ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Four Film Noir Classics Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow Academy)
Arrow’s limited edition box set brings together (as the name suggests) four classics from the film noir cycle.
The Dark Mirror (1946)
This psychological thriller - featuring a dual role by Olivia de Havilland - starts off with the murder of a doctor named Frank Peralto. Police Lieutenant Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) leads the investigation and interviews a number of suspects. The stories point to Frank’s lover - Terry Collins (Olivia de Havilland) - being the culprit. However, things become more complicated when he discovers that she has an identical twin sister named Ruth (again played by Olivia de Havilland).
When he interrogates them they collectively refuse to reveal which one of the pair was seen at the crime scene on that day. Since there is no clear way of visually telling them apart Stevenson fears that the case will never go to court. However, a handsome young psychologist named Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) has an idea: he brings the pair into his office (under the pretense of research) to ascertain their respective personality traits and get a clearer picture of which of the two siblings is likely to be the murderer. Since both of them are attracted to Scott it’s a task that - on the face of it - isn’t that difficult. However, the scheming “nasty sister” has a few tricks up her sleeve.
The Dark Mirror’s success rests largely on two things: Olivia de Havilland and Olivia de Havilland. Both performances start out closely resembling each other before gradually revealing themselves to be wildly different in nature. The scenes they share are utterly arresting and filled with great character dynamics. The effects trickery which allows both incarnations to share the same frame is extremely well-done too. After a few futile attempts at trying to locate the joins, I was totally sold on the idea and fully bought into her playing simultaneous identical twins.
Robert Siodmak’s direction is economical and manages the occasional stylish moment - an example being when it clearly reveals the nastier of the two sisters by shrouding her in a near silhouette during a revelatory piece of dialogue. If there’s a criticism to the film’s approach it’s that it drops any real ambiguity over which sister is the bad one too soon in the running time. However, it still remains an intriguingly nasty piece as the villainous sibling “gaslights” the good one. A well-crafted and involving thriller, albeit not quite a perfect one.
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Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: Robert Siodmak
Script: Nunnally Johnson, Vladimir Pozner
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell
Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
Joan Bennett plays Celia, a New York woman who inherits a fortune when her older brother passes away. When she goes on holiday to Mexico she catches the eye of a bereaved architect named Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). They fall in love and quickly get married while still in the country.
However, Celia starts to become suspicious that there’s something not quite right about Mark when he suddenly leaves one night, claiming that he has received a telegram with an offer from an investor who wishes to buy a magazine that he runs - and that he needs the money from the sale to help him out of his dire financial straits. While Celia offers to help him out with her own money he insists on leaving. Later on that night, the hotel chambermaid discloses that Mark never received any telegram.
When she returns to the USA she moves in with her new husband. This reveals a number of other surprise discoveries - including that he lives with his sister Caroline (Anne Revere) and son David (Mark Dennis), and that his house includes a mysterious room which is always kept locked. As more bizarre revelations pile up, Celia becomes very suspicious of what Mark’s true plans for her may be.
Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door has received rather mixed reviews over the years. A look around various online sources reveals that there were various disagreements between Lang, Bennett and her husband producer Walter Wanger. Moreover, following a disastrous preview, Wanger imposed a number of cuts plus a new voiceover narration by Bennett without Lang’s consent. It’s as problematic a film as you might expect, albeit not without interest.
The main issue here is that it proceeds slowly through a story that’s ultimately rather silly and littered with red herrings. Combine this with the fact that Bennett and Redgrave don’t have much real spark on screen together and it’s hard to really invest or believe in this ambiguous scenario. Lang was also quite right in his assessment of Bennett’s voiceover; it quickly becomes tiresome.
On the other side of the coin, however, there’s plenty of atmosphere and occasional flashes of brilliance here courtesy of Lang’s Expressionist style. A dream sequence featuring Mark imagining himself being put on trial in front of a jury - whose faces are eerily-blank silhouettes - is particularly memorable. There’s a fiery climax with some impressive moments, a highlight being a frantic attempt to burst open a door where there the only visible light in the shot peers through from the edges of its frame. The animated opening shot (courtesy of The Disney Company) is also noteworthy.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Secret Beyond the Door. It’s a bad melodrama that’s paradoxically well worth watching due to some truly great moments of cinema. A curious inclusion on this set.
