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Warners' Film Noir Vol. 3 collection reaches deeper into the MGM and RKO vaults for a generous helping of expressive, even exotic noir delights. Although the Humphrey Bogart starring vehicles have been exhausted there are plenty of fringe benefits to be enjoyed here: Robert Montgomery, Ricardo Montalban, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. Although only one or two of the titles here is a classic, they're all fascinating.
This time around Warners' offers an extra disc with a docu and short subjects billed as "exclusive to the set." Well, the set is exclusive to the set, as none of these features is being offered as an individual release. Also interesting is the use of sturdy plastic slim cases for the individual discs. The set takes up less than half the space it might, making us with shelves overflowing with discs wish that slim cases had become the DVD standard nine years ago.
Lady in the Lake
1946 / 105 min.
Starring Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Tom Tully, Leon Ames, Jayne Meadows, Dick Simmons, Morris Ankrum, Lila Leeds
Cinematography Paul C. Vogel
Art Direction Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Gene Ruggiero
Original Music David Snell
Written by Steve Fisher from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Produced by George Haight
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Lady in the Lake announces its unusual nature by starting like a Christmas-themed movie. Carols are heard over holiday card titles, just like It's a Wonderful Life. For a moment we think we're off on an eccentric journey, when the last card lifts to reveal a small automatic pistol, like a dog in the manger. The movie is indeed an oddball experiment, but it's difficult to claim that it really works: The majority of the show is all filmed from the point of view of its detective hero, as he interviews clients, investigates rooms and even crashes in a car. Although the trickery now seems corny, forced and awkward, it certainly makes Lady in the Lake unique among films noir. The previous year's Dark Passage did much the same gag for about 28 minutes, until the camera turns around and reveals the mystery man to be Humphrey Bogart.
Lady in the Lake is undeniably popular at group screenings, and a lot of the laughter it generates is due to the snappy Raymond Chandler rejoinders in Steve Fisher's script. The publisher uses 50 words to ask budding writer Marlowe what his writing secret is, and Marlowe answers, "Short sentences." But most of the comedy in the movie is an unintentional result of its fundamentally malfunctioning gimmick. After a direct-to-camera introduction where Marlowe asks us to watch the people he's watching very carefully, most of the picture is in Philip Marlowe-Vision, with all shots taken from his point of view. That is, the best human point of view that can be imitated by a two-hundred pound blimped Mitchell camera on a dolly. Even compensating for the presumably thick-headed 1946 audiences ("Duh, what's going on? I don't get it.") Marlowe's actions and responses are really slow. He (we) walk forward to doors, which open oh-so carefully, allowing the camera/Marlowe/us to finally go through.
The subjective camera stares down people directly, almost immediately showing itself unequal to the task of subjectivity: It doesn't blink, and if it gets distracted (as when Marlowe 'pans' to the left to follow Lila Leeds' shapely receptionist) it turns like a howitzer mounted on a turret -- slowly. With both Audrey Totter and Leon Ames in the room, Philip can look only at one or the other, but not both at the same time -- his eyes don't flit around a room as do ours, but scan it slowly like a Martian probe from The War of the Worlds. Finally, when people talk to Marlowe, they stare right at him/the camera/us. People normally don't make constant eye contact with each other unless they're selling something or trying out their hypnotic skill. Everybody in this movie behaves like the proverbial Deer in the Headlights. Perhaps when people averted their eyes from the camera, the filmmakers decided it looked like they were talking to somebody else.
We don't need any adjustment period to accept fists flying into the camera and the screen going black to represent when Marlowe gets cold-cocked by various attackers. The scene then fades up when he awakens, hours later. That's great, except that it makes other fade-out / fade-in transitions seem kind of weird. I know this thinking is a bit too much on the literal side, but it looks like Philip Marlowe is a closet narcoleptic or something, suddenly falling unconscious whenever a scene ends.
We have to watch carefully to appreciate Lady in the Lake's fancier camera tricks. Marlowe takes forever to get into a car, but then there's a clever change to a rear screen setup -- or it least it seems like one until the camera view pans way left to look over Marlowe's shoulder at a pursuing car. It's worth studying to see how they did it.
