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Olive Films is serious about Blu-ray, that much is for certain, and they've found a creative way to release some titles that are already out in standard def. One collection now available consists of three late-career Otto Preminger titles, Hurry Sundown, Skidoo! and Such Good Friends. The four-disc Olive Films Film Noir Collection Volume One revisits a group of thrillers released by Paramount, one from 1949 and three from 1951. They're all tough-minded serious noir items, even though one is technically an adventure film. Set in Africa, its expressionist lighting schemes make it seem more noir than the American-set stories.
1951's Appointment With Danger stars Alan Ladd in a solid role as a Postal Inspector who trusts nobody: the famous quote has Ladd telling us that, "Sure I know what love is -- it's what goes on between a man and a .45 that won't jam." The exciting story sees Inspector Al Goddard (Ladd) tracking down the murderers of one of his fellow agents, to a particularly ruthless gang that's planning to rob a mail truck of millions. With plenty of dark wet streets and thugs in trench coats on view, Appointment with Danger has much in common with later Secret Agent spy tales: more slowly paced, but with more credible characters and some great hardboiled dialogue.
The interesting character mix has Goddard arguing philosophy with a nun (Phyllis Calvert of Madonna of the Seven Moons) who witnessed the murder before going undercover to infiltrate the ranks of the robbers. The gang leader (Paul Stewart) hires Goddard but has trouble with a pair of underling thugs, paranoid Joe Regas (Jack Webb) and passive George Soderquist (Harry Morgan). As the day of the caper draws near, Goddard discovers that the gang leader's moll (sultry Jan Sterling of Ace in the Hole) knows that he's a double agent. The gang threatens the nun but the show ends with a number of fresh surprises.
Al Goddard is a piece of work. His cynical remarks anger his boss and when he first meets Sister Augustine, he quotes Martin Luther just to provoke a reaction. But a professional understanding soon develops between Goddard and his key witness.
The proto- James Bond feeling comes when lone wolf operator Al Goddard goes into action. He's constantly on the move. When a corpse in an alley leads to a dead end, he asks a few questions in a nearby rail yard. Realizing he's on the right track, Goddard ditches his taxi and hops a passing freight to the next town, right then and there. Four hours later our agent has found Sister Augustine and has her downtown making a positive identification. As a spirited and devout nun Phyllis Calvert should have won an award for avoiding "cute" Going My Way whimsy. When Sister Augustine accompanies the Inspectors to a pool hall, the movie doesn't milk the scene for undue laughs.
Following another noir trend, much of Appointment with Danger is filmed on real city streets, including the swift mail robbery sequence. Also notable are scenes of sadism involving the killers played by Jack Webb and Harry Morgan. Webb's understated performance is a big help; he retained this deadpan persona for his later film and TV roles, as in his self-directed feature Pete Kelly's Blues. Even more interesting in retrospect is that actors Webb and Morgan later played L.A.P.D. detectives in the second iteration of Webb's long-running TV police drama Dragnet. After seeing one particularly callous murder scene, the relationship of Officers Joe Friday and Bill Gannon will never again seem the same.
1951's Union Station is a suspenseful cops 'n' kidnappers tale that this time celebrates the professionalism of a policeman assigned to a generic Midwestern railroad station, but actually filmed at Los Angeles' downtown Union Station. The show reunites William Holden and Nancy Olson from Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd..
Lorna (Allene Roberts of The Red House), the blind daughter of the wealthy Murchison is kidnapped at a railway station. Murchison's secretary Joyce (Nancy Olson) helps Union Station police Lieutenant William Calhoun (William Holden) in the investigation. Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) helps stake out a luggage locker to be used as a ransom drop. The cops close in on a couple of the kidnappers without results, as their boss Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger) covers up loose ends by committing a series of murders. It looks like Beacom will be captured -- until Calhoun and Donnelly discover that he was once a railway employee and knows how to escape through the station's disused underground tunnels.
Union Station is a generic police thriller that becomes noir through certain attitudes and behaviors. After Lt. Calhoun mentions the railroad's desire not to be sued for false arrest, Joyce worries that the authorities are only concerned with their public image. Even the colorful Irish Inspector Donnelly is pessimistic about the helpless Lorna's chances for survival. Union Station is most commonly singled out for a scene in which Calhoun and Donnelly threaten to throw a captured kidnapper under a train and make it look like an accident. Although this situation illustrates an extreme case, before modern criminal rights legislation American police took much more license in their treatment of suspects.
