One dynamite whodunit with an amnesia twist, a gothic tale of adultery and murder, and a lighthearted caper comprise Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VIII, another collection of quirky, little-known thrillers from Hollywood's Golden Age. Street of Chance is the best of the lot, but Temptation and Enter Arsene Lupin also merit attention despite coloring outside the lines of traditional noir. Brand new 2K masters, solid audio, and a trio of stellar commentaries enhance the package, but all three films could benefit from full restorations. Noir fans will want to pick up this set for Street of Chance alone. Recommended.
The eighth installment of Kino's popular film noir series serves up a trio of eclectic movies, but only one really qualifies as a bona fide noir. Street of Chance was produced before film noir was really a thing, but it possesses all the hallmarks of the genre. Enter Arsene Lupin mixes comedy with thrills and Temptation focuses on illicit romance and greed in a period setting. The latter two films star Charles Korvin in two very different roles, but both can't hold a candle to the often unsung but utterly captivating Street of Chance.
Street of Chance (1942)
When most movies tackle amnesia, they depict how someone's life is turned upside down when an injury or affliction causes them to lose their memory. Street of Chance, a terrific B movie culled from an early novel by Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), takes a different and far more interesting tack as it depicts how the life of Frank Thompson (Burgess Meredith) is turned upside down when he comes out of amnesia and discovers he's a wanted man.
Some falling debris from a New York City construction site knocks Frank unconscious, and when he awakens, he's baffled by the initials D.N. engraved on his cigarette case and sewn into his hat. Frank returns to his apartment only to discover his wife (Louise Platt) has moved, and when he tracks her down at her new residence and asks her how things could have changed so drastically since he left for work that morning, she informs him he's been gone for over a year! Frank tries to resume his previous life, but when he's doggedly pursued by a guy who looks like a vengeful gangster, he becomes obsessed with reconstructing the time he lost. His efforts lead him to Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor), an agitated yet sympathetic woman with whom he was romantically involved. Frank knows Ruth holds the key to his past, but as he begins putting the puzzle pieces together, he realizes he's the prime suspect in a murder he knows nothing about.
Street of Chance isn't just the best movie in this collection, it's an extremely solid, engrossing, well-made, fast-paced, and often exciting whodunit that benefits immensely from the top-notch performances of its highly accomplished cast. Director Jack Hively, who I must admit I had never heard of before, instantly grabs our attention and holds it throughout, making the most of the first act's urban setting and the creepy country estate where the climax transpires. Garret Fort, who co-wrote the screenplays for the original Dracula and Frankenstein films, peppers his script with snappy exchanges, and though it's easy to guess the killer's identity before the big reveal, it's still fun to watch the suspenseful narrative play out.
I grew up watching Meredith first as The Penguin on the Batman TV series, then as Mickey in the Rocky franchise, but his early performances in films like Of Mice and Men and The Story of G.I. Joe remind us he was one of the most talented actors of his day. He proves that again in Street of Chance, filing an intense, multi-faceted, and utterly unaffected portrayal. From the get-go he makes us feel Frank's anguish, confusion, fatigue, disorientation, and desperation (Meredith would have made a great Hitchcock hero), and creates crackling chemistry with the always magnetic Trevor, who doesn't appear until about a third of the way through but quickly makes up for lost time with a sly, tough, and sexy turn. Such veteran character actors as Sheldon Leonard, Frieda Inescort, and Jerome Cowan also shine in supporting parts, but it's 80-year Adeline De Walt Reynolds, a Maria Ouspenskaya lookalike who was born during the Civil War(!), who steals the show as a mute, bedridden elderly woman who witnessed the crime.
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VIII is worth purchasing for Street of Chance alone. Not many B movies deliver the goods so completely across the board, but Hively's film does. I had never seen it before, but I'll certainly be watching it again. Rating: 4-1/2 stars
Enter Arsene Lupin (1944)
Before there was Thomas Crown, there was Arsène Lupin, another suave, charming gentleman with sticky fingers and an eye for both beautiful art and beautiful ladies. John Barrymore played the dashing French thief created by author Maurice Leblanc in a 1932 film, and a dozen years later Universal revived the character with the intent of showcasing him in a series of films à la Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan. Enter Arsene Lupin marked the first movie in the proposed franchise, but not long after its release, the studio abandoned the idea.