Lady in the Lake gets off to a bad thespic start with Audrey Totter, who at first plays the conniving femme fatale schtick far too broadly. Either we get used to the stylized histrionics, or the acting gets better later on. Totter eventually becomes rather interesting, or at least she would if she didn't have to stare directly at the camera so much. Lloyd Nolan is effective in a part requiring quiet menace, and Tom Tully is amusing as the precinct Captain calling his daughter on Christmas Eve. Jayne Meadows is particularly awkward as an unbalanced woman who keeps throwing different pitches at Marlowe. The movie invites us to "be" Marlowe, but we really aren't: When Totter, Meadows and even the woo-bait Ms. Leeds send us come-hither looks, we know darn well that no dish is going to act like that ... unless one is exceptionally vain or happens to be as good looking as Robert Montgomery. And what are female viewers supposed to think when the seductresses 'comes on' to them, making eye contact through the screen? No, the subjective "you are Marlowe" experiment remains an experiment, spelled G-i-m-m-i-c-k. We expect the point of view of a movie to be decided by the director. Such a literal identification with an individual character last only a few moments or needs peculiar circumstances to be sustained -- such as Joseph Cotten's paralyzed man POV in Hitchcock's old TV episode Breakdown.
MGM was only briefly a Home Sweet Home for film noir, and Lady in the Lake has got to be chalked up as an aberration sold to the front office by an enthusiastic Montgomery. Although the experiment doesn't prove him a Hitchcock, his cast must have been thrilled. Imagine being given scenes where nobody cuts away from you, and you're on screen for twenty, thirty seconds at a clip? What actor could resist? Why doesn't Marlowe do some smart detective work we'd appreciate, like go and peek through Lila Leeds' shower window?
Warner's DVD of the weird MGM Lady in the Lake has a clean transfer and better sound than the old laserdisc, which distorted terribly. We can tell that the new re-mixers have worked on the tracks to minimize the distortion. During the car chase we hear strange choral effects that resemble the Star Gate music for 2001, or perhaps cocktail hour lounge cues for Invaders from Mars.
Examining this gimmicky film are film noir and Raymond Chandler experts Alain Silver and James Ursini. They have an interesting observation for every visual and plenty of interesting bits of Philip Marlowe lore from Bay City, which, in concert with the books, is a nom de cité for Santa Monica. The only other extra is a trailer.
1949 / 94 min.
Starring Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Alfonso Bedoya, Teresa Celli, Charles McGraw.
Cinematography John Alton
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Conrad A. Nervig
Written by John C. Higgins, George Zuckerman
Produced by Nicholas Nayfack
Directed by Anthony Mann
MGM's Dore Schary graced 1949 with this tough-as-nails noir, exactly the kind of grim-death drama Louis B. Mayer would never have green-lit. It's main star is a Latin-American, and it casts a dry eye at a political situation that even Edward R. Murrow wouldn't touch for twelve years -- migrant farm workers in Southern California. Although it naturally takes the position that immigration police are there to save the migrants from danger, Border Incident is honest about the cruelly exploitative traffic in illegal transients to pick the crops down El Centro way. Fifty-five years later, it's still hard to find a newspaper or broadcast mention of the obvious reason these practices persist -- the landowner farmers want a frightened, cheap workforce with no rights and no official identity. They docile Mexicans are easy to cheat and easily gotten rid of when they become a nuisance.
Border Incident is the MGM dramatic debut of their previous musical side plate Ricardo Montalban, and he's terrific. The only other American star I can remember playing a Mexican federal policeman is Charlton Heston, in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
Nothing validates one's good work more than an invitation to move up in the ranks. Director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton made a potent impact in two reasonably popular films noir that got the attention of the industry, T-Men and Raw Deal. They soon left the poverty row studio Eagle-Lion for the fertile fields of Culver City. Alton would move into higher class Liz Taylor movies and almost immediately won an Oscar for An American in Paris, his first color film. Mann would slip sideways over to Universal to direct James Stewart in a series of westerns with a gritty new attitude. Their last feature at Eagle Lion was Reign of Terror, a not-so-subtle transposition of the HUAC witch hunts to the days of the French Revolution. Their first MGM film is Border Incident, a clever almost-remake of T-Men.
Border Incident is an early police procedural movie not unlike Alton's He Walked by Night but located in the unusual setting of the Coachella Valley. The plot takes us step-by-step through the illegal immigration process. An unscrupulous German in a border town (Sig Ruman) talks in code over the telephone to Howard da Silva's Parkson, taking export orders for 'Mexican dolls.' Mexican field hands (Braceros) unwilling to wait as long as six weeks for an official work permit pay money to be roughed up and smuggled through the mostly open border to Parkson's ranch, there to be guarded like prisoners until insider orders come through for their services. Parkson takes a major chunk of their pay for meals and dumps them near the border to return to Mexico; in the case of a troublemaker or dissident, the Parkson ranch hands murder the offender along the way.
