Film Noir Classic Collection - Volume 2: (Born to Kill / Clash by Night / Crossfire / Dillinger / The Narrow Margin)
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Film Noir Classics Collection, The: Volume 2 (DVD) (5-Pack)
Hollywood's legendary tough guys and femme fatales collide again in The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume Two. The Collection includes five smoldering classics, all new to DVD and all digitally remastered: Born to Kill, Clash By Night, Crossfire, Dillinger and The Narrow Margin. The movies star film noir icons Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor, among others, and feature commentaries from film historians and directors including Robert Wise on Born To Kill Peter Bogdanovich, with archival contributions from Fritz Lang, on Clash By Night; John Milius on Dillinger and William Friedkin and Richard Fleischer on The Narrow Margin.]]>
Film noir is such a rich cinematic zone that second-tier specimens compel nearly as much fascination as the classics. At a glance, Volume 2 of Warner Bros.' (ever-expanding, we hope) Film Noir Collection is a distinct step down from Volume 1--inevitable when you've launched your series with five landmark titles, including three outright noir masterpieces (The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, Out of the Past). But linger beyond that first glance, because the second set is a flavorful mix of sleazoid iconography (two vehicles for B-movie bad boy Lawrence Tierney), an offbeat outing for a major director (Fritz Lang in his Howard Hughes RKO period), Poverty Row production circumstances that encourage aggressively peculiar, verging-on-radical filmmaking (the strange mélange that is Monogram's Dillinger), and two pressure-cooker suspense pictures that are landmark films in their own right (Crossfire and The Narrow Margin).
Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures, and Dillinger (1945) was probably the main reason why. With an Oscar-nominated script credited to Philip Yordan (abetted by his friend William Castle, director of Monogram's excellent When Strangers Marry), Max Nosseck's 60some-minute account of the Depression-era outlaw's brashly improvisatory career is a hypnotic mix of bargain-basement filmmaking (lotsa stock footage and minimalist sets), astute ripoff (the rain-and-gas-bomb robbery sequence from Lang's You Only Live Once), and Brechtian bravura. The major Hollywood studios had taken a vow of chastity when it came to glorifying gangsterism; Monogram ignored the embargo and barreled ahead to unaccustomed popular and critical success. The storyline actually scants the ultraviolence (no Bohemia Lodge shootout) and all-star supporting cast (no Pretty Boy Floyd, no Baby Face Nelson) of Dillinger's real life--likely a matter of cost-cutting rather than abstemiousness. Newcomer Lawrence Tierney nails the guy's coldblooded freakiness and animal magnetism, and the supporting cast includes such éminences noirs as Marc Lawrence, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Elisha Cook Jr. Producers Maurice and Frank King would make Gun Crazy four years later.
Born to Kill (1947) is the second helping of Tierney, playing a psychotic drifter who's irresistible to women ("His eyes run up and down ya like a searchlight!" breathes housemaid Ellen Colby, just about the only female he doesn't bother targeting). A number of people end up dead by his hand, but the kicker is that he crosses paths with a woman--socialite-divorcee Claire Trevor--just as heartless as he, and even more treacherous. The script makes less sense with each passing reel, but there are ripe character turns by Walter Slezak, as a philosophical private eye who operates out of a diner; Elisha Cook Jr., as Tierney's more level-headed partner; and Esther Howard, as a hard-bitten old bat who flirts with Cook in a nightmarish nocturnal wasteland outside San Francisco.
Three Roberts--Young, Mitchum, and Ryan--costar in Crossfire (1947), one of only a handful of noirs to be sanctified with Academy Award nominations: best picture, director Edward Dmytryk, screenwriter John Paxton, and supporting players Ryan and Gloria Grahame. The film unreels during a single sweaty, post-WWII night when one among a squad of GIs on leave in Washington, D.C., murders a nice Jewish man (Sam Levene) because he doesn't like "his kind." The audience knows who's guilty before the cops do, and Ryan's portrayal of the bigot will make the hair on your neck rise. Police detective Robert Young plays with his pipe too much and makes one speech too many, but the atmosphere is memorably taut and surreal.
Robert Ryan may be even scarier in Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952), a rare noir without any criminal aspect: all its bitterness and savagery is emotional, psychological, and--preeminently--sexual. Barbara Stanwyck, slightly past her stellar peak but in her prime as an actress, plays a married woman in a New England fishing town who knows what a bad idea it is but falls anyway for a vicious, misogynistic movie projectionist. Sample Clifford Odets dialogue, Stanwyck to Ryan: "What do you want to do to me? Put your teeth in me? Hurt me?" Clinching ensues. (All this and Marilyn Monroe, too.)
We've saved the best for last. Narrow Margin (1952) is the kind of trim, beautifully paced movie people have in mind when asking, "Why don't they make 'em like that anymore?" Two cops have to guard a gangster's widow against assassination as she rides the Golden West Limited sleeper train from Chicago to give evidence in L.A. Soon there's only one cop (gravel-voiced Charles McGraw, usually a villain), and he's finding the sharp-tongued widow (Marie Windsor) as obnoxious as she is endangered. Nothing goes quite as you'd expect in this exemplary train thriller, which rattles and rocks toward its destination without a music track or a wasted moment. --Richard T. Jameson
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First viewed (I tried watching them in chronological order) is Dillinger, a fictional biography of the real-life criminal John Dillinger. This movie stars Lawrence Tierney as the title character, a generally cold-hearted killer who is a cunning bank robber. For those most familiar with Tierney from his role as a crime boss in Reservoir Dogs, this is a showcase for the actor in his prime. The movie itself is more of an old-fashioned gangster movie (similar to the ones in the Warner Gangster Collection) than a true noir movie, but it is nonetheless good, though too much the B movie to be great.
