Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warners' Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 collects ten thrillers probably classified in the 'Low "A"' to 'High "B"' range, encompassing titles from Warners, RKO and MGM with a Monogram oddity thrown in for good measure. Robert Mitchum appears in two features and Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden in one apiece; Edward G. Robinson, Van Heflin, Charles Bronson, Farley Granger and Richard Basehart are also on hand to give the set a wide variety of acting styles. The femme fatales and ladies in distress are an even more interesting cross section: Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Faith Domergue, Cathy O'Donnell, Jane Greer, Jayne Mansfield, Phyllis Kirk, Sally Forrest, Jan Sterling and the elusive Jean Gillie.
The collection contains five double bill discs, each available separately. This pairing links Act of Violence and Mystery Street, both from MGM.
Act of Violence
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 82 min. / Street Date July 31, 2007 / 20.98 or 59.92 in the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 boxed set
Starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter, Berry Kroeger, Taylor Holmes
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Film Editor Conrad A. Nervig
Original Music Bronislau Kaper
Written by Robert L. Richards from a story by Collier Young
Produced by William H. Wright
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Act of Violence is a great example of what makes a noir film noir. The plot is a simple revenge story that doesn't involve organized crime, massive conspiracies or private detectives. Instead, a prosperous post-war family living the American 'good life' is destroyed by a dark secret that undermines their complacent happiness from within. Sunny daytime scenes soon give way to stark, pitiless night exteriors as the psychology of the story darkens. Act of Violence doesn't have a lot behind its style. The drama is oversimplified and the characterizations inadequately explained. Just the same, fine acting from Van Heflin and Robert Ryan guarantee a strong surface tension.
Veteran Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is doing fine as a contractor in a growing California town with his wife Edith (Janet Leigh) and his baby son. Then Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) comes looking for him with a gun. Frank Enley panics and balks at telling his wife the full reason why Joe is after him, and why he can't go to the police: it has to do with an incident when both men were prisoners of war in Germany, four years previous.
The years immediately after WW2 inspired stories about the readjustment problems of returning soldiers, as seen in The Best Years of Our Lives, Till the End of Time and Pride of the Marines. I don't recall the concept of the 'psycho soldier' surfacing until the Vietnam war, when political discord and exploitation filmmaking combined to make it seem as if every veteran was a walking time bomb. The exceptionally sensitive actor Robert Ryan was again cast for his ability to be tough and implacable, and makes the obsessed Joe Parkson into a limping menace. Under the stark main titles, Joe checks into a cheap hotel and cocks his .45 automatic pistol in anticipation of blowing a way a man who was once his best friend.
Act of Violence must have been riveting in 1948 when its concept was fresh. Parkson tracks Enley to a mountain lake and then follows him home, dragging his lame leg around the house like Lon Chaney's Mummy monster and driving Edith Enley half crazy with fear. Edith knows that something fundamental is awry when Frank refuses to call the police or take any obvious precautions against Parkson; his plan is to simply avoid him, as if running away could solve the problem. Parkson has no problem tracing his quarry to a contractor's convention in downtown Los Angeles. Drunk, panicked and unable to face his own guilt, Enley is picked up by a trio of skid row lowlifes. B-Girl Pat (Mary Astor, seven telling years after The Maltese Falcon) sets up Enley for a crooked lawyer (Taylor Holmes) and a slimy hit man (Berry Kroeger) who seek to profit by eliminating Parkson for cash.
The film's dramatics are curiously unresolved. Both leading male characters are crippled. Parkson is a physical/psychological mess of revenge motivations, and Enley is a moral weakling. Removed from the root cause, the women must look beyond their own experience to understand what to do. Parkson's loyal sweetheart Ann Sturges (Phyllis Thaxter) fights his vengeful quest every step of the way, while Enley's poor wife Edith has a more complicated problem. She's repulsed when her handsome husband reveals himself to be spineless and guilty, but never moves beyond passively consenting to his wishes, even when he repeatedly lies to her, 'good reasons' or no. Enley's whimpering explanation of the fatal wartime incident is so shocking that Edith has no immediate response. Her husband collaborated with his Nazi captors to survive, a choice taken for personal survival and rationalized by the claim that he was trying to protect his fellow prisoners. The result was that all of his bunkmates were horribly murdered; Parkson survived only by sheer luck.
Enley has managed a comfortable denial for three years, thinking that all of the men affected by his mistake were dead. But as soon as Parkson materializes, he crumbles into a whining baby, alternately excusing and condemning himself, and most memorably crying out in a downtown L.A. tunnel for Parkson not to die. Curiously, Enley's bad judgment in the P.O.W. camp no longer seems so unforgivable -- only in draconian codes of honor are starving men are expected to die quietly, remaining fully responsible for their actions as they succumb.
The melodramatic ending isn't particularly noir, with Enley sacrificing himself to compensate for his sins, 'doing the right thing' after drunkenly setting an underworld killer loose on Parkson. Parkson receives a morale lift -- "Gee, honey, people aren't all scum after all!" -- while the bad news for Edith Enley is never even depicted. The loyal wife of a potentially murderous vigilante gets roses and kisses, while the loyal wife of an uncovered Quisling isn't worth our attention. That's MGM for you!