We see this through the eyes of sensitive actor Ricardo Montalban. Although there are plenty of real Mexicans in the cast, like Alfonso Bedoya (given special billing as "that guy from Treasure of the Sierra Madre"), most of the dialogue is in English. James Mitchell (The Band Wagon, The Stars in My Crown) is okay representing the worthy Bracero Juan, just looking for an even break. Much better is the little-known actor Arnold Moss, a Brooklynite who makes an entirely convincing Mexican smuggler and interacts well with the authentic Bedoya. Speaking of versatility, Moss played a Robespierre-like zealot in Reign of Terror and an enigmatic alien in the anti-Communist The 27th Day.
Alton and Mann keep most of their camera tricks in check, using Alton's dramatic lighting schemes to heighten our interest in the dusty border town and Indio County ranch. Mann uses a scary group of bad guys to put some muscle behind his threat. Charles McGraw is a hard-bitten criminal and Arthur Hunnicutt a lonesome cowboy, both up to their necks in murders for the Parkson Ranch. Howard Da Silva (They Lived by Night, 1776)'s Parkson is just a businessman dealing in human flesh and trying to keep less-then-reliable elements in line. Mann grants him some creepy close-ups taking target practice with a pellet gun.(Spoilers)
Almost like James Bond in Thunderball, George Murphy's Jack Barnes shows Parkson a slick trick with the pellet gun, hitting a target using a mirror. We may be sick of seeing George Murphy as the host of a mid-50s MGM TV show, but nobody would wish him the fate his unlucky character gets here. It parallels the demise of Alfred Ryder in T-Men, murdered while his partner is forced to witness in silence, so as not to spoil the investigation. Bearnes' demise is just as shocking and twice as traumatic: The ranch hands wound him and then run him over with a large piece of farm equipment. The sight of the agonized Murphy trying to crawl away from the blades of a soil tiller is unforgettable. Clearly James Stewart saw this scene and knew that Anthony Mann was the guy to put a hard edge onto his planned series of 'adult' westerns. Although it would take years for critics to assess the 50s boom in screen violence, Border Incident is one of the most prominent examples of the new emphasis on screen sadism.
The exciting ending takes place under moonlight in desert arroyos, and the atmospheric B&W day-for-night photography is a credit to Alton's skill. The finale is a little P.C., with Juan and his wife joining a congratulatory hands-across-the-border ceremony for Pablo. Although the narrator implies that the Immigration Service is there to protect the rights of the oppressed Braceros (insert sarcastic laughter here), Border Incident doesn't let us off easy ... we're still likely to be thinking about how it feels to be dismembered by a dozen tiller blades, all at once.
Warners and Turner have obviously taken good care of the elements for Border Incident as the print and transfer are flawless. Film historian and NYU professor Dana Polan provides the commentary, and the gritty trailer probably couldn't make the movie appeal to upscale theater-goers. The poster art on the package front includes a dishy dame with a gun; unless she's supposed to represent Charles McGraw's frumpy wife Bella (Lynn Whitney), the representation is a bald cheat. No romance here!
When I talked to Robert H. Justman, a prolific second unit and assistant director on classic noir films, he told me that he'd befriended Ricardo Montalban and was overjoyed when the actor was allowed to do straight dramatic roles. Much later, when Justman was a producer on the original Star Trek television series, he was able to hire Montalban to play that series' most memorable villain, Khan.
His Kind of Woman
1951 / 120 min.
Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price, Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Marjorie Reynolds, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus
Cinematography Harry J. Wild
Production Design J. McMillan Johnson
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Frederic Knudtson, Eda Warren
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Frank Fenton, Jack Leonard
Produced by Robert Sparks
Directed by John Farrow
The goofiest picture in this set, and an odd picture in any case, His Kind of Woman switches us to RKO output and the wacky production world of Howard Hughes, the man who routinely held up promising films for months and years with re-writes and re-shoots. Hughes paired his two star attractions Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in this amusing but confused adventure story; we're told that he toned down a particularly lurid trailer campaign, only to attract all kinds of outrage when he erected a giant billboard of his three stars (Mitchum, Jane, Jane's cleavage) right across from The May Co. on Wilshire Blvd.
