Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****
This has been quite a summer for film noir on DVD. In addition to the Columbia Noir set that just arrived, now Warner Home Video releases a new eight-film box set, featuring at least three long-awaited and essential classics. First up is Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947), which is the first of three "B" noirs Mann released over the course of one year. It was followed by Railroaded! and then his groundbreaking T-Men, upon which he collaborated with the great cinematographer John Alton and reached new heights in the use of darkness and shadow. While Desperate isn't quite at the same level, it does have Mann's sense of coiled violence, just waiting to unload.
Steve Brodie stars as Steve, a happy truck driver newly married to the pretty Anne (Audrey Long, future wife of Billy Wilder); he still brings her flowers when he arrives home from work. One night, he gets a call; he can make a quick $50 for a night's work. Unfortunately, the job turns out to be getaway car for a robbery. Steve tries to refuse, but winds up at the wrong end of a gun. The action is spread out over several months -- the length of the trial and the execution, and -- this has the effect of dampening some of the suspense; the story is a bit too broad for its compact, 73-minute frame. Likewise, Brodie never captures the mixture of torment, violence and anguish that his character should be feeling. He seems like an all-around, righteous, good-natured guy. Burr on the other hand, is quite good; he's intimidating and angry, and like all good villains, he comes from a real place of pain and anger. Desperate comes paired on a disc with Edward Dmytryk's overwrought but interesting Cornered (1945), also with Burr.
Next up is a genuine masterpiece, Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955), which has been too hard to find for too long. It's included here with its 13-minute "newsreel" opening, which talks a little bit about the background and (real) history of the film. After nearly a century, Phenix City, Alabama is still ruled by crooks and gambling establishments. John Patterson (Richard Kiley) returns home from Korea to find his city in turmoil. A fight in a parking lot leads to several acts of revenge, which leads to his father Albert Patterson (John McIntire) running for State Attorney General.
As shown in Karlson's The Brothers Rico (1957) -- which was just released on DVD as part of that Columbia Pictures Noir Classics II set -- the director is highly skilled at balancing a great number of characters in a fast-moving story without losing track. He quickly and firmly establishes his characters with repeated use of their names and with one or two little visual riffs; we understand each character's personality and position almost immediately. The villain here is Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), a pleasant, but slightly sweaty Southern gentleman who visits old friends and greets old ladies in the street. But when we first meet him, he's trying to figure out how to fix a turtle race to make money on it. Add to this supreme clarity of storytelling a fast, punchy, documentary-like realism, a genuine feel for place, and a powerful sense of urgency, and you've got Karlson's finest hour. The Phenix City Story comes paired on a DVD with Gerald Mayer's little ace Dial 1119 (1950), starring a whacked-out Marshall Thompson, as well as William Conrad.
On the third disc, we get frequent Eastwood partner Don Siegel's "juvenile delinquent" picture, Crime in the Streets (1956), which includes the first starring role of John Cassavetes. Set-bound and message-heavy, the film depends heavily on Cassavetes' intensity and Siegel's brutality to make it work. It starts with a back-alley rumble -- taking place over the opening credits -- and continues in its aftermath. One of the members of the Hornets has a gun, and a middle-age neighbor, Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury), snitches on him, sending him to prison. The leader of the Hornets, Frankie Dane (Cassavetes), decides to do something the gang has never done before: kill the rat.
Most of the gang refuses to join in, except the giggling sociopath Lou (Mark Rydell), and the 15 year-old "Baby" (Sal Mineo, what a cast), who is desperate to fit in. Meanwhile, a savvy social worker, Wagner (James Whitmore), begins to realize that something is going on and tries to speak to Frankie in a way that he'll understand. Sandwiched somewhere between Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, this one is less wounded than the former, but much tougher than the latter, and almost constantly gripping. Crime in the Streets is paired on a disc with Richard Fleischer's 68-minute standard stick-up story (not without merit, though) Armored Car Robbery (1950).
The fourth disc comes with Harold Clurman's flawed but poweerful little gem Deadline at Dawn (1946), adapted by Clifford Odets from a Cornell Woolrich novel, and Vincent Sherman's Backfire (1950), starring the fetching Virginia Mayo. There are no extras, except for trailers for Cornered and Dial 1119.
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