Dark Victories, Part One

The second most popular and collectable home video genre (the first, being “horror”), film noir, gets a big boost in the arm (and gorilla punches to the gut) with the superb Kino-Lorber Studio Classics box set collections of FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA.

The slipcovered (mostly) trilogies, generally featuring selections from the Universal Pictures archive, are a more than welcome addition to the Blu-Ray fold.  Comprised of titles that used to play TV constantly throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, but had all since disappeared (even on TCM), these noirs have been given the best rebirth possible – in stunning new 1080p masters from 35MM materials; another plus: where applicable, they shine in their original widescreen aspect ratios.

Are they of the ilk of, let’s say, Out of the Past or The Big Heat?  Well, admittedly, no.  But they DO encompass top stars and directors recounting nasty tales of anti-heroes pursued by twisted twists, drooling psychopaths, and crooked partners.

The three entries in VOLUME II  (THUNDER ON THE HILL, THE PRICE OF FEAR, THE FEMALE ANIMAL) all hail from the genre’s crossover period from golden to twilight years.  That is to say, that some of these offerings aren’t “straight-up” noir, but certainly contain enough elements to make the grade.  While one did play bottom half to a featured U-I attraction, ALL contain expert photography and technical credits.  LSS, each of these flicks is an entertainment pip, sure to delight every noir fan in the house.  I guarantee that many of you have never heard of most of these noirs, which makes their availability all the more enticing.  So, pour yourself a slug (better than taking one), light up a coffin nail, and be prepared for anything!

1951’s THUNDER ON THE HILL has some mighty formidable credentials.  It costars Claudette Colbert with everyone’s bitch-daughter-you-love-to-hate, Ann Blyth, and it’s directed by Douglas Sirk!  Colbert and Sirk had already scored with noir in 1946’s Sleep My Love, an underrated Gaslight saga; furthermore, Sirk had excelled with 1947’s Lured, a personal Neuhaus favorite from the director’s outstanding filmography.

THUNDER transcends mere noir, adding elements of horror, and unfolds its nightmarish scenario, via a tight script by Andrew Solt (who wrote two of the genre’s greatest, In a Lonely Place and Whirlpool) and Oscar Saul (adapted from the play by Charlotte Hastings).  Colbert is a nun ensconsed (along with her sisters) in a creepy castle-like structure during a violent storm.  The storm, a ferocious reminder of Mother Nature’s fury, has become a refuge for the traumatized townsfolk, having already destroyed much of the surrounding rural property (and populace).  The survivors cram into the “sanctuary,” along with a makeshift medical team to care for the villagers wounded during the tsunami.

Among the newest arrivals is shackled Valerie Carns, a convicted teen murderess, waiting for the squall to subside so that she can be properly executed.  Carns’ nasty, snarky demeanor doesn’t win her any of her fellow inhabitants’ sympathy – save Sister Mary Bonaventure, who suspects something is amiss.  A little detective work leads the nun to believe that the young woman, ranting of her innocence, could be telling the truth – and, worse, that the demented true psychotic is among them.

Sirk, along with ace cinematographer William Daniels, doesn’t miss a trick; the goth trappings (Universal leftovers from their trademark monster outings) are beautifully rendered in crisp monochrome.  A stellar supporting cast aids the proceedings, and includes Robert Douglas, Anne Crawford, Philip Friend, Gladys Cooper, Michael Pate, John Abbott, Connie Gilchrist, Gavin Muir, Norma Varden, Queenie Leonard, Gertrude Astor, Arthur Gould-Porter, Tudor Owen, and Tempe Pigott.  A nice score by Hans J. Salter helps raise the goosebumps. Those wary of any movie featuring a nun should shelve their worries aside; THUNDER ON THE HILL is an excellent thriller that will definitely not disappoint your viewers.

Along with a perfect noir title, 1956’s THE PRICE OF FEAR is appended by an expert cast, and plot.  To use an oft-turned phrase, it’s got more twists than a pretzel, and one that’s extra salty.

Pampered heiress Jessica Warren, thinking, like so many of the 1%,  that she’s above the law, recklessly kills an innocent pedestrian in a hit-and-run during a drunken late night drive home.  She feels remorse for all about ten seconds, even briefly considering calling the police.  But then her perfect alibi emerges as Dave Barrett becomes the ideal noir fall guy – at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jessica slithers off, correctly assuming Dave’ll be blamed for the death.

