More noir? Yes, please! Kino's newest collection, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI, corrals a trio of B-grade thrillers that chronicle a manhunt, the exposure of a drug ring, and a romance sidetracked by amnesia. You may not have heard of Singapore, Johnny Stool Pigeon, and The Raging Tide, but the stars who populate them - Ava Gardner, Fred MacMurray, Shelley Winters, Richard Conte, and Dan Duryea, to name a few - make these rarities snap, crackle, and pop. The video transfers could use some clean-up, but above-average audio and three solid commentary tracks sweeten this set that noir aficionados won't be able to resist. For Fans Only.
In its continuing (and admirable) effort to crank out as many sequels as The Fast and the Furious franchise, Kino Lorber releases Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI, a collection of three moody, B-grade dramas that explore greed, desire, and organized crime and feature an array of established and up-and-coming stars. Singapore, Johnny Stool Pigeon (you gotta love that title!), and The Raging Tide are hardly noir classics, but they're all solid, entertaining pictures sure to please diehard fans.
Eager to ride the coattails of Casablanca's success, several studios produced geographically titled films set in exotic locales that brim with passion and intrigue. There's China, Calcutta, and Saigon, but the one that most closely follows the Casablanca blueprint is without a doubt Singapore. Director John Brahm's formulaic romantic thriller features a heroine torn between a lovable rogue and a man to whom she feels indebted, a stash of coveted pearls instead of letters of transit, and a climactic airport finale. All of it doesn't amount to a hill of beans, but it's slickly mounted and nicely acted by a talented cast.
Fred MacMurray plays smuggler Matt Gordon, a kinder, gentler version of Double Indemnity's Walter Neff, who returns to Singapore after World War II to reclaim a stash of hidden pearls he was forced to leave behind when the Japanese invaded and occupied the British colony. He's also haunted by memories of his alluring fiancée, Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), who disappeared after Singapore was bombed and is presumed dead. She's very much alive, of course, but when Matt runs into her by chance in a nightclub, he discovers she's not only married to Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver), an older man who comforted and protected her while the two languished in a Japanese prison camp, but also a victim of amnesia. Matt's attempts to jar Linda's memory while he searches for his precious pearls, which are also coveted by a corrupt, ruthless businessman (Thomas Gomez), forms the crux of the film's plot.
For Gardner, Singapore came hot on the heels of her electrifying portrayal of a femme fatale in The Killers, but there's nothing fatal about Linda, who's a sympathetic heroine from beginning to end. A little more spice and duplicity would lend her romance with Matt more heat and lend Singapore, which lacks most of the noir conventions we know and love, more punch. MacMurray and Gardner click, but they don't combust like Bogie and Bergman, and although the 24-year-old Gardner is gorgeously photographed, her acting is still a bit unpolished. Lucky for us, the stellar supporting cast picks up the slack, with Gomez, Richard Haydn, Spring Byington, and Porter Hall, who the same year would memorably portray the neurotic, vindictive department store psychiatrist in Miracle on 34th Street, all contributing fine work.
Though a feeling of déjà vu permeates Singapore, the film keeps us involved throughout its brisk 79-minute running time. Brahm, who helmed such previous hits as The Lodger, Hangover Square, and The Locket, supplies some welcome artistic touches, most notably a dynamite final shot that earns our admiration and makes us wish the rest of the movie could be as inventive and flashy. As knock-offs go, Singapore is far from a bust, but a little more originality, tension, and grit would make this tale of amnesia more memorable. Rating: 3/5 stars
Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)
Long before he churned out low-budget, gimmicky horror flicks in the early 1960s, William Castle was a journeyman director who worked in several genres. Johnny Stool Pigeon, one of a handful of noirs Castle made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, also transmits a semi-documentary vibe as it salutes the brave men of the Bureau of Narcotics and Bureau of Customs who bust drug rings and put dangerous thugs behind bars. Though it's a B-grade film, Johnny Stool Pigeon features a cast of future A-list performers, including Shelley Winters, Howard Duff, and Tony Curtis (billed here as Anthony), as well as another strong performance from one of noir's most beloved bad guys, Dan Duryea.
