In the press release for their "Film Noir Classics Collection," Volume 3, Warner Bros. say that "Film Noir (in French, 'black film') is at its core pessimistic with stories of people trapped in a world of alienation, disillusionment, corruption and moral ambiguity. Developed during and after World War II, classic film noir took advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism and suspicion.... Film noir re-influenced mainstream cinema by creating bleak but intelligent dramas in real-life urban settings and using unsettling techniques such as skewed camera angles, expressionistic lighting, deep-focus camera work and confessional voice-overs."
What Warner Bros. don't mention is that at the time film noir was being popularized by Hollywood in the 1940s and early 50s, the filmmakers themselves had little idea they were doing all these fancy things. It was only in 1946 when French critic Nino Frank first coined the term and later in the 1950s when others in the French cinema intelligentsia further analyzed these movies that Hollywood and the rest of the world recognized what the "film noir" movement was all about. Whatever, there is no questioning the look and the intent of good film noir, my personal favorite being Carol Reed's British entry from 1949, "The Third Man." But that's neither here nor there. The subject at hand is the series of film noir that MGM, RKO, and Howard Hughes produced in the 1940s and 50s as exemplified in this box set of five noir near-classics, now owned by WB. The movies are exclusive to the set, meaning you can't buy them separately, but the box also comes with the excellent documentary "Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light," so it makes a good value.
Let me briefly describe four of the five films in the set and then go into further detail about one of them that is a little more unusual than the others. Taking them alphabetically, there is "Border Incident" (1949) with Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy as a pair of policemen from México and the United States tracking down thieves and crooks who victimize illegal aliens. The director, Anthony Mann, keeps the tension and violence surprisingly high for a picture of this vintage, although most of the action is fairly routine.
Following that one is "His Kind of Woman" (1951), with that quintessential film-noir hero, Robert Mitchum. In it, Mitchum meets Jane Russell, Vincent Price, and Raymond Burr, and the movie's tongue-in-cheek humor comes close to being a parody of the noir style, especially as Price practically steals the show with his ham.
Next is "On Dangerous Ground" (1952), with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. Further complementing the filmmaking crew were director Nicholas Ray, producer John Houseman, and composer Bernard Herrmann. The movie could hardly go wrong with that team, although it is more than a bit hackneyed, even sentimental, compared to something like "Border Incident."
Then, there is "The Racket" (1951), with Robert Ryan playing a gangster and Robert Mitchum again, this time as a cop, squaring off against each other. Of the films in the collection, this one is the most melodramatic in its good guy vs. bad guy approach to crime films.
"Lady in the Lake":
Now, we come to the film I found the most unconventional in this set, MGM's "Lady in the Lake" (c. 1946; released in 1947), based on Raymond Chandler's 1943 novel, "The Lady in the Lake." Robert Montgomery directed the movie, and he also stars as Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe (although the moviemakers spell the name "Phillip," and likewise spell the names of some of the other characters differently; they even drop Chandler's "The" in the title and make it simply "Lady in the Lake"; I'm not sure if they made these changes on purpose or if they were simply mistakes). Montgomery was not the first actor nor would he be the last to tackle the Marlowe role; such noted performers as Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, James Garner, Elliot Gould, and Powers Boothe among others tried their hand at the job. But the thing is, Montgomery as director also tried a unique gimmick with it. He filmed the whole thing through Marlowe's eyes, literally from his point of view. We see only Montgomery's hands or the actor's reflection in mirrors and such. The gimmick pretty much failed at the box office; it was apparently a little too different for audiences back then. All the same, it was a fascinating experiment.
The problem is, if we're looking through Marlowe's eyes, seeing and hearing everything that he is seeing and hearing, who exactly are we supposed to be? Are we Marlowe? I mean, it's nice to get the main character's perspective on things directly, but without that omniscient narrator, the third-person camera, the director does put the audience in a rather awkward position, one that takes a bit of getting used to and then still feels clumsy. It's kind of like one of today's first-person video games where we become the hero. But here it is clear that we are not the hero; Phillip Marlowe is the hero and we're somehow watching over his shoulder. The trailer for the movie exclaims, "Mysteriously starring Robert Montgomery and you!" Uh-huh. Still, it is a unique enough idea that you might want to give it a try.
