#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’

MOD Movies: Tough Guys

Hickey and Boggs (MGM Limited Edition Collection) from 1972 reunites former “I Spy” partners Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as down-out-heels private detectives in Los Angeles. Directed by Culp from a script by Walter Hill, it’s very much a scrappy early draft of the buddy action films that Hill would later direct, but in the key of seventies grit and cynicism. One is separated, the other divorced and unable to get over it, but both of them hang on to the last gasp of Raymond Chandler-esque dignity and professionalism even as they get taken by their clients and harassed by the cops at every turn. Culp is a director in the Don Siegel mode, just as focused on process and professionalism and refreshingly straightforward in both dialogue and action. He understands these characters, he likes them, and while he may not agree with them, he definitely respects their doggedness (though not the self-pity). Success may not satisfying, given all they lose along the way, but they earn it out of sheer perseverance and loyalty. The last men standing get the spoils. It is nice to finally see this film on DVD and in its correct aspect ratio.

Humphrey Bogart stars in a couple of recent Warner Archive releases, neither of them among his best. But hey, it’s Bogie and that alone has my interest. You Can’t Get Away With Murder (Warner Archive), from 1939, is a late gangster film with Bogart in a rare pre-1941 leading role (when he became a star after the double-shot of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon). At the time, he was mostly playing criminals and second bananas, secondary roles to the heroes and featured villains, and while he gets top billing here, he’s no hero but a cold-blooded thug who lets an innocent man take the rap for a murder and then keeps the pressure on his patsy when he’s sent up for robbery with a reluctant conspirator. It’s plays like low-rent reworking of Angels with Dirty Faces, a  Warner Bros. gangster film as morality tale, where the crooks are wise-talking cowards and hypocrites and the future of one kid in thrall to the swaggering neighborhood thug (Bogart, of course) and the straight-arrow guy they frames is at stake. Watch for Henry Travers (Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life) as the prison librarian with a paternal streak.

Conflict (Warner Archive), a 1945 murder mystery with a psychological twist, melodrama flourishes and a shadowy film noir style, once again features Bogart on the other side of the law, this time as a man who murders his wife after their fight wedding anniversary in what appears to be the perfect crime… until she suddenly returns to haunt him. Alexis Smith plays his sister-in-law (and the motivation for his murder — he wants to upgrade to a younger model) and Sydney Greenstreet (a familiar Bogart nemesis indeed) is a psychiatrist who gets involved when Bogie’s wife mysteriously “disappears.” It’s a generic title for a routine suspense thriller, but Bogie is far more fascinating when he tips to the dark side in his post-“Maltese Falcon” films than when he routinely played the villain in the thirties. He’s more unstable and unpredictable, suggesting a psychosis that makes him far scarier than the thugs of his gangster years. And while director Curtis Bernhardt doesn’t bother trying to give the story (concocted by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann) a plausible foundation, he does conduct the mood quite nicely. Interestingly enough, Bogart turned to knocking off his wives and yearning for Alexis Smith again a couple of years later in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947), also from the Warner Archive (reviewed on Videodrone in 2011 here).

Edge of Eternity (Columbia Pictures Classics), a murder mystery set in an isolated desert mining town in Arizona where the mines closed year ago, stars Cornel Wilde as a straight-shooting sheriff trying to untangle the mystery around the murder of an unidentified stranger and the cover-up of his identity. Director Don Siegel gives the otherwise routine thriller a nice tension and a great sense of place. Shot on location near the Grand Canyon, the widescreen photography gives the open landscape a vastness and an isolation, and the “bucket” of the industrial loader that cranks across the canyon and the use of small private planes and a police helicopter over the craggy hills only adds to the feeling of remoteness. But in my own perverse way, I found it worth the time just to see the end credits offer their thanks to the many organizations that helped out, notably The United States Guano Corporation.

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for March 6

‘No Blade of Grass’ on TCM

Cornel Wilde’s grim, fatalistic end-of-the-world thriller No Blade of Grass is a forgotten dystopian classic of its time. Gritty and brutal, built on fears of ecological devastation through pollution and overcrowding (with hints of genetic manipulation gone bad), this 1970 eco-apocalypse thriller seems to have gotten lost in the overcrowded apocalypse now science fiction cinema of the era.

Adapted from the novel The Death of Grass by John Christopher, it has vague resemblances to the nuclear holocaust thriller Panic in Year Zero in its basic premise of a man hardening to deal with the brutal new world order to save his family. But in place of nuclear war (the favored device of most apocalyptic films of the era) is ecological collapse: a virus poisons the world’s grass and cereal crops and causes a dire food shortage. As panic spreads across the globe, John Custance (Nigel Davenport), a former military officer and an affluent husband and father in London, makes plans to take his family north to his brother’s fortified compound, prepared for just such an emergency. But he puts off leaving until it is almost too late: mobs start looting, riots break out and London is put under martial law with roadblocks posted to prevent a flight from the city. To save his family, John becomes as hard and as ruthless as the looters, the rogue militias and the roving gangs preying upon the citizens fleeing the cities.

