#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’

“The Man I Love,” “Road House” and Ida Lupino: The Noir Heroine

The Man I Love (Warner Archive)
Road House” (Fox Film Noir)
The Hitch-Hiker” (Kino)

My MSN colleague, fellow blogger and partner-in-noir Kim Morgan has spent the week celebrating Barbara Stanwyck with notes on some of her signature noirs: “Sorry Wrong Number,” “Double Indemnity,” “Jeopardy,” “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers“and “Clash By Night.”

If Stanwyck was the Queen Bee of film noir (as she dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in “They Drive By Night” (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in “High Sierra” (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.

It may be stretching definitions to call “The Man I Love” a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

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 – ‘Honey West: The Complete Series’ – September 2, 2008

Honey West and friendI don’t know that it’s really the DVD of the week, but I am very pleased that Honey West: The Complete Series has finally arrived on DVD. Anne Francis created TV’s sexist private eye as Honey West, the society babe who inherited her dad’s business and partner, Sam (John Ericson), a protective buddy and a flirtatious colleague. The show plays off her obvious assets (Francis was as curvy as they come) but also makes her a judo expert and a smart cookie. She’s the brains behind this outfit and Sam has no problem playing sidekick to the headstrong Honey. The half-hour P-I adventure show plays out in the high society glamour of the California sun, and the cool fashions and the swinging score create a groovy little series. Did I mention she has a pet ocelot?

The release is featured in the TV section of my MSN DVD column.

Also new this week are three new releases in the “Fox Film Noir” collection. My favorite of the three is Road House, a rural noir set in a rustic tavern with aspirations to class located near the Canadian border. What makes the film is the terrific cast: Ida Lupino as a throaty torch singer, Cornel Wilde as the manager and Richard Widmark as the unstable owner who hires Lupino and plans to marry her, little realizing she’s falling for his best friend, Wilde. Widmark gives one of his classic near portraits of a slide into revenge-fueled psychosis. My friend and colleague Kim Morgan teams up with Eddie Muller on the commentary for the disc. Also released this week are the moody but slack Moontide, Jean Gabin’s American film debut, and Elia Kazan’s realist noir Boomerang with Dana Andrews:

Elia Kazan’s true life drama of a murder in a small town belongs to the realist wave of American crime movies that newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont brought to Hollywood at the end of World War II. … This is not Kazan’s most gripping film and you can feel his straining to get out of the brightly-lit courtroom drama and back to the dramatic confrontations in backrooms and private dens and shadowy night-time streets, where the dirty business of politics favors power and money over justice. That’s where Kazan – and the film – works best.

Read the complete review here.

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