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Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2 (Born to Kill / Clash by Night / Crossfire / Dillinger (1945) / The Narrow Margin (1952))
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Film Noir Classics Collection, The: Volume 2 (DVD) (5-Pack)
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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Top Customer Reviews
Born to Kill is my personal favourite in this collection. Directed by Robert Wise, this film gives us a frightening psychopathic killer, played with ominous menace by Lawrence Tierney, one of the truly great film noir actors of the 1940's. Tierney is fantastic in this film in playing the epitome of a cruel and cold hearted womanizer who meets up with an equally scary woman, played with icy sexiness by Claire Trevor. This film is one of those film noirs that you must see if you want to learn why these films can be so fascinating and entertaining.
The Narrow Margin is another classic film noir made in gritty black and white realism. The film has great suspense and pace, with very good performances by the players, particularly by the film noir icon Marie Windsor, who leaves a powerful impression on the viewer. In fact, her role in this film could be the very best of her many solid film noir performances. The criminal elements in this film are really well presented in their menacing evil, and Charles McGraw is good in one of his rare "good guy" appearances in a film noir.
Clash by Night is an atypical film noir that frankly could be debated if it really qualifies as one. Directed by Fritz Lang, this film is a love triangle of adultery and betrayal with such dramatic intensity that you could easily and more accurately describe this film as good drama.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
After delivering one of the best boxed sets of 2004 with their first FILM NOIR COLLECTION, Warner Brothers once again hits the bell with a gorgeous collection of 5 stellar noirs, with great transfers and beautiful packaging.
Noir hero Lawrence Tierney stars in two entries here, the underrated BORN TO KILL, and the rarely seen Monogram programmer DILLNGER. He had an amazing screen persona, which makes it doubly sad that his personal problems put the kabosh on his screen career. But in these two films, he is at his best, especially in his breakthrough role in DILLINGER, which most certainly is a hard-boiled film noir that had to be made at B-studio Monogram, because the major studios weren't allowed to "glorify" criminals in that era.
My favorite film in the pack is Richard Fleischer's THE NARROW MARGIN, which moves along at a break-neck pace, and is presented here not only in a sparkling print, but with comments on the audio track from the director.
One of the greatest of all directors, Fritz Lang, created a tense and brooding drama of lust and betrayal with CLASH BY NIGHT, boosted by terrific performances by noir legends Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, and an early, but memorable performance by Marilyn Monroe who looks as magnificent as ever.
Last, but certainly not least, is the heralded classic CROSSFIRE, with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, in a smoldering tale that deals with hatred, murder, and anti-Semitism. This was a breakthrough film, and comes with a great commentary track that features comments from its late, great director Edward Dmytryk.
No serious cinephile will be disappointed in this splendid collection.
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.
BORN TO KILL
The story starts in Reno, Nevada where Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) receives a divorce. She goes home to a boarding house and overhears a young woman named Laury discussing her love life with an older, drunken woman named Mrs Kraft. At one point, Laury tells Mrs. Kraft that she is going out with a different man tonight simply to make her steady boyfriend Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) jealous. Sam runs into the dating couple later that evening at a casino. Later that night Sam confronts Laury's date in the boardinghouse kitchen and a violent fight insues and Sam, in impressive fashion, kills the other man. Laury then comes in the kitchen and discovers the body and then Sam kills her. Shortly thereafter Helen returns home and finds the dead couple but for some reasons decides not to call the police and instead takes a train to San Francisco. Just by coincidence, Sam takes the same train and sits with her and this sets up a turbulent, yet fascinating relationship between the two for the rest of the movie.
I really enjoyed this movie for a number of reasons. First, the beautiful Claire Trevor plays a morally bankrupt golddigger, but does it with such superficial charm and grace. Second, there are some other memorable performances by Walter Slezak who plays an articulate, but morally depraved detective and Elisha Cook Jr. does a fine job as Sam's pint-sized sidekick. But most of all, Lawrence Tierney does a great job as the quintessential tough guy who knows what he wants and brazenly goes after it. He clearly displays raw acting talent, but his dead cold stares and his overtly blunt directness, is what makes him so perfect for this role.
For those of you who are not familiar with Lawrence Tierney, in the early '90s he played the leader of a crime gang in the movie Reservoir Dogs. But another memorable role worth mentioning was that he once played Elaine's tough, no-nonsense father on an episode of Seinfeld. According the commentary on the Seinfield DVD, Tierney scared the cast so badly that they never had him back on. Apparently Tierney stole a butcher knife from Jerry's TV kitchen and hid it under his jacket. When Seinfeld asked him about it, Tierney pulled out the knife and started making the Psycho slashing-violins sound. On the Born to Kill commentary, director Robert Wise mentions that Tierney was an intimidating tough guy in real life and was repeatedly arrested for getting in fights in bars. In fact, Wise mentions that they used a stunt double for Tierney in the fight scene, not because they were afraid that Tierney would get hurt - far from it; they were afraid that he couldn't restrain himself once the fight scene started.
