July 29-August 4, 2004
Film Noir Classic Collection ($49.92 DVD) Warner Bros.' modestly priced five-pack retrieves five nifty noirs from the RKO vaults. The pick of the litter (available separately, like the other four) is Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum as an ex-detective who gets sucked back into the underworld by a temperamental gang boss (Kirk Douglas) who won't take no for an answer. Though descriptions of his onscreen persona inevitably involve the word "laconic," Mitchum shows how he could be both slow-moving and quick-witted, spitting out some of the tartest one-liners in Hollywood history (the work of uncredited screenwriter Frank Fenton). Hard to beat this exchange between Mitchum and Jane Greer, Douglas' once and future moll (and Mitchum's fickle squeeze in-between): "I don't want to die." "Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I'm gonna die last."
The way Mitchum delivers the line, it's more than cheap bravado, combining hope for the future with the gnawing certainty that there may come a time when his death is the only thing a man can control (though in the end, even that is denied him). There's a kind of decaying poetry to Tourneur's approach that carries over from his background in Gothic horror (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and so on), and yet Out of the Past is one of the few noirs that seems to offer a real possibility that good might triumph and not just in the perfunctory sense of fulfilling the production code's requirement that criminals always meet a bad end.
The set's other highlight is Gun Crazy (1947), Joseph H. Lewis' lovers-on-the-run tale, which mixes noir fatalism with pulp-novel thrills. First shown as a baby-faced teen smashing a store window to procure a much-desired firearm, John Dall emerges from an unseen stint in reform school and the military as a slope-shouldered string bean, obsessed with guns but unable even to contemplate turning them on a living creature. He more than meets his match in hard-bitten Peggy Cummins, a sideshow trick-shot artist who, unbeknownst to him, already has one murder under her gun belt, and few compunctions about committing another. The codes of the time prevented Lewis from being explicit about the extent to which their fast-blooming romance is fueled by their mutual love of weaponry (Arthur Penn would rip off the covers in Bonnie and Clyde, which owes Gun Crazy a substantial debt), but when Cummins' six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it's clear what really fills their collective tank. Auteurists emphasize the movie's showpiece scene, a one-shot robbery that brings a note of realism to a movie that otherwise doesn't show much interest in it.
Speaking of realism or, as audio commentator Martin Scorsese insists, "naturalism" there's The Set Up (1949), a tidy real-time thriller from Robert Wise (not something you'd expect if you only know his bloated later movies). It's not really a noir per se, since Robert Ryan's punch-drunk boxer is a standup guy all the way, betrayed by a manager who's so sure Ryan is in for a whipping that he takes money for Ryan to throw the fight and doesn't bother telling him; why cut him in on the action when he's bound to lose no matter what? Ryan, a former boxer himself, invests his battered not-quite-contender with a desperate determination that makes you root for him to come out swinging, even as you know the consequences of his winning will be dire. There's nothing fancy about Wise's direction, which is the best thing about The Set-Up; it's like a Clifford Odets movie without the phony gutter poetry. At 72 minutes, there's no room for it.
Rounding out the set are Murder, My Sweet (1945), which features Dick Powell's sour, caustic Philip Marlowe, and John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which suffers most from its inclusion. Although Huston practically founded noir with The Maltese Falcon (1941), Jungle feels more like a shoddy A picture than a scrappy B. The underrated Sterling Hayden fills the bill as a 6-foot-5 "hooligan," and Jean Hagen's streetwise but lovelorn Doll is the perfect reminder for those who only know her from Singin' in the Rain. (Watch for an appearance by an unformed Marilyn Monroe as well.) Still, the movie feels flat and overlong, a throwback to the moralistic gangster pictures of the 1930s, without the faintest trace of the insight that went into Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, filmed two years earlier.
Each of the films in the collection is equipped with audio commentary, though quite a few are busts: James Ursini's so busy rehashing the ABCs of noir on Out of the Past that he takes half an hour to even mention the underrated Tourneur, then promptly forgets him.
Misc. Picks Outfoxed, the anti-Fox News broadside reviewed last week, airs on DUTV Channel 54 (Thu., 9 p.m.; Fri., 3 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 6:30 and 11:30 p.m.). Fan club president Roger Gordon presents a four-pack of Laurel and Hardy shorts at the County and Ambler theaters (Mon. and Wed., respectively); check out Kino's new DVD of The Flying Deuces, as well as its two-disc collection of Stan's pre-Ollie oeuvre.