September 17, 2020  (Web Review)

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II

Kino Lorber, 245 min., not rated, Blu-ray: $49.95, May 20

Reviewer rating: 2.5/4

The revival of interest in Hollywood film noir has encouraged distributors to look beyond the classics and release lesser examples of the genre, often in multi-movie boxes like this three-disc set, in which the good is often accompanied by something less so. Here the good is Thunder on the Hill, an atypical 1951 noir starring Claudette Colbert as Sister Mary, a nun in an English convent crowded with locals fleeing a flood. Among the refugees is Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth), a young woman convicted of poisoning her brother and being transported for execution. Sister Mary becomes convinced that Valerie is innocent and works to unmask the real killer—which, of course, she does in the nick of time. The plot is rather far-fetched, but the film benefits from Colbert’s refinement, a fine supporting cast that includes Gladys Cooper, Michael Pate and Norma Varden, elegant visuals, a lyrical score by Hans J. Salter and stylish direction by Douglas Sirk. Stilted acting and indifferent direction by Abner Biberman, on the other hand, mar The Price of Fear (1956), a complicated, turgid tale that conflates two separate narrative lines. One involves honest dog-track owner David (former Tarzan Lex Barker), whose partner has sold his half of the business to mobster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens). Furious, David threatens Edare, who sends his thugs after him. Meanwhile Jessica (Merle Oberon) runs down an old man in a hit-and-run and stops to call the police. While she is in the phone booth, David takes her car to escape Edare’s henchmen, and she reports it stolen, hoping the thief will be charged with the accident. At the same time Edare kills David’s partner and arranges for David to be charged with that murder as well. The convolutions escalate, as does romance between David and Jessica that eventually leads to his exoneration. The final movie, The Female Animal (1958), is more a women’s picture than a film noir. Hedy Lamarr plays Vanessa Windsor, an aging movie star whom handsome extra Chris Farley (George Nader) saves from being injured in an on-set accident. Instantly taken with him, she offers him a job as the caretaker at her beach house, and they become lovers. Their relationship is interrupted, however, by the arrival of her daughter Penny (Jane Powell), with whom he quickly becomes involved. Watching the fraught triangle work itself out is Vanessa’s cynical rival Lily Frayne (Jan Sterling). With Lamarr and Powell chewing the scenery as a low-rent Mildred Pierce and her sultry offspring and Nader posing like a hunky mannequin, the movie, slackly directed by journeyman Harry Keller, is just a bland melodrama. With only theatrical trailers for each film and an audio commentary by David Del Valle and David DeCoteau on The Female Animal as extras, this set is of marginal interest in toto, but the presence of Thunder on the Hill—otherwise available on Blu-ray only as an expensive import (though a DVD is available separately)—makes it a strong optional purchase. (F. Swietek)