Location shooting in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Tucson distinguishes this run-of-the-mill police procedural about a square-jawed narc (Duff) who enlists the services of a convicted criminal (Duryea) to help infiltrate and shut down a drug syndicate. Winters plays a brassy good-time girl who may or may not be in cahoots with the gang, and Curtis, who never utters a word, portrays a handsome, trigger-happy hitman. Castle's economic direction and a snappy script by Robert L. Richards (Winchester '73) keep the film's engine humming and make the familiar, pedestrian plot easier to swallow. The anti-drug message comes through loud and clear; so much so, it's easy to envision Johnny Stool Pigeon as part of a school's narcotics awareness and deterrent curriculum.
Duff's no-nonsense, all-business demeanor suits his law enforcement character well, and Duryea snarls and glowers to perfection as the hardened criminal who proves he has a soft side. Though a third of the movie transpires before Winters appears, she makes up for lost time with a flashy, colorful portrayal, while Curtis milks his numerous close-ups for all they're worth, possibly making a stronger impression with silence than he would have with dialogue.
A rough-and-tumble noir feel, some dude ranch accents, and an exciting climactic chase heighten the appeal of Johnny Stool Pigeon, which doesn't just embrace its B-movie status, it revels in it. This entertaining, but hardly revelatory noir may not deliver in all departments, but it's not for lack of trying, so it gets an A for effort. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
The Raging Tide (1951)
The most substantive noir in this set, The Raging Tide is based on a novel by Ernest K. Gann that deals with redemption, maturation, and family dynamics within a crime framework. Director George Sherman's film boasts a top-notch cast that includes Richard Conte, Shelley Winters, Stephen McNally, Alex Nicol, Charles Bickford, and John McIntire, a thrilling storm climax, and authentic San Francisco locales, but despite such attributes, this nuanced tale of a killer on the run never quite lives up to expectations.
The Raging Tide chronicles the efforts of desperate killer Bruno Felkin (Conte) to evade the authorities by hiding out on a fishing boat manned by Hamil Linder (Bickford), a crusty Swede, and his rebellious, unruly son Carl (Nicol), both of whom are unaware he's a fugitive. Though Bruno initially sees the boat solely as an escape vessel, he soon learns the value of hard, honest work and comes to regard Hamil as a supportive father figure. Even as Bruno deceives Hamil about his true identity and endeavors to beat his murder rap, he tries to be a good person and steer the irresponsible Carl onto a straight and narrow path. The two, however, lock horns and vie not only for the approval and affection of Hamil, but also the love of Connie Thatcher (Winters), Bruno's loyal girlfriend who finds the hotheaded Carl sexy and exciting.
Gann adapted his own novel, and that might be part of the film's problem. Though his literate script examines important and relatable themes, it tends to meander and needs some judicious cutting to help it fit more snugly into the lean, mean world of noir. The Raging Tide runs about 15 minutes too long, probably because Gann couldn't bear to omit expendable portions of his novel. Thankfully, the actors paint vivid character portraits and work as a tight ensemble, so the film's weak portions don't feel quite as weak as they are.
The extensive location shooting in San Francisco lends authenticity to the tale, and even though the sea sequences obviously were filmed in the Universal studio tank, Sherman makes them seem more real than they are. Like the tide in the title, the predictable plot ebbs and flows, but the emotions coursing through The Raging Tide help it resonate. Like the other films in this set, it comes close to making the grade, but falls just short. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a box set that holds all three movies in individual standard cases. Video codec for all three films is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio for all three films is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
All three movies feature 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers and tout brand-new 2K masters, but because the images haven't undergone any clean-up, the impact of the enhanced sharpness - as well as our enthusiasm over the remastering - is dulled.
