There are only a few things that make input in film Twitter worthwhile. One of them is #Noirvember. After everyone blisses out on horror movies (you can watch them at other times, lads), film enthusiasts then decide to pore over the cynical, stylistic sub-genre of film noir.
While film noir has branched off into other sectors such as Erotic Thrillers or Neo-Noir, the original, tough era of intricate crime stories and contrasting lighting still provides a lure to many. Be it hardboiled detective plots or illicit love stories, the old-school noirs of the 40s and 50s still provide fascination to well-rounded cinephiles. Arrow Video have decided to get ahead of the game. Months before film fans indulge in Noirvember once more, they’ve released a collection of noir classics which may be a little more off the beaten track than say Touch of Evil (1958), but still holds a touch of notoriety on their terms.
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We start with The Suspect (1944), a fascinating curio in which Charles Laughton plays a gregarious shopkeeper who has his head turned by Mary Gray (Ella Raines), a beautiful, young stenographer. They begin a friendly courtship which soon blooms into something deeper. However, there’s a small problem with the shopkeeper’s wife, who soon succumbs to an unfortunate demise. The Suspect is a predictable feature, which is far more interested in being a character study than a mystery. One only must pay mild attention to the plot to know that Rosalind Ivan’s piercing housewife will suffer certain calamity from her husband.
What creeps under the skin however is how the film sways the audience towards its lead. A person who isn’t portrayed as typically evil as he could be. Laughton, well known for being a more scenery-chomping actor, plays it far straighter here, carrying the material with knowing ease. Robert Siodmak (Son of Dracula) has a wonderful time with the film’s simple yet efficient set pieces, including a small foot chase involving Laughton and suffocating wife Ivan. Perhaps the most valuable sequence is the flirtatious montage between Laughton and Raines which effectively builds the most unlikely of relationships. The unconventional aspect of Raines’ character falling for someone like Laughton’s shopkeeper, along with the reasons why make The Suspect a compelling piece.
The Sleeping City (1950) opens bizarrely with an introduction from its lead actor Richard Conte, praising the good folk of Bellevue Hospital in New York for allowing them to film this crime feature. There’s a concentrated effort to quell the idea that the real-life location could be a true crime hotbed of drug smuggling. God bless the New York mayor for his scarce faith in people’s moral compass.
To be fair to the film, unlike the first two features, The Sleeping City opens true with a rather shocking opening for its time. One that can easily blindside the disengaged. Conte plays a detective who goes undercover as a medical doctor at Bellevue to try and uncover what led to the mysterious death of an intern. His investigation leads him to an underground narcotics ring, where he seeks to find and arrest the shadowy kingpin controlling the organisation.
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In a rarity for films at the time, The Sleeping City is entirely filmed on location. With its cinema verité style, the film fully enjoys roaming around its locale. Much in the same way Thunderball (1965) is a little too involved with its underwater sequences. Despite its short running time, the film takes time out to tour locations which don’t feel as important as they could be. This is somewhat understandable.
Not every film could show off that it wasn’t filmed on a studio lot. However, The Sleeping City’s best visual moments aren’t when parading around the hospital’s hallways. The introduction of Richard Taber’s character of Pop Ware, centred around the hospital’s rec room, is an incredibly simple method of storytelling. Subtly marking the territory in which a person can so easily get in over his head financially, as well as the type of person who will encourage such risk. The Sleeping City might like to show off its location filming, but its semi-documentary style along with its lean plotting does provide a cynical and paranoid realism while distracting the viewer from the somewhat stiff performances.
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Thunder on the Hill (1951) is perhaps the most melodramatic of the collection. Then again, it is directed by Douglas Sirk, perhaps one of old Hollywood’s quintessential directors of melodrama. Claudette Colbert’s Sister Mary is utterly convinced of the innocence of a convicted murderer almost from first sight. As a torrential flood strands the sister, felon, and other members of the convent hospital from the mainland, Mary begins an uphill battle in trying to convince others of the condemned woman’s innocence and embarks on finding the real killer.
Sirk’s work was initially panned at the time he was active. Many dismissed his films as sentimental “woman’s pictures”. However, to say this discards the amount of visual intelligence and care the filmmaker placed inside his movies. Thunder on the Hill is perhaps the most overwrought film in terms the performance. The mystery inside the plot is intricate but rather flat in its outcome. And yet, Thunder on the Hill is simply gorgeous to look at. There is so much pleasure to be taken in the film’s compositions, with some beautiful use of light and shadow, while the story itself provides interest simply down to framing women at the centre of such a plot. Thunder on the Hill is not Sirk’s masterpiece. But it’s a solid indicator of why his body of work is discussed more now than when he was active.
The final film, Six Bridges to Cross (1955) is fortunate enough to have the most charming performer in its roster. Tony Curtis leads as a former street-wise delinquent turned full-grown hood who looks to plan and execute a large-scale robbery. In doing so, he disrupts his lifelong relationship with the rookie cop (George Nader) who shot him as a teenager.
Due to its era, the copaganda that crops up in Six Bridges to Cross is typical. It’s a little hard to believe that Nader’s cop would be this chummy, even if Curtis’ criminal is happy to become a stool pigeon.
However, the film deals with one of the more complicated characters in the collection. Curtis’ criminal also suffers from being an illegal immigrant through proxy, while the early gun injury he endures guarantees that he can never be a father. The film’s strengths come from Curtis bringing much-needed empathy to his performance as a man who seemingly loves America as much as lawbreaking. Coming in two years before the formidable Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Six Bridges is yet another small noir highlight of Curtis’ star power. Elsewhere, the visuals of the robberies are particularly striking, while the film’s narrative remains engaging until its final, Hays Code-inflicted climax.
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Each film here is gifted with a small number of extras from film historians and critics whose insight towards the filmmakers and their films is generous and astute. The audio/visual transfers for most of the features are up to the usual Arrow standard. The Sleeping City suffers from a certain degree of noise; understandable due to its exterior filming locations. Meanwhile, Six Bridges to Cross struggles with some weaknesses in its sound transfer.
None of this distracts from the films too much. If anything, this only highlights the age of the films slightly. The main point is that each film, while holding small individual flaws, is still a huge heap of fun. None of the films harbours the richness that one may find in grander features of the genre. And The Sleeping City eerily highlights that in some ways American Healthcare may not have gotten any better since the 1950s. However, as a collection of pacy distractions to while away a Sunday afternoon? You could certainly do worse.
Four Film Noir Classics Vol 2 is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.