This next wave of film noir classics from Kino spotlights three semi-obscure films starring such legends as Alan Ladd, Fredric March, and Tony Curtis. Calcutta chronicles a rogue murder investigation against the exotic backdrop of World War II India, An Act of Murder examines the controversial issue of mercy killing, and Six Bridges to Cross looks at the turbulent relationship between a straight-arrow cop and the recalcitrant criminal he doggedly tries to reform. Though these movies don't quite measure up to those contained in Kino's previous noir collections (An Act of Murder is the gem in this set), they're still entertaining pictures that feature fine performances and plenty of absorbing drama. Video quality is spotty (all three films require extensive restorative work), but the audio is fine and three commentary tracks enhance our appreciation of these often overlooked movies. If you're a film noir aficionado, you'll want to add these titles to your collection. Recommended.
The fourth film noir collection from Kino contains another trio of solid crime-themed movies that may not be familiar to the casual fan. While the last two collections seemed to be built around specific themes (Volume II looks at women in noir and Volume III examines social issues and psychological afflictions), this box set includes a more eclectic group of films. An Act of Murder is the standout title here, but it's also the least noir-like film in terms of style and plot. Though this collection doesn't quite live up to its predecessors, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV nevertheless showcases a treasure trove of rare niche movies sure to delight diehard classic movie fans.
Alan Ladd just might have starred in more movies with geographical titles than any other Hollywood actor. There's China, Saigon, Chicago Deadline, Botany Bay, Saskatchewan, Hell on Frisco Bay, Santiago, and...oh yes...Calcutta. Though his cinematic world tour rarely required him to leave the friendly confines of studio soundstages, Ladd always seems right at home in whatever exotic locale he "travels" to. If you're looking for authenticity and Indian atmosphere, you won't find much of it in Calcutta (aside from a few painted backdrops), but what you will find is an entertaining, rough-and-tumble noir mystery that keeps you guessing until the climax.
Ladd and sidekick William Bendix play U.S. Air Force pilots who shuttle an array of cargo between India and China during World War II. When their colleague is found dead on the eve of his wedding, the two request time off to investigate his murder. What follows is the typical noir mix of intrigue, double-crosses, and violence, with some requisite romance and wisecracking thrown in. It's all fairly formulaic, but in the capable hands of director John Farrow, the paint-by-numbers approach produces a satisfying yarn.
Calcutta was a huge hit when first released, and that's primarily due to Ladd. His diminutive size belies his larger-than-life screen persona that fits the grimy, seedy film noir universe like a glove. His gruff demeanor and matinee idol looks make it easy for him to spar verbally and physically with an array of sadistic and sexy characters, but unfortunately he can't generate much heat with the tepid Gail Russell, whose subdued portrayal strikes the movie's only sour note. Ladd seems much more comfortable with the much sexier June Duprez, who should have been cast in Russell's role.
With a hard-boiled script by the prolific Seton I. Miller (The Adventures of Robin Hood), lush cinematography by seven-time Oscar nominee John F. Seitz (Sunset Boulevard), and a rousing music score by 21(!)-time Oscar nominee Victor Young (who finally won the award posthumously for Around the World in 80 Days), Calcutta is an efficient, entertaining noir entry. It may not have as much flavor or spice as a good Indian curry, but if you crave some underworld action with echoes of Casablanca and James M. Cain, it satisfies the appetite. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
An Act of Murder (1948)
Though not nearly as celebrated as such other married acting teams as Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh or Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge performed together often on stage and screen to great critical acclaim. An Act of Murder provided both of them with juicy parts in a substantive thriller that examines the controversial issue of euthanasia. That's not a typical noir subject, and An Act of Murder is far from a typical noir film. In fact, it's a stretch to classify this absorbing, well-acted drama as a film noir at all.
Plagued by debilitating headaches and vision abnormalities, Cathy Cooke (Eldridge) seeks treatment from a doctor, who performs a battery of tests. The results show terminal brain cancer, but the doctor advises Cathy's husband, Judge Calvin Cooke (March), not to share the diagnosis with her. Calvin, who is dubbed "Old Man Maximum" by his peers because of the stiff sentences he customarily hands out, is devastated by the news, but puts on a brave face for his wife. As her pain increases and the prescribed medicine doesn't provide the promised relief, Calvin begins to crumble, and considers mercy killing and suicide to put them both out of their misery. Such an act, though, violates Calvin's personal credo and sparks a dilemma that's almost as devastating as his wife's illness.