Singapore is a mixed bag, with some scenes boasting crystal clarity and striking contrast and others looking grainy, fuzzy, and damaged. Not much, if any, clean-up has been performed on the print, which features faint vertical white lines, persistent random nicks and marks, and some instances of wear-and-tear. Moderate grain maintains the feel of celluloid while lending the narrative essential texture, and lush blacks, bright, stable whites, and solid shadow delineation accentuate the noir style. The close-ups of Gardner are especially lovely, and tight shots of MacMurray and the other male cast members show off their rugged and/or oily features well. Video rating: 3.5 stars
Print damage is the prime offender on the Johnny Stool Pigeon transfer, and there's quite a lot of it to go around. While the underlying image is vibrant and sharp, the source material is littered with speckles and blotches that often detract from the rich blacks, bright whites, and nicely varied grays that comprise the picture. (There's a bit of image instability occasionally, too.) A healthy grain structure maintains the film-like feel and the texture is beautifully resolved in spots. Costume textures and background details are easy to discern, shadow delineation is quite good, the extensive day-for-night shots look surprisingly realistic, and lush close-ups highlight Winters' brassy glamor and Duff and Duryea's rough-hewn looks. More consistency and some restorative TLC would really bring the film back to life, but it's not likely this B movie will ever receive the attention it deserves. Video rating: 3 stars
The Raging Tide also flaunts plenty of nicks and marks, but is cleaner and a tad crisper than Johnny Stool Pigeon. Master cinematographer Russell Metty shot the movie, and this solid transfer - the best in this set - faithfully honors his fine work. Deep blacks, stable whites, and finely graded grays distinguish the image, which sports a lovely celluloid feel. Contrast and clarity are quite good, process shots are fairly seamless, good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and the climactic storm sequence looks quite realistic. Sharp close-ups showcase Conte's weathered face, Nicol's pretty-boy glamor, Winters' allure, and Bickford's wrinkles, and the fine details of costumes and decor come through well. Video rating: 3.5 stars
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks for all three films supply clear, well-modulated sound without any noticeable age-related hiss, pops, or crackle. Sonic accents like gunfire, screeching wheels, foghorns, bowling balls colliding with pins, the clickety-clack of trains on tracks, and the splashes of crashing waves are crisp, and subtleties like footsteps crunching on asphalt and the creaking of the ship in The Raging Tide are distinct. Wide dynamic scales handle all the highs and lows of the music scores by Daniele Amfitheatrof (Singapore), Milton Schwarzwald (Johnny Stool Pigeon), and Frank Skinner (The Raging Tide) without any distortion, and all the dialogue is well-prioritized and easy to to comprehend. None of these workmanlike tracks will test the limits of your sound system, but they get the job done with a minimum of fuss.
Audio commentaries for all three films and trailers for Singapore and The Raging Tide are the only extras included in the package. The Australian team of Kat Ellinger and Lee Gambin tackle Singapore, and the two film historians provide a lively dialogue that covers such topics as Singapore's relationship to World War II, the screen personas of MacMurray and Gardner, the film's standing as a "hybrid" noir, the plot's nuances and complexities, and the work of the movie's underrated director, John Brahm.
Professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney provides a lively and informative commentary for Johnny Stool Pigeon, discussing the film's utopian and dystopian themes, its semi-documentary style, the rise of Tony Curtis, Hollywood's drug films, the brilliance and appeal of Dan Duryea, the popularity of the name Johnny in both real life and film during the period, the early career of famed horror director William Castle, and a new photographic process that enhanced the realism of day-for-night photography. He also shares the vastly different impressions Winters and Curtis had of each other, according to their respective memoirs, and amusingly recreates a scripted promotional radio interview for the film using a recording of Duryea's voice.
The Raging Tide commentary features film historian David Del Valle and producer Miles Hunter, and though the two share a comfortable chemistry and chat amiably about the movie, their discussion tends to ramble. They talk about film noir tropes and the genre's inimitable style, analyze the plot, gab about the stars and their respective careers, and gossip a bit, but their remarks never go as deep as we'd like. If you're already a film noir buff, you probably won't learn anything new from this track.
The three films included in Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI may not rank as bona fide classics, but genre fans will find them brisk, snappy, and entertaining. Singapore, Johnny Stool Pigeon, and The Raging Tide are all solid B-grade noirs that deliver action, romance, and intrigue with as much panache as their low budgets will allow, and it's a kick to see such stars as Ava Gardner, Fred MacMurray, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Richard Conte slumming in these rough, gritty dramas. Unfortunately, the transfers are rough and gritty, too, but let's face it, we're lucky to have these rarities on Blu-ray at all. Above average audio and a trio of interesting commentary tracks heighten the appeal of this set, and Kino deserves kudos for continuing to satisfy our insatiable noir cravings. For Fans Only.