Back In Black… Arrow Academy’s FOUR FILM NOIR CLASSICS Box Set Reviewed

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Cornel Wilde endures the Siren’s song in Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo…

BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. PG.

Labels make things easier. Sometimes too easy. Especially when applied retrospectively. In his seminal 1973 tome A Heritage Of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972, David Pirie labelled three films that had been released almost a decade-and-a-half earlier (Horrors Of The Black Museum, Circus Of Horrors and Peeping Tom) as “Anglo-Amalgamated’s Sadean Trilogy”. While effectively differentiating these films from the Gothic Horrors of Hammer and their imitators, this appellation managed to misleadingly elide the simple-minded (albeit inventive) gory thrills of the first two with Michael Powell’s masterly analysis of scopophilia. Donning my music hack head here for a moment, nor have I ever been entirely convinced that such a thing as “the UK Freakbeat Scene” (diagnosed by Phil Smee almost twenty years after the alleged event) ever actually existed.

And so it is with film noir… although coined by Nino Frank as early as 1946, this term for b/w Hollywood crime epics of the ’40s and 50’s (that were more commonly known, in their day, as “melodramas”) didn’t really catch on in critical circles until the 1970s and again, the nomenclature covers a bewilderingly disparate collection of titles and scenarios, from stirring tales of two-fisted dicks (though never, sadly, the converse) tangling with The Syndicate and assorted femmes fatales to more sophisticated efforts that presented their proverbially pulpy, Chandler, Hammett and Woolrich-patented anti-heroes in Expressionist compositions and confronted them with Freudian conundrums… in a further refinement, the films gris took it upon themselves to critique The American Way itself.

Arrow Academy’s box set is a useful sampler of this cinematic phenomenon (it would really be pushing it to describe film noir as a “movement”), comprising four pictures that illustrate its length (the earliest was made just after the end of WWII, the latest mid-way through the ‘ 50s) and breadth (in stylistic and thematic terms).

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Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror was made in 1946, the year in which its director also managed The Spiral Staircase and The Killers…. boy, they used to knock ’em out in those days! Olivia de Havilland turns in a tour de force performance or two in this one, starring as the identical Collins twins Terry and Ruth, one of whom has murdered a former lover and one of whom is covering up for her sibling. Without the latter’s co-operation, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) can’t pin the kill on either of them and in exasperation he calls in Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), renowned psychiatrist and expert on twins, to see if he can distinguish the psycho from her over-loyal counterpart. The doc falls in love with Ruth (or is it Terry?) and both of them take a shine to him. Given that it was precisely this triangular arrangement which aroused the emotions that led to the original murder (of another eligible doctor), the closer Elliott gets to the truth the shorter his life expectancy starts looking…

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Psychiatrist Scott Elliott gets in over his head with Ruth (or is it Terry?) in The Dark Mirror.

With the aid of some nifty process shots, Siodmak and screen writer Nunnally Johnson adeptly keep the viewer guessing as to who’s who in the sisterly configuration and what each of them is up to. Engaging stuff, for which you’ll have to keep your wits about you… and a clear influence on the subsequent likes of Basic Instinct (1992).

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If Siodmak’s picture dabbles a toe in the waters of aberrant psychology, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond The Door (1947) jumps straight in there, right up to its impeccable Expressionist arse. While Lang exerted an undeniable influence over much of Hitchcock’s output, SBTD is a pretty blatant rip of Sir Alfred’s Rebecca (1940) albeit with hysteria levels ramped up to (at least) 11.

