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Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5, The (DVD Review)

26 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$49.92 four-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars John Cassavetes, Dick Powell, Richard Kiley, Susan Hayward.

There’s only one dud in this four-disc, eight-title set that samples cultist causes from RKO, Allied Artists, MGM and Warner Bros., and even it’s getting bewilderingly decent reviews from some of my colleagues. That’s a much higher return than you’ll get from the numbingly homogenized juvenilia listed on this summer’s multiplex marquees (an occasional ringer like Inception excepted). In noir, the stories and characters are strictly for grown-ups and invariably feature the same.

The easy standout pick here is the one most eagerly awaited and overdue: director Phil Karlson’s trenchant 1955 The Phenix City Story, which deals with the much publicized (at the time) postwar corruption in Phenix City, AL — once the so-called “Sin City” just across the river from Columbus, GA. and Fort Benning. Directed in contusion-heavy style by director Phil Karlson, this onetime Allied Artists release is my No. 1 pick from the many top-flight toughies he fashioned in his ‘B’-movie (or shaky-‘A’ prime), which included such personal favorites as Scandal Sheet, 99 River Street, 5 Against the House, Hell’s Island, Tight Spot and The Scarface Mob (which was the pilot for TV’s “The Untouchables”).

Unlike most movies of its ilk, Phenix City wasn’t ignored in its day; even the king of the era’s Establishment reviewers — Bosley Crowther of the New York Times — had it on his 10-best list. Today it’s notably brutal in its portrayal of a child’s murder and a beating suffered in a bar by returning home-towner John Patterson (Richard Kiley). The latter scene anticipates a similar one in Karlson’s 1973’s vigilante yahoo-pleaser Walking Tall, the biggest box office hit he ever enjoyed and certainly the most violent picture ever to appear under the banner of Bing Crosby Productions.

As son of eventually assassinated Alabama Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson (John McIntire) — and one who continued his father’s fight against gambling houses and all kinds of attendant vice — the younger Patterson is a whitewashed here in one regard. The real-life version, who eventually became A.G. himself, was at this time a virulent racist who later and successfully ran to the right of George Wallace for the Alabama governorship — events portrayed in director John Frankenheimer’s outstanding Wallace TV biopic with Gary Sinise. (Later publicly remorseful in a twilight mellowing that seemed much less calculated than Wallace’s own, Patterson eventually supported Barack Obama).

Otherwise, this is just about just about everything a noir pic without much of a femme fatale sexual dimension should be, and the letterboxed presentation opens with the 13-minute prologue often excised from TV showings, whose interviews with locals include one with the younger Patterson’s real-life mother. The cinematography, with lots of location work, is tops.

This set’s four RKO selections almost date back to the very earliest days of major-studio movies being shown on TV, though the prints never looked as zingy when I was growing up as they do here. Though I still find it almost as tough to follow as I did when I was a kid, my favorite of these is probably 1945’s Cornered, in which Dick Powell reunited with the Murder, My Sweet team that had transformed his career from tenor to tough-guy: writer John Paxton, producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk — the last two eventual Blacklist targets) It’s still a huge treat in general to hear Powell’s peerlessly weary deliveries of some of the genre’s most jaded dialogue, and this specifically postwar revenge movie (which had to have been one of the first, factoring in the length of production schedules) has few or no antecedents in recognizing Argentina as a happy hunting ground for former Nazis. The other RKOs, all enjoyable to a point, chronologically begin with 1946’s Deadline at Dawn (screenplay by Clifford Odets; the only movie ever directed by Broadway’s Harold Clurman; and a Susan Hayward starrer whose sparkling print here half-salvages a preposterous premise in which a large cast of suspects elect to hang around an undiscovered murder scene when there’s a police station just across the street). Then, it’s on to 1947’s Desperate (one of several early noirs directed by Anthony Mann before he moved onto Westerns — and one whose female lead is Audrey Long (to me, the most attractive of all 1940s actresses who didn’t make it). And finally, there’s 1950’s agreeably self-descriptive Armored Car Robbery (67 minutes of no-nonsense that warmed up lead Charles McGraw and director Richard Fleischer for their greatest triumph two years later: The Narrow Margin).

Perhaps the least known movie on the set but one of its best is MGM’s Dial 1119 from 1950, directed by Gerald Mayer — nephew of then waning studio chief Louis B. but closer to the kind of psychological dramas L.B. successor Dore Schary preferred. It boasts something I didn’t think existed (an outstanding performance of depth by the usually nondescript Marshall Thompson) and a story about a disturbed escapee from a mental ward holding barfly regulars and a few walk-in customers hostage in a saloon. It’s   surprisingly grubby for MGM and better for it.

Another relative rarity — at least in a proper 1.85:1 rendering — is 1956’s Crime in the Streets, an earnest teleplay-to-film from Reginald Rose that was situated between the TV and big-screen versions of Rose’s 12 Angry Men. Sidney Lumet directed the television version of Streets; for this movie, it was Don Siegel back at Allied Artists, immediately after he filmed the classic original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Carried over from Lumet’s production (along with future director Mark Rydell, then an actor) is John Cassavetes, totally commanding the frame in his big-screen debut as the No. 1 punk on a New York block. The movie is stagey and at times archly suggests West Side Story without Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, romance or young women who feel pretty. Yet Cassavetes and Virginia Gregg (as his mother) are exceptional, and James Whitmore is typically agreeable as a sincere social worker cliché. From a commercial point of view, you have to admire the movie’s luck or savvy in casting key supporting roles with actors from the previous year’s (and, indeed, era’s) seminal j.d. dramas – respectively Sal Mineo (from Rebel without a Cause) and Rydell (Blackboard Jungle).

The one unequivocal underachiever here is 1950’s Backfire, directed by the otherwise underrated Vincent Sherman and populated with a cast that allows us to track the careers of several actors in a single pop: Edmond O’Brien, Viveca Lindfors, Dane Clark, Virginia Mayo and singer Gordon MacRae — who, in these early days, was just as likely to be seen in something like this or Return of the Frontiersman as in a musical. Fifth-billed, MacRae is respectable and actually has more on-screen time than O’Brien (meeting, in one scene, a sassy type played by Sheila Stephens — who became Sheila MacRae after they married in real life).

But the script is enough to drive anyone up the wall, with MacRae cast as a veteran’s hospital patient who, after surviving more than a dozen operations, tries to sleuth what happened to buddy O’Brien, who disappeared into a net of shady associates. We must be close here to the Guinness Record for movie flashbacks, which is a personal peeve. When storytelling pays an inordinate amount of time to event after event that happened in the past, it can’t have much of its mind on making what’s happening to its characters at the moment too vital or compelling. The Backfire print, though, is a beaut — possibly because the movie has never been shown very much. I hadn’t seen it (nor, as far as I know, been very much in its vicinity) since it was first sold to television in 1961.

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