His Kind of Woman begins as an almost existential noir and takes an abrupt left turn into comedy at more or less the two-thirds mark. Although the stylish John Farrow The Big Clock is the credited director, it is said that the entire ending (and maybe a lot more) was re-shot by Richard Fleischer. For all we know, Hughes may have had three or four directors re-shooting the bulk of the film. From the full cast list we can see that character actor and frequent Western baddie Robert J. Wilke once played Raymond Burr's part. Did Richard Fleischer make amends for Wilke by helping him get a visible role in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
Slick hipster dialog makes Robert Mitchum's Dan Milner character into a noir hero angling to become a Kerouac-styled beat. Milner answers questions by shooting back bits of existential poetry. He slouches in and out of scenes, hardly raising an eyebrow when hoods beat him up, and barely reacting when suspicious moneymen offer him a fortune to leave the country on an undisclosed assignment.
Howard Hughes must have thought His Kind of Woman had everything in the world worth putting into a movie. Milner flies to a remote Mexican hunting lodge in a small plane, as does Tim Holt's federal agent. Jane Russell and her assets entice Milner to cooperate with the obviously sinister goings-on -- yet she turns out to be a good gal instead of the assumed femme fatale. The hunting lodge is the perfect Hughes hideout, limited to adventurers, aviators and VIPs; it's also a Las Vegas-style casino. Ripping off a scene in Casablanca, Milner saves a young couple from a sexual predator (Jim Backus!) by helping the husband win at cards. But he isn't as good at turning the tables on a trio of crooks (Paul Frees, John Mylong and the gravel-throated Charles McGraw) who want Milner to wait patiently for the arrival of a man who will pay him $50,000 .... for what?
Somewhere along the line somebody or something intervened to give Hughes the idea that His Kind of Woman needed to become an entirely different picture in the last act. At about the 95 minute mark, just when things should be wrapping up, Vincent Price's movie star character comes to screen center, playing a ham actor with broad strokes more befitting I Love Lucy. Price's Mark Cardigan quotes his old movies and Shakespeare and reacts to the kidnapping of Dan Milner with a spirited call to arms: "Volunteers will receive roles in my next picture!" All of a sudden the screen is filled with comic-opera Mexican policemen and befuddled hotel guests carrying hunting rifles.
The picture drags on for an extra half-hour while Price's troops accidentally sink one boat and try out another. All of these silly jokes are loosely intercut with brutal, sadistic scenes on board Raymond Burr's yacht, as ten sailors try to hold Dan Milner still so a brain-killing drug can be injected into his arm. This action is milked for at least five solid minutes of cutbacks to the Vincent Price hijinks. Price shouts "A boat! A boat! My kingdom for a boat!", and then we cut back to Burr's sweating face talking about how he wants to wait for Milner to awaken to shoot him between the eyes. I've never seen a movie that shoots itself in the foot this badly ... the two 'tones' don't mix. That, and a running time stretched out to two hours knock His Kind of Woman out of the top rank of films noir.
On the other hand, Vincent Price is hilarious, clearly relishing all the juicy dialogue. Hughes shuts Jane Russell out of the Boy's Life part of the movie by having Price lock her in a closet. Having started the picture as a zonked-out hipster, Mitchum practically winds it up like Bing Crosby in a 30s Paramount comedy. His Kind of Woman is popular at noir festivals because of the surprise factor ... who expects a noir to be a big laugh-getter?
in Vivian Sobchack's commentary.
The movie goes easy on the infantile references to Russell's figure, treating her with uncommon respect. She is a gorgeous knockout in full-face angles but tends to look hard and hatchet-like in profile. There are a couple of ribald jokes, and perhaps the most obvious dirty joke ever 'hidden' in movie dialogue. Russell is anxious to know why Mitchum isn't chasing her around the resort, where money and sex seem to be the main interests. She comes to his cabin and finds him ironing soggy dollar bills ... perhaps there was once a scene where Mitchum got pushed into the pool? "Oh, yeah" he says, "When I get bored I always iron my money." Jane: "What do you do when you're broke?" Mitchum: "Then I press my pants."
