to give the film a desaturated color palette, a sepia quality that helps evoke the era. It adds to the film’s mythic quality.

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Blu-ray: Meryl Streep is ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) may sound like a one-joke contrivance—a rich, generous, arts-loving heiress in 1940s New York City gives private recitals to a select group of high society insiders who never let on to the oblivious woman that she is quite possibly the worst singer to ever trod a stage—but it is both a true story and an unexpectedly tender, touching movie. And it’s quite funny to boot.

Meryl Streep, who is in fact a trained and talented vocalist, pulls off that most difficult of comic performances as Mrs. Jenkins. She glows with joy while her shrill tones are wretchedly off-key and at times off-the-charts while her husband St Clair (a warm and protective Hugh Grant) smiles in appreciation through her rehearsals. Her new practice pianist Cosmé (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory) is dumbstruck during his inaugural session with Florence and Helberg’s performance is superb. He’s like a silent movie comic, looking on gobsmacked then contorting himself to keep from betraying his reaction when he sees that no one else is the least bit fazed. You can imagine everything running through his head as he plays away: are they putting him on? Are they putting her on? Can they even tell she’s wildly untalented? Just what has he gotten himself into, and is having a steady job worth it?

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Best Blu-ray & DVD releases of 2016

We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.

2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.

Out1Box1 – Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.

#Noirvember Blu-ray: The rural noir of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ and ‘Road House’

ondangerousgroundOn Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.

Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.

It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.

Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in 'On Dangerous Ground'
Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’

On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?

This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”

road-house-48Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.

Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.

Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in 'Road House'
Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in ‘Road House’

#Noirvember Blu-ray: The urban noir of ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ and ‘Cry of the City’

iwakeupscreamI Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.

Who knew journeyman director H. Bruce Humberstone had such an eye for expressionist images and hard shadows? The guy was a real journeyman; he came to the film from Charlie Chan movies and Fox programmers and went on to direct a bunch of bright Fox musicals. There’s really mothing else like I Wake Up Screaming in his career and more’s the shame for it’s terrific. The film is set in New York City and shot on the Fox backlot, which gives the city scenes that slightly artificial, exaggerated quality (The swimming pool scene, there to get Mature’s shirt off and Grable in a bathing suit, is the same pool used in He Ran All the Way; (note the fountain in the middle of the pool). He guides Grable through her first real dramatic role and puts Mature in a vehicle that uses his smiling arrogance and glib confidence to great effect. Laird Cregar sets the templates for the obsessive, intimidating police detective and the stocky, soft-spoken noir heavy alike as the maverick cop determined to send Mature to the chair. He has a delicious lazy-eyed manner as he raises his chin and looks down on his suspects, a suggestion of contempt without changing expression, and he and Humberstone use his bulk to dominate and intimidate without being too overt. He’s a more measured and urbane version of the type that Charles McGraw and Raymond Burr would carry on through the genre.

Victor Mature gets the third degree in 'I Wake Up Screaming'
Victor Mature gets the third degree in ‘I Wake Up Screaming’

The score is technically by Cyril J. Mockridge (uncredited) but it leans on Alfred Newman’s Gershwin-inspired “Street Scene” theme, which became the unofficial theme for 20th Century Fox noir. It sets the right tone for a New York noir but the use of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which weaves through the score as Grable’s theme, is a little more curious.

This appears to be a high quality HD transfer of a preservation print rather than a restoration or a transfer from the negative. There is minor damage on the reel ends, your basic wear and tear, with scuffs and scratches but nothing major, and some light vertical scratches periodically show. More apparent is the crackling on the soundtrack in a few spots, no more than a couple of seconds and not overwhelming. A good digital cleaning would have been nice but it’s a solid fine grain print with a sharp image, excellent contrasts, and rich gray scale. The clarity is superb—the wisps of smoke caught in the beams of light in the interrogation scene are at once sharp and ghostly, and it shows off the lighting in the key chiaroscuro scenes beautifully.

Carried over from the 2006 DVD is commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, which is full of information but also easygoing and conversational. Muller’s boxing past is evident when he criticizes the line “I own a piece of the boy in the green pants.” Boxers wear trunks, and that’s got to rankle Muller (whose father was a newspaper boxing columnist) more than it bothers your usual noir expert. It also features three minutes of stills and advertising from the film, and from the alternate campaign prepared for the film under its original (unused) title “Hot Spot.” Two supplements listed on the back cover—the alternate Hot Spot opening title sequence and the deleted scene “Daddy” (both featured on the 2006 Fox DVD release)—are nowhere to be found on the disc.

crycityCry of the City (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir that should be better known. It’s directed by Robert Siodmak, who made more film noirs than any other director, and it is one of his darkest, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature (in what I believe is his best noir role) a as Lt. Candella, an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Martin Rome (Richard Conte) personally. They grew up together in Little Italy and Candella doesn’t buy Martin’s excuses of poverty and culture for turning to a life of crime, not with such salt-of-the-Earth parents who treat Candella almost like family. More to the point, he hates how he’s become an outlaw hero to the kids in the neighborhood and especially Martin’s adoring kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook).

Mature gives one of his best performances as Candella, bringing a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role, the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Conte gets the more colorful part, flashing a grin as the wise guy hood spreading the message the crime pays and pays well, and his staccato patter has a singsong confidence that slips into arrogance. He’s the classic noir gangster, a mercenary narcissist who fools himself into thinking he has a code and then breaks it when he gets desperate. Yet they are reverse reflections of one another and their journeys are even mirrored. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as Mama Rose, a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Martin but for certain incriminating letters he has in his possession.