It's easy to see why. While this breezy comedy-thriller chugs amiably along and features spirited performances from a fine cast, there's nothing special about director Ford Beebe's film and only a few sparks ignite the disjointed screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, who really upped his game for his next picture, the classic Charles Laughton noir The Suspect. Enter Arsene Lupin chronicles the larcenous exploits of its benevolent titular character (Charles Korvin in his film debut), his romantic pursuit of a gorgeous, endangered heiress (Ella Raines), and the efforts of a bumbling, Inspector Clouseau-like police detective (J. Carrol Naish) to nail Lupin for his crimes, but it's not particularly tense, only mildly funny, and hardly a noir at all.
The debonair Korvin evokes a French Cary Grant, Raines looks ravishing in her Vera West outfits but makes a surprisingly bland damsel in distress, and though Naish often resembles Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (coincidentally, the opening scene of Enter Arsene Lupin takes place on the fabled train), his portrayal precedes theirs by 20-30 years. As Raines' duplicitous cousin, Gale Sondergaard perks up the proceedings whenever she's on screen and George Dolenz shines as Lupin's loyal valet. Could a better director, bigger budget, and more established stars have lofted Enter Arsene Lupin onto a higher plane and prevented the character's exit after only one episode? We'll never know. What we do know is that despite its best efforts to be clever and sophisticated, Enter Arsene Lupin - like all too many B movies - can't quite pull it off. Rating: 3 stars
Korvin returns, playing a selfish, opportunistic, and manipulative cad who preys on rich women in director Irving Pichel's lavish romantic thriller set largely in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. George Brent and Paul Lukas also co-star in this exotic tale, but Temptation is all about the ravishing Merle Oberon, who portrays the wily Ruby, a down-on-her-luck London divorcée who marries stuffy, dull archaeologist Nigel Armine (Brent) for security. Ruby's stifling life at Bella Donna, a sprawling Cairo estate, drives her into the arms of Mahoud Baroudi (Korvin), a charming yet dastardly lothario who only cares about wealth and stature. Mahoud mesmerizes the smitten Ruby and convinces her to poison her husband so they can be together and enjoy the spoils of Nigel's estate.
On paper, Temptation may resemble both Double Indemnity and Notorious, but its Egyptian locale and emphasis on glamor over grit make it a totally different animal. The lush cinematography of Lucien Ballard (Oberon's husband at the time) and outrageous gowns by fashionista extraordinaire Orry-Kelly often make Temptation feel more like a 1940s woman's picture than a film noir. The languorous pacing gives us ample time to drink in Oberon's allure, but it throws cold water on the narrative, which doesn't really ramp up until the final half hour. That's when Oberon shifts into true femme fatale mode and becomes as deadly a vessel as Cleopatra's asp. Though Oberon's beauty always distracts from her sizable talent, the vain Ruby allows the actress to subtly make fun of her aloof, statuesque screen persona...and brandish some sharp talons, too.
Brent, as he did so often with Bette Davis and other leading ladies of the era, supports Oberon without overshadowing her, while Korvin seems to relish seducing every woman in sight. Lukas, who only three years earlier won a Best Actor Oscar for Watch on the Rhine, is wasted in a throwaway part, but the combined star power of Oberon, Brent, Korvin, and Lukas adds enough luster to mask the story's deficiencies. Though Temptation could benefit from some judicious editing to make it tenser, it remains an entertaining portrait of insatiable desire and greed. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The three films that comprise Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VIII arrive on Blu-ray packaged in individual standard cases inside a sturdy box. Video codecs are 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio 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 films benefit from brand new 2K masters, which considerably perk up the image quality of these vintage noir films. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers all feature excellent clarity and contrast, rich blacks and bright, stable whites, nicely varied grays, and very good shadow delineation. Evident but not overwhelming grain preserves the film-like appearances of all three movies and sharp close-ups showcase Oberon's breathtaking beauty, the cool glamor of Raines and Trevor, and Korvin's cavernous chin cleft that rivals that of Kirk Douglas.