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Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: Fritz Lang
Script: Silvia Richards, Rufus King
Starring: Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Anne Revere, Barbara O’Neil, Mark Dennis
Force of Evil (1948)
John Garfield plays Joe Morse, a crooked lawyer who is involved in a “numbers racket” with his employer - a prominent Wall Street businessman named Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). They come up with a scheme to fix a 4th July lottery so that the number 776 wins. However, this number has a nasty catch: people superstitiously bet on it since it represents the year in the date of the Declaration of Independence (4th July 1776). The banks always bet against this since they are skeptical that such a number could ever come up. If it does, many of them would go bust - including one owned by Joe’s brother Leo (Thomas Gomez).
Since Joe isn’t allowed to reveal the scheme to his brother he resorts to strong-arm tactics to force his bank to become part of their business. However, things start to turn sour when a number of Leo’s employees - in particular, Freddie Bauer (Howland Chamberlain) refuse to play ball amid such dodgy goings-on.
Force of Evil packs in a considerable number of plot details, characters and incidents within a brief runtime of 78 minutes. Such a snappy, fast-paced approach to storytelling could have descended into confusing chaos if it wasn’t for the vice-like grip of writer/director Abraham Polonsky. It’s a taut, twisty and utterly cynical look at the dubious insider deals which go on within the capitalist system; it comes as no surprise that Polonsky himself was a self-confessed Marxist who was blacklisted three years after it was made.
The 1.37:1 framing lends the shots a suffocatingly tight air which is particularly effective within the confined spaces of the bank back rooms and the succinct action scenes. However, Polonsky’s flair is found more on the scripting side - in the well-rounded characterisations and the unrelentingly barbed dialogue. It’s Thomas Gomez as Leo who gives arguably the finest performance and gets the best dialogue here. One particularly priceless monologue is as follows:
“A lot you know. Real estate business... living from mortgage to mortgage... stealing credit like a thief. And the garage - that was a business! Three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas: two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me. Penny for one thief, two cents for the other. Well, Joe's here now - I won't have to steal pennies anymore. I'll have big crooks to steal dollars for me!”
John Garfield is almost as impressive as the central protagonist - a guy who exudes considerable shadiness mixed in with a sense that he does have a moral bone in his body… somewhere.
Force of Evil is every bit as relevant now - if not more so - in these post-2008 Financial Crash/current Panama Papers scandal days. It is deservedly ranked as a noir classic.
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Runtime: 78 mins
Dir: Abraham Polonsky
Script: Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert, from a novel by Ira Wolfert
Starring: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor, Howland Chamberlain, Roy Roberts, Paul Fix, Beatrice Pearson
The Big Combo (1955)
Cornel Wilde plays a Police Lieutenant named Leonard Diamond who is obsessed with nailing ruthless crime boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Unfortunately, he has nothing on him which he can charge him with.
Diamond seizes an opportunity when Brown’s girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) attempts suicide as she no longer wants to be in a relationship with the hoodlum. He takes her into custody on the technicality that suicide is a felony (it was in those days) and when she comes around she mutters another woman’s name: Alicia. However, since she otherwise knows little about her he has to follow up the lead himself.
The Big Combo is a well-crafted gangster drama notable for its well-rounded performances, sly (Hays Code era) nods towards sexuality and occasional flashes of inventiveness in the direction. Cornel Wilde is excellent as the tough-yet-sensitive cop, while Richard Conte is subtly menacing as the mafiosi thug. Watch out for a younger Lee Van Cleef (when he still had a full head of hair) as one of Brown’s two hitmen.
The sexual references come into play with the subtly suggestive scenes between Diamond and a showgirl Rita (Helene Stanton) with whom he has a relationship based largely around the coital aspects (she says it all: “A woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, just how he makes love.”) There’s the scene where Mr. Brown desperately attempts to regain Susan’s affections by canoodling up to her and then descending out of shot, while the camera remains focussed in extreme close up on her face. Wallace’s performance portrays as subtle mix of reactions here that makes the scene especially memorable. There are also implications that the relationship between the two hitmen - Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) - extends far beyond mere friendship.
Joseph H. Lewis’s direction shines through during an opening chase through shadowy alleys and a later sequence where one character has his hearing aid removed so that he can’t hear the bullets as he is peppered with holes. The scene is shot with no sound and derives it memorable impact from the image of bright gun muzzle flashes silently piercing the foggy darkness.
Admittedly The Big Combo sometimes suffers a bit from its budgetary limitations; when a bomb explodes we see nothing more than a cut to a shot filled with smoke. There’s also an “unrequited love” sub-plot involving Diamond being obsessed with Susan which doesn’t really add the extra dimension to the story it promises to. His relationship with Rita is much more interesting and possesses a lot more spark on screen (which is ironic considering that Wilde and Wallace were married at this time).