Slumming it in Mexico, bored heiress Celia (Joan Bennett) undergoes a whirlwind wooing at the hands of charismatic chancer Mark Lamphere (the perennially troubled and troubling Michael Redgrave) and before you can say “spot the loony” she’s married him. Talk about “marry in haste, repent at leisure:… on arriving chez Lamphere, Celia finds it inhabited by the intense Lamphere Jr, her snotty new sister-in-law and a jealous governess who’s pretending to be facially scarred (as you do). The joint is also (metaphorically) haunted by the spectre of Mark’s deceased first wife. Just to put the tin hat on her newfound domestic bliss, Mark (whose moods swing more energetically than Hugh Hefner) has taken the “man cave” thing to extremes, turning six rooms in the place over to commemorations of infamous wife-killings. A seventh room is locked against all comers and of course instead of legging it, Celia resolves to stick around and find out to whose upcoming murder it is has been consecrated… well, duh!

Although Celia laughingly slights psychoanalysis at one point, this film ultimately puts more faith in the instantaneous curative power of catharsis than Freud himself ever did.. Certainly Celia does, confident that the truth about a childhood trauma will stop Mark in his murderous tracks…

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“Calm down, calm down…”

… though the suggestion that something as trivial as said incident, when revealed in all its banality, could have driven Mark to the brink of murderous madness makes you doubt that the film’s happy ending is going to stick. This is psychoanalytical schtick pitched scarcely higher than in any run-of-the-mill giallo (e.g. the guy in Lamberto Bava’s Blade In The Dark who develops a pathological fear of hearing ping-pong balls bouncing in the night, or whatever it is). *

Predating Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus and its imitators, there has been an honourable (well, sometimes) tradition of couching the proverbial battle of the sexes in violently metaphorical terms that can be traced back through the likes of Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), Piero Schivazapa’s The Frightened Woman (1969), … even unto The Taming Of The Shrew (1590-92). Crossing the line that delineates finely-wrought from overwrought, The Secret Beyond The Door rapidly drifts way out of its psychological depth but is consistently difficult to tear your eyes off, pitched, as it is, camper than a row of tents.

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A theme that emerges at several points in the supplementary materials on this box is that many of the seminal noir directors were dissenting refugees from Nazi Germany and that this background lent the films much of their dark edge. Abraham Polonsky, whose  family escaped earlier Russian pogroms, emerged in his as turn as a stalwart of left-wing intellectual New York Jewry. His first significant venture into film noir was writing Robert Rossen’s Body And Soul (1947), in which an ambitious but principled up-and-coming boxer (played by John Garfield, “the Jewish Brando”) faces his toughest fight outside the ring, struggling to maintain his integrity in the face of professional pugilism’s shadier side. That film’s influence over Raging Bull (1980) is signified here by a Martin Scorsese introduction to the third film in this collection, Polonsky’s directorial debut Force Of Evil (1948).

Garfield stars again as Joe Morse, an ambitious mob lawyer attempting to square his conscience by looking out for his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), whose small time numbers racket is being swallowed up by The Syndicate, his efforts only serving to open up a further succession of ethical worm cans. The temptation to cite these moral complexities and Garfield’s anguished weighing of them as “Shakespearian” is only intensified by Polonsky and cowriter Ira Wolfert’s decision to render their dialogue as blank verse. The “my brother’s keeper” theme serves as another pre-echo of Raging Bull and admirers of The Godfather might also detect shades of Force Of Evil in Coppola’s 1972 biggie. Nor are the film’s closing shots from under the Brooklyn bridge entirely dissimilar from ones featuring the Golden Gate bridge in Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo, made ten years after Force Of Evil.

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View from the bridge… John Garfield’s moment of moral awakening in Force Of Evil.

By having Joe turn his back on his former life and prepare (we are led to believe) to spill the beans to the The Law, Polonsky satisfied the Hays Office’s Motion Picture Production Code while slipping through a sly screen parable in which Capitalism is explicitly identified with gangsterism, as the small time numbers runner grind out a living in the shadow of Wall Street. No prizes for guessing that he would fall foul of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 after being ratted out by Sterling Hayden. Resolutely refusing (as did Garfield) to follow suit and point the finger at others (earning himself the description of “a very dangerous citizen” by Illinois Congressman Harold Velde), Polonsky was blacklisted for decades, writing subsequent pictures (e..g. Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959) only with the aid of a “front” and directing a mere handful of further films after HUAC had itself fallen into disrepute.

