#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]

’13 Rue Madeleine’ on TCM

The World War II spy thriller 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) is built around no less than the creation of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). A newsreel-like prologue that recounts the origins of the military intelligence network that later became the CIA, put together from the ground up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor with military and civilian recruits alike, segues from documentary to docudrama to follow a team of agents from their initial training to a vital mission in Nazi-occupied France. The film takes its name from the address of Gestapo headquarters in the port city of Le Havre on the Normandy coast, a location that dominates the finale of the film, and builds its fictional mission on the real threat of the German V-1 missiles and the Allied campaign of misinformation in the lead-up to D-Day.

13 Rue Madeleine was the second feature from producer Louis de Rochemont, who previously spent a decade producing the “March of Time” newsreel series, the most widely seen non-fiction films on American screens. In many ways it is an unofficial sequel to his feature debut The House on 92nd Street (1945), a wartime espionage thriller based on the real-life case of the FBI tracking down a ring of German spies in New York City. De Rochemont’s background informed the film: it was based on a true story and largely shot on location, and the espionage drama, which was defined as much by the workaday procedure of the American agents as by the melodramatic storyline and the exotic danger of covert spies and double agents, was framed by authoritative narration. De Rochemont and director Henry Hathaway brought a realist aesthetic to the studio thriller and reunited with screenwriter John Monks, Jr., narrator Reed Hadley, and veteran cinematographer Norbert Brodine for 13 Rue Madeleine. Brodine’s mix of natural light, location shooting, and “you are there” docu-drama compositions with heightened, expressionist lighting and dramatic angles to build tension in key scenes helped define de Rochemont’s influential approach.

James Cagney plays Bob Sharkey, a founder of America’s new counter-intelligence agency. The character was originally modeled on OSS founder William “Wild Bill” Donovan, but Donovan objected to the film’s portrayal of the agency. The organization was renamed 077 in the film and similarities to Donovan were obscured in rewrites. Cagney had formed Cagney Productions with his brother, Bill, in 1942, and was still under contract to Warner Bros., but he took time out to take the lead in 13 Rue Madeleine for Fox, partly as a favor to Darryl Zanuck and partly for a generous paycheck to help float his struggling production company.

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Plays on Thursday, March 14 on TCM

‘Seven Thieves’ on TCM

A disparate collection of crooks, small-time hustlers, and disreputable characters knocking around Monte Carlo are brought together to rob a casino in an elaborate heist in Seven Thieves (1960), an unshowy caper film from Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway. Edward G. Robinson plays the mastermind of the job, Theo Wilkins, a once-respected scientist whose career foundered after serving time for theft, and Rod Steiger plays his loyal friend, partner, and right hand Paul Mason, a sophisticated career criminal brought over by Theo to run the untrustworthy crew.

The film was promoted by Fox as “Little Caesar meets Al Capone,” referring to the pairing of old school gangster star Robinson with method actor (and Al Capone star) Steiger. In fact, Theo is much closer to another Robinson role from his gangster past: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), where Robinson’s titular doctor joins a criminal gang to research his book and ends up plotting their robberies. Theo could be Clitterhouse twenty years later, an old pro more interested in the mechanics and execution of the perfect plan than the money.

Joan Collins plays the key to their scheme, a stripper in a second-rate nightclub where the nervous assistant director of Monte Carlo’s biggest casino arrives nightly to watch her dance, and Eli Wallach is her mentor and mother hen Poncho, who blows the saxophone (and at one point becomes a partner in her routine) in the club’s jazz combo. The team is filled out by Michael Dante as the grinning safecracker, Berry Kroeger as the driver and team muscle, and Alexander Scourby as the reluctant partner inside the club, the casino assistant director pressured by Collins to be their inside man.

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Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Tuesday, January 8

MOD Movies: Fox Cinema Archives Debuts

20th Century Fox finally follows the leads of Warner, Sony, and MGM and launches their own manufacture-on-demand program aimed at releasing some of the older titles from the vaults, the kinds of “catalog” releases that no longer sell in the DVD sales crash. The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives debuts with 35 titles in the first wave.

The first wave of releases is now available and the results are… mixed, to say the least. Here’s my review of the first three discs I received.

Suez (1938), directed by Allan Dwan and starring Tyrone Power, is one of the better of the big, “respectable” historical dramas that Power made in the thirties and early forties, in the mold of Lloyds of London and In Old Chicago (both previously released by Fox in DVD box sets) but with a grander sense of spectacle. Power’s Ferdinand de Lesseps is engineer, entrepreneur, and diplomat, negotiating support from Napoleon III in France and Prince Said in Egypt, battling sandstorms, enduring political catastrophe (being a Hollywood history, Napoleon III’s coup is as much a personal betrayal as a national one) and romantic treachery (lover Loretta Young throws him over for a much more politically advantageous suitor) with the pluck of… well, Tyrone Power.

This is classic Hollywood historical melodrama, with dynamic individuals changing history with a mix of vision and sheer fortitude, and a whirlwind tour of geopolitical history as drawing room drama. Annabella plays a spunky, spirited Egyptian girl devoted to the oblivious Ferdinand (again classically Hollywood, the Americans play the French while the film’s French star plays the exotic “foreigner”). Allan Dwan, a silent movie pioneer whose long career began in the pre-feature era and straddles blockbuster epics (Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks) and low-budget comedies and everything in between, keeps the potentially stodgy material moving at a lively clip, giving the political maneuverings a dramatic flair and a personal dimension, and delivering a spectacular sandstorm that remains the film’s standout sequence.

This is the best looking disc of the initial batch I received, a fine mastering of a clean, strong print, with good contrasts and sound and no apparent digital artifacts: a solid presentation of a handsome Hollywood classic.

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