What still works 100% in Act of Violence are the evocative downtown L.A. street scenes, with Enley creeping around the Angel's Flight funicular railway and avoiding wind-blown trash in the streets. Who knew that these film noir pictures would be the only existing record of a long-gone urban millieu?
Act of Violence looks sharp in B&W -- the Volume 4 pressings are better than ever -- with a clear soundtrack to bring out the sound of Parkson's unseen shuffling feet as he creeps around the Enley home. Dr. Drew Casper provides the commentary track and the efficient Sparkhill featurette Deal with the Devil utilizes input from Alain Silver, Christopher Coppola, Oliver Stone and Richard Schickel. A trailer rounds out the package.
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 93 min. / Street Date July 31, 2007 / 20.98 or 59.92 in the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 boxed set
Starring Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett, Elsa Lanchester, Marshall Thompson, Edmon Ryan, Jan Sterling, Betsy Blair
Cinematography John Alton
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Gabriel Scognamillo
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Original Music Rudolph G. Kopp
Written by Sydney Boehm, Richard Brooks, story by Leonard Spiegelgass
Produced by Frank E. Taylor
Directed by John Sturges
Mystery Street is an engaging murder investigation story that introduced scientific medical research to film audiences. Starting with only a skeleton, a Harvard professor not only determines that the victim was female, but that she was pregnant as well. Sidney Boehm and Richard Brooks' cleverly plotted script initially puts the finger on an innocent young man who foolishly gets drunk when his wife is in the hospital, and takes a car ride with the wrong hot blonde. As this is an MGM film, this moralizing, Crime Does Not Pay theme harps on the idea that straying from the straight and narrow is an invitation to chaos. Directed with energy by a young John Sturges, Mystery Street showcases a number of exciting actors and gives Ricardo Montalban a starring role after his noir debut in the previous year's Border Incident.
A skeleton is found on a Massachusetts beach. Boston detective Lt. Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) takes it to Harvard, where Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) determines that it belonged to a murdered, pregnant woman. Evidence traces the girl back to Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), a young married man who doesn't tell the full truth when questioned. Henry is locked up while his distraught wife Grace (Sally Forrest) tries to find out why witnesses all finger her husband. Meanwhile, Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester), the landlady of the murdered woman, is working on a side deal of her own.
Mystery Street starts with a standard pulp opening -- a luckless blonde dish (Jan Sterling of Ace in the Hole) is blasted with a pistol, point blank. By foolishly trying to conceal his shameful behavior, Henry Shanway inadvertently maneuvers himself into a murder one rap. Little does he know that the efforts of the real killer (and a conniving blackmailer) are being countered by solid police work. Portuguese-American cop Peter Morales shows little sympathy for Shanway, yet doggedly pursues his job even after a good case against Shanway is established (are we certain this is film noir?). The combined efforts of several people eventually points out the real culprit, and police rush to capture him.
The script is refreshing in its refusal to idealize its secondary hero, Sally Forrest's Grace Shanway. She stays faithful to her louse of a husband, who in the tradition of Phantom Lady remains incarcerated while she pursues his acquittal. She's aided somewhat by rooming house neighbor Jackie Elcott (Betsy Blair of Marty), a no-nonsense waitress who knows her way around automatic pistols because she once had a Marine as a boyfriend. On the other side of the law, the actual killer is easy to spot, but additional amusement comes via a sparkling performance from Elsa Lanchester as an alcoholic spinster with dreams of financing a bright future through blackmail. When Montalban asks where her husband is, Lanchester's eye-roll is worth five lines of funny dialogue.
Actual Boston area locations provide the realism that makes Mystery Street stand out. Walter Burke finds the skeleton on a broad beach in a scene repeated almost identically in Steven Spielberg's Jaws. The innovative plotting reduces the 'MGM sanitizing effect'; although we know that right will eventually triumph, Sturges gives Mystery Street a believable surface tension. Everybody seems to have a reason to lie to the police or withhold useful information, and we don't mind when Bruce Bennett's Harvard man demonstrates that his C.S.I. -like scientific research just as often exonerates a suspects as proves them guilty. It looks pretty bad for Henry Shanley when his car is pulled from a swamp, Psycho- style, and the murdered girl's personal effects are found inside. Henry needs to improve his bad behavior by going back and watching a steady diet of Andy Hardy movies.
The unassuming, entertaining murder tale Mystery Street holds up well almost sixty years later. John Alton's effortlessly precise cinematography mostly most extreme effects while lending realism and character. to interior rooms. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, co-editors of the original Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, re-team to offer solid observations about the film's place in the noir cycle. They note that the film's title isn't a particularly good fit, and point out that actress Betsy Blair was blacklisted simply for being a women's rights activist in the Screen Actor's Guild. The featurette Murder at Harvard presents testimony from Patricia King Hanson and Richard Schickel and archival input from cinematographer John Alton.
The crazy cover art for Mystery Street pretends that Montalban and Forrest are screen sweethearts, when they spend the movie as bitter adversaries. Both features have chapter stops but no chapter menus. After experimenting with slim cases, Warners is back to using full-sized keep cases for boxed sets also available separately.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Act of Violence & Mystery Street rate:
Movie: both Excellent
Video: both Excellent
Sound: both Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, commentaries, new featurettes.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 18, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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