film-noir-the-big-combo-poster1.jpgBy the mid-fifties artists of the calibre of Lang, Siodmak and Polonsky had, for their various reasons, vacated (or been obliged to vacate) the noir stage, leaving it to more, er, workmanlike types such as Joseph H. Lewis. Although he’d directed The Bowery Boys, Bela Lugosi during the fallen Horror Great’s Monogram period and some other real dross, Lewis clearly picked up a bit of technique along the way (even if much of it could be considered “idiosyncratic” to say the least… his habit of breaking up the foreground of shots in his formulaic Westerns earned him the moniker “Wagon Wheel Joe”) and his Gun Crazy (1950) attained a brief vogue, a few years ago. His best film, though, is probably the one that rounds out this box, 1955’s The Big Combo.

Cornel Wilde’s intense Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (rough Diamond, right?) obsessively pursues Richard Conte’s stone-cold psycho hoodlum Mr Brown (Hm, wonder if Quentin Tarantino ever saw this one?), his moral mission complicated by his equally driven desire for the bad guy’s girl Susan (Jean Wallace). But is this infatuation itself driven by an unconscious desire to have what Brown has… to be what he is? The Big Combo could easily have turned into formulaic stuff but Wilde’s undercharismatised performance and Wallace’s wet Nelly screen non-presence are amply made up for by the brilliance of the bad guys.

Conte proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that once your character has been established as a dangerous psycho, there’s no need for you to chew the scenery (a lesson Anthony Hopkins could have learned from him, if not from Brian Cox). What does Susan see in this guy? Well, as Helena Stanton’s Rita, her showgirl rival for Diamond’s affections, puts it: “A woman doesn’t care how her man makes his money… just how he makes love” and there’s a scene in this film during which we can only infer that Mr Brown is performing cunnilingus on Susan. As if Lewis hadn’t already steered sufficiently close to the wind with that, there are other Production Code-testing scenes in which the dialogue and body language between Mr Brown’s favoured hit men Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) strongly suggest that they are in a committed homosexual relationship. Mingo seems to address Fante as “Fanny” and is told by him at one point that “the cops will be looking for us in every closet”. When not perpetrating such mischief, Lewis can be found – in cahoots with influential noir cinematographer John Alton – subverting the climax of Casablanca (1942)…

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… or supplementing his visual tricks with such audio devices as the final “favour” that Brown does for turncoat henchman Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy, in the same year as he debuted as Hammer’s Quatermass). The Big Combo benefits further from a sleazy big band jazz OST, courtesy of David Rasksin.

Arrow have stuffed this set with attractive extras. Each of the main features gets the commentary track treatment from an interested expert and is accompanied by featurettes, trailers and image galleries. Best of all, three of them are accompanied by contemporary radio productions… an audio rendering of The Dark Mirror, in which John Dehner stars alongside Olivia De Havilland… in honour of its folk tale inspiration, Secret Beyond The Door is paired with a moralistic adaptation of Bluebeard, geared towards a juvenile audience… for Force Of Evil, Arrow wheel out a radio version of Body And Soul (in which Garfield plays opposite the original Mrs Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman) and Hollywood Fights Back, in which Charles Boyer hosts 40 plus tinsel town titans, denouncing the poison of McCarthyism.

This is an excellent primer / incitement to further studies in the field of film noir, a vibe which has continued to resonate on screens as recently as this year’s Blade Runner 2049. Other noir box sets are available and hopefully Arrow have got a few more up their sleeve, too.

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Buy the box or Fante and Mingo will be having a word with you…

* Much has been made of the influence Lang exerted over the look of Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) but for his far from run-of-the-mill giallo (sic) Suspiria (1977) Argento pinched Joan Bennett, flowers with a secret significance, hidden levels in an imposing building and a fiery climactic conflagration from Secret Beyond The Door.

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