His Kind of Woman has the feel of a post-production patchwork. Tim Holt's entire role adds little but a desirable flying scene and a casual murder, so something concrete will happen at the resort before the arrival of Burr's Nick Ferraro. Gruff main baddie Charles McGraw (spoiler) gets his on the beach, taking him out of the picture and requiring Farrow or Fleischer to establish a new set of baddies on Ferraro's boat. The script bloat is pretty bad, and it gives us time to mull over the basic nonsense of Nick Ferraro's identity-swap scheme. Corpses don't heal. If Milner is dead, how can Dr. Krafft perform plastic surgery on him? And if the immigration cops already know about Milner's involvement, what good is he to Ferraro's scheme?
Warners' transfer of His Kind of Woman is every bit as good as the MGM pictures, and although we miss the clarity of John Alton's photography, Harry Wild's ominous shadows are as good as anyone's. Jane sings a couple of songs including one about being "Five Miles from San Berdoo." I think this refers to the city's 1940s reputation as a place where 'working class' brothels were indulged --- in LA they were dominated by mob-controlled big money operations.
The commentator this time around is Vivian Sobchack from the film department at UCLA. Her detailed discourse straightens out the mystery of the film's jigsaw shooting schedule and offers good insights on its subtext, along with more questionable observations, as claiming that Harry Wild's use of ceilings had to have evolved from his work on The Magnificent Ambersons with Gregg Toland. Hollywood rooms had ceilings before Orson Welles. She also remembers Hughes' Wilshire Blvd. billboard, and its suggestive caption -- pictured above. There are no other extras.
1951 / 88 min.
Starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, Robert Ryan, William Talman, Ray Collins, Robert Hutton, Virginia Huston, William Conrad
Cinematography George E. Diskant
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Film Editor Sherman Todd
Written by William Wister Haines, W.R. Burnett from a play by Bartlett Cormack
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Directed by John Cromwell
The Racket shows precisely how Howard Hughes' sloppy filmmaking habits ruined both RKO and many of the films he supervised. The straightforward crime tale stars two of Hughes' favorite actors. But re-shoots and rewrites guarantee that its parts don't fit together, and the narrative confusion makes it look as if the film endorses police vengeance murders. Still, with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan to look at, The Racket is never boring.
A literal remake of Howard Hughes' 1928 silent film, one of the first to be nominated for an Academy Award, The Racket replays many of the original's scenes right down to the blocking of shots. In his absorbing commentary Eddie Muller suggests that the major thrust of Hughes' meddling was to slowly re-transform a new script back into the old show. Thus we have new scenes added into the middle of the film that don't connect with those around them: An intrepid honest cop lures two hit men to his house and guns them down, and no mention of it is made later, not even a "Nice shootin', Bob." A spectacular stunt at a railroad crossing sets up an exciting chase scene ... that the movie ellipses.
Because Hughes didn't want his star Robert Mitchum to play a bad guy, so he instead is ludicrously miscast as the straight-arrow police Captain McQuigg. McQuigg never wears a uniform and hangs around the station slouching over the desk like it was a bar. Tough guy Robert Ryan is fine but underused as the gangster Scanlon, a hothead middle-manager hood far too easily tricked into blowing his cool.
The Racket may be an advancement toward a more honest presentation of organized crime, but it still uses a silent-movie structure in which the bad guys basically self-destruct with little help from the police. Scanlon's boss tells him to stop taking things so personally but Scanlon doesn't listen and keeps doing things the old way. Scanlon has a hard time controlling his mob when his own brother and a dance hall singer (an underused Lizabeth Scott) successfully rebel against him. When Scanlon can't get his own lieutenants to follow orders without a pistol-whipping, we know he's not long for this world. The showdown is pure silent-movie stuff; it's pretty easy to nail the bad guy when he strolls right into a precinct house and commits a capital crime.
The Racket goes part of the way toward suggesting a much more sophisticated attitude toward corruption in city politics. McQuigg knows all about D.A. Welsh's cooperation with the mob, and Welsh doesn't even try to hide it. McQuigg knows that one of his own detectives on assignment to the D.A.'s office is in on the big fix too. Yet he never suspects that either of them would tip off the mob when the going gets tough.(spoiler)
By bending a new script back into the shape of the silent original, Howard Hughes ends The Racket on an entirely unsatisfactory note. Welsh and Turk follow orders from above to make sure that Ryan's Scanlon, now threatening to tell the cops everything he knows, is silenced. But Captain McQuigg allows and abets this, apparently eager to see Scanlon pay with his life for killing a cop. Although the crusading crime commission arrives to settle the hash of the dirty D.A. and his cop partner, their investigation will go no further because McQuigg has allowed a vital witness to be murdered. McQuigg signs off for the night to go home to his wife, having "broken the mob." In reality, he's ensured that the "Mr. Bigs" behind the local mob will never be bothered. The Racket may not realize it, but it almost functions like late-40s reality, where elite units within police departments protected the mobsters and looked out for their best interests.