Lt. Calhoun already runs his train station like a police state. Calhoun personally nabs thieves and con men; when trouble brews he can blanket the station with stern-faced plainclothes detectives. Director Maté stages several scenes in Los Angeles's Union Station, using large crowds of extras. An elaborate small-gauge underground train system provides an exciting, unique setting for the tense conclusion. When the sightless, panicked Lorna comes close to touching the train system's high-voltage power rails, the film's sense of jeopardy doubles.
Noir Bad Girl Jan Sterling returns to play a standard-issue gun moll, pleading with Joe to let the girl live. The talented Ms. Sterling would make an indelible noir mark one year later in Billy Wilder's caustic Ace in the Hole.
Barry Fitzgerald plays it straight until the fade-out, when the filmmakers exploit the actor's impish smile to give audiences a "feel good" lift. Nancy Olson and William Holden develop an amusing relationship despite the grave circumstances. Between the convincing action scenes, we're always aware that the studio is hoping to strike sparks with Holden and Olson as co-stars.
From 1949, Rope of Sand is first and foremost a Hal Wallis production for Burt Lancaster, who got a terrific debut three years before in The Killers. By now Lancaster was trying to branch out from his screen image as a moody noir loser hero in a torn undershirt. Wallis brought Lancaster with him to Paramount, where new torn undershirts awaited.
In Rope of Sand Lancaster plays yet another grim-faced adventurer, this time lost in a sandstorm in South African diamond country. The plot brings together a group of shifty fortune hunters, including three cast members from the wartime classic Casablanca. The corrupt Colonial Diamond Company beats and tortures lion hunter/diamond thief Mike (Lancaster) to find a treasure trove of stolen gems hidden somewhere in a heavily guarded no-man's-land called the Rope of Sand. His opponent is the sadistic Commandant of Mine Police Paul Vogel (Paul Henreid). Colonial's scheming executive Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains) prefers to obtain the information in a more amorous way, by hiring the French adventuress Suzanne Renaud (Corrine Calvet) to pry it from Mike's lips. Also entering into the dangerous equation are the camp's Doctor Hunter (Sam Jaffe) and the unscrupulous opportunist Toady (Peter Lorre). Mike has a secret plan to bribe his way past Vogel's Afrika Corps- like security troops, but dare he put it into effect?
A polished production on all technical levels, the gritty Rope of Sand has excellent direction by William Dieterle and an abundance of stock characters. Suzanne Reynaud blackmails Martingale by threatening to accuse him of rape, but instead agrees to seduce Mike for money. The promise of an amorous future with Mike straightens her out. Shoehorned uncomfortably into the proceedings is the superfluous Toady, who appears in just three brief scenes to dispense a series of colorful observations and verbal riddles.
Rope of Sand exploits Burt Lancaster's known sales points. The tough guy hero's stoic acceptance of the numerous whippings and beatings almost seems perverse. People are forced to sign confessions at gunpoint and double-crosses become triple-crosses as if loyalty were a game of musical chairs. Why any of these people bother to listen to each other is a mystery, as all know perfectly well that nobody is telling the truth. The film's isolated outpost setting seems more than a little strange. It's a hellhole in the desert, yet both Martingale and Vogel maintain luxurious private houses suitable for Palm Springs.
As is common in genre films of the Cold War era, ostentatious high culture is a sure sign of corruption. At one point Vogel shows off a priceless porcelain vase that he obtained from a (presumably Jewish) Frenchman forced to flee during the occupation. True to the unwritten tough-guy code, Mike Davis smashes the object just to see the look on Vogel's face. Mike enjoys perverse acts of destruction almost as much as he "enjoys" being hung by his feet and whipped.
Leading lady Corrine Calvet thought her big break had arrived two years earlier when she was brought to Hollywood as a possible challenger to Rita Hayworth. Playing up the sex angle, Paramount publicists exploited a moment in which Calvet's character violently rips her dress in an attempt to compromise the Claude Rains character. Critics generally liked Lancaster's performance, even if they saved the bulk of their praise for Paul Henried's nasty villain. Lancaster's own assessment of the film was unprintable, but he was quoted at a time when he was itching to move on to more interesting roles.
Another Hal Wallis discovery, Charlton Heston hailed from the Midwest and had the broadest shoulders in town. He began his Hollywood film career in a leading role in Dark City. The moody film noir was envisioned to do for this actor, what Mark Hellinger's The Killers had done for Burt Lancaster. Wallis even produced a short subject to promote his find.
