Warner Bros. own one of the biggest catalogues of old films in the world, and their numbers include a good deal of what today we call "film noir." They have so much film noir, in fact, that the studio is now on its fifth volume of such material, this one titled "Film Noir Classics Collection, Vol. 5." It includes eight films with ambitions to noir standing. Needless to say, however, even WB's collection of film noir is not limitless, and with this fifth volume, they begin hitting the lower levels of "classic" status.
As I have written before, no one actually used the term "film noir" or "dark film" until the mid Forties. (American critic Lloyd Shearer wrote about "dark film" for the New York "Times" in 1945, but film historians credit French critic Nino Frank with first using the term "film noir" in a 1946 essay, along with fellow critic Jean-Pierre Chartier.) However, movie audiences still didn't know the expression too well until the Fifties and later when French filmmakers began employing it to describe their own movies that depicted a dark or despairing atmosphere, where paranoia abounded. Hollywood noir films such as the ones in this collection from the early Forties onward reflected a downbeat, post-World War II pessimism and were usually crime, gangster, or detective thrillers set in a milieu of smoke, fog, night, and shadows. Probably a combination of German expressionism and Italian neorealism influenced their direction. In any case, we almost always found a lone hero pitted against an obscure world of death, deceit, and corruption, where a femme fatale would lure a man into danger and anything could, and usually would, happen. The films in Volume 5 may not be the best of the breed, but they do reflect the general noir attitudes.
I won't try to cover all eight films in the set, so let me just mention seven of them and then go into detail on the one I think best communicates the atmosphere of noir films.
First up, we get "Armored Car Robbery" (1950) from RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charles McGraw and Adele Jurgens.
After that are
"Backfire" (1950) from Warner Brothers-First National Pictures, directed by Vincent Sherman and starring Edmond O'Brien, Dane Clark, and Vivica Lindfors.
"Crime in the Streets" (1956) from Allied Artists and one of the best in the set, directed by Donald Siegel and starring James Whitmore, Sal Mineo, and Mark Rydell.
"Deadline at Dawn" (1946) from RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Harold Clurman and starring Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas.
"Desperate" (1947) from RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Anthony Mann and starring Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, and Raymond Burr.
"Dial 1119" (1950) from MGM, directed by Gerald Mayer and starring Marshall Thompson, Virginia Field, and Leone Ames.
And "The Phenix City Story" (1955) from Allied Artists, directed by Phil Karlson and starring John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, and Edward Andrews.
The film I want to talk about, though, is "Cornered" (1945), an RKO Radio Picture directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, Edgar Barrier, and Luther Adler. Unlike some of the films in the set that today seem dated, "Cornered" holds up pretty well.
Warners use "Cornered" as their leadoff movie in the set, as well they should. Along with "Crime in the Streets," it is clearly the most illuminating and entertaining film in the collection. The star, Dick Powell, had been a song-and-dance man for most of his film career, but as he got older he decided to do darker, more-serious films. The previous year he had scored a surprise hit as detective Philip Marlowe in "Murder, My Sweet," and RKO wanted to repeat the success using the same star and director. Although they don't duplicate their previous accomplishment, you can see they were trying, and they almost pulled it off.
After establishing his credentials in things like "Secrets of the Lone Wolf," "Confessions of Boston Blackie," "The Falcon Strikes Back," "Back to Bataan" and "Murder, My Sweet" in the Forties, director Edward Dmytryk would make an even bigger name for himself in the Fifties and Sixties with films like "The Caine Mutiny," "Soldier of Fortune," "The Young Lions," "Walk on the Wild Side," and "The Carpetbaggers." But he demonstrates he knows a feeling for noir mysteries in "Cornered."
The setting is the end of World War II, and Dick Powell plays Laurence Gerard, a discharged Canadian flier who learns that his wife, a French Resistance fighter, died at the hands of a French collaborator. He determines to find out who the murderer was, track him down, and kill him. So, basically, we have a revenge plot, with a reckless, impetuous man willing to go to any lengths to find the man he's after.
Although Gerard is not a detective, the narrative works as a detective film. More important, the movie has all the earmarks of good film noir. Gerard's investigation takes him from England to France to Switzerland to Argentina. There are always plenty of dark streets, alleys, and passageways about, with sinister characters and femme fatales lurking around every corner. Plus, there is murder. Always, there is murder.
If there is an excess of anything, it's in the department of sinister characters, which seems to go on forever: There's Melchoir Incza (Walter Slezak), a shady operator who volunteers to guide Gerard around Buenos Aires; Mme. Madeleine Jarmac (Micheline Cheirel), possibly the wife of the man Gerard is hunting; Senor and Senora Camargo (Steven Geray and Nina Vale), a rich, shady industrialist and his wife; Manuel Santana (Morris Carnovsky), a shady lawyer; Diego (Jack La Rue), a shady hotel valet; Du Bois (Edgar Barrier), a shady insurance man; and Perchon (Gregory Gay), a shady banker. Talk about shady.
No one is as he or she seems to be. Therefore, trust no one.
Before the movie is twenty minutes in, Gerard has gotten himself knee-deep in war criminals. What the film lacks, however, is a Bogart or Mitchum in the leading role. Powell is fine, mind you, but compared to Bogart or Mitchum he is somewhat bland, lacking ultimate charisma. Then, too, although the supporting cast is fine, one gets the feeling that everyone is doing an impression of Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, and the like.
Even so, "Cornered" has some decent thrills and an abundance of noirish atmosphere. That should sell the film to fans of the genre.
Most of the movies come in a standard, 1.33:1 screen ratio, except the later films, "Crime in the Streets" and "The Phenix City Story," which open up to fill a widescreen television. The picture quality varies slightly from film to film, but mainly it's adequate. There are no major restorations here, just the best prints WB could find, cleaned of most major ticks, lines, scratches, flecks, and fades. The black-and-white contrasts are OK, too, although black levels are not always as deep as one would like. Toward the end of reels we find the greatest amount of age deterioration, but it's hardly a distraction.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is nothing to get excited about, having little range or impact. Still, it displays excellent midrange clarity along with quiet backgrounds, and that should be worth something.
What with two movies on one side of each of the four discs in the set, there was, understandably, little room left over for extras. About all we get are theatrical trailers on two of the films, including "Cornered"; scene selections you have to click through; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Most of the films in the "Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5" are fairly ordinary, Warner Bros. having included their better material in the first four volumes. Nevertheless, "Cornered" and "Crime in the Streets" are above-average entries in the genre, and they alone may be worth one's purchase of the set.
Note: My 5/10 film rating below is for the entire set of eight films. I'd give "Cornered" and "Crime in the Streets" a 6/10 rating.