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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Film Noir Reviews

Times are pretty good for film noir fans. Universal recently released a first wave of noir titles, including Black Angel, The Big Clock, Criss Cross, and This Gun for Hire. Double Indemnity was also supposed to appear, but was delayed. The hope is that the delay means that a special edition is being readied or even a deal that would see Criterion handle the title. Universal isn't saying. Fox also is known to be preparing a series of film noir releases that would appear on a monthly basis similar to its Studio Classics releases. The noir series is expected to debut in March 2005 with Laura anticipated to be the first release.

Over the past few years, Warner Bros. had given us a number of film noir titles that Humphrey Bogart starred in, but none of the noirs in the company's RKO holdings had appeared. Now with the release of its recent film noir DVD box set (Film Noir Classic Collection), it has addressed a number of the most-wanted titles. It's hard to argue with a selection that includes The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, and The Set-Up. Now that Warners has got those ones out of the way and considering that its holdings include all the classic Warner Bros., RKO, MGM, and Allied Artists catalogues, I figure that they should easily be able to produce another dozen or so such noir collections. One can hope anyway.


Film Noir Classic Collection:
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on July 27th, 2004)

Out of the Past
The Set-Up
Murder, My Sweet
Gun Crazy
The Asphalt Jungle


For me, it's a toss-up as to whether Out of the Past or The Set-Up (both originally RKO releases) is my favourite of this lot. Out of the Past is a complex tale of cross and double-cross that resurrects a man's past dealings with a gangster and his mistress and leads to his ultimate destruction. Robert Mitchum is the man (an ex-private eye) with the past and Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer are the gangster and mistress respectively. Mitchum's character here is the quintessential doomed noir protagonist and Mitchum's typically restrained and sad-eyed portrayal of him leaves a lasting impression. Similarly effective is Jane Greer as one of noir's most memorable femme fatales. The film's central theme is one that is central to the whole noir cycle - that of the destruction of a basically honest and good man by a thoroughly corrupt woman with whom he is in love. The Set-Up follows in almost real time the final fight of a fourth rate boxer in a two-bit town. At 35 years of age, Stoker thinks he has a chance to defeat a new young opponent despite having lost most of his recent fights. Stoker's manager has accepted money for Stoker to lose the fight, but Stoker rebels when he learns of the arrangement. The Set-Up has two primary noir elements. One is the dingy and shadowy setting of the fight both inside and outside the arena, well accentuated by the seedy figures that characterize the people in the streets, the boxing crowd, and the boxers' hangers-on. Another is the presence of Robert Ryan playing the part of Stoker. Ryan is one of noir's key protagonists, with a look that frequently suggests a man out-of-step with the world. Here, Ryan imbues Stoker's character with a dignity and honour that belies his environment, accentuating its tawdriness and his own separation from it. Also present as Stoker's wife is Audrey Totter, herself closely associated with many films of the noir cycle.

Film Noir Classic CollectionOut of the PastThe Set-Up

Murder, My SweetGun CrazyThe Asphalt Jungle

Murder, My Sweet (another RKO release) is a Philip Marlowe tale from the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy to find his missing girl friend, Velma. At first, Marlowe is frustrated in his efforts, but another assignment to recover some stolen jewels soon proves to have links to Velma, leading to an unsatisfactory resolution for all concerned. There have been many actors who have portrayed Philip Marlowe on screen from Bogart to Mitchum to James Garner. At first blush, a less likely candidate than Dick Powell to portray the part would have been difficult to think of. Known for a number of insipid, juvenile singing roles in the 1930s (often with Ruby Keeler), his casting as Marlowe proved to be inspired as director Edward Dmytryk managed to turn him into one of the enduring hard-boiled figures of classic noir. The film is also peopled to good effect with the likes of Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, and Mike Mazurki. Dmytryk orchestrates everything with great style so that for many, Murder, My Sweet is the archetypical film noir with its shadowy, half-lit images, a protagonist who is tough but vulnerable at the same time, the presence of a femme fatale, and a general aura of uncertainty characterized by violence and unusual characters.