But everyone has a past – and connections.  The innocent ain’t always so innocent.  Vicious gangster Frankie Edare discovers the truth, and blackmails Warren, using her as bait in a murder plot; Barrett, meanwhile, has friends in high places who’ll give him just enough rope to either hang himself or lasso the actual culprit.

This neat and tidy little noir was helmed by Abner Biberman, the actor-turned-director (he was “Louie” in Hawks’ His Girl Friday), who, not surprisingly, had a great rapport with thesps.  And, indeed, he does get some nice results from his notable players.  Merle Oberon, definitely now on the B-list, is simultaneously creepy and sympathetic; Lex Barker, as the designated dupe, makes a believable “hero.”  Add Warren Stevens (as Edare), Charles Drake, Phillip Pine, Mary Field, Konstantin Shayne, Stafford Repp, Robert Carson, and Biberman himself and you have quite a rogue’s gallery of perilous punims.  The taut script (from a story by Dick Irving Hyland) is by Robert Talman, best known for such iconic TV mysteries as Ironside, Hawaiian Eye, Suspense, Climax, M Squad, and Perry Mason.  Topping it all is the moody black-and-white widescreen photography by Irving Glassberg, lensed in the weird aspect ratio of 2:00, a shape that Universal momentarily experimented with in the mid-Fifties.  The music by Heinz Roemheld is typical of the studio during that period. 

FUN FACT:  THE PRICE OF FEAR went out nationally at the bottom half of U-I double bill with The Creature Walks Among Us.

1958’s THE FEMALE ANIMAL is a rather nasty look at Hollywood – practically a sub-genre in 1950’s cinema.  In effect, imagine Sunset Boulevard, as envisioned by the publishers of Confidential (with a sprinkling of Mildred Pierce) – and you have a good idea of where this gritty, sordid drama is headed.

Glamorous, horny and aging movie star Vanessa Windsor (glamorous, horny and aging Hedy Lamarr, in her final movie) can’t stop salivating over studio extra (wait for it) Chris Farley (aka, George Nader).  But Vanessa has many secrets, the most lip-biting being her grown, beauteous daughter Penny (Jane Powell, in a definitely different kind of part).  Vanessa and Chris initially can’t wait to claw and paw each other in a carnal carnival.  Then, Chris happens across Penny getting into a bad situation with a bad crowd.  Now both women can’t wait to claw and paw him, and smirking  Farley ain’t exactly objecting (to cut the beefcake some slack, he doesn’t know Penny is Vanessa’s daughter…at first).  Realizing that he could end up like William Holden – riddled with Swiss cheese bullet holes at the bottom of a swimming pool, Farley is delighted when his buddy/agent arranges a Euro deal to star in some action movies.  But first the action of another kind in the States still has to play out, and the ultra-pretty women are about to make it mucho ugly.

Gloriously produced by Albert Zugsmith (read my earlier pieces on Mamie Van Doren) and directed by Harry Keller (the guy who reshot some of Touch of Evil), THE FEMALE ANIMAL benefits from an acid-tinged script by Robert Hill (story by Zugsmith), a nifty supporting cast (Jan Sterling, Jerry Paris, Gregg Palmer, Mabel Albertson, James Gleason, Richard H. Cutting, Ann Doran, Max Showalter, Laurie Mitchell, Almira Sessions, Frank Sully, and William Henry ), and, best of all, slick black-and-white CinemaScope photography by the great Russell Metty.

Sterling is particularly slutty, tossing off some great one-liners (“Keep on sharecropping,” she sneers at Nader).  Lamarr, faking authenticity before showing her talons offers Nader and Powell a cringe worthy “I want you two to love one another as we love each other!” Yikes!

FUN FACT: In addition to “cleaning up” Touch of Evil, Keller was given another bonus when this pic had the Welles movie supporting it in the direct-to-nabe/grindhouse/drive-in circuit.  Yep, you read right – Touch of Evil was bottom-halved with this flick, no doubt abiding to the theory that experienced female animals like it on top.

Ain’t these flicks cool?

FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA II. Black and white.  Full frame and widescreen [1.35, 2.00 & 2.35:1, respectively; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.  CAT # K24664.  SRP: $49.95.

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