The story line itself pretty much follows the standard Chandler plot, meaning if you get lost in it, don't fret. It's the colorful characters and dark shadows and bizarre actions that are all important in creating the moody atmosphere that a good, noir detective yarn should have. Plus, we get the camera moving to and fro, side to side, and up and down as Marlowe looks around a room or glances through some clues. When he gets punched in the face, the fist comes right into the screen.
The movie begins with a set of title cards removed one at a time while a Christmas carol plays in the background. The final card reveals a gun beneath it. It's a nice bit of irony and sets the tone for the rest of the film. Then we find Marlowe facing us and narrating the story in flashback. That in itself was also somewhat unconventional for the day--an actor speaking directly to the audience.
He tells us he was working on "the case of the lady in the lake," explains that we will see everything he saw, exactly as he saw it, and dares us to follow the clues, just as he followed them.
The plot involves a magazine publisher, Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), whose wife has gone missing, and whose assistant, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), hires Marlowe to find her (but without letting the boss know because she believes the wife has run off with another man). Marlowe is onto her at once, figuring she just wants to get the wife into trouble in order to marry the boss herself. But he plays along; he cynical enough to realize that a paycheck is a paycheck.
Once underway, the plot involves multiple murders, beatings (mostly Marlowe's getting the worse end of it), back stabbing, jealousy, and a boatload of suspicious characters; and as the bodies pile up, it isn't long before one's head is spinning. Yet it's all in good, old-fashioned, hard-boiled, private-eye story fun.
Among the supporting characters are Ms. Fromsett herself, demanding, conniving, perhaps ruthless; Mr. Kingsby, publisher of lurid mystery and horror novels; Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan), a tough cop with something of a personal involvement in the case; Police Captain Kane (Tom Tully), a seasoned veteran of the force; Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), a presumed Southern gentleman who may be anything but; and Mildred Haveland (Jane Meadows), an enigmatic presence always hanging about on the periphery of events.
Without seeing his face most of the time, Marlowe's snappy repartee and quips do tend to sound a bit silly in isolation--too literary and too consciously clever for their own good. "Imagine your needing ice cubes," he says to the cold-blooded Ms. Fromsett. Moreover, the first-person angle gets tiresome after a while. Nevertheless, the movie is different, and one can hardly say that "Lady in the Lake" is anything less than entertaining for most of its running time.
The print that Warner Bros. obtained for "Lady in the Lake" looks good for its age, but it is clear that the studio did little to clean it up. Therefore, you will find more grain and more age spots throughout it than you might expect. I confess I have been so spoiled by WB's touching up and restoring so many of their early films that this one looks a but shabby to me. Still, it is not bad, and maybe the studio felt a few signs of age and grain would contribute to the movie's atmosphere.
There is little to say about the audio in "Lady in the Lake" except that it is a typical monaural of the day, reproduced here via Dolby Digital 1.0 processing. There is not much range to the frequency response or dynamics, and a low-level but audible hiss accompanies the sound. About two minutes into the film one forgets about such things.
All of the movies in the set contain the same kinds of extras: audio commentaries and trailers. In the case of "Lady in the Lake," the commentary is by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, who have done this kind of thing before. They are knowledgeable, affable, and fairly amusing, too. I enjoyed their exchange of opinions, reflections, and descriptions. In addition, there are twenty-two scene selections (but no chapter insert); a theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The set houses each film in its own thin, plastic case, and it also includes the excellent 2006, bonus-disc documentary, "Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light." The documentary is divided into thirteen chapters and lasts a total of sixty-seven minutes. Actors, filmmakers, film historians, screenwriters, composers, and novelists contribute their thoughts on the subject of noir, along with a plentitude of film clips to illustrate their points. After listening to all of these folks give their own definitions of the subject, I think it comes down to what actor/director Sidney Pollock says: The noir style is "very elusive." What's more, the bonus disc includes five episodes from the old "Crime Does Not Pay" series: "Women in Hiding," "You the People," Forbidden Passage," "A Gun in His Hand," and "The Luckiest Guy in the World." Each short subject lasts a little over twenty minutes.
Fans of older films never had it so good as they do today, with things like this third volume of noir titles from Warner Bros. Although I enjoyed to varying degrees all of the films in the set, as I've said, I think it's "Lady in the Lake" that deserves greatest consideration. It was Robert Montgomery's noble experiment not only in a noir style (to which the director probably didn't know he was contributing), but in avant-garde filmmaking that would eventually lead to an unexpected result: the video-game first-person shooter. Plus, fans of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" might want to see some of things being parodied in that much-later film. Who'da thunk.