Three obscure titles comprise Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II, the second in a series of collections from Kino Lorber celebrating one of Hollywood's most fascinating and artistic genres. This box set focuses on women in crisis, with star turns by Claudette Colbert, Merle Oberon, and Hedy Lamarr, and though only Thunder on the Hill - directed by the great Douglas Sirk - really shines, each movie boasts a strong cast, stylish production values, and a typically overwrought plot. Extras are slim, but solid transfers across the board bolster the appeal of this eclectic box set that will certainly please hardcore noir aficionados. For Fans Only.
Back in 2016, Kino Lorber released its first film noir box set, a five-disc collection of previously released titles celebrating the shadowy style, disturbing themes, and nefarious characters of this irresistible genre. It took four years, but at last, Kino has produced the sequel, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II, which brings together a trio of new-to-Blu-ray noirs mounted by Universal-International in the 1950s. All three focus on women in crisis and star accomplished actresses (Claudette Colbert, Merle Oberon, and Hedy Lamarr) in the twilight of their careers...and all three - at least for now - are only available packaged together in this boxed set.
The movies may not be iconic film noirs, but they're interesting specimens that explore different aspects of the genre. One is a traditional murder mystery, another is a tough crime drama, and the third is a tawdry, titillating mother-daughter love triangle. If you're a noir junkie like me, these films provide a welcome fix, especially the excellent Thunder on the Hill. And the good news is more noir collections are on the way. Watch this space.
Thunder on the Hill (1951)
By far the best movie and truest noir in this collection, Thunder on the Hill is a relatively early effort from melodrama master Douglas Sirk, who crafts a gripping whodunit packed with tension, surprises, and lovely artistic touches. Oscar-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels helps weave the eerie mood, manipulating light and shadow into striking images that keep us visually transfixed and emotionally involved in the absorbing tale.
Nuns and noir don't seem to mix, but that's part of what makes this film so intriguing. Based on a play by Charlotte Hastings, yet exhibiting none of the staginess that often afflicts theatrical adaptations, Thunder on the Hill takes place at a British convent hospital that's overrun with patients due to a catastrophic flood that has wreaked havoc on the rural community and cut the convent off from civilization. One of those stranded is Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth), a convicted murderess who's en route via police escort to the site of her execution. Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert), who became a nun to assuage her guilt after her sister's suicide, empathizes with Valerie and believes her passionate professions of innocence. Determined to prove someone else poisoned Valerie's invalid brother, Sister Mary seeks exculpatory evidence against the wishes of the convent's Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) and in violation of an edict laid down by the lawman chaperoning Valerie. Can Sister Mary find the real killer before Valerie is swept away to the gallows, and if she does, will she pay the ultimate price?
A gallery of colorful characters all convincingly portrayed by the accomplished cast draws us into the tale and the fluid, literate script by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt (who wrote one of Hollywood's most memorable noirs, In a Lonely Place, the previous year) navigates the story's twists and turns with aplomb while interweaving a few substantive themes. Though astute viewers can probably guess the killer's identity a bit before the big reveal, plenty of ambiguity and several roadblocks keep us guessing throughout and ultimately lead to a thrilling climax reminiscent of Black Narcissus.
I wasn't familiar with Thunder on the Hill prior to this release, but the stylish direction, taut narrative, top-notch performances, and arresting visuals instantly grabbed me and kept me on the hook throughout. Though Sirk is best known for an array of lush, soapy, Technicolor melodramas, he proves here he's equally adept at film noir, and this top-notch production makes me eager to explore his other forays into the genre. Rating: 4 stars
The Price of Fear (1956)
Merle Oberon was one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, but Hollywood has never been particularly kind to its middle-aged female stars, and by 1956 meaty parts began drying up for the 45-year-old actress. During her heyday, Oberon probably would have turned down The Price of Fear, a run-of-the-mill morality tale that wound up on the bottom end of a double bill with The Creature Walks Among Us (one of the Creature from the Black Lagoon sequels), but she earns points for giving this taut B-grade noir her all.
Oberon brings plenty of glamor and a splash of grit to her duplicitous portrayal of Jessica Warren, an upstanding career woman whose life is upended when she accidentally runs down a pedestrian with her car after a celebratory night out. Panic-stricken, she leaves the scene of the accident, then regrets her decision, yet while parked at a phone booth to notify the police, her car is stolen by Dave Barrett (Lex Barker), an honest racetrack owner trying to outrun the henchmen of gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens). Jessica quickly realizes if she can pin the hit-and-run on the car thief, she'll be in the clear, and when Dave is later framed for murder by Edare, he realizes the hit-and-run gives him the alibi he needs to prove his innocence. The tangled web tightens as Dave and Jessica become romantically involved and Edare blackmails Jessica to put the squeeze on Dave, all while police sergeant Pete Carroll (Charles Drake) begins nosing around.
Director Abner Biberman inserts a few off-kilter camera angles to add a bit of artistry and nicely maintains tension throughout. Though the promising premise doesn't quite maximize its potential, the story zips along at a brisk clip and keeps us wondering whether Jessica is a frightened damsel in distress or icy femme fatale. Oberon and the square-jawed Barker, a veteran of five Tarzan movies and at the time husband #4 of Lana Turner, create surprisingly good chemistry, and a competent supporting cast supplies some spicy accents. The Price of Fear is hardly memorable, but it does a good job of depicting how quickly a careless moment can send a perfect life careening out of control. Rating: 3 stars
The Female Animal (1958)
Hedy Lamarr was an exotic screen siren whose breathtaking beauty enlivened many a subpar film and Jane Powell was one of MGM's prettiest and perkiest singing sweethearts during the waning years of the Golden Age musical. Yet when Lamarr hit 40 and the Hollywood musical fell out of favor, both women faced a professional crossroads. The Female Animal offered Lamarr one last chance to revitalize her image and Powell a golden opportunity to change hers. Unfortunately, director Harry Keller's campy blend of Mildred Pierce and Sunset Boulevard doesn't do either actress any favors and effectively ended both of their big-screen careers.
