Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XI (A Woman’s Vengeance / I Was a Shoplifter / Behind the High Wall)Overview -
An adulterous husband accused of murder, a kleptomaniac caught in a crime web, and a corrupt prison warden who sends an innocent man to jail are just a few of the colorful characters that populate Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XI. A Woman's Vengeance, I Was a Shoplifter, and Behind the High Wall comprise Kino's latest collection of crime dramas, and all three feature high-quality transfers and solid audio. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll definitely want to pick up this set of tense, entertaining, and morally murky movies. Recommended.
This collection features three film noir classics. A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE (1948) – Charles Boyer (When Tomorrow Comes), Ann Blyth (Thunder on the Hill) and Jessica Tandy (The Birds) star in A Woman’s Vengeance, a gripping noir mystery from acclaimed director Zoltán Korda (The Four Feathers). When his invalid wife Emily (Rachel Kempson, The Captive Heart) dies of a heart attack, it frees Henry Maurier (Boyer) to marry his young mistress (Blyth). Confiding her suspicions that Henry murdered her patient, Emily’s nurse (Mildred Natwick, Against All Flags) is encouraged by a neighbor (Tandy) to tell the police. Suddenly Henry finds himself wrongly convicted and awaiting his fate while the family doctor (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, The Lodger) races against time to find the real killer and save his life. Visionary author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) adapted the screenplay from his own short story, “The Gioconda Smile.”
I WAS A SHOPLIFTER (1950) – Mona Freeman (Flesh and Fury) stars as the titular kleptomaniac in the sensational crime story, I Was a Shoplifter. Cop Jeff Andrews (Scott Brady, Undertow) agrees to go undercover to shadow the sticky-fingered Faye Burton (Freeman), a judge’s daughter who has been coerced into working for a professional shoplifting ring run by ruthless pawnbroker Ina Perdue (Andrea King, The World in His Arms). Jeff finds himself falling in love with Faye while working to crack the gang of thieves. Directed by Charles Lamont (Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man), shot by Irving Glassberg (Larceny) and featuring Tony Curtis (The Square Jungle), Charles Drake (Deported) and Rock Hudson (The Tarnished Angels), I Was a Shoplifter is a fast-paced film noir treat.
BEHIND THE HIGH WALL (1956) – Tom Tully (The Turning Point) and Sylvia Sidney (Sabotage) star in the riveting prison-break noir, Behind the High Wall. A group of convicts escape from the big house, killing a guard, kidnapping the warden, Frank Carmichael (Tully), and forcing a reluctant inmate, Johnny Hutchins (John Gavin, Midnight Lace), to accompany them. However, when a car crash kills everyone except for Frank and Johnny, the wicked warden steals $100,000 of the escapees’ loot, then accuses the innocent Johnny of the guard’s murder in order to cover up his own crime. Directed by Abner Biberman (The Price of Fear), Behind the High Wall is a crackerjack thriller that plays out to a harrowing conclusion, with fine supporting turns by Betty Lynn (TV’s The Andy Griffith Show), John Larch (Play Misty for Me) and Barney Phillips (Ruby Gentry).
-Brand New 2K & 4K Masters
-NEW Audio Commentary for A WOMAN'S VENGEANCE by Professor and Film Scholar Jason A. Ney
-NEW Audio Commentary for I WAS A SHOPLIFTER by Film Historian Kelly Robinson
-Theatrical Trailers (A WOMAN'S VENGEANCE & BEHIND THE HIGH WALL)
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
The three movies included in the 11th chapter of Kino's (hopefully) neverending film noir series don't have any connective tissue; they're just solid crime dramas that chronicle the trials and tribulations of several tortured characters who must deal with the consequences of their immoral behavior. Watching them connive, commit reprehensible acts, and squirm as the law closes in are only a few of noir's pleasures, and this trio of dark flicks nicely represents this seductive and disturbing genre.
A Woman's Vengeance (1948)
The best film in this collection, the luridly titled A Woman's Vengeance is actually based on The Gioconda's Smile, an acclaimed short story by Aldous Huxley, best known for the immortal novel Brave New World. Huxley expanded and adapted his tale for the screen, and his literate, lyrical script deftly mixes illicit romance, jealousy, psychosis, and murder. Noir trimmings abound, but ritzy production values and an elegant, atmospheric tone lend a distinct Gothic feel to director Zoltan Korda's movie, which features excellent performances from Charles Boyer, Ann Blyth, and especially Jessica Tandy.
When Emily (Rachel Kempson), the invalid wife of rich, charming philanderer Henry Maurier (Boyer), suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances, the police suspect foul play. Henry, who quarreled incessantly with Emily and wasted no time marrying his latest, much younger mistress (Blyth) after her death, is their prime target, but Emily's brusque nurse (Mildred Natwick), ne'er-do-well brother (Hugh French), and close family friend Janet Spence (Tandy), who carries a torch for Henry, also harbor motives. Then there's Emily herself. Could she have purposely ingested poison to exact vengeance on her faithless, selfish husband?