The murky doings concern gambler Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) and some crooked associates (Jack Webb & Ed Begley). They fleece an ex-flyer (Don DeFore), only to be shocked when the man commits suicide. The gamblers' arguments over their shady earnings become a lesser issue when Winant's violent brother Sidney, an unseen presence, proceeds with a campaign of revenge murders. Nobody knows what this Sidney looks like. To learn more about the man who wants to kill him, Danny goes to Los Angeles and pretends to be an insurance investigator to get close to Arthur Winant's widow Victoria (Viveca Lindfors). But not even Victoria has a photo of her brother-in-law. His deception unmasked, the troubled Danny relocates to Las Vegas and avails himself of aid from "Soldier" (Harry Morgan), an old buddy who wanted no part of the swindle back East. Singer Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott) follows, too much in love with Danny to hide her feelings for him.
Dark City has more than its share of bleak noir moodiness. Its characters drift through dark night streets as if looking for an exit to a better life. The film's selection of ex-G.I. losers and users lack a higher purpose. Only the slow-witted Soldier expresses doubts about taking the guileless Arthur Winant to the cleaners. Although Charlton Heston contributes an impressively mature performance, the character he plays is essentially an amoral jerk. The disillusioned Danny Haley helps fleece Arthur Winant with the same non-committal attitude by which he strings along the shamelessly loyal Fran. Danny shows little sense of duty to the law, here represented by a rather anemic policeman on the case, Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger). His main motivation is a fear of being strangled -- the phantom stalker Sidney Winant is frighteningly efficient. Danny also sees nothing wrong with dating the emotionally distressed Victoria Winant and attaching himself to her small son.
Dark City accepts Danny's tawdry actions as necessary chess moves in the effort to evade the law and save his own neck. By transferring the onus of guilt onto the maniacal Sidney Winant, the film never requires Danny Haley to face up to his culpability. He instead softens his outlook and accepts Fran as a real partner in a new honest life. Charlton Heston's personal debut is a standout, but Dark City is a not a strong star vehicle.
Dark City was just one of six feature films produced by Hal Wallis in 1950. Cinematographer Victor Milner provides the noir mood lighting and Franz Waxman's dynamic score makes a positive impact as well. Sensitive director William Dieterle elicits a moving performance from Don DeFore and skillfully handles the supporting personalities. Viewers will appreciate the contributions of Jack Webb (caustic & selfish), Ed Begley (nervous, ailing) and Harry Morgan (feeble but loyal). Making a memorable appearance in an action scene is the immediately recognizable Mike Mazurki, a noir fixture from Murder, My Sweet and Night and the City. After suffering through a weak part in Warners' Backfire, Viveca Lindfors seems equally out of place as a widowed war bride housewife. Ms. Lindfors' brief Hollywood career was plagued by parts unsuited to her talents.
Hal Wallis' earlier discovery Lizabeth Scott is the long-suffering girlfriend. No matter how poorly he treats her, Fran Garland repeatedly throws herself at Danny, following him across country like a faithful puppy. She sings several nightclub standards. Dark City walks and talks like a hardboiled noir, but it plays as a compromise.
Charlton Heston's career certainly got off to an enviable start, but real success wouldn't arrive until Cecil B. DeMille handed him the lead in his overblown circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth. From then on it was one historical or Biblical character after another. No other Hollywood actor has had a career even remotely resembling Heston's.
Olive Films' Blu-ray set of Film Noir Collection Volume One are essentially the same releases from 2010 and 2011, mastered in HD. The transfers are all quite good even though no digital work has been done to clean up occasional bits of dirt and debris. A few scenes are scratched or a bit unstable, but overall the transfers are very sharp and the audio tracks strong. Appointment with Danger is quite good if perhaps a tiny bit light and has a few brief flurries of white speckles, hardly enough to mention. Union Station is in almost perfect condition. Rope of Sand has a smooth and sharp transfer that flatters its dramatic lighting schemes. A slightly distorted soundtrack renders some of the softer dialogue less clear than it might be. Dark City can be a bit contrasty and some light shrinkage mars a middle section for a few minutes.
This is a step up for noir fans, and another Olive Films presentation that cares enough to bring us classic era pictures in Blu-ray. There are no subtitles, however, and no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Olive Films Film Noir Collection Volume One Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.