Still, despite these slight issues The Big Combo is a memorable noir thriller with a catchy jazzy theme by David Raksin.
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Runtime: 87 mins
Dir: Joseph H. Lewis
Script: Philip Yordan
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Helene Stanton
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The sound level on some of the discs - in particular Secret Beyond the Door - seems rather too faint. For the aforementioned film I needed to turn the volume up full blast to properly understand the whispery Joan Bennett voiceover. Detail and contrast are generally fine on all of the discs, if not great.
Highlights amongst the extras
The Dark Mirror commentary by Adrian Martin
Adrian Martin discusses a film that is now considered film noir, but at the time fitted more into a trend of pop-Freudian psychological aspects being introduced into Hollywood film. He notes the film’s blend of genres and mixture of mythological and genuine psychology. Apparently, the original story (written by Vladimir Pozner) upon which the film was based was first published - believe it or not - in Good Housekeeping Magazine.
Secret Beyond the Door commentary by Alan K. Rode
An engrossing discussion of the respective careers and personal lives of the various people involved in the film - most of all the notorious Fritz Lang. Rode doesn’t mince words at describing his on set behaviour as being nothing less than autocratic micromanagement and bullying. However, he also paints a picture of a man who could be utterly charming off set. He also discusses the many difficulties involved in making the film - ranging from Lang’s perfectionism knocking out the schedule to an incident involving a shower causing flood damage to the set. An essential listen.
Force of Evil commentary by Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme
The duo discuss the film’s negative contemporary reviews (on critic commented that some members of the cast acted “like they’re smoking marijuana”), the fact that a number of people involved ended up being blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and Abraham Polonsky’s style.
The Big Combo commentary by Eddie Muller
Muller takes an unusual approach to this exceptional commentary: one unafraid to criticise the film’s occasional clumsiness. He points out the film’s threadbare budget, its unnecessary inserts of close-ups into director Joseph Lewis’s graceful one-take filming style and some daft moments of scripting. He also challenges the “auteur theory” by mentioning that John Alton’s distinctive cinematography and Richard Conte’s performance had a lot to do with what made the film work so well.
He also reveals that both Jean Wallace’s character’s onscreen suicide attempt and her relationship with Wilde’s character had parallels with their own respective off-screen lives. Oh… and that the implied cunnilingus scene was the first of its kind ever seen in a film.
Some of the best extras are a selection of Arrow Academy exclusives:
Reflections of The Dark Mirror
An analysis of the film with scholar Noah Isenberg. A worthy but somewhat dry discussion of the history and film career of Robert Siodmak, his place in the film noir cycle and, of course, the film The Dark Mirror itself. We also get to see a wonderful photo which reveals the true way in which to pronounce the name “Siodmak”, thus putting an end to any pub arguments between noir buffs.
Barry Keith Grant on Secret Beyond the Door
An authoritative discussion of Fritz Lang’s career and his recurring themes of people being trapped in circumstances beyond their control and the duality of human nature. He also takes a look at how Secret Beyond the Door fits into these themes.
House of Lang
A visual essay by David Cairns - comprised of stills and clips - examining Lang’s style and how it is used in Secret Beyond the Door.
An Autopsy on Capitalism
Frank Krutnik discusses Force of Evil. We learn that, due to the fact that Abraham Polonsky felt that it might be his only chance to direct a film, he worked his Marxist beliefs into the film as extensively as he could. Krutnik touches on the various themes of corruption within the capitalist financial world and the “Cain and Abel” brothers metaphor. He also discusses the problems with the film’s moral underpinnings fitting in with the overbearing Hays Production Code, as well as its initial reception and subsequent rediscovery. A solid discussion which covers a broad range of aspects surrounding the film.
Geoff Andrew on The Big Combo
Geoff starts off by talking about a late-1970s revival of director Joseph H. Lewis which was kicked off by a Time Out review describing it as “the greatest movie ever made”. His renewed popularity reached fever pitch when, in 1980, the Edinburgh Film Festival screened a 24-film retrospective of his work. He also discusses the film The Big Combo, including revealing that Lewis himself admitted that the idea behind the classic “silent shooting” scene came from an on-set technician whose name he could no longer remember. An enjoyable retrospective.
The extras also include trailers, radio plays, image galleries and more.
This collection is highly recommended for any film noir buff. While Force of Evil is the only one which I would rate as one of the genre’s absolute best, each of the 4 films has its own distinct points of interest. The audio-visual presentation is so-so but the wealth of extras is impressive.
The Dark Mirror
Secret Beyond the Door
Force of Evil
The Big Combo