The noir credentials of Anthony Mann are, of course, impeccable. His 1947 Desperate--the gem of the set--has flavor, tension, and visual bravura to burn. The average-Joe hero played by Steve Brodie is an independent trucker tricked into abetting a robbery. Although he manages to mess up the crooks' plans, Brodie and newly pregnant wife Audrey Long are soon fleeing cross-country from the law as well as from vicious gang leader Raymond Burr. Scene after scene features bold lighting, forceful angles, and strong deep-focus setups--all before Mann had begun working with cameraman John Alton, whom many erroneously credit with being the source of the Mann visual style. Sharing a disc with Desperate is Cornered (RKO, 1945), an immediately post-World War II mystery-thriller from the team that made Murder, My Sweet. Just-freed POW Dick Powell, whose French wife was murdered along with 50 of her compatriots, goes searching for the wartime collaborator responsible, his quest leading from France to Switzerland to Argentina. Director Edward Dmytryk is no Hitchcock, and an extended sequence of Powell stalking his quarry's wife all over Buenos Aires turns ludicrous. Still, this is one of the films in which noir tried to give a shape to the war's legacy of paranoia.
The Phenix City Story (Allied Artists, 1955) is "ripped from the headlines," a fact underscored by a 13-minute documentary foreword, voice-over narration of the film-proper by Richard Kiley in character as reformer John Patterson, on-location filming you can almost smell, and the inclusion of locals in the cast. Phenix City, Alabama, suffered for generations under a criminal machine until a father-and-son team of attorneys (John McIntire plays the dad) helped smash the organization, mere months before this film was made. Director Phil Karlson had a genius for hysteria, never more potently engaged than here; the film still shocks with its portrayal of daylight atrocity and the unthinkably malignant nature of its evildoers. Is it film noir? More like post-noir, part of the cycle of America-under-siege movies to which Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be added a few months later (screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring worked on both). Also on disc 2 is Dial 1119 (1950), the closest MGM ever came to minimalism: a low-budget suspense film with a no-name cast, a new director, and action centered on a saloon where, for about an hour of real time, an escaped mental patient (Marshall Thompson) holds six citizens of Terminal City hostage. Gerald Mayer's direction is eerily flat, which adds to the odd little movie's spell.
Don Siegel's Crime in the Streets (Allied Artists, 1956) likewise unfolds on the sound-stage version of a single urban block, a legacy of the film's origin in live TV drama. Siegel and cameraman Sam Leavitt work hard to make it kinetic, though there's no getting around the problem-picture nature of Reginald Rose's script on the then-hot theme of juvenile delinquency. James Whitmore is top-billed as an earnest social worker, but the real stars are two carryovers from the TV production, future directors John Cassavetes (age 27) and Mark Rydell (22). During a couple of sweltering summer days and nights, the Cassavetes character's need to strike out at the world takes him from recreational rumbles to plotting the murder of an obnoxious adult neighbor. As his own mother admits, "Frankie's out of a whole different piece of cloth." So is Crime in the Streets, whose demons are too clinically addressed to make for authentic noir. But its disc 3 companion, Armored Car Robbery (RKO, 1950), delivers the goods with whipcord spareness. Splitting its focus between criminal mastermind William Talman and gruff police detective Charles McGraw, this 67-minute Richard Fleischer movie about the run-up to a caper and its lethal fallout makes fine use of off-the-beaten-track L.A. locations.
Disc 4 feels like an afterthought. Deadline at Dawn (RKO, 1946) is the lone screen collaboration of writer Clifford Odets and director Harold Clurman from the left-wing Group Theatre of the '30s. Its opening image is a knockout: a forced-perspective view of a man climbing an apartment house stair and then turning up a hallway as slanted as a playground slide. Master cinematographer Nick Musuraca shot that, and his work grips us even as much of the film is too cute for words. In the course of this meditation on poetically lost souls at large in the nocturnal precincts of Manhattan, someone gets murdered and the prime suspect is afflicted with the ploy of short-term memory blackout. Principal cast members Susan Hayward, as a taxi dancer, and Paul Lukas as a cab-driving European philosophe manage to transcend the preciosity of their roles, if not the arbitrary point-of-view shifts of the storytelling. Then again, Deadline at Dawn looks streamlined in comparison to Backfire (Warner Bros., made 1948, released 1950). In this weak sister of the set, the plot comes at us in sections, largely via flashbacks improbably narrated by characters who exist only to do that, and the identity--if not the convoluted rationale--of the mystery villain can be guessed by noting which star has been kept off screen in reserve for most of the movie.
As usual with these Warner Home Video sets, the clarity and production quality of the DVDs is first-rate. However, volume 5 comes without commentaries (no Eddie Muller, no James Ellroy, no Ursini and Silver, nobody), without featurettes, with nothing in the way of extras but a couple of theatrical trailers. You walk these mean streets alone. --Richard T. Jameson