More of a psychological thriller than a whodunit, A Woman's Vengeance doesn't try too hard to conceal the killer's identity. Astute viewers will pick up on the clues, but Korda maintains tension throughout and the colorful characters keep us involved. Huxley's dialogue drips with dry wit, and it's fun to watch Boyer, who memorably tortured Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight a few years before, deal with the pressure inflicted by the women in his life here. (His prominent forehead vein seems to throb even more intensely than usual.)
One look at the movie's poster art and you'd think Blyth, who nabbed a well-deserved Oscar nod for portraying Joan Crawford's monstrous daughter in Mildred Pierce, would be playing another vindictive bitch in A Woman's Vengeance, but she actually has the movie's most sympathetic role. The 19-year-old actress looks radiant throughout and files a natural performance, but she's overshadowed by Tandy, who shortly after shooting wrapped would become the toast of Broadway as Blanche DuBois in the original stage production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Marlon Brando. After several frustrating years in Hollywood, Tandy finally nabbed a juicy role in A Woman's Vengeance and she makes the most of it, subtly projecting myriad emotions and exhibiting flashes of the brilliance that would define her career over the next several decades. Surprisingly, her best scenes are not with Boyer, but with fellow English actor Cedric Hardwicke, whose superior turn as a soft-spoken doctor who unravels the mystery greatly enhances the film.
A Woman's Vengeance performed poorly at the box office upon its initial release, but has aged well. Its engrossing plot, gallery of intriguing characters, slick direction, and artistic touches make this slow-burn mystery an entertaining noir exercise. Rating: 4 stars
I Was a Shoplifter (1950)
You gotta love the title, but sadly, what should be a guilty-pleasure exploitation flick doesn't capitalize on its confessional nature. I expected I Was a Shoplifter to explore the twisted psyche of its protagonist and dissect the causes of such a fascinating affliction, but director Charles Lamont's by-the-numbers film takes a less interesting path, profiling an undercover sting operation to stop a theft ring instead. The breezy 74-minute crime drama climaxes with a thrilling car chase and pursuit, but the hackneyed story lacks the substance and depth of more profound social issue movies.
Why does poor little rich girl Faye Burton (Mona Freeman), the daughter of a respected judge, steal trinkets from a fancy department store? That burning question - aside from the generic diagnosis of kleptomania - is never explained, but after she gets nabbed by the store's security staff, Faye's shame makes her easy prey for a ruthless crime syndicate that promises to wipe her record clean if she'll perform a job for them. The hunky Scott Brady portrays an undercover cop who infiltrates the gang and falls in love with Faye.
The most interesting aspect of I Was a Shoplifter is the appearance of two up and coming actors who would soon become huge Hollywood stars. Tony Curtis (billed here as Anthony) gets some decent screen time as a not-too-bright, knife-wielding thug named Pepe, while an unbilled Rock Hudson in just his fourth movie only appears briefly in two scenes and looks quite dapper as a hard-nosed store detective.
An exploitation quickie, I Was a Shoplifter possesses curio appeal, but remains a typical B picture that surely played on the lower half of double bills when first released. Kino once again rescues a forgotten film from oblivion, and though it's far from a flagship title, noir fans will welcome its resuscitation. Rating: 2-1/2 stars
Behind the High Wall (1956)
This surprisingly taut and engrossing tale chronicles how the corruption of a prison official affects the fate of a wrongly convicted man. Tom Tully, best known for his stellar supporting work in such films as The Turning Point and The Caine Mutiny (for which he received his only Oscar nomination), gets a rare starring role as Warden Carmichael, who's kidnapped and held hostage during a jailbreak getaway. After the escapees kill a pursuing officer and crash their car into a ditch, the injured Carmichael shoots one of the fleeing prisoners who's carrying an attaché filled with cash. Carmichael impulsively grabs the dough, buries it, and tells his horrified, wheelchair-bound wife Hilda (Sylvia Sidney) they can use it to finance their retirement.
The only stumbling block is Johnny Hutchins (John Gavin), who was also abducted after the break and forced to drive the getaway vehicle. The police pin the officer's death and theft of the money on the innocent Johnny, the only other crash survivor. The one person who can clear him is Carmichael, but doing the right thing would mean admitting his own guilt. Johnny goes to prison, but he and his girlfriend Anne (Betty Lynn) fight to prove his innocence, putting Carmichael in an increasingly tight spot.
