What’s the difference between a crime movie and a film noir? Dream-like, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel were elements defined by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in A Panorama of American Film Noir. But there’s no need to identify these five qualities. Ultimately a crime movie becomes a film noir when the characters yield to a desperation that overwhelms their better judgment. The bad guys are tempted by the desires of a sultry woman, the dream of getting out of a bad situation or their own insanity. The good guys are driven by a desire to avenge. Nobody does the crime as a lark. Nobody lets the proper authorities take care of business. Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5 brings together eight movies with characters taken to the edge with their desperate urges.
Cornered (1945 – 102 minutes) doesn’t need underworld crime to create the film noir attitude. Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell) is a Canadian who fought in occupied France. He marries a French woman. While arranging to get her a passport, she’s ratted out. The fink fakes his death, but Gerard’s bloodlust won’t be fooled. He goes around the world to find the culprit and administer harsh justice. Deadline At Dawn (1946 – 83 minutes) gives a man less than a day to clear himself of murder. A sailor (Bill Williams) gets drunk with a dame and swipes her cash. Guilt gets the better of him so he returns the cash only he can’t. She’s dead. He needs to find the real killer so this doesn’t prevent him from getting back to his base. The navy does frown on suspected homicidal killers. He gets help from a dancing girl (Susan Hayward) to delve into the dead woman’s life to find the real killer.
Desperate (1947 – 73) earns its desperate credentials in the title alone. Director Anthony Mann (the first reel of Spartacus) gives us a tale of a good trucker placed in an extremely bad situation. Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) gets hired by Walt Radak (Perry Mason‘s Raymond Burr) for a moving gig. What he doesn’t catch onto until the worst possible moment is they’re robbing a warehouse. Things go wrong and Walt wants Steve to take the fall. He promises to kill Steve’s wife if he doesn’t confess to the cops. Steve grabs his wife and hits the road. Burr flexes his goon muscles in the pursuit. It’s a hard-punching flick. Backfire (1950 – 91 minutes) takes a pair of World War vets into darkness. Gordon MacRae and Edmond O’Brien were stuck inside a tank. When they get back to America, their civilian dreams don’t come true. O’Brien ends up in a vet hospital with bum legs. MacRae get accused of murder. His army buddy thinks he’s innocent and risks his life to prove it.
Armored Car Robbery (1950 – 68 minutes) explains the core action in the title. A gang of crooks pull off the heist. Things don’t go smooth because the leader takes out a cop. Eventually during their flight, things get extra dicey since the robbers want to raise their percentage of the tack. One of the robbers is Perry Mason‘s William Talman. Dial 1119 (1950 – 75 minutes) could be a letdown since a majority of the action takes place in a bar. Luckily the bar is run by William Conrad (Cannon and Jake and the Fat Man). The place has air conditioning and a projector television perfect for watching the boxing. He has a large clientele on a hot night. Unfortunately one of his newest customers is a psychopathic killer. Who will be alive for last call?
The Phenix City Story (1955 – 100 minutes) starts off with a rather clunky news reporter explaining that this is a true story. But stick through the nearly 13 minutes of “reality” to get to a riveting tale of corruption. The Alabama town near a military base was more crooked than San Francisco’s Lombard Street. Luckily a few citizens are brave enough to face off against the redneck mafia. Unlucky for them, the redneck mafia has no problem killing them. It’s a savage tale of taking back a city. Crime in the Streets (1956 – 91 minutes) aims young with juvenile delinquents out of control. John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby) and Sal Mineo (Rebel Without A Cause) are part of the Hornets. They’re truly bad boys who will take out neighbors that fink them to the cops. Director Don Siegel would go on to create the ultimate bad-ass cop in Dirty Harry.
Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5 gives eight lesser titles a chance to shine. They show that film noir can happen around the world without an age limit. These might not be the films your local community college professor would classify as film noir, but the lead characters are desperate. They don’t see any way to back off from their plans.
The video for The Phenix City Story and Crime in the Streets is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The other six films are 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers bring out the harsh shadows that dominate movies classified as film noir. Nothing roughs up the gritty feel. The audio is Dolby Digital mono on all the films. The levels bring out the main characters scratching society’s underbelly. The subtitles are in English, Spanish and French.
Trailers are provided for Cornered and Dial 1119.
Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5 contains eight films that illustrate the desperation that turns a crime film into film noir. There’s nothing cute about the criminals or smug about the heroes. The boxset is more for the avid viewer than the curious watcher. This is the right set for those who don’t want casual crooks. It is appreciated that this series is being continued instead of being shuttled over to the burn on demand Warner Archive.
Warner Home Video presents Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5. Starring: William Conrad, Dick Powell, John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo. Boxset contents: 8 Films on 4 DVDs. Released on DVD: July 13, 2010.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.