Second is Crossfire, a more true noir film dealing with anti-Semitism. Starring three Roberts - Ryan, Young and Mitchum - it gets somewhat preachy towards the end which makes it merely good instead of great. Although the focus of the story shifts from character to character, the true star is Ryan as a hateful psychopath. Mitchum is good but underutilized and Young is competent but relatively boring.
The gem of the collection is Born to Kill, with Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor in a tale of classic film noir complete with femme fatales, murder and plenty of shady characters. Tierney plays a man on the lam after killing his girlfriend and her date (an ill-conceived attempt to get Tierney jealous). Soon he meets Trevor, but finding her engaged, woos and marries her wealthy step-sister. That doesn't stop Trevor and Tierney from their own star-crossed romance and soon enough there is more death. Directed by Robert Wise (also responsible for The Set-Up, and in other genres, The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story and Sound of Music), this is one of the classics of the noir genre.
Almost as good is Narrow Margin, the one movie with lesser stars such as Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. The story is about a cop escorting a reluctant witness on a train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles; also aboard the train are killers who don't know what the witness looks like, but are certain that McGraw is protecting her. This leads to mix-ups and plot twists that are ironic but rarely comic. This is one of the great "train thrillers," a neat sub-genre that includes such classics as The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest.
Finally, there is Clash by Night. Although the use of lighting and dialogue is noirish, this movie is not film noir but rather a soap opera with a romantic triangle of Barbara Stanwyck as the woman with the past, Paul Douglas as her benevolent but rather simple husband and Robert Ryan as the callous friend who insinuates himself into her life. Marilyn Monroe has a small role but as always, steals her scenes. Playing her boyfriend is Keith Andes, a guy who was supposed to be the next big thing but never made it.
All the discs come with commentaries that are often illuminating. Born to Kill and Narrow Margin are five-star flicks; the others are four stars. That averages to 4.4, but I will round up because of the extras. Even if these are not all truly film noir, this is a great collection and well-worth the viewing if you enjoy classic movies.
I am sure some reviewers (some already have) will criticize the films in this box and in future Warner fim noir box sets. Something those people need to understand is that Warner likely does not own the rights to many of the films that they may want to see included - Criterion released "Thieves Highway", Fox released "Nightmare Alley", and many other classics, including "Double Indemnity" are owned by some company other that Warner and have not released those films yet.
Personally, I feel that any release of classic noir, especially with the care and extras that Warner gives it, is worth five stars.
Each movie in this box set has something unusual to contribute, so even though some of the titles aren't textbook noir, they have enough noir elements to give them a toehold on the genre. I hope future volumes (I have #3 already) will include more intriguing titles. My preference would be for Angelface, Desperate, Conflict, Dead Reckoning, and The Big Heat. That said, I don't regret adding Volume 2 to my collection.
Born To Kill has all the classic elements an admirer of the genre craves and more. From the title one thinks the story will chronicle the destruction (and inevitable self-destruction) wrought by Laurence Tierney's one-track, menacing psychopath, and it does. But the original working title, Deadlier Than the Male, reveals the real story: Claire Trevor's composed detachment and icy self-possession as she takes over Tierney and assumes control of their situation. She manipulates people and events as though conducting moves in a game. She is utterly amoral, unlike Tierney's maniac who is organically bad; she has a choice whether to be bad or not, and simply doesn't care. The nice twist here is that in the toughguy chauvinism of noir, the woman proves more cunning and dangerous than any man.
Clash By Night has the telltale moodiness and self-destruction of noir, but without the moral ambiguity and lawless element. There is plenty of violence but not in the physical sense. Here it mainly takes place in the emotional upheaval of the characters, thus setting apart this title in a niche of its own.
Crossfire is an important piece for its groundbreaking treatment of bigotry, specifically anti-Semitism. Released slightly sooner than Gentleman's Agreement, an argument can be made that this movie paved the way for the social commentary that would mark much of postwar cinema.
Dillinger is a great example of how skimpy budgets helped create the look of what would come to be known as film noir. Not a lot of pennies went into this one, but neither was a single penny misspent. Every scene is spare and tight and the entire story moves along with the singlemindedness of a getaway car.
The Narrow Margin is all sharp angles and sharp dialogue, and even has a sharp detective in a tight spot. All in all, a sharp little movie, but what really sets it apart is the complete lack of a music score. The director replaces strings and brass with locomotives to punctuate what might otherwise be a typical suspense-on-a-train yarn. The rushing rhythm of the tracks enhances the rapid pace of the story and unrelenting pursuit of the antagonists, while whistles and screeches mirror the shrill unpleasantness of a reluctant witness escorted by an even more reluctant protector. Claustrophobes beware--the train interiors give this one a real sense of restriction and entrapment.
There are not a lot of extra features in this set but each title does include a commentary track. I especially liked the ones on Born To Kill and Crossfire.
Most recent customer reviews
Probably the best filmnoir box set ever. Marie Windsor should've received an academy award for Narrow Margin.Read more
The quality of each was really good. No streaks, pauses, blurs.
Perfectly satisfied with the quality of all.