Cornel Wilde is not the most subtle of directors. Here he’s a provocateur, favoring primal images to make his points. A montage of scenes of nuclear tests, overcrowding, and pollution poured into the waters, pumped into the skies and spread over crops in the form of pesticide opens the film as Wilde’s narration sets the stage of environmental devastation. Early in the film, as John meets with his brother in a city pub, images of famine and starvation and long lines for food rations play on TV news while customers gorge on the lavish buffet spread out in the bar. Wilde hammers the point home in blunt terms until the irony and social commentary shifts from a statement decadence to the willful ignorance of a population that still believes it can hold out. Flashforwards hint at the horrors to come while flashbacks recall a time before such threats were even imaginable. It’s a rather clumsy and unwieldy tactic as executed by Wilde, and it tends to confuse the narrative until the audience gets used to his style, but it’s all part of his rabbit-punch assault on our sensibilities.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

DVDs for 05/11/09 – Mel in the Darkness, Daybreakers are Legion, and a quartet of Robin Hoods

Edge of Darkness (Warner) is the latest American feature film adapted from an acclaimed British TV miniseries, this one a 1985 production directed by a young director named Martin Campbell, who went on to helm a couple of James Bond movies and The Mask of Zorro before returning to the scene of the crime and bringing it to the big screen.

Mel Gibson as a cop with nothing to lose

Mel Gibson is a widowed Boston homicide detective turned vengeful father when his only child is murdered in front of eyes. At first driven by guilt, convinced she was mistakenly hit in a attempt on his own life, it morphs into rage when he finds that she was targeted to hush up a criminal conspiracy involving a major munitions contractor and the American government. The original story was set in the tensions of the cold war and the geopolitical reverberations of nuclear technology and materials had much greater resonance than this 21st century story of corporate intrigue, which feels more like a narrative contrivance than a meaningful story engine. But William Monahan’s script also brings a new sensibility that recalls contemporary American crime fiction as much as British conspiracy thriller, and at its best it’s a piece of blunt force drama driven by the fury of a father who has nothing left to lose. I review it for MSN here.

Continue reading “DVDs for 05/11/09 – Mel in the Darkness, Daybreakers are Legion, and a quartet of Robin Hoods”

Road House on TCM

Ida Lupino
Ida Lupino: Dressed to Bowl

My essay on Road House (the 1948 film with Ida Lupino, not the Patrick Swayze bar-bouncer classic) in up on the Turner Classic Movies website.

A minor classic of forties film noir with major pleasures, Road House (1948) is an unusual, and unusually fascinating, variation on the genre. Instead of the usual urban jungle, this road house is decidedly rural, a bar and bowling alley in the thick forest outside of a small town near the Canadian border. Ida Lupino is Lily, the big city chanteuse who sashays into the joint, all scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude. She’s the new “discovery” of the hopelessly smitten owner Jefty (Richard Widmark), who has discarded a string of similar sexy discoveries over the years. Cornel Wilde, at his most brawny beefcake and stolid, is the tree trunk of a manager Pete, who instantly clashes with this sassy dame. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the explosively jealous and possessive Jefty inevitable, but the method of his madness (and it does indeed turn into full blown madness) is genuinely pathological. Even in the realm of film noir, a genre rife with unstable personalities and violent reactions to emotional betrayals, Jefty’s obsessively plotted vengeance is unusual to say the least.

Road House may sound tawdry, with a title that evokes a rowdy juke joint (the design suggests a rural nightclub bar with an aggressively rustic design), a romantic triangle that turns pathological and a performance from Widmark that evolves from immature hothead to dangerously erratic sadist. But for all its urban toughness in a back country town setting, it’s a handsomely made film with adult banter and a tough cookie with a tender center in British-born but thoroughly Americanized and streetwise Ida Lupino.

Read the complete feature here. The film is also on DVD, featuring commentary by film noir expert Eddie Muller and my friend and fellow MSN contributor Kim Morgan.

DVD of the Week – ‘The Naked Prey’

Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is not the first survivalist drama of man hunting man, but it is arguably the definitive, most visceral and primal example of the genre. Part Run of the Arrow (the story is inspired by a real event in American history but shifted to turn of the century colonial South Africa) and part The Most Dangerous Game, director/star Wilde strips the set-up to the essentials. There are no names in the safari crew and all we know of the Man is that he wants out of the safari biz and return to his farm, and that he has a wedding ring. You can’t miss the influence of the film on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which trades the searing austerity and matter-of-fact savagery of the African veldt and jungle for the lush South American rain forests and adds complications, but otherwise charts the escape of a captured man from warriors hunting him down, first as sport, and then as vengeance.

I reviewed the new Criterion disc in my MSN DVD column and you can find the review here:

The film is notorious for the tortures unleashed upon the captured hunters for tribal sport and spectacle, but the blunt slaughter of elephants is as grotesque as any of the cruelties faced by the humans. Wilde so effectively matches his beautifully shot film with the wildlife footage of the animal food chain in action that the most telling difference is the contrast in film grain. The restored digital transfer looks great and the color balance helps match the otherwise disparate film sources.

[Note: click on titles for the complete review; click on DVD cover to find it on Amazon]

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