Cry of the City is one of Siodmak’s most visually striking films. He took his cast and cameras on location for some of the New York street scenes rather than shooting on the backlot where his control was greater. The urban atmosphere of city traffic and the scuffed and worn authenticity of real storefronts and sidewalks gives the film a charge of realism but Siodmak forgoes docurealism for his beloved expressionist style. He heightens the tension of

Martin’s escape through the city with webs of shadows and splashes of reflected light sparkling in the streets at night. Yet one of the most visually dense urban street scenes is created on a studio soundstage strewn with neon and set off with a forced perspective city skyline. And for the dramatic showdowns and standoffs, Siodmak clears the frame of urban bustle and clutter and picks the characters out of the shadows.

Imagery and style aside, what makes this such classic noir is the world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. Conte’s increasingly jittery performance, his smarmy confidence giving way to panic and predatory self-interest, meets Mature’s stoic stillness, the stocky Mature towering over the smaller, gnarled-in-pain Conte like a judgment. If there’s justice in this film, it’s pitiless and unforgiving, and no studio-mandated happy ending can sweep away the doom and desperation and tawdry compromises of the film’s characters.

It’s a strong transfer from a clean, well-preserved print (there is minor scuffing) with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image. Eddie Muller’s encyclopedic knowledge of character actors get a workout in his newly recorded commentary track, his first for a Robert Siodmak noir.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Richard Conte and Shelley Winters in 'Cry of the City'
Richard Conte and Shelley Winters in ‘Cry of the City’

#Noirvember Blu-ray: The docu-noir of ‘Boomerang’ and ‘The House on 92nd Street’

house92The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and The Naked City (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.

It makes it Blu-ray debut in an edition featuring commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller (carried over from the 2005 DVD) and an animated still gallery.

boomerangBoomerang (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) from 1947 is one of those films that picked up the semi-documentary strain and improved upon the original. It’s also produced by de Rochement and features the disembodied voice of narrator Reed Hadley insisting that the events portrayed here occurred in a small Connecticut town “but it could have happened anywhere,” and it is directed by Elia Kazan, who brings a focus on the performances and the social culture of the town. That voice of authority is ostensibly there to assure us that the public servants have everything in hand but the film, which turns from everytown American portrait to crime thriller with the point-black murder of a beloved priest, reveals otherwise.

The story follows the public pressure on the police after the shocking murder (and the scene is shocking and startling without ever showing the deed) and the political pressure on the State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) to bring a speedy indictment to their only suspect, a drifter played by Arthur Kennedy. His character is another of the returning veterans who came home after serving his country and found nothing waiting for him but dead end jobs and a grinding existence, and his fumbling response to the questions basically damns him in the eyes of the police, who have picked him up on circumstantial evidence. Lee J. Cobb is the solid cop swayed by the preponderance of evidence over his gut feeling. He thinks something isn’t right but shrugs it off after Kennedy signs the confession, exhausted and emotionally depleted after hours of interrogation. There been no beating, but the constant verbal and emotional assault wears him down. In one of the film’s most touching moments, he carries the exhausted suspect after a confession is signed, a moment of pure kindness. Jane Wyman is second billed but has little screen time and even less narrative importance as Andrews’ wife.

Like other films in the movement, it eases the chiaroscuro lighting of films like I Wake Up Screaming for more of a naturalistic look, and focuses on procedure and details over violence and action. This one spends most of the final act in the courtroom, and even there it defies expectation with a very measured effort by State’s Attorney Harvey as he lays out the issues in the case against the defendant, yet Kazan avoids the usual theatrics as Andrews, who loosens up a little under Kazan’s direction, methodically works his way through his case with a modesty rare even in today’s spate of TV legal dramas. It’s more film gray than noir, with the undercurrent of political pragmatism and shady business dealings behind the pose of jurisprudence. The “reform party” swept in with a promise of, well, reform, but under the hammerblows of newspaper headlines turning the case into the 1940 equivalent of clickbait, they don’t seem all that reformed. Not that the fourth estate comes off much better.

“This case was never solved,” informs our voice of authority, but we still get the Production Code-mandated ending suggesting that the guilty man—or at least, the man we assume to be guilty, given the circumstantial evidence slipped conspicuously into the drama—receives punishment. It’s the kind of assurance that studios liked to peg on the end of crime dramas and thrillers but it hardly sweeps away the portrait of outright corruption and insidious political machinations that Kazan reveals along the away.

Kino’s disc brings out both the gray scale and the noir night scenes beautifully, with brief mottling at a couple of points but otherwise clean and crisp. Kino offers a newly recorded commentary track by Noir City Sentinel contributor Imogen Sara Smith (it’s her first commentary and she makes a fine and confident debut with an informative talk), plus commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini carried over from the 2006 DVD release, a terrific balance of historical backstory and informed observation, all in the easy-going, conversational give-and-take of longtime collaborators. Note that the back cover of the slipsleeve art includes a factually incorrect plot description (it describes two suspects and the efforts of the State Attorney “to prove one suspect’s innocence and the other’s guilt,” but there is no second suspect in the film) and a still from Whirlpool featuring actors Richard Conte and Charles Bickford. This is all cosmetics, mind you. I just want you to know that yes, I’m aware of the errors.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]