Aside from the beautiful cinematography by the great Russell Metty, who would win an Oscar two years later for Spartacus, there's not a lot to recommend this disjointed tale of an aging movie star (Lamarr) who becomes romantically involved with a studly, often bare-chested extra (George Nader) who's also pursued by her rebellious and promiscuous adopted teenage daughter (Powell). Lots of initial titillation fizzles out and a rather anemic drama with minimal noir accents remains. Lamarr, who was only 44 at the time, still exudes palpable allure, and though it's a bit of a shock to see the usually pious Powell stumbling around drunk half the time and wearing a host of slinky outfits, she gives the change-of-pace role her all.
The trouble is Lamarr is too young to play an over-the-hill cougar and Powell, at age 29, is too old to believably portray a recalcitrant teen. Nader supplies beefcake, but little else, so it's left to Jan Sterling to make the biggest impression in a small yet juicy role as one of Lamarr's Hollywood rivals. Just like The Price of Fear, The Female Animal also ended up on a double bill, but it was the "A" feature. Unbelievably, the "B" feature was Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, which was also shot by Metty and would go on to become an all-time classic. Go figure.
Sadly, The Female Animal would be Lamarr's screen swan song. (In a bit of art imitates life, one character tells her, "I've always felt that you were a much better actress than the roles they gave you," which perfectly describes Lamarr's career.) Powell, too, would make only one more feature film before turning to the stage and TV. Though entertaining, slickly shot, and packed with sassy, trashy dialogue, Keller's movie lacks the edgy tension and sense of dread that distinguish the best film noirs...or even the best camp melodramas. The Female Animal may be a sexy specimen, but underneath its silky skin it's pretty docile. Less bark and more predatory bite would make it a more appetizing dish. Rating: 2-1/2 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II arrives on Blu-ray in a handsome box set that holds three individual Blu-ray discs housed in standard cases. Video codecs for all three films 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 look great in high definition. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers all sport terrific vibrancy, clarity, and contrast, which almost make us forget these movies are more than 60 years old. Natural grain structures supply essential texture while maintaining the look and feel of celluloid, and a wonderfully varied grayscale heightens detail and depth levels. Rich, deep blacks are an essential ingredient of a top-quality noir presentation, and these transfers supply just that, along with bright whites that provide striking contrasts, most notably in the nuns' habits in Thunder on the Hill. Hedy Lamarr's raven black hair exudes a lovely sheen, nocturnal scenes across the board are crisp, and shadow delineation in all three films is quite good.
Both The Price of Fear and The Female Animal were shot in CinemaScope, and their expansive images maintain superior clarity across the wide canvas. (The aspect ratio for The Price of Fear is 2.00:1; The Female Animal is 2.35:1.) Sharp close-ups don't hide a few middle-aged lines on the faces of Oberon and Lamarr, but still showcase their classic beauty. The camera is kinder, of course, to the fresh-faced Blyth and Powell, and Nader and Barker project plenty of rugged machismo in their tight shots. Some print damage is occasionally evident, but the source materials used for all three transfers are largely free of the nicks, marks, and scratches that usually afflict films of this vintage that haven't undergone extensive restorations.
It's obvious a great deal of care has gone into Kino's film noir series, and these transfers reflect the studio's commitment to quality. Any noir aficionado will be quite pleased with these stellar efforts.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks supply clear, well-modulated sound. Wide dynamic scales allow the dramatic music scores by Hans J. Salter (Thunder on the Hill, The Female Animal) and Heinz Roemheld (The Price of Fear) to fill the room without any distortion, and effects like gunfire, thunder, screeching tires, and facial slaps are crisp and distinct. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been erased, leaving surprisingly clean tracks that allow us to remain focused on the tense on-screen action.
Extras are quite slim, but given the obscure nature of all three films, that's understandable. There's a theatrical trailer for each movie (although it's barely a snippet for The Price of Fear), and an audio commentary for The Female Animal with film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau. In their refreshingly honest discussion, both men don't shy away from pointing out the film's many shortcomings, especially its bad casting and poorly constructed script, but they effusively praise Lamarr, Powell, and Sterling, and offer kind words for Nader as well. It's a fun, gossipy track that focuses a lot on Hollywood's morals (or lack thereof) during the 1950s, so it's worth checking out.
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II brings together a trio of lesser known noir titles that focus on women in crisis and showcase the talent and allure of three of Hollywood's biggest stars. All have merit, but Thunder on the Hill is the standout of the bunch, thanks to a top-notch script, excellent direction by Douglas Sirk, and an array of fine performances led by the always impressive Claudette Colbert. The other two (The Price of Fear and The Female Animal) are fun but forgettable, although Merle Oberon and Hedy Lamarr make them worth watching. Extras are slim, but all the top-drawer transfers enhance the appeal of this eclectic set. More noir on Blu-ray is always a good thing, and the good news is Kino is bringing even more noir our way in the coming weeks. Unless you're a real noir fanatic, this collection might not be of interest, but noir connoisseurs and completists will surely cheer this continuing series. For Fans Only.