Directed by Michael Gordon (whose next picture would be The Lady Gambles, which is included in Kino's third volume of noir classics), An Act of Murder builds slowly, methodically outlining the characters' moral compasses, depicting Calvin and Cathy's devotion, and developing a subplot involving the relationship between the couple's beloved daughter Ellie (Geraldine Brooks) and David Douglas (Edmond O'Brien), a brash defense attorney who clashes with Calvin over his harsh, heartless attitudes toward criminals. Gordon's straightforward style may eschew noir's photographic conventions, but it still creates palpable tension by focusing on the characters' increasing angst and showcasing the subtle, deeply affecting performances of March and Eldridge, whose comfortable rapport and abiding affection make the story's tragic elements and hot-button issues resonate more strongly.
Along with Spencer Tracy, March stands as one of the finest actors of Hollywood's Golden Age, and his understated, nuanced work in An Act of Murder only enhances that lofty reputation. Eldridge rarely receives her proper due, despite a gallery of fine performances, and here she rivals Bette Davis in a story that shares several key elements with one of Davis' most popular pictures, Dark Victory. Future Oscar winner Edmond O'Brien provides strong support in a cardboard role, as does the lovely Geraldine Brooks, whose sincere, natural work makes us rue the brevity of her Hollywood career.
An Act of Murder may lack such standard noir elements as shadowy photography, swirling cigarette smoke, and a sexy femme fatale, but the psychological tension, moral conflicts, and dramatic confrontations that pervade the probing story make this high-quality film worthy of inclusion in the genre. Rating: 4 stars
Six Bridges to Cross (1955)
When Judy Garland lost the Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly in 1955, Groucho Marx sent Garland a telegram terming the upset "the biggest robbery since Brink's!" Well, if you ever wondered what the Brink's robbery was, check out Six Bridges to Cross, a semi-documentary film noir that incorporates what was at the time the biggest heist in U.S. history into a ho-hum tale about an earnest police detective's repeated attempts to guide a crooked hoodlum onto a straight and narrow path.
After shooting 14-year-old delinquent Jerry Florea (Sal Mineo) as he flees from a crime scene, beat cop Edward Gallagher (George Nader) tries to assuage some of his guilt by helping Jerry (who soon grows into Tony Curtis) live a law-abiding life. His repeated attempts over the years fail, but the two men remain inexorably entwined until Gallagher begins to wonder whether he's wasting his time on a lost cause and being manipulated by his duplicitous friend.
Shot largely on location in Boston, where the Brink's Building was located (it's a parking garage now), director Joseph Pevney's film flaunts a tough, authentic feel as it explores the evolution of a criminal and society's role in fostering illegal activity. The film also depicts the unholy alliance between the police and their gangster adversaries, and how a bit of dirt is often required to clean up a corrupt community.
The relationship between Jerry and Edward forms the crux of the narrative, and as a result, the climactic robbery gets pretty short shrift. This is not Ocean's Eleven, which is a bit of a shame because of the sensational reputation of the Brink's job. If you believe Six Bridges to Cross, pulling off the biggest heist in history looks fairly simple. Curtis oozes charm as the lovable hood and Nader is especially effective as the square-jawed cop with a heart of gold, and their potent chemistry both fuels the movie and makes the story more involving than it has any right to be.
Six Bridges to Cross makes some important points, moves along at a brisk clip, and maximizes its authentic locations, but Pevney's methodical slow-burn build-up doesn't yield the explosive climax we expect. It's an absorbing film on many levels, but never quite as satisfying from a noir perspective as more noteworthy pictures. Rating: 3 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a box set with three individual discs housed in separate 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, their static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
The biggest downside to this latest collection of film noir classics is the video quality of the three included movies. All of them could use a fair amount restorative work, and it's quite apparent nothing much has been done to spruce them up for this Blu-ray release. Print damage is the main offender across the board in these 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers. A fair amount of nicks, marks, and scratches dot the various sources, but the most glaring and distracting evidence of wear and tear afflicts An Act of Murder for nine minutes near the end of the film. From the 1:10:30 mark to 1:19:55, several thick, dotted vertical lines run down the right side of the screen, steering attention away from the movie's dramatic courtroom climax. Incidents of softness and fading also intermittently plague the picture and crop up on Calcutta as well.
