Just days after the final night in the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” series—eight successive Fridays dedicated to film noir—comes the debut of four examples of the distinctly American film genre on Blu-ray, two of them making their first appearance on home video in any form in the U.S.
Night and the City (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) (1951), starring a wonderfully weaselly Richard Widmark as a two-bit American con man in London, is one of the greatest film noirs set in a foreign capital. Widmark’s Harry Fabian is a restless hustler at the bottom of the underworld food chain. His long history of failed get-rich-quick schemes hasn’t dampened the naïve enthusiasm that this one “can’t lose,” much to the dismay of his long-suffering girlfriend (Gene Tierney). His latest scheme, however, pits him against London’s wrestling kingpin (Herbert Lom) and he uses everyone within reach to put his precarious plan together, including the corpulent nightclub owner (Francis L. Sullivan) who hires Harry to tout his club around town and the owner’s calculating wife (Googie Withers), who drafts Harry into her plot to escape her husband and open her own club. She should know better than to put her trust in a man blinded by his own fantasies of success built on other people’s money.
Shot for 20th Century Fox on location in England, it was Jules Dassin’s final American production before fleeing the communist witch-hunt and decamping to Europe for good. In the classic film noir tradition, everyone is out for themselves (except for Tierney, the most angelic “nightclub hostess” you’ve seen, who is faithful beyond all reason) and the consequences for betraying powerful men is fatal. Widmark is a man so desperate to be a success, or more importantly to be seen by others as a success, that he lies, cheats, and steals to make it happen, and his quick smile is a beautiful mix of sly arrogance and childlike joy.
London has never looked so ominous. The film opens on Harry in desperate flight, breathlessly running through the eerily empty city at night, but the panic turns to calm when he figures he’s slipped from his pursuer and a smile breaks out across his face. Come the finale, however, those shots from on high, looking down on the diminutive Harry running across open plazas and finding escape avenues wide open, are gone as Dassin turns the nocturnal city into a labyrinth. Harry’s plan inevitably goes bad and he flees through a city where his options are suddenly cut off. Dassin’s camera drops to low angles and claustrophobic close-ups of Harry scurrying through alleys and ducking into dives like a rat on the run, desperately searching for a way out. The stark slashes of light and extreme camera angles create classic film noir images of desperation and doom. As doom goes, it doesn’t get darker than this. Harry lied and cheated too many powerful people. There’s nothing satisfying in their vengeance—any victory here is pyrrhic—but
Criterion, which put the film on DVD a decade ago, delivers a new 4K digital restoration from the original camera negative for the Blu-ray debut and DVD upgrade. It’s superb, clean and sharp and with a range of textures that brings out the night and the city vividly. Both editions also include the alternate 101-minute British cut (not restored but well-mastered) along with the supplements carried over from the previous release: commentary by film scholar Glenn Erikson, a 2005 interview with Jules Dassin plus excerpts from a 1972 French interview, and a comparison of the scores composed for the British and American releases of the film, plus an insert with an essay by film professor and critic Paul Arthur.
He Ran All the Way (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) (1951), John Garfield’s final film (he died in 1952 at the age of 39), is another noir in the shadow of the communist witch-hunts. Director John Berry and writers Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler were blacklisted by the time the film came out (the screenplay was credited to Guy Endore) and Garfield himself was hounded for his openly liberal politics. All that suspicion and nervous tension seeps into the film.
Garfield is all jittery paranoia and street-kid anger as a small-time hood who shoots a cop in a payroll robbery (Norman Lloyd is the partner who pressures him into the job) and takes a working-class family hostage over the course of a couple of sweltering days. Garfield’s angry not-so-young man, who lives at home with a boozy mother in a crumbling tenement, has more resentment than smarts, which makes him as volatile as unstable TNT when panic sets in and he sees every innocent conversation as a betrayal. Berry scuffs the emotions up until they’re raw and frayed. James Wong Howe’s sharp cinematography bores in on Garfield as he sweats and paces and fidgets with nervous suspicion, his anxious face (often beaded in sweat) in close-up and the frame seeming to close in around Nick and the family as the restless, fidgety Garfield pacing nervously. It turns the working-class apartment into a claustrophobic cage and creates a pressure cooker that pushes everyone to the edge of unraveling.
Never before on home video, Kino Lorber gives the film its DVD and Blu-ray debut in a bare-bones release from a fine source print. There’s no damage or visible wear and the contrast is excellent. It appears to my eyes that the digital noise reduction is a tad heavy but it’s not intrusive or distracting; the texture is good and the grain still evident. No supplements.
A similar strain of small-time desperation and nervous violence permeates Storm Fear (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) (1955), making it a fitting companion film. It’s also a hostage thriller, this one in an isolated farmhouse in the snowy hills. It’s the directorial debut of actor Cornel Wilde, a minor icon of film noir thanks to Road House, Shock Proof, and The Big Combo and a fascinating director in his own right, and he gives himself a role that plays against his persona as a rugged man of action. He’s all confidence and charm as Charlie, a bank robber on the lam who hides out in the home of his brother (Dan Duryea), a bitter, failed writer in a façade of a marriage. It’s the kind of homecoming that leans on a borderline psychotic gunman (Steven Hill in his film debut) to keep everyone in line while the animal attraction between Charlie and his sister-in-law (Jean Wallace, Wilde’s wife) fans old feelings back to life. And then there’s the hero-worshipping son who immediately idolizes the exotic Uncle Charlie even as Charlie puts the kid’s life in the line to save his own skin.
Storm Fear has a great pedigree (screenplay by Horton Foote, music by Elmer Bernstein, Lee Grant and Dennis Weaver in supporting roles) and heady storm of emotions and instincts that swirl through the close quarters as if anticipating the snowstorm that sweeps through the mountains. And finale takes place in the snowbound wilderness as these city gangsters, utterly unprepared for the rugged challenge of nature’s fury, turn on one another. Along with such films as On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Nightfall (1957), it’s that rare noir that casts its shadows over the bright purity of the snow covered outdoors.
This is another home video debut and Kino Lorber provides an excellent transfer for this unusual snowbound noir. The master is clean and undamaged and the image sharp and vivid. It’s a terrific, if bare-bones, presentation of a film noir worthy of rediscovery.
Less than half of Big House, U.S.A. (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) (1955), a low-budget prison break thriller with a notable cast of desperate convicts, actually takes place in the big house. It begins and ends in the dramatic landscape of Royal Gorge Park, Colorado, where kidnapper Ralph Meeker hides his ransom money (and the body of his child victim) before he’s arrested. Once inside, it plays like a poor man’s Brute Force, with Broderick Crawford plotting an escape with his B-movie cast of cellmates (William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr. and Charles Bronson) and Meeker, shunned by all as a childkiller, is dragged along. Scripted by John C. Higgins (who penned Raw Deal and other films for Anthony Mann) and directed by Howard W. Koch, it’s an inconsistent film, with striking imagery, creative twists (scuba gear) and ruthless turns (death by steam tunnel) next to plodding direction and tired first-person narration from Reed Hadley, who plays the colorless but dignified FBI agent on the case.
It was previously available on DVD-R through MGM’s MOD line of discs. The Blu-ray debut features no supplements.