Robert Mitchum is his smooth self, if never very much like a police captain. As in many of his bad-guy roles, Robert Ryan is constantly on edge and becomes too predictable. He's at his best in early scenes, such as when he's uncharacteristically pleasant with Howland Chamberlain's squealer. William Talman has more action scenes than anyone as McQuigg's true-blue beat cop. Lizabeth Scott has high billing but no direct connection to the male stars; she's instead romanced by Robert Hutton's ineffectual cub reporter. Virginia Huston (Mitchum's girlfriend from Out of the Past) has a good scene or two as Talman's wife, although her big acting moment takes place behind a closed door. William Conrad (The Killers) makes a very interesting police weasel, apparently responsible to no-one and always interjecting sly remarks.
The Racket is a great crime movie slightly scrambled by producer interference. Warners' DVD presents it in a spotless transfer with strong audio. The only extra is the best audio commentary in the collection, from Eddie Muller. Muller compares the two versions of the film and tries to sort out the maze of re-shoots as best he can. The only place that he stumbles (perhaps) is when he asks why Captain McQuigg's house is shown untouched after a bomb has gone off. I believe that we're actually seeing the other side of the street in that scene, and the house in question only looks like McQuigg's -- nosy neighbors are standing in front of it, staring back in our direction where the bombed house presumably stands.
On Dangerous Ground
1952 / 82 min.
Starring Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Sumner Williams
Cinematography George E. Diskant
Art Direction Ralph Berger, Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Roland Gross
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray from the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler
Produced by John Houseman, Sid Rogell
Directed by Nicholas Ray
This moody thriller is the most-honored of the entire set mainly due to the confluence of powerful talents: Director Nicholas Ray is in top form, as are actors Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, whose best film this just might be. The picture is also galvanized by a Bernard Herrmann's music. His score veers from frantic action music to deeply sentimental love themes that would probably sound great against a silent picture.
On Dangerous Ground shows more evidence of the heavy hand of Howard Hughes. It was delayed for almost a year while Hughes dealt with other problems; by the time it was finally finished the movie Detective Story had come out, making On Dangerous Ground seem like a copycat picture.
Hughes' changes cleaned up the original script's vague acknowledgement of police brutality, adding a new scene condemning Jim Wilson's violent tactics. But the re-cut also seems to have streamlined a lumpy and somewhat depressing story. A big posse subplot was dropped from the snow sequences, and an entire ending was lopped off in favor of a highly sentimental romantic finish. Many noir adepts deplore this finish, as did Nicholas Ray. Yet it has to be admitted that with it On Dangerous Ground becomes a highly satisfying drama about isolation and alienation. Sometimes one has to go against the grain to prove a point. The brutal Jim Wilson learns that kindness, love and redemption are there if he seeks them out. Jim Wilson is sort of a Travis Bickle character, only pulled back from the brink of doom at the last minute.
A claustrophobic urban opening enmeshes us in Jim Wilson's world of vice and venality, where he can't find anyone that can be trusted. He deals only with snitches and sneering bar owners who attempt to bribe him, like Gatos, played by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. Even the attractive soda clerk (Joan Taylor) laughs at the idea of dating a cop. Jim's partners prescribe a cure through marriage and a home life but Jim is far too hostile to meet any woman on a fair basis.
What's interesting is that Jim expresses his disgust by becoming an unfeeling monster. He delights in pummeling uncooperative thugs and has to be restrained from attacking a man on the street. He's manipulative and callous when dealing with the obviously disturbed Myrna (Cleo Moore). Jim leads Myrna on with a cheap tease to get her to reveal key information -- knowing that it will probably put her life in jeopardy.