When the image looks good, however, it looks very good, with excellent clarity and contrast, pleasing sharpness, strong detail levels, and a natural grain structure that provides a film-like feel without overpowering the picture. Black levels are appropriately lush, whites are bright and well-defined (Ladd's white suits in Calcutta look especially crisp), and the grays in between are varied enough to produce a balanced image. Shadow delineation is sufficient, but a few instances of crush afflict the nocturnal scenes in Calcutta. Close-ups nicely spotlight fine facial details, and the optical effects in the carnival scene of An Act of Murder are vivid and seamlessly rendered.
Of the three films, Six Bridges to Cross looks the best, which is not surprising, considering it's the most recent production. Far less print damage afflicts this transfer, but the instances of occasional softness remain. The black-and-white CinemaScope photography by the great William H. Daniels is often quite striking and beautifully fills the wide canvas.
Despite each film's various deficiencies, all three movies are watchable; they're just not the top-notch specimens we're accustomed to seeing.
All three films feature DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks, and all three tracks supply clear, well-modulated sound. Calcutta flaunts a bit more sonic activity than the other films, with roaring airplane engines, whirring propellers, and plenty of gunfire and fisticuffs punctuating the narrative. There's even a sultry musical number. An Act of Murder is far more sedate regarding audio effects, but does possess a melodramatic score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, while the track for Six Bridges to Cross excels with atmospherics that help immerse us in the authentic Boston locations.
Each track features a wide dynamic scale that embraces all the highs and lows without any distortion. The dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased. None of these tracks are standouts, but they all seamlessly complement their respective films.
Supplements are fairly thin. All the discs include trailers for other movies, but the only original theatrical trailer for any of the movies in this collection is for Calcutta. In addition, each disc contains an audio commentary. Film historian Samm Deighan supplies context and perspective for both An Act of Murder and Six Bridges to Cross, while film critic Nick Pinkerton handles those chores for Calcutta. Deighan is one the best commentators in Kino's stable, and her mix of history, biography, trivia, and thematic and industry analysis - all presented in a natural, easygoing, and accessible manner - make her discussions both informative and engaging. She also draws comparisons to other related movies without losing the thread of her remarks on the film at hand...something less accomplished commentators are unable to do. Both of her tracks here are exemplary examples of her fine work. Pinkerton's discussion pales slightly in comparison (he spends too much time detailing the background and credits of the cast and crew), but his knowledge and affable delivery make for a breezy track. He does address the noticeable dearth of Indian actors and extras and lack of Indian atmosphere in Calcutta and extensively analyzes director John Farrow's complex, often distasteful personality, artistic style, and legacy. Pinkerton also shares some colorful anecdotes in this solid effort.
The only other extra is a seven-minute vintage TV promo for Six Bridges to Cross featuring actor Tony Curtis. Like many such promos of the era, this pre-recorded "interview" is a collection of scripted answers from Curtis with intentional lengthy gaps in between. The gaps are there so reporters from individual news outlets can ask the scripted questions that provoke the scripted answers, producing what unsuspecting viewers might believe to be a unique interview.
Though it doesn't quite rival the editions that precede it, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV nevertheless presents a stellar trio of intriguing and entertaining noir movies that will satisfy any aficionado of the genre. Calcutta may be the most traditional noir in this grouping, but An Act of Murder and Six Bridge to Cross contain enough noir elements to merit their inclusion. Top-notch performances from such stars as Alan Ladd, Fredric March, and Tony Curtis distinguish these productions, and directors John Farrow, Michael Gordon, and Joseph Pevney do their respective material proud. Though the video transfers aren't quite up to snuff (all three films could use some serious restorative work), the audio is solid and excellent commentary tracks enhance the viewing experience. None of these movies are essential noir titles, but all will be welcome additions any noir lover's collection. Recommended.