Directed in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner by Abner Biberman, Behind the High Wall moves along at a brisk clip and maintains a tight focus throughout. The screenplay by Harold Jack Bloom, who also wrote the noir-ish James Stewart western The Naked Spur, develops believable characters and features realistic dialogue, but it's the solid performances that really put the story over. Only in rarefied circles does Tully get the credit he deserves, and it's a treat to see him in a leading role that brims with moral ambiguity. He and the always marvelous Sidney, who plays a sketchily drawn part with fierce conviction, work beautifully together, and in only his second feature, Gavin - who four years later would romance Janet Leigh and tangle with Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - makes a notable impression.
Behind the High Wall depicts how a split-second decision can have far-reaching and devastating consequences and how easily good people with strong values can succumb to temptation. Like many solid noirs, it rises above its bargain-basement budget and exceeds expectations, delivering potent drama, flesh-and-blood characters, and a few thrills. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XI arrives on Blu-ray in box set packaging with three individual disc cases inside. Video codec is 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.
Two of the three films in this collection sport remastered 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers. A Woman's Vengeance was "digitally restored by Universal Pictures in 4K from the 35mm nitrate original negative" and I Was a Shoplifter received a brand-new 2K master for this release. Though no remastering seems to have been performed on Behind the High Wall, the source material is in great shape, so it doesn't suffer when compared to the other two.
A Woman's Vengeance looks the best, with excellent clarity, contrast, and grayscale producing a glorious film-like picture that faithfully honors Russell Metty's lush cinematography. Inky blacks and bright, well-defined whites anchor the frame, while superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay and yields a couple of stunning silhouettes. The natural grain never overwhelms the image, fine details in costumes and decor are visible, and lovely close-ups flatter Blyth and Tandy and highlight the careworn creases and prominent forehead vein on Boyer's face. No nicks, dirt, or scratches mar the pristine print, and though a few soft moments crop up, they never break the narrative's spell. Rating: 4-1/2 stars
I Was a Shoplifter flaunts a harsher appearance, but once again, terrific clarity and contrast bring the picture to brilliant life. The exterior locations look especially crisp and add vital realism to the film. Natural grain adds essential texture and solid blacks, stable whites, and nicely varied grays create a vibrant, well-balanced image. Pleasing close-ups and solid shadow detail enhance the presentation, but a couple of jarring scratches and some mild speckling remind us of the movie's advanced age. Rating: 4 stars
Behind the High Wall looks surprisingly spry. The widescreen picture is clean and vivid, with dense blacks making bold statements during several nocturnal scenes. Clarity, contrast, grayscale, and shadow delineation all earn high marks, well-resolved grain preserves the feel of celluloid, and sharp close-ups showcase the weathered faces of Tully and Sidney. Some occasional nicks and small blotches dot the image, but don't diminish the quality of this impressive transfer of a largely ignored film. Rating: 4 stars
All three movies feature DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks, and all of them provide clear, well-modulated sound. Once again, A Woman's Vengeance leads the pack with an especially robust track that embraces the soaring highs and weighty lows of Miklós Rósza's melodramatic score. Subtleties like chirping crickets, ticking clocks, rain, and footsteps are distinct and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. I Was a Shoplifter and Behind the High Wall sound great, too, with sonic accents like gunfire, shattering glass, fisticuffs, rumbling car engines, and screeching wheels all making bold statements. Dialogue is comprehendible and fine fidelity bolsters the impact of the respective music scores. No age-related hiss, pops, or crackle afflict any of the tracks.
Only one audio commentary and some trailers comprise the set's supplements.
Audio Commentary for A Woman's Vengeance - Professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney provides an informative and entertaining commentary that examines the differences between Huxley's short story and his adapted screenplay, the challenges of adapting a short story for the screen, the censorship issues that plagued the film, and the Universal-International merger. Ney also recounts the sad story of Boyer's son's suicide and its devastating effect on Boyer and his wife, notes Claude Rains was the first choice for Boyer's role, shares the amusing tale of the film's title change, discusses the style and philosophy of cinematographer Russell Metty, supplies abbreviated bios of Tandy, Blyth, and Korda, and relates how Korda gave composer Miklós Rósza his big break. A Woman's Vengeance is an intriguing film and Ney's absorbing remarks enhance our appreciation of it, even if he does conclude that Huxley's book is better than its film adaptation.
Theatrical Trailers - Previews for A Woman's Vengeance and Behind the High Wall are included, as well as some trailers for other Kino noir releases.
Kino's latest collection of film noir titles satisfies the insatiable cravings of genre junkies. A Woman's Vengeance is the flagship title, but Behind the High Wall also earns big points for its gritty style and fine performances. I Was a Shoplifter doesn't quite make the grade, but it's a fun curio that includes early glimpses of Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. Two remastered transfers add luster to the release, solid audio supplies atmosphere, and though extras are slim, there's a great commentary track for A Woman's Vengeance. Kino kills it once again with another top-notch set that film noir fans will certainly enjoy. Recommended.
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