Hot on the heels of the second box set of film noir classics from Kino comes Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III, another three-disc collection of black-and-white thrillers produced by Universal-International that exposes the seamy underbelly of American society circa 1950. Stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Conte, Dennis O'Keefe, and Robert Preston populate this hard-boiled trio of movies that focuses on crime syndicates and crippling addictions that lead to murder, nefarious manipulations, and mental breakdowns. Each movie has merit, but it's hard to top a frenzied Stanwyck pinballing between dizzying highs and devastating lows in The Lady Gambles. Plenty of TLC in the video and audio departments distinguishes this Kino release and makes it easier to forgive the slim selection of supplements. Fans of noir can never get enough of the genre, and this above average collection will tide us over until the fourth volume of the series hits the street next month. Recommended.
The second volume of film noir classics from Kino (released last month) focuses on women in crisis, and while damsels in various stages of emotional distress also populate Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III, the trio of movies included in the studio's third noir collection traverses the more traditional territory of underworld rackets and psychological afflictions. Though Abandoned tackles the former and The Lady Gambles explores the latter, The Sleeping City addresses both. All three are fine noir specimens, but the only femme fatale on hand masquerades as a kindly, Bible-toting grandmother, so if you're looking for a sexy thriller a la Gilda or The Postman Aways Rings Twice, you won't find one here.
What you will find are three gritty, atmospheric, and entertaining movies distinguished by ripped-from-the-headlines plots shot in a realistic manner in such colorful urban locales as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York City. All were produced by Universal-International seven decades ago, but the issues they spotlight remain topical today.
One of noir's most interesting subcategories is the semi-documentary film, which often exposes nefarious crime syndicates in a realistic, just-the-facts-ma'am manner peppered with noir accents. These pictures tend to flaunt a more hard-boiled, less stylized look as they showcase detective work, police procedures, and authentic locations in an effort to raise awareness about dangerous cells threatening American society. T-Men addresses counterfeiting, The House on 92nd Street looks at domestic spy rings, Panic in the Streets examines a public health crisis, and Abandoned blows the lid off the disturbing practice of black market adoptions.
Paula Considine (Gale Storm) comes to a nameless big city that looks an awful lot like L.A. in search of her older sister, an unwed mother who, along with her newborn infant, has mysteriously disappeared. A chance meeting with strapping newspaper reporter Mark Sitko (Dennis O'Keefe) leads to an undercover investigation that eventually pits the two against a ruthless baby-selling operation that preys upon poor, frightened young women and infertile couples desperate to adopt a child. Director Joe Newman films a good deal of the fast-moving story on location in Los Angeles, and a taut script, top-notch cinematography by the esteemed William Daniels, and spirited performances by a strong cast keep us engaged in the action.
After reviewing T-Men and Raw Deal a couple of years ago, I became a big fan of the too often unheralded O'Keefe, whose easygoing charm and low-key machismo make him a relatable, reliable, and attractive actor. Like always, he handles his chores here with a minimum of fuss, creating a comfortable chemistry with the perky Storm, trading barbs with a young, not-yet-grizzled Jeff Chandler, and going toe-to-toe with a glowering Raymond Burr, whose dimensional portrayal of a conflicted henchman adds some ambiguity to the straightforward plot. Marjorie Rambeau also shines as the rotten-to-the-core ringleader whose insatiable greed renders her soulless.
Abandoned will never be a top-tier noir, but it's an engrossing curio that merits attention for its slick presentation and forthright treatment of a disturbing subject. Noir lovers will certainly enjoy rediscovering this little-known yet surprisingly potent and exciting crime drama. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
The Lady Gambles (1949)
Some might crown Barbara Stanwyck the queen of film noir. Her portrayal of cold-blooded murderess Phyllis Dietrichson in director Billy Wilder's classic noir Double Indemnity became the archetype for the Hollywood femme fatale, and her icy turn as the venomous title character in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers two years later cemented that reputation. Stanwyck's noir credits run long, and one of the movies that never quite receives the recognition it deserves is The Lady Gambles, a fast-paced chronicle of one woman's dizzying descent into the depths of addiction.
Much like The Lost Weekend explores alcoholism and The Man with the Golden Arm examines heroin abuse, director Michael Gordon's often agonizing melodrama depicts the debilitating effects of gambling addiction on an upstanding, seemingly well-balanced housewife who becomes obsessed with poker and craps when she accompanies her husband (Robert Preston) on a Las Vegas business trip. Idle curiosity quickly morphs into an addiction that transforms sweet, sincere Joan Boothe (Stanwyck) into a desperate, deceitful woman who can't resist the heady allure of chips, dice, and cards. Egged on by a shady casino operator (Stephen McNally), she's soon all too willing to bet everything, including her marriage, for a chance at the ever elusive big win.
Stanwyck did the gambling thing, albeit much more mildly, in the similarly titled Gambling Lady 15 years before. That turned out to be just a warm-up for this exhausting emotional exercise that exudes a far more realistic feel, thanks largely to extensive location shooting on the Vegas Strip, Lake Mead, and at Hoover Dam. Stanwyck's portrayal keeps the movie firing on all cylinders and runs on the kind of raw, natural intensity that made her one of the top box office draws of the 1940s. It's a thrill to watch her face light up as she vigorously shakes the dice - her brow glistening with sweat, her eyes afire with an almost animalistic desire - then see her moments later in the depths of despair, desperately and pathetically begging for money after Lady Luck lets her down. That's screen acting at its finest, and in dozens of films, Stanwyck performed the same kind of tricks over and over again, all without a hint of affectation.