It's just a shame the restoration budget for these movies wasn't big enough to finance some image clean-up. Unfortunately, the best film in this set is the worst offender in that regard. Beat-up frames, vertical lines, and speckling galore consistently plague Street of Chance and make us pine for a full-fledged restoration. The underlying image is quite pleasing, but at times it seems as if there's an overlay of damage shrouding it. Though nicks, marks, and occasional errant threads at the edges of the frame also mar Enter Arsene Lupine and Temptation (though none of that can dull Oberon's radiance), the offending elements aren't as egregious.
Rating for Street of Chance: 3 stars; rating for Enter Arsene Lupin: 3-1/2 stars; rating for Temptation: 4 stars
All three films feature DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks and all of them supply clear, well-modulated sound. Wide dynamic scales handle the highs and lows of the music scores without any distortion (Daniele Amfitheatrof's lush, melodramatic score for Temptation sounds especially full and rich), sonic accents like gunfire, shattering glass, sirens, revving car engines, and the falling construction debris in Street of Chance are crisply rendered, and all the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend (except for maybe a few manic ravings by J. Carrol Naish in Enter Arsene Lupin, thanks to his thick, over-the-top French accent). All the tracks are devoid of age-related hiss, pops, and crackles, allowing us to stay focused on each film's narrative.
In addition to a selection of trailers (the only film in this collection with its own preview is Enter Arsene Lupin), a trio of very good audio commentaries comprise the set's supplements.
Audio Commentary for Street of Chance - Professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney sits down for an involving and informative commentary that's well worth checking out. Ney notes the differences between Street of Chance and the Cornell Woolrich novel upon which it is based, debunks the "double conk" idea of amnesia, assesses Woolrich's writing style and influence on noir, and provides insights into Woolrich's social isolation and loneliness by quoting the author's own writings. He also supplies brief bios of several cast and crew members, chronicles the film's production and examines its reception, identifies plot holes, and discusses the history of early noir, the history of amnesia in literature going back to the Bible and Homer, the history of amnesia noirs, and the differences between male and female amnesia on film. All that in 74 minutes. Well done, Jason!
Audio Commentary for Enter Arsene Lupin - Film historian Anthony Slide discusses the various acting styles of the three leads and lack of chemistry between Korvin and Raines, notes actor George Dolenz is the father of Micky Dolenz of The Monkees fame, provides cast and crew bios, and freely criticizes the film's historical inaccuracies, shoddy production values, and the characters' often unbelievable behavior. He also chronicles the development of the Arsène Lupin stories and movies, quotes reviews, questions whether Enter Arsene Lupin really classifies as a noir, and reveals how the film ended in countries that didn't require retribution for crimes. Slide's withering remarks keep this track entertaining, and his insights make it worth a listen.
Audio Commentary for Temptation - Film historian Kelly Robinson provides a wonderful commentary that's packed with little-known anecdotes, bits of fascinating trivia, and lots of solid information relating to what she calls "a rather odd film." In addition to supplying cast and crew bios, noting the differences between the source novel and screen adaptation, and gushing over the outlandish Orry-Kelly costumes, Robinson discusses the movie's last-minute title change, previous film versions of the story, and how Temptation's narrative had to be altered to satisfy the requirements of the Motion Picture Production Code. She also shares a fascinating story about photojournalist Robert Kappa - who appears in a tiny role as an Egyptian servant (his only film part) - and his connections to both Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, talks about director Irving Pichel's blacklisting by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, relates why Oberon had to hide her biracial heritage to sustain her Hollywood career, quotes both Oberon and Korvin on the topic of their frosty off-screen relationship, and cites a couple of court cases in which the novel was used as part of a defense.
The three movies included in Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VIII boast attractive stars and nefarious plots, but Street of Chance alone is worth the price of the set. Tense, taut, and packed with fine performances, this early noir delivers on multiple levels and checks all the traditional noir boxes. The gothic, exotic Temptation has a lot going for it, too (especially Merle Oberon), while the lightweight Enter Arsene Lupin, which some might argue isn't really a noir at all, provides a breezy change of pace. Brand new 2K masters spruce up these Golden Age classics, but they all need full restorations - Street of Chance most of all - to get them in tiptop shape. Solid audio and three stellar commentary tracks add luster to this latest installment of the long-running series. Recommended.