Five film noir classics that need and deserve a DVD release.
For as many great film noirs have received an American DVD release over the last decade – a list that easily runs dozens of titles long – some of the better or more curious examples of the form have yet to see publication. Most of these elusive titles are not famous, and in fact many of them possibly remain obscure even among film noir aficionados. Yet, despite and nevertheless, they’re both eminently entertaining in their own right and dependable – if not superlative – representatives of the genre.
We consider the following five films to be fascinating noir showpieces that have become eclipsed, somewhat, by the fame of their better-known (and, admittedly, better-made) contemporaries. They’re generally less well-known than such genre watersheds such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, nor as critically embraced as, say, Night and The City or Pickup On South Street. But they are fascinating works and successful realizations of noir’s haunting potential and ambience all the same, well worth viewing as they make fleeting appearances on the various cable networks. Sooner or later, hopefully, they’ll take their DVD bow.
1. He Ran All The Way (1951) – After accidentally killing a policeman, desperate small time crook Nick Robey (John Garfield) uses the family apartment of lonely spinster Peggy Dobbs (Shelley Winters) to hide out while the ensuing citywide dragnet cools down. Peggy’s father (Wallace Ford) is leery from the first, but Robey’s charisma and intimidation combine to keep him tenuously, marginally safe, thanks in no small part to the dark fascination he has for Peggy.
Terrified and defiant at the same time, Robey is a loser who’s made a shambles of his life, smart enough to realize it but lacking the moral courage to do anything about it – the prototypical noir anti-hero and fertile ground for Garfield’s electric screen presence.
Providing an eerie poignancy to Robey’s desperation, the role turned out to be Garfield’s last. He suffered a fatal heart attack less than a year later.
2. Cry of the City (1948) – An almost archetypal urban gloom fills Robert Siodmak’s downbeat, melancholy thriller. Smooth criminal Martin Rome (Conte) killed a police officer during a getaway but was wounded himself; escaping custody and attempting to secure a flight for himself and his girlfriend (Deborah Paget), he’s pursued by Lt. Candella (Mature), a childhood acquaintance from the same Italian ghetto. Candella works to find Rome while, in scenes contrasting the city’s menace, attends to Rome’s family with an almost tender deference.
At the time of its release the film won praise for its bleak, uncompromising depiction of urban poverty and the wide array of disreputable personalities living in the city’s edges. Though less revered than Siodmak’s other noir entries (The Killers, Criss Cross), its pervading sense of desperation and, as author Colin McArthur points out, the “almost metaphysical hatred” with which Candella pursues Rome make the film completely riveting viewing.
Conte would team with Jules Dassin for the masterful Thieves Highway as his next release, while this film won Mature the critical praise that had eluded him for his previous turn in Kiss of Death.
3. Union Station (1950) – When a secretary (Nancy Olson) believes two fellow passengers aboard a California commuter train are involved in criminal activity, she enlists the help of Los Angeles’ Union Station police lieutenant (William Holden) to locate them. The men have kidnapped the blind daughter of the secretary’s wealthy boss, and with help from a wily city detective (Barry Fitzgerald) the police race to locate the missing girl, using whatever means necessary to secure her safety and punish the kidnappers.
Director Rudolph Mate (D.O.A.) uses the spacious, labyrinthine corridors and atria of the famous train depot to underscore a sense of frenzied movement and steely momentum. The police, far from the guileless upholders of law and order typical of 50s police fare, approach their work with the same ruthless tenacity as the criminals. Critics have suggested the film played an influence on later, more cynical noir artists, including perhaps most notably James Ellroy. It’s not hard to see why, especially in the similarities that Fitzgerald’s outwardly kindly, pragmatically ruthless Inspector Donnelly share with Ellroy’s Captain Dudley Smith.
4. The Blue Dahlia (1946) – Exemplifying noir’s recurrent theme of post-war disillusion with American society and the veterans who were left to fend for themselves, Raymond Chandler’s original screenplay depicts a returning bomber pilot (Alan Ladd) attempting to solver the murder of his philandering wife (Doris Dowling.) Teaming with her boyfriend’s estranged wife (Veronica Lake) and his two crew mates (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont), he tries to track down the gangster that may be responsible.
Chandler’s trademark blend of weary romanticism and brittle cynicism translate well to the big screen, though George Marshall’s (Destry Rides Again) direction is straightforward almost to a fault. Ladd is perhaps a bit too laconic to really inhabit the complexities of his character, while Lake is gorgeous and fetching as always. The truly weighty performance, however, belongs to character heavyweight Bendix. He gives his brain-damaged attack dog of a veteran equal parts sorrow, rage, and confusion.
Of all the films on this list, we understand this film’s absence from DVD shelves the least. It’s received at least one release overseas, and the far less-satisfying Ladd-Lake collaboration This Gun For Hire has been available in the United States for years.
5. The Naked Alibi (1954) – A B-movie in probably every sense of the term, this lean and gritty suspenser casts Gene Barry as Al Willis, an ostensibly upright (if hard-drinking) citizen hiding a dangerous secret. After the cops who roughed him up are killed, he’s perused to a seamy border town by the police chief (Sterling Hayden) who holds him responsible. Once free of his familiar setting, Willis’ psychotically violent true personality emerges, and he’s reunited with his torch singer girlfriend Marianne, played with almost preternatural sexiness by noir siren Gloria Grahame. The climactic rooftop pursuit is edge of the seat cool and intense at the same time, even if for some its plot details too closely resemble those of fellow Grahame showcase The Big Heat.
For the film’s nightclub performance pieces, director Jerry Hopper (The Atomic City) wisely allows the notoriously self-conscious Grahame to lip synch, evading the same pitfall that so harshly damaged her career after Oklahoma!, released the following year.
If you know of any online petitions to get these or other films published, pass it along and we’ll be sure and post them here on the blog. In the meantime, we’ll be back next week. Thanks for reading.
- Michael Kabel