The movie has a startling gear-change about a half hour in that threw 1952's critics and apparently most audiences as well. A few point-of-view shots through an auto windshield take us to the high mountains and open spaces, the 'dangerous ground' where Jim's urban tricks aren't much help. The suspicious, violent locals hate outsiders, and Jim finds it even harder to stay in control when saddled with a bloodthirsty partner waving a literal loose cannon -- a shotgun -- in his nose. When they find the killer, Nicholas Ray plays games with an ecological theme ... the mad sex killer has become kind of a wild and instinctual animal. I've read a classic treatise of On Dangerous Ground that tries links the film to Henry David Thoreau because the killer's name is Walden, as in Walden Pond. Well, several sources misprint the name as Walden, but in the movie it's said twice, and it's Malden, as in the book. That doesn't quash the Thoreau association, however. Video availability has really changed film criticism.
Ida Lupino's blind Mary Malden stops Jim Wilson in his tracks, as if vulnerable and spiritually minded women simply didn't exist in the city. She's definitely hiding something, and at first Jim maneuvers to coax the truth from her with the same seductive tactics that worked on Myrna. But it's Jim who ends up being seduced, as he's found somebody in the world he cares about more than crime or his job or his personal bitterness. Mary Malden literally redeems Wilson's spirit, something that rarely happens with any conviction in dramas of any stripe. The notion of redemption might seem contrary to the hardboiled ethos of film noir ... but any artist knows that the best way to bring attention to a contradiction is to use extreme contrasts. Although it appears that Nicholas Ray didn't intend this to be the film's ending, On Dangerous Ground finishes by transcending noir values. His Kind of Woman makes a comparably jarring stylistic detour but this picture just happened to become something very special. And who better to see spiritually transformed than Robert Ryan, the patron saint of internal suffering and external hostility?
On Dangerous Ground played off quickly and then dropped out of sight before becoming a late-night television staple in the 60s. Nick Ray's direction of actors and camera is uniformly excellent, even if he lost control of the film in the Howard Hughes pretzel factory of moviemaking. Along with The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground is a film to show to people who shy away from old, B&W thriller fare.
On Dangerous Ground looks good on DVD, but is a bit softer, as if it may were taken from a well made duplicate source. Bernard Herrmann's striking music sounds great. The extras are a commentary by this writer, and an original trailer that doesn't make the picture appear to be anything special. It is.
The Film Noir Vol. 3 boxed set comes with an extra disc featuring the newly commissioned hour-long documentary Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, by Gary Leva, Anne Erikson and Erika Bolin. It's an exhaustive encyclopedia of noir history, lore, and stylistic observations. Major talent and celebrities (directors, editors like Carol Littleton) present authorial concepts while the "usual suspect" historians, authors and pundits are rounded up and edited into very short bites, as in some of the less satisfactory DVD featurettes. It's very good company to be seen with, even if Savant's few remarks, when edited, boil down to direct quotes from Alain Silver, who also makes an appearance. The docu is generously outfitted with every appropriate clip available from Warners-controlled films, and most are well used. It's an odd truth to film-related docus that viewers unfamiliar with the movies will find many spoilers here, while noir aficionados probably don't need to see the clips used so extensively. The docu is graced with many excellent ad graphics, a major plus.
Also on the bonus disc are five Crime Does Not Pay featurettes, which will thrill fans wanting more of these popular short subjects: Woman in Hiding, You the People, Forbidden Passage, A Gun in His Hand and The Luckiest Guy in the World. Most are from before the noir style transition, and push the FBI-approved idea that criminals are subhuman creatures unlike you and I, that God or Fate pays back all miscreants, and that tireless government law officials are all that protect us from total anarchy.
Film Noir Vol. 3 has two MGM titles and three RKOs, so the big question is, where are the Warner noirs? The only answer is that the restoration process hasn't quite caught up with desirable titles like The Unsuspected, Nora Prentiss and Nobody Lives Forever. We are told that probable candidates for the next box will be Warners' Crime Wave and Monogram's giddily absurd Decoy. But each new set has its highly desirable benefits. With most of the studios already deep into their noir libraries, it's getting so that the hot titles are becoming hotter: The delayed (or curtailed) Boomerang!, Paramount's I Walk Alone, The File on Thelma Jordon and Ace in the Hole, MGM's The Woman in the Window, Columbia's Phil Karlson movies and a whole slew of odd pictures from Allied Artists, etc. They'll all be more than welcome.
If Savant were asked to suggest a desirable extra for Film noir 4, it would be the set of TCM round-table interviews that accompanied showings of noir films several years back. Scott Glenn served as the only male spokesman amid a flurry of still-alluring ladies like Jane Greer and Marie Windsor, and others who have since passed away. I'd really like to see these again.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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