The picture quality is near-immaculate. Negative wear is virtually nonexistent. The sound is satisfactory. The DVD bonus features include commentary from noir expert and author Eddie Muller plus some audio sound bites from director Robert Wise.
DVD Quality: A
The story is about a widow of a gangster who is living in Chicago and needs to appear in Los Angeles to testify against men who conducted illegal activities in connection with her late husband. Two cops are assigned to bring her to Los Angeles on a train and suspect that a crime syndicate will try to prevent her from testifying. As a result, there's lots of action and adventure soon to follow.
Charles McGraw stars as Detective Walter Brown and gives one of the best performances I've seen in a long time as a tough, no-nonsense cop. With his rough, baritone voice and large muscular frame, he takes on some very formidable adversaries, yet holds his profession in high esteem. The rest of the main characters in this film also play their roles convincingly. This is an entertaining story from start to finish with lots of action and twists in the plot. The script is smart and original. There is also some great photography work inside the train. This film is a must see for any movie fan, even those not familiar with post-WWII crime noir films.
The picture quality is near pristine. Very little negative wear or damage can be observed. The sound is excellent, especially considering all of the sound effects one would expect from a train ride.
DVD Quality: A-
The story opens with a man who was beaten to death in a fistfight in his apartment. The police show up headed by Captain Finley (Robert Young) and begin to unravel the mystery of who killed this person. A small group of military men, including Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, are linked directly or indirectly to the crime scene and now Finley has to sort out who are the suspects and who is innocent. After interviewing the suspects, Finley believes he's found the motive and the murderer.
I would classify this movie as a mystery, and it slowly meanders in several different directions with very little drama until the very end. The story has one major merit because it confronts a serious social problem, but the execution of the plot, including the knowing exactly what happened as the murder unfolded, plus the weak, flawed and even disturbing police work raises more questions than answers. Without revealing too much more, the police did get the right man, but how they went about it was very unconvincing for me. I'll give this film a qualified recommendation simply because it is decades ahead of its time in social awareness of a serious problem, but if you are looking for an action packed, well-written noir crime movie, you'll probably be disappointed.
The DVD quality is decent. The film was not restored, but did show short segments of negative wear once in a while, but nothing too distracting from the overall presentation. The sound is fine too.
DVD Quality: B
This film is about a real life bank robber John Dillinger who is arguably the most notorious robber in the history of American and earned the nickname "Public Enemy #1". From my brief research on the internet, the movie appears to be relatively true to form. From the early `30s until his death in 1934, Dillinger wreaked havoc across America with his brutal bank robberies and daring prison escapes.
The film itself moves fast, but is only 70 minutes long. There is little character development and the action is continuous and rarely dull. Lawrence Tierney stars as John Dillinger. This was his screen acting debut and he does little to set the acting world on fire. Even in scenes of major confrontation, Tierney seems expressionless and lacks emotional body language. Perhaps this was by design by the director. But if you are fan of vintage gangster films, I'm confident that you will be entertained and pleased with action and drama.
The DVD was remastered but not restored and unfortunately there was a significant amount of film damage. There were five or six scenes with at least 3 or 4 seconds of severely damaged footage. The remastering helped make the picture look sharp but tiny specs of deterioration were still prevalent throughout the film, but that wasn't a major deal compared to the noticeably larger scratches. Warner has historically been one of the better studios for film restoration and they obviously decided to not fix up this film. Due to the limited market of a DVD like this, I'm sure the payoff wasn't there to restore an entire movie, but if they would have at least fixed the severely damaged frames, that would have been sufficient for me.
DVD Quality: C
CLASH BY NIGHT
The storyline revolves around Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwick) who returns to a Northern California fishing community after a ten-year hiatus. She left that town hoping to find a wealthy or prestigious man to marry, but her dreams never materialized. Upon returning she runs into an old acquaintance, Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas), at a bar and they later start dating even though they have very little in common. Jerry is hardworking and stable, yet a boring simpleton. Mae is fickle and shallow. Jerry introduces Mae to his best friend Earl (Robert Ryan) who is cantankerous yet very extroverted - pretty much the exact opposite of Jerry. From this point on in the movie, the human dynamics these three people go all over the map and develop into an enthralling plot for the viewer.
I was initially taken off guard with the way the film ended, but I couldn't get it out of my head for the rest of the day and realized it took a very brave direction with the issues it confronted. Furthermore, the movie is probably more representative of today's social landscape than it was when the film was made and has some hard-hitting commentary for the consequences of people's actions. There is however, one scene that is clearly politically incorrect by today's standards where Earl imitates a Chinese person. The movie also contained some refreshing scenes of a young Marilyn Monroe who plays the girlfriend of Mae's brother. Overall I give the film a solid recommendation for viewing.
The DVD is remastered but not restored and as a result, the black and white transfer is sharp but occasionally tiny spots of film deterioration can be observed. The sound is fine. The DVD comes with commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, with audio interview excerpts of director Fritz Lang.
DVD Quality: B
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