#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]

‘The Forbidden Street’ on TCM

Fiery actress Maureen O’Hara got a homecoming, or something close to it, with The Forbidden Street (1949), a romantic drama of status and sacrifice and blackmail in Victorian England. The Irish actress had been busy in Hollywood since her stateside debut in the 1939 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, shooting all of her British period pieces on Hollywood sets. But for The Forbidden Street, 20th Century Fox shipped the production over to Fox London to make use of studio funds frozen in Great Britain. It wasn’t quite Ireland but O’Hara was in an unhappy marriage to Will Price, a former Hollywood dialogue director and a drunk, and was glad for the break.

Based on Margery Sharp’s 1946 novel Britannia Mews, The Forbidden Street stars O’Hara as Adelaide Culver, a headstrong woman from an aristocratic London family who defies her mother (Fay Compton) to marry her handsome music tutor, Henry Lambert (Dana Andrews, in a professorial beard). It’s an impulsive act by a nave young woman and she ends up shunned by her family, unhappy and alone in the slums of Britannia Mews until she meets Gilbert Lauderdale, a dead ringer for her Henry (and also played by Andrews) but a far warmer and more loyal fellow. As Henry, Andrews is overdubbed with a distinctive English accent (no credit is given), while his familiar voice returns as the amiable Gilbert. O’Hara, meanwhile, slips from a cultured, educated English accent to cockney as she remains in The Mews (as the locals call it).

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays Tuesday, July 1 on TCM

Videophiled: True Blu-ray Americana – ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ and ‘The Right Stuff’

BestYearsLivesBy all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.

It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.

BestYears2
Coming home
Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.

Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.

It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.

RightStuffThe Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Canyon Passage on TCM

Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage is one of the most interesting and underappreciated westerns about the frontier, the settling of the west and the communal spirit embodied in the western genre. It plays on TCM as part of the Cult Movies line-up for July and you’ll why it fits the bill: the tension between personal loyalty and the communal good and the contrast between the peaceful beauty and the savage violence of the wilderness defines the film. I write about it for the Turner Classic Movies website here.

Dana Andrews and Ward Bond: detente is about to end

On its surface, Jacques Tourneur’s first western, Canyon Passage (1946), is a solid but conventional frontier drama of ambitious entrepreneurs, determined settlers, gamblers, gold miners and Indian tribes. But under the familiar trappings of cabin raisings, poker games, saloon brawls and frontier combat is a remarkably dense drama where the tensions between individual enterprise and communal good are often strained and the line between hero and villain is not a matter of black and white, but shades of gray.

Canyon Passage isn’t one of those simple little towns laid out on the prairie around a main street with a grid, building out as the town grows, but a rough-hewn collection of businesses and saloons in a community that looks literally hacked out of the wilderness. Surrounded by emerald green forests and dramatic mountains, this is different from the more conventional communities seen in frontier westerns up to now. Jacksonville is a beautiful little town striving for maturity but caught up in the growing pains of free enterprise and new settlements in a place without a marshal or a judge. Roughneck outliers (notably a brutal bully played by Ward Bond), mob justice, and the threat of an Indian uprising are the flip side of the frontier idealism of the new settlers and established families pulling together in the face of adversity.

Read the entire feature here. Plays on Tuesday, July 20 on TCM. Also available on DVD as part of the four-film set Classic Western Round-up Vol. 1 (which also includes The Lawless Breed, The Texas Rangers and Kansas Raiders).