Blu-ray: A quartet of schemers and shadows in ‘Film Noir Collection: Volume 1’

Film Noir Collection: Volume I” (Olive) presents four films previously available on DVD only: “Rope of Sand” (1949), “Dark City” (1950), “Union Station” (1950), and “Appointment with Danger” (1951).

“Rope of Sand,” set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of “Casablanca,” recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains).

Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir.

Charlton Heston made his Hollywood debut as the stony leading man of “Dark City,” a hard-hearted veteran turned gambler who becomes hunted by a psychotic killer out to revenge one of his marks. Heston doesn’t have much dimension beyond his flinty gruffness and emotional distance but he’s got confidence, strength and a solid screen presence that anchors the film. Lizbeth Scott is his soggy sometime girlfriend, Viveca Lindfors the widow who melts his icy heart and Dean Jagger, Don Defore and Ed Begley co-star, and watch for Jack Webb as a sneering hyena of a bully and Harry Morgan as the target of his grinning cruelty: the future “Dragnet” team as uneasy partners in crime. Also directed by William Dieterle, one of the modest pros of the classic studio era.

The set is filled out with “Union Station,” starring William Holden, and “Appointment With Danger,” starring Alan Ladd. These aren’t the classics of genre but they are interesting artifacts in a genre defined by style and attitude, and with so little classic film noir on Blu-ray, it makes for an attractive package for the die-hard fan. Four discs in a single case with hinged trays, not available separately.

More Blu-ray debuts at Videodrone

Curiosities from the Paramount Library

Olive Films, a small theatrical distributor and DVD label specializing in indies and foreign films, expands its catalogue with releases from the Paramount Pictures library, and they kick off the partnership with the debut of five features spanning the fifties to the seventies, including three crime dramas with (to a greater or lesser extent) film noir credentials.

Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston made his official screen debut as the stony leading man of Dark City (Olive), an unambitious but handsome production from reliable studio hand William Dieterle. Heston’s Danny Haley is a hard-hearted veteran turned gambler who resorts to rooking a friendly, naïve tourist from California (an affable Don Defore) in a rigged poker game, designed to get a $5,000 check that Haley spies in his wallet. The fallout from the scam is more than he’s ready for—the guy kills himself—but worse than the slow-burn guilt is the blowback from the dead man’s psychotic brother. This shadowy psycho (seen only as a bulky shadow and meaty, gorilla-like hands) targets the gang members and stages their deaths as suicides.

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DVD of the Week – ‘The Wire: Season Five’ – August 12, 2008

I’m not one for sweeping statements, but here’s one: The Wire is the greatest show on TV. Not just now. Ever. During its five year run, it sketched a complex portrait of Baltimore with fictional stories illuminating the real social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Creator David Simon and his writing/producing partner, Ed Burns, worked and lived in many of those bureaucracies: the police department, the school system, and the newspaper, the new focal center for the fifth and final season. They aren’t shy about telling us how and why the system is broken, and what it costs.

Lester Freaman follows the evidence

As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new, and this season the new are the reverberations from budget cuts at The Baltimore Sun (from reduced news coverage to slipshod reporting of that which does get covered) and a crack-brained scheme from wild card Detective McNulty (Dominic West) to pry money out of the city. The money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations (see Season Four). What better way to loosen up the city purse-strings than a big, headline-grabbing serial killer story, even if the whole thing is a fiction brainstormed by McNulty on impulse and retrofitted into a conspiracy by Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Augustus ‘Gus’ Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.

Simon, a former reporter with The Baltimore Sun himself, is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (the season features scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George P. Pelecanos) and the writing and construction has a beautiful symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely a changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, so there are good cops, good editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – a people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.

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