Gun Crazy is a United Artists release of a King Brothers production directed by Joseph H. Lewis. The story is that of Bart Tare, fixated on guns since he was a boy, who falls for Annie Laurie Starr, a sideshow sharpshooting expert. The two become lovers and bank robbers, a potent combination that spells doom for both of them. John Dall and Peggy Cummins play the leads, but the real star is director Lewis. This is a film about sex and violence and everything is orchestrated by Lewis from those points of view. Perhaps the film's most discussed sequence is the bank robbery that is photographed entirely from the back seat of the couple's car, equating the thrill of the robbery's violence to that of a hurried back-seat sexual encounter. Lewis would become known as one of noir's key directors with such titles as My Name Is Julia Ross, So Dark the Night, Undercover Man, and A Lady without Passport to his credit. The Big Combo and Gun Crazy would be his real noir masterpieces, however.

The release of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle would usually be cause for celebration, but when it comes in conjunction with these other four film noir titles, it seems somewhat diminished in comparison. Perhaps that's because its tale of a "perfect" heist gone wrong has been done so many times since that it no longer seems like such a fresh idea. Even the prospect of seeing how it was done for, if not the first, at least one of the first times loses its allure against the high-powered grittiness and freshness of its box-set companions. It's still good entertainment, however, due to an accomplished if not star-powered cast including the likes of Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Jean Hagen, and John McIntyre. The film is a classic piece of film noir with its air of doom and the sense of corruption that exists everywhere. After his many noir collaborations with Humphrey Bogart, The Asphalt Jungle would prove to be John Huston's last directorial foray into the classic noir world.

In its DVD presentation of these films, Warners has managed a substantial improvement over all previous video incarnations, particularly Gun Crazy which was previously only available on VHS. The others were available on laserdisc. All five films (presented full frame in accord with their original aspect ratios) look much the same with generally crisp and clear images and only mild speckling to belie their age. The Set-Up is perhaps a tad sharper than the others, while Out of the Past appears to lack some of the really clean whites of the rest. Each disc has a mono sound track that is fully adequate for the dialogue-driven films. Hiss is only really noticeable on parts of Out of the Past. A French sound track is available on The Asphalt Jungle while English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided on all discs. For supplements, each disc provides an audio commentary (directors Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese on The Set-Up, film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini on Murder, My Sweet and Out of the Past respectively, author/critic Glenn Erickson on Gun Crazy, and film noir specialist Drew Casper and actor James Whitmore on The Asphalt Jungle). All are good, with the ones on The Set-Up, Out of the Past, and Gun Crazy being particularly informative and listenable. Theatrical trailers are also provided for The Asphalt Jungle and Murder, My Sweet. Available at a very reasonable price, this box set is very highly recommended.


Too Late for Tears (1949)
(released on DVD by Image on May 25th, 2004)

One of the more minor film noirs, Too Late for Tears, is being offered by Image as part of the Dark City Classics series that it distributes. (Kansas City Confidential was a previous release in the series.) The film was an initiative of independent producer Hunt Stromberg and was somewhat unique in that it was shot at Republic using Republic personnel, yet was always intended for distribution by United Artists. The story revolves around a suitcase of money that is thrown into the back seat of a couple's passing car. The couple, Jane and Alan Parker, decide to hold onto the money for a while, at Jane's urging. When sleazy detective Danny Fuller turns up the next morning looking for the money, Jane denies that she and her husband still have it, the first in a series of lies and criminal acts that lock her increasingly into a doomed future.

