August 6, 2020  (Web Review)

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema

Kino Lorber, 4 discs, 333 min., not rated, DVD: $39.99, Blu-ray: $59.99, May 24

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Almost any crime thriller made between 1940 and 1959 gets branded with the “film noir” description, which defines an attitude, a style, and a sensibility as much as a genre. And while the noir credentials of a couple of choices in this five-film set are arguable, it does include one classic and two memorable examples of the genre.

He Ran All the Way (1951), starring John Garfield as a small-time hood who shoots a cop and takes a working-class family hostage over the course of a couple of sweltering days, is a minor masterpiece. Garfield (in his final performance) is all jittery paranoia as the angry not-so-young man and Shelley Winters is superb as a young woman both scared of and attracted to the volatile hoodlum. Director John Berry creates a pressure cooker that pushes everyone to the edge of unraveling.

Barbara Stanwyck is a Witness to Murder (1954) and George Sanders the esteemed author who she catches killing a woman through a window across the street. This mix of psychological drama and murder mystery has elements of Gaslight (the killer begins a campaign to make her look mentally unstable) and anticipates Hitchcock’s Rear Window (which arrived in theaters a few months later) and while not as rich as either, it is cleverly plotted and carried by the powerhouse performances of Stanwyck and Sanders.

Actor Cornel Wilde made his directorial debut with Storm Fear (1955), starring as a bank robber on the lam with a violent partner who hides out in a remote cabin with his brother’s family. When they are trapped by a blizzard, the weather matches the heady storm of emotions inside the home. It was independently produced on a low budget and Wilde (directing from a screenplay by playwright and future Oscar winner Horton Foote) makes the most of its limited resources.

I would argue that the final two films in the set are not actually film noir. A Bullet for Joey (1955) is a Cold War espionage drama starring Edward G. Robinson as a Montreal police detective who uncovers a plot to kidnap a nuclear scientist and George Raft as a deported American gangster hired to snatch the scientist. Robinson is superb as the savvy investigator but otherwise, it lacks drama or suspense. Low budget prison break drama Big House, U.S.A. (1955) has bleak attitude and brutal characters but the plodding direction lacks the style associated with noir. Broderick Crawford and Ralph Meeker star and it features striking imagery and ruthless turns (death by a steam tunnel) but is otherwise a minor film.

Each film is featured on a separate disc in its own case and the five are boxed up in a paperboard slipcase. They are also available individually but the set offers a better deal if you want all five. Recommended. (S. Axmaker)