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Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema (Big House, U.S.A., A Bullet For Joey, He Ran All the Way, Storm Fear, Witness to Murder) (5
A Bullet For Joey: More of a cold war thriller/anti-communist propaganda than straight film noir. The humdrum and predictable story is worth watching for two reasons: It's a rare cold war thriller that takes place in Canada, and Edward G. Robinson's methodical Canadian inspector, who's tasked with solving a conspiracy that involves Iron Curtain spies kidnapping a scientist for their own nefarious plans (Maybe Top Secret stole that plot), is reminiscent of one of his most famous characters, Barton "little man inside" Keyes from Double Indemnity. 2/5
Bighouse, U.S.A.: Again, not really a film noir, but more of a b-movie prison escape thriller. The protagonists aren't really film noir anti-heroes, but downright criminals and murderers who end up escaping the hoosegow to get their paws on the ransom money a child kidnapper (Ralph Meeker) buried in the hills after he accidentally caused the kid's death. The criminals are strict archetypes of the era's b-movies, with Charles Bronson in an early role as a psychotic meathead, and the film's subversive protagonist line-up is undermined by the typical third act that strictly adheres to the Hayes Code. 2/5
Storm Fear: The protagonist, played by director Cornel Wilde, is one of those film noir anti-heroes who are actually decent deep down but were "dealt a bad hand". However, Storm Fear is a lot more of a home invasion thriller that awkwardly transitions into a wilderness survival drama in the third act. Wilde plays a robber named Charlie, who shacks up with his partners-in-crime in his estranged brother's (Dan Duryea) cabin after a job goes south. When the brother's family begins to reject the criminal element under their roof, the robbers have no choice but to force the family's hand, which creates a moral conflict for Charlie. There could have been an interesting theme about how far one would sacrifice for family, but it goes sideways thanks to a ridiculous soap opera sub-plot concerning whether or not Charlie is the real father to his nephew. It appears that Wilde couldn't get a lot of coverage for his low-budget effort, since the film is full of uncomfortably obvious post-production blow-ups to create the illusion of close-ups. 2/5
He Ran All The Way: Another home invasion thriller, this one about a sociopathic robber named Nick (John Garfield) taking a naïve young woman named Peg (Shelley Winters) and her family hostage after seducing her to gain an invitation to her apartment. The raw quality of the low-budget production and the claustrophobic mood of the small central location intensifies the explosive chemistry between Garfield and Winters, whose push-and-pull, antagonist-protagonist dynamic elevates the b-movie template material. 3.5/5
Witness to Murder: A quick look at the opening credits of Witness to Murder (A rare occasion for the time, the credits roll not only during plot development, but during the inciting incident of the whole plot) will immediately draw comparisons to Rear Window. A painter named Cheryl (Barbara Stanwyck) wakes up in the middle of the night and witnesses a man (Cold as ice George Sanders) murder a woman in an apartment across the street. However, Witness to Murder was produced before Rear Window, and was released a month before Hitchcock's classic. Anyway, the murderer hides all of the evidence and uses clever tricks to make sure Cheryl's treated as an insane woman who hallucinated the whole thing up. Apart from constructing a terrific cat-and-mouse suspense structure where Cheryl has to stay one step ahead of the murderer, Witness to Murder also showcases a surprisingly progressive-for-its-time theme around single women being treated like lonely spinsters who are immediately dismissed as being prone to hysteria by the general public. The film noir queen Stanwyck begins the story with relatable horror, only to transition into fed up badass mode, the way only she can. An underrated Hitchcockian thriller. 4/5
The video quality of the 1080p transfers are mostly decent for such catalogue and boutique releases. Apart from the occasional scratches in the film print, we mostly get a clear and crisp look. The one exception is A Bullet For Joey, which has a uniformly soft and fuzzy look, as if the source was blown up from a non-anamorphic transfer. Storm Fear suffers from the most scratches, while Witness to Murder benefits from the clearest transfer.
All of the films are presented in their mono mix through DTS-HD 2.0 tracks. A big chunk of the selection are low budget b-movies that were shot on a lot of exterior locations, which creates a lot of tinny and scratchy sound. Apart from a remaster, I don't see how Kino could have fixed the audio issues. Of course that doesn't mean we can't make out the dialogue or that the sound effects clip, but don't expect much just because it's lossless audio.
All of the discs only come with Trailers.
This is a bizarre set, since almost none of the films fully fit the confines of film noir. Only He Ran All The Way and Witness to Murder fit the heavy contrast look and the overall dark mood of the genre. The rest are fairly straightforward thrillers. I'm giving this a "Rent It" rating for those two films. But let's face it, where are you going to find this entire set for rental? So consider this a "Skip It", with recommendations for He Ran All The Way and Witness To Murder as separate buys.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com