Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****
Out of all the movies under-represented on DVD, film noir likely makes up a huge chunk of them. Thankfully, Warner Home Video and Sony Pictures have been digging deep in their vaults and releasing a series of box sets. Coming up later this month, Warner unleashes Volume 5 in their series, while Sony releases the second edition of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics. As with Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (2009), this new box kicks off with a Fritz Lang classic. Made on the heels of The Big Heat (1953) with the same cast, Human Desire (1954) never caught on in quite the same way, perhaps because its ending doesn't seem to carry the same kind of punch; it sort of winds down, rather than exploding.
Glenn Ford plays Jeff Warren, a cheerful Korean War veteran who returns to his small town and his job as a railroad engineer. The pretty daughter in his boarding house throws herself at him, and it looks like life is going to be pretty simple for him. Unfortunately, his boss Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) has married a sultry, no-good dame, Vicki (noir staple Gloria Grahame), who unwillingly helps her jealous, foul-tempered husband pull off a murder on a train. She's sent to distract innocent bystander Jeff, and the distraction ends with an unexpected kiss. Jeff is hooked, and thus begins an affair and possibly another murder.
Perhaps the trouble with Human Desire begins with the fact that it was based on an Emile Zola novel; literary snobs probably wanted a movie that was a little more highfalutin, and fans of tough, dark crime movies probably wanted something a little tougher and meaner. (Jean Renoir also adapted the novel into his 1938 film La bête humaine.) Regardless, it's still a superb, highly polished example of Lang's craft. Actress Emily Mortimer (Match Point, Transsiberian) appears on a featurette, talking about why she loves the film.
Next up is a no-longer-rare "B" film by the great Jacques Tourneur, Nightfall (1957). Aldo Ray plays a mysterious commercial artist who is being tailed by an insurance investigator (James Gregory). He meets a pretty girl (a young Anne Bancroft) in a bar just before two thugs (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) approach and pick him up. Eventually, we learn through several carefully placed flashbacks, just who is the hero and who's the bad guy and who's working for whom. Everything comes down to a bag of stolen money, lost in the snow; everyone is waiting for the spring thaw to go back and retrieve it.
Subsequently, Tourneur manages to shoot outdoors for large portions of the film, in broad daylight and in the snow, a rare setting for noir. Based on a story by David Goodis (Dark Passage, Shoot the Piano Player), the narrative takes a few odd short cuts here and there, but Tourneur nonetheless fills the 79-minute wonder with some of his most gorgeous compositions.
The great "B" movie filmmaker Phil Karlson, whose Five Against the House was in the previous Columbia noir set, is represented here with The Brothers Rico (1957), which is really more of a gangster picture. Richard Conte stars as the oldest Rico brother, Eddie. He runs a legitimate cleaning business, hopes to adopt a baby with his wife, and believes that his ties to the mob are a thing of the past. But his middle brother Gino (Paul Picerni) turns up and explains that he and youngest brother Johnny (James Darren) were involved in a fatal robbery and are now on the run. Eddie's first instinct is to turn to the big boss, Sid Kubik (Larry Gates), but it's no longer clear who Eddie can trust, and who he will betray.
Based on a story by Georges Simenon (Monsieur Hire), it's a fairly complex setup, to be sure, but Karlson lays it all out very clearly, so that even the absent characters have a kind of presence. Conte must carry most of the burden himself; the script requires him to be a little bit clueless, and he can't quite pull this off. But otherwise, this is an excellent crime picture. Martin Scorsese appears on an extra feature to explain why he thinks the flat, late-1950s cinematography makes the film even more sinister.
The other films in the set include Richard Quine's Pushover (1954), starring a 46 year-old Fred MacMurray opposite the dazzling 21 year-old Kim Novak, making her film debut, in a sort of B movie Double Indemnity. As a bonus, Dorothy Malone (who won an Oscar for Written on the Wind) also stars. Lastly, there's Irving Lerner's tense City of Fear (1959), which is really more of a disaster movie; it's about an escaped criminal (Murder by Contract's Vince Edwards) who thinks he has a vial of heroin, but it's actually a deadly radioactive powder that can wipe out the city. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan appears on this last disc, talking about why he loves film noir and why he makes them for today's complex world. All five discs come with theatrical trailers.
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