Too Late for Tears

The film's chief asset is the presence of husky-voiced Lizabeth Scott playing the grasping Jane Parker. Scott was another of film noir's key actresses (Dead Reckoning, Pitfall, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Racket), although her femme fatale role here is somewhat subverted by the weakness of Danny Fuller's character. The latter is played to perfection by Dan Duryea who specialized in caddish and sleazy parts in many of the era's films. In this case there's a bit of a twist as we see Duryea's character go from confident manipulator to confused accomplice while Scott's character gains in confidence and ruthlessness at the same time. Arthur Kennedy provides good support as Scott's husband, but Don Defore is less convincing as an apparent friend of his. The story depends on a great deal of coincidence especially at the beginning, but once you accept that, you'll have a good time overall. Veteran director Byron Haskin moves things along briskly and takes good advantage of Los Angeles location shooting.

Unfortunately, Image's DVD presentation is a real disappointment. The full frame image (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is not particularly sharp and is very dark. Night-time scenes are virtually unwatchable. You can hear that things are going on, but you can't make out what. The day-time scenes are better, but they only serve to show how beaten up the source material is. There are numerous examples of dirt and debris with frequent dropped frames and plenty of speckling and scratches. The mono sound is passable at best. Background hiss and crackle is apparent and some dialogue is interrupted due to dropped frames. There is no subtitling. The disc has a few supplements, but hardly sufficient to warrant calling it a special edition as Image does. There are cast and crew noir filmographies (not bios as listed on the packaging), a gallery of 17 stills and lobby cards, and short video essays on Lizabeth Scott (5 minutes) and Dan Duryea (8 minutes). The latter are presented by film noir author Eddie Muller who proves to be an engaging host, although the essays themselves are rather dark-looking. On balance, those looking to upgrade their Alpha release of the title might as well save their money.


New Classic Release Announcements

Warner Bros. has once again stolen the spotlight with its announcements for the fall season, so I'll cover them first. The remainder of the news is presented alphabetically by releasing company. The classic release data base has been updated accordingly.

In October, Warners starts to ramp things up with an anamorphic release of the musical Damn Yankees (1958) on October 12th. This accompanies the previously announced SE of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). The same date is also a housecleaning day of sorts for the company as it repackages a considerable number of previous classic releases in two-packs or Signature Collections. The two packs generally offer a saving of about $10 over the combined individual title prices. Here's a listing of what will be available:

Soylent Green/Forbidden Planet
Fame/Pennies from Heaven
House of Wax (1953)/The Thing from Another World
Casablanca/Maltese Falcon
Grand Hotel/Mutiny on the Bounty
Robin & The Seven Hoods/Ocean's 11
Jailhouse Rock/Viva Las Vegas
Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)/Mrs. Miniver
North by Northwest/Dial M for Murder
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory/The Wizard of Oz
On the Town/Brigadoon
A Night at the Opera/A Day at the Races
Singin' in the Rain/The Music Man
Victor Victoria/Cabaret
Anchors Aweigh/Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Now Voyager/Mildred Pierce
Ziegfeld Girl/Broadway Melody of 1938
Calamity Jane/Pajama Game
Gypsy/Auntie Mame
The Great Ziegfeld/42nd Street
The Women/Philadelphia Story
Kiss Me Kate/High Society
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House/Arsenic and Old Lace
Les Girls/Silk Stockings
To Have and Have Not/Dark Passage
For Me and My Gal/In the Good Old Summertime
My Favorite Wife/The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?/Bad Seed
Annie Get Your Gun/Showboat
Ben Hur/King of Kings (1961)
An American in Paris/Gigi


The Signature Collection box sets will be for John Wayne (Stagecoach, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Cowboys), Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet, Father of the Bride, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butterfield 8), and Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, The Spencer Tracy Legacy). Note that only the latter contains a title new to DVD (The Spencer Tracy Legacy).

