When it comes to home video, no single retro genre is more profitable than film noir. These slick, nasty, amoral, atmospheric thrillers of hopelessness and madness have ruled the filmic roost (for VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray and revival houses) for nearly fifty years. But, as they say, “it’s so old, it’s new.”
Indeed, with the fantastic successes of The Maltese Falcon, I Wake up Screaming, This Gun for Hire and others, all the studios went noir (before they even knew what it was). And that especially applied to the lower echelon sausage factories, aka Poverty Row. And why not? Look what you’d save on lights alone!
As for the majors, their “B” units went into overtime, cranking out quirky, unsettling crime dramas that tended to veer from mere greedy villainy to lust appended by a myriad of psychological disorders.
Thus, I have taken it upon myself to introduce some (mostly) obscure samples in this bargain basement of unhealthy and nightmarish obsession, more commonly christened twentieth-century America (running the democratic gamut from Monogram to MGM). All are available as made-to-order DVD-Rs from the (God bless ‘em) Warner Archive Collection, and are presented in excellent crisp 35MM transfers with above average audio to match.
MGM’s 1942 KID GLOVE KILLER was a prime B-unit entry populated by soon-to-be A-list folks. Natch, anything “B” at MGM would generally pass as an “A” at any other studio. On Poverty Row, it would be DeMille.
KID GLOVE KILLER is a surprisingly progressive programmer that transcends mere “mystery” and dives headfirst into the sick, swirling, dark world that Dick Powell was always getting drugged/cold-cocked into (post-Busby Berkeley, that is); in short, more noir than detective filler. Of course, it helps greatly that, aside from the top production values, the picture has a superb cast and director. Helming this mini-gem is none other than Fred Zinnemann, graduated from his Crime Does Not Pay shorts and kicked upstairs into the full-length-feature big time. Leading the cast as a top M.E. is the always terrific Van Heflin, one of his only “B” appearances, as he would be winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar later that year (for the noirish “A” Johnny Eager). Marsha Hunt (still trucking today at 100) is the savvy, sassy smart associate Heflin appoints to assist him above the many male applicants (rather unusual for the time, especially for a “B”). Lee Bowman, likeable but ever-smarmy, is Heflin’s BFF, a rising politico who, coincidentally, is also a cunning sociopath resorting to gruesome murders to pave his way for a vocational future in local government.
It’s a wild and suspenseful ride watching Heflin and Hunt brilliantly resort to science to solve the crimes and exhibit disbelief at who the culprit turns out to be. And then there’s Bowman, seducing both of them in friendship and romance (Heflin and Hunt, respectively; it’s not THAT progressive). The story and screenplay by Allen Rivkin and John C. Higgins (from a story by Higgins) is a tense nail-biter, presenting an admirable blueprint for what would become a Zinnemann specialty (High Noon, Day of the Jackal). Zinnemann and Heflin would be reunited at Metro six years later for the “A” noir Act of Violence, but, frankly, I prefer this little 74-minute thriller. The expert photography is by Paul Vogel, the lush score by David Snell (with uncredited help from Daniel Amfitheatrof and Lennie Hayton). The supporting cast is fantastic, and includes Samuel S. Hinds, Cathy Lewis, John Litel, Eddie Quillan, Leon Belasco, real-life gloveless killer-as-a-kid Bobby Blake and Ava Gardner (as a car hop, ZOWIE). It’s more than likely that MGM, delighted with the rushes, was already planning a series for Heflin and Hunt, but their supersonic rising stars prevented the sequel possibilities (just like Walter Pidgeon’s ascension stopped the studio’s profitable Nick Carter franchise). This one’s a keeper.
1947’s FALL GUY, directed by the prolific Reginald LeBorg, is what kind critics refer to as “an odd duck.” The potential here was enormous, but Poverty Row Monogram lacked the testicular equipment to propel this nevertheless engrossing programmer toward greater heights. The credits are impressive, the basis being a Cornell Woolrich story (the script by Jerry Warner and John O’Dea, not so much). The Woolrich source-work was an infamous pulp, entitled Cocaine. This gives you an idea where the narrative was headed. The plot tells of an easily riled ex-GI who attends a coke party, and ends up wanted for the murder of a sultry blonde, stuffed in a closet. His best pal is a detective, who puts himself on the line trying to clear him. Since all the delirium (including snowballed partiers), wrong hallucinatory crime scene locales and ferocious mood swing behavior lend themselves to nose-candy enthusiasts, the Monogram refurbish leaves a less-than-desired effect upon viewers that often makes no sense. You see, while hyping the notorious title in the ads, the low-rent moguls saw fit to remove the drug from the scenario entirely, relying instead upon that old stand-by “givin’ him a mickey.”
That said, there’s still enough atmospheric, hazy paranoia to keep noir fans in check. Certainly the cast is quite enjoyable, save the lead. Clifford Penn (aka, Leo Penn, is better known as a future TV director; worse than any murder in this pic, he’s also the procreator of Sean Penn, a crime for which there is no punishment heinous enough). Penn aside, there’s Robert Armstrong as his detective buddy, Rita Hayworth clone Teala Loring as a ga-ga possible femme fatale, the great Iris Adrian as a loudmouth, giggling reveler, plus Virginia Dale and Douglas Fowley to keep things moving. Since even a fall guy needs a fall guy, Elisha Cook, Jr., turns up with a bullseye practically embossed on his fedora.
FALL GUY was an early effort for producer Walter Mirisch, and it does look good (thanks to the work of cinematographer Mack Stengler, best known as the d.p. on Leave it to Beaver). For Woolrich fans (particularly of spine-tingling tales of the Black Alibi ilk), you’ll probably figure out who the culprit actually is long before the knockout-dropped lead. We can only ponder what this nifty little nugget might have been in the hands of a Jacques Tourneur, Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis. And with folks courageous enough to not tamper with a sniffer-to-snifter retread.
1954’s LOOPHOLE, an Allied Artists special, has a lot going for it. The plot, concerning a spiral downward of a Hollywood bank teller falsely accused of grand larceny, offered many possibilities. The fact that an obsessed insurance investigator is as eager to nail him as the greedy local nasties is a plus. The script by actor-turned-writer Warren Douglas has some but, frankly, not enough, pep to nevertheless make it a noir essential. Douglas is hampered with a by-the-numbers story concocted by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker (honest bank executives? Come now). But he does get a few quotable lines that define the teller’s plight (“Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be an answer to anything.” “What he needs is a taste of a rubber hose!”).
While the negatives also include pedestrian direction by Harold Schuster (although I’d go as far to say that this might be Schuster’s best work) and too much reliance on ripping off AA’s own The Phenix City Story and TV’s Dragnet, the pluses are major. The cast alone is representative of the noir gold standard, headed by Barry Sullivan (as the teller) and Charles MacGraw as the Raymond Burr/Pitfall-esque investigator. Right up there with ’em is Dorothy Malone, Mary Beth Hughes, Don Beddoe, Frank Sully and Carleton Young.
Add widescreen location photography (by William Sickner), a decent score by Paul Dunlap and voila! – you have the recipe for a fun “poor bastard” way to spend 80 minutes.
BTW, LOOPHOLE is a socko title.
KID GLOVE KILLER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 1000547828. SRP: $21.99.
FALL GUY. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT# 1000388516 . SRP: $17.99
LOOPHOLE. Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio. CAT# 1000388504 . SRP: $21.99.
All titles available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com