The film believably depicts gambling addiction, but drops the ball when it tries to pin its cause on Joan's underlying and repressed psychological problems. Despite that lapse, the script by Roy Huggins, who would later create The Fugitive TV series, features plenty of colorful dialogue. Preston's character may be too good to be true, but the actor's earnest portrayal and excellent chemistry with Stanwyck help us forgive the lack of depth. And be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a quick appearance by a young Tony Curtis (billed as Anthony) in only his fourth film as a hotel bellhop.
The Lady Gambles, though, is all about the lady, and Stanwyck completely owns this tailor-made vehicle. It may not always roll a lucky seven, but it's a far cry from snake eyes. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
The Sleeping City (1950)
Another semi-documentary entry, The Sleeping City capitalizes on the success of 1948's The Naked City, bringing Universal camera crews back to New York City for an all-location thriller that exposes corruption and malpractice in the hospital system. The hospital in question is hallowed Bellevue Hospital, but the plot points touching upon drug trafficking, gambling, low wages, and severe intern stress and depression so concerned the Big Apple's mayor he lobbied Universal to insert a very awkward prologue featuring actor Richard Conte - as Richard Conte, but in full doctor garb - reassuring audiences that despite all the authenticity on display, the tale is entirely fictitious.
The location shooting heightens the film's gritty tone in a strangely poetic manner, but after a dynamite opening that starkly depicts a beleaguered intern's brutal murder, the story progresses in fits and starts. Director George Sherman spends a lot of time dryly chronicling police and medical procedures as he tries to make the most of his real hospital setting. The bits of plot sprinkled in between would work better if they were more cohesively connected, and the raison d'etre for all the violence and strife never feels very convincing. The performances are all capable, but no one in the ensemble cast that's largely comprised of Broadway actors really stands out. The city and the hospital are the film's real stars and Sherman makes sure he properly showcases them.
Conte plays Fred Rowan, an undercover police officer with some mild military medical training who's dispatched to Bellevue to masquerade as an intern as he tries to deduce who killed one of their brethren. Could it be the victim's jumpy, psychologically stressed roommate (Alex Nicol) who questions his own commitment to medicine? Or maybe his girlfriend (Coleen Gray), a hospital nurse, who doesn't seem quite as broken up as she should about his sudden death? With all the build-up, we expect a more explosive climax, but The Sleeping City ends up a garden variety crime drama with a medical backdrop instead of a shocking hospital expose. As a result, it's not as satisfying as other movies in its class. Rating: 3 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III arrives on Blu-ray in a box set filled with three separate discs housed in standard cases. Video codecs for all three films 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.
All three films boast high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers that faithfully honor the beautiful cinematography of such masters as Russell Metty (The Lady Gambles) and William Daniels (Abandoned). Evident yet well-resolved grain supplies essential texture to reflect the grit and grime of the various narratives while maintaining a lovely film-like feel. Excellent clarity and contrast enhance background details, costume textures, and provide a greater sense of depth. Lush blacks are a vital aspect of noir, and all three transfers deliver them in spades, along with bright, well-defined whites, nicely varied grays, and top-notch shadow delineation.
The Sleeping City suffers from a bit of image instability here and there, and occasionally looks a little rough around the edges due to all the location shooting, but the imperfections strangely complement the movie's realistic presentation. From a print damage perspective, The Lady Gambles features a few more nicks, marks, and scratches than the other movies, but they never get in the way of the on-screen drama. Abandoned probably boasts the best transfer overall, but considering none of these films have undergone any extensive restorative work prior to their Blu-ray release, they all look wonderfully vibrant and crisp.
All three films feature DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks that are largely free of age-related hiss, pops, and crackle. Fidelity and tonal depth exceed expectations and often make us forget these tracks are about 70 years old. The sound is especially good on Abandoned, which crisply renders sirens, jackhammers, footsteps on pavement, and ambient street noise. The assortment of stock music that comprises the score sounds very robust and all the conversations are nicely prioritized.
Both The Lady Gambles and The Sleeping City feature music by prolific composer Frank Skinner, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of his potent scores without a hint of distortion. Though the hospital locations for The Sleeping City provide authenticity, they're not optimal environments for sound recording, and as a result, that film's audio quality is slightly compromised. A hollow tone with a slight bit of reverb often obscures dialogue, but it remains comprehendible.
The seamless, well-balanced sound of The Lady Gambles thrusts us into the hustle and bustle of Vegas casinos, bars, and restaurants. Thankfully, all the atmospherics enhance the dramatic action without overwhelming it.
The only original theatrical trailer included is for The Sleeping City, but each disc does feature an audio commentary. All three contributors - Samm Deighan for Abandoned, Kat Ellinger for The Lady Gambles, and Imogen Sara Smith for The Sleeping City - provide informative and insightful remarks that examine noir's distinctive style, assess the past, present, and future work of many cast and crew members, and detail both the history of each production and how each fits into a larger cinematic framework. If you've got the time, these commentary tracks are well worth diving into.
Kino presents another trio of fine noir films in its third box set saluting the popular genre. The collection of tense melodramas and semi-documentary thrillers that comprise Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III focus on heinous crimes and life-shattering addictions, with such esteemed stars as Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Conte, Robert Preston, and Dennis O'Keefe navigating the treacherous dramatic waters. Though Abandoned, The Lady Gambles, and The Sleeping City are all relatively obscure titles, each merits attention and deserves a fresh look, especially in the splendor of high definition. Extras are once again slim, but the strong transfers make these three movies look and sound better than ever before. Recommended.