Warners will start off November with the 4 disc Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2 on the 2nd. There will also be a 2-disc version called Looney Tunes Spotlight Collection: Volume 2. The presentation will parallel that of last year's Volume 1. Then on November 9th, we'll get the previously expected SE of Gone with the Wind (1939). This will be a 4-disc edition featuring an Ultra Resolution restoration of the film, audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer, the 2-hour The Making of a Legend documentary, and another 3 hours of bonus materials. On December 7th, there will be four George Stevens films released. These include Gunga Din (1939), I Remember Mama (1947), his D-Day to Berlin (1994) documentary, and George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985). Warner Bros.' TCM Archives release on the same day will be The Buster Keaton Collection. The 2-disc set will include 3 classic films from Keaton's MGM period - The Cameraman (1928 - remastered with a new score by Arthur Barnow), Spite Marriage (1929) and Free and Easy (1930 - Keaton's first "talkie"). The set also includes Kevin Brownlow's new So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton at MGM documentary.

Alpha has its usual monthly releases of some 20 to 25 titles scheduled for September 28th and October 26th respectively. As is normally the case, the releases are a collection of older B films (mainly mysteries, horror and westerns), serials, and television programs. September features several Bob Steele westerns and three Lum & Abner comedies, while October includes two serials (Sky Raiders, Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island). Consult the data base for the complete set of titles.

Columbia will make a Superbit version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) available on October 26th. On November 2nd, we'll finally get The More the Merrier (1943, with Jean Arthur) along with Robert Altman's California Split (1974), and what seems like the umpteenth edition of Dr. Strangelove (1964). The latter is billed as the 40th Anniversary Edition, although the content sounds much like the previous SE, but with enhanced sound. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969, with Natalie Wood) will appear on November 16th. It'll be the usual barebones edition, with several unrelated trailers no doubt.

Criterion's plans include Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face (1960) on October 19th. Supplements will include the Blood of the Beasts documentary about Paris slaughterhouses, a still gallery, essays, and trailers.

Disney has provided more details on some of its already anticipated releases. The Walt Disney Treasures - Wave Four titles are all due on December 7th. Mickey Mouse in Black and White: Volume Two will contain classic Mickey shorts released between 1928 and 1935, along with featurette looks at rare collectibles and artifacts, production artwork, Mickey's portrait artist John Hench and much more. The Complete Pluto: Volume One will feature classic Pluto shorts from the 1930s and 40s, along with The Story of Dogs featurette, galleries of character design and production art and more. Finally, The Mickey Mouse Club: Week One will include an entire week's worth of episodes (we believe the first week): Monday's Fun with Music Day, Tuesday's Guest Star Day, Wednesday's Anything Can Happen Day, Thursday's Circus Day and Friday's Talent Round-Up Day. Also look for a retrospective featurette with original Mousketeers, a look at merchandising and publicity materials and more. All three titles will once again be hosted by film historian Leonard Maltin. The 2-disc Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Special Edition will be released on December 14th. The film will be presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Extras will include the never-before-heard deleted song Chimpanzoo, a 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, new interviews, an interactive game, a new animated short based on an original P.L. Travers story, and the first ever reunion of Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews and co-composer Richard Sherman (the trio also provides audio commentary for the film). Disney's 2-disc Bambi: Special Edition (scheduled to appear March 1st, 2005) will feature a frame-by-frame digital restoration of the animated classic (à la Snow White), along with the Walt's Annotated Bambi and The Bambi Legacy documentaries, cut scenes and sequences from the film you've never seen before, a Disney Time Capsule, the Disneypedia, interactive games and more.

Fox, which has been very quiet on the classic front lately other than its monthly Studio Classics, has nothing to offer us this time other than Lost in Space: Season Two, Part Two coming on November 30th.

Home Vision will release a 50th anniversary edition of Animal Farm (1954). It is expected that the DVD will include a new digital restoration, scenes as told through original storyboards, an audio commentary by film historian Brian Sibley, Down on Animal Farm - a 30-minute BBC produced making-of featurette presented by Tony Robinson, and liner notes by author and art historian Karl Cohen (Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America).

Image Entertainment will offer a 6-disc Ed Wood Jr. Collection on October 5th. It includes Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls, plus extensive supplementary material (theatrical trailers; Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion - a feature-length documentary; Crossroads of Laredo - a rarely seen 23-minute short film by Ed Wood; audio commentary by Bela Lugosi, Jr. and Brett Thompson; the Ed Wood Reunion at the Palm Springs Film Festival; galleries, production documents and much more).

Kino has announced that Edison: The Invention of the Movies is set for a February 2, 2005 release. The 4-disc set includes over 140 films produced by the Edison Company between 1891 and 1918. It also includes two hours of interviews with seven Edison and silent cinema scholars and over 200 scans of rare photographs, scripts, promotional pamphlets and internal correspondence by the Edison staff. These interviews are interspersed among the 140+ films, creating a unique study tool of this groundbreaking moment in the history of cinema. Each film on this series will be accompanied by a text description (also available for download) written by the world's leading expert on the Edison films, Charles Musser, Yale University Professor of Film and American Studies. Also imminent from Kino (on September 14th) is the release of Antigone (1961, with Irene Papas) and The Trojan Women (1972, with Katharine Hepburn).

MGM reports that the previously announced David Lean Collection has been delayed indefinitely due to rights issues. The forthcoming Alfred Hitchcock Collection is also now on hold, but is expected to appear in the new year. Releases scheduled for November 2nd include The Grissom Gang (1971), The High Commissioner (1968, with Rod Taylor), and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969, with Geraldine Page).

Several of Milestone's anticipated releases are now somewhat more definite. Its collection of Mary Pickford films will be augmented by new DVD releases during the coming fall and winter. Piccadilly (1929, with Anna May Wong) is now set for February 2005, as the double bill of The Dragon Painter (1919) and Wrath of the Gods (1914).

Paramount's big news was its official confirmation of an agreement with the Michael Wayne estate to release several Batjac productions on DVD over the next two years, beginning in May 2005. Four John Wayne films are included: The High and the Mighty (1954), Island in the Sky (1953), Hondo (1953), and McClintock! (1962). Each disc is expected to include bonus features from Batjac's extensive library of never-before-seen film memorabilia, commentaries with the filmmakers and cast, and featurettes on the making of the films, their subjects and their eras, incorporating new interviews and archival materials. Also to be released are five other films produced by Batjac: Man in the Vault (1956, with William Campbell), Plunder of the Sun (1953, with Glenn Ford), Ring of Fear (1954, with Clyde Beatty), Seven Men from Now (1956, with Randolph Scott), and Track of the Cat (1954, with Robert Mitchum).

Questar Video, in association with SFM Entertainment, will release the classic TV comedies The Joey Bishop Show and Make Room For Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, on September 28th. Each six-disc set will feature more than thirty episodes, plus supplementary material.

Roan Group releases from Troma include Vincent Sherman's Underground (1941) on September 28th and the Republic serial The Tiger Woman (1944, with Allan Lane and Linda Stirling) in November.

Universal has a couple of more catalog releases: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) on November 23rd, and Charley Varrick (1973) on December 28th.

VCI has delayed its Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1952, directed by Luis Bunuel) release to September 14th. September 28th brings an anamorphic widescreen release of Hannibal (1960, with Cornel Wilde). On October 12th, look for the following: A Christmas Carol (1951, supposedly restored from the original 35mm negative found in Britain, although it's unclear if this is any different from VCI's 2000 release of this film) and a number of double feature discs featuring the East Side Kids (Ghosts on the Loose [1943]/ Spooks Run Wild [1943]), Gary Cooper (Meet John Doe [1941]/A Farewell to Arms [1932]), Hedy Lamarr (Dishonored Lady [1947]/Strange Woman [1946]), Joel McCrea (Bird of Paradise [1932]/The Most Dangerous Game [1932]), Susan Hayward (Smash-Up [1947]/Tulsa [1949]), and Vincent Price (House on Haunted Hill [1958]/The Last Man on Earth [1964]). VCI also has three Dick Tracy serials planned, with one appearing each month this fall. October will bring Dick Tracy Returns (1938); November has Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939); and December has Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc. (1940). Also set for this fall is the serial Holt of the Secret Service (1941).

Well, that's once again it for now. I'll return again soon with a passel of western reviews.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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