Arrow have been steadily releasing classic film noir titles on Blu-Ray over the last few years, but I guess they're fed up of this slow trickle as they've thrown four together in one set, simply entitled Four Film Noir Classics. The collection features The Dark Mirror, Secret Beyond the Door, Force of Evil and The Big Combo. I put on my trench coat, switched off the lights, sparked up a cigarette (not really mum!) and got settled in for six hours of tough, atmospheric tales of crime, sex and murder.
Secret Beyond the Door
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Silvia Richards
Based on a Story by: Rufus King
Starring: Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Anne Revere, Barbara O'Neil, Natalie Schafer
Running Time: 99min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Secret Beyond the Door sees a woman named Celia (Joan Bennett) inherit her large family estate after her beloved brother Rick (Paul Cavanagh) dies. Soon after this, she's set to marry Rick's business partner Bob (James Seay), who's an all-round decent guy. However, when Celia jets off for one last fling in South America before settling down, she finds herself curiously drawn to the mysterious Mark (Michael Redgrave) who she spots whilst witnessing a knife fight that unleashes a dark desire in her heart. The two fall madly in love and they get married straight away. Soon after, Mark's mood and passion for Celia wildly swings between lust and cold hostility, and she finds he's been hiding a lot from her, including a previous marriage and a son. Celia doesn't know where she stands and grows worried about her swift decision to marry knowing so little about her husband. Her distrust of her husband isn't helped by the discovery of his creepy collection of murder scene rooms. The answer to everything may just be behind room 7, the only one of these that's always kept locked.
Secret Beyond the Door came somewhere in the middle of director Fritz Lang's American career and is one of his less critically acclaimed films. However, even though I could see flaws in it, so understand why it isn't mentioned amongst Lang's classic Hollywood work like Fury and The Big Heat, I really quite enjoyed Secret Beyond the Door.
Most impressive is the cinematography. The great Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shock Corridor) was the DOP and, although Lang reportedly wanted to use someone else, he lenses some gorgeously moody scenes with low key, high contrast lighting. Lang certainly demonstrates his great skill at infusing great atmosphere into his films here. It's filled with brilliantly executed, gripping set pieces.
It's this atmosphere that really sells the film, as on paper it's rather overwrought, unashamedly 'borrows' a lot from Rebecca and the cod philosophy of the film is laughable. Much of the story and character motivations are far fetched to say the least, but I found myself enjoying the ride nonetheless. The dark, often sexually charged mood turns the film into more of a creepy psychological horror than a traditional film noir, and, as such, the over the top and occasionally barmy nature of everything reminded me of the work of Dario Argento and other giallo directors.
So your mileage with the film may vary, depending on whether you can go along with the numerous flaws and enjoy the delicious atmospherics. I did and found a gripping thriller that looks great and provides enough chills to work as a remarkably effective horror movie, even if it isn't particularly subtle or as intelligent as it was probably intended to be.
The Dark Mirror
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson
Based on an Original Story by: Vladimir Pozner
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell
Running Time: 85min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The Dark Mirror opens on the scene of a murder. We don't witness the act itself, but we see a (later to prove symbolic) broken mirror and a body with a knife in its back laid on the floor. The police, led by Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell), try to solve the case and all clues seem to point towards Terry Collins (Olivia de Havilland), a woman the victim loved very much and was seen with by several witnesses the night of his death. When Stevenson tracks down Terry, she claims to have been somewhere else at the time and provides witnesses to corroborate this. However, he finds that Terry has a twin sister called Ruth (also played by de Havilland) and the two of them refuse to admit to who was where that fateful night. The two look so similar that none of the witnesses can tell the difference, so the police are left in a bit of a stalemate and are forced to drop the case.
Stevenson can't leave it there though, so asks Dr. Scott Elliott, (Lew Ayres) a vague acquaintance of Terry's who happens to be an expert in twins, to get to the bottom of the mystery for him. Elliott agrees and submits the women to psychological studies whilst getting to know them more personally. He soon falls for one of the twins and finds the other is dangerously unhinged.
As you might have gathered from this synopsis, The Dark Mirror shares a few traits with Secret Beyond the Door. Both have their content heavily steeped in psychology and the then popular work of Sigmund Freud and some of his contemporaries. Both are rather simplistic and clunky in this aspect too, by today's standards at least (after one inkblot test, Elliott declares one of the sisters “insane”). I would say The Dark Mirror is a touch more believable though, with character motivations and actions proving less ridiculous than some of the goings on in the other title.
The Dark Mirror is less atmospheric than Lang's gorgeously shadowy psychological horror though, instead going for a talk-heavy approach with more than a little black humour on display, particularly in the first half. As such, it's a different film rather than a better or worse one.
What makes The Dark Mirror particularly watchable though is de Havilland's excellent central performance. She effectively portrays the differing personalities of the two women, possibly too much to allow the audience to accept people couldn't tell them apart, but at the same time it's an impressive bit of acting. The effects work used to have de Havilland's two characters on screen at the same time is pretty good too. It's not all done with simple split screen effects, there are moments when one closely comforts the other, as well as a nice moving camera shot where a stand-in must have been strategically inserted at the right moment as de Havilland switched personalities and positions when she wasn't in shot.
Overall, although it has its flaws in its dated pop psychology and lacks the atmosphere of the other titles here, The Dark Mirror is still a worthy addition to the collection as it's fun, constantly intriguing and boasts a fine performance by its female lead.
Force of Evil
Director: Abraham Polonsky
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert
Based on a Novel by: Ira Wolfert
Starring: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor, Roy Roberts, Beatrice Pearson, Howland Chamberlain
Running Time: 78min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Force of Evil is a crime thriller that sees a crooked lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) plot to take over the whole of the city's numbers racket, with the help of mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). First though, he tries to help out his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who runs numbers and will be hit by the takeover, but he sees what Joe is doing as wrong and refuses to get involved. As the plan goes ahead regardless, Joe finds himself quickly sinking into a hell created by his greed that also sucks in those he cares for, including the innocent Doris (Beatrice Pearson), who he falls for during the story.
Force of Evil is a busy and fast moving noir that's short on the violence and murder you might expect from the genre, but barrels along due to its dense plot and wonderful dialogue that feels hard boiled and poetic in equal measure. It's the latter that the film is often most praised for and rightfully so, although I did find the film got a little too preachy and heavy handed in its anti-capitalist message for my liking. Writer/director Abraham Polonsky was blacklisted not long after making this, and he must have seen it coming as this seems like a last chance to make a political statement before being silenced. As such, the film is more boldly political than most noirs, giving it an edge over many pulpier titles.
It's nicely shot too, with a great use of locations when the film ventures outside and an interesting use of framing (a featurette on the disc looking into the use of 'ups and downs' helps better appreciate this). Performances can be quite big and verge on hammy, but they fit the bold messages being dealt with. Garfield, although regularly a mean-spirited, hard-talking character, manages to convey some nuanced moments in amongst the bile spouted and desperation of Joe.
It's a film I found I better appreciated after watching the wealth of special features included as I thought it was solid, if unexceptional, at first glance. It's got more going on than most under the surface though. It's also admirably tough and cynical, despite lacking in explicit violence until the final act. There are perhaps a few too many moralistic speeches though, which cause the odd stumbling block in an otherwise quickly accelerating downward spiral of a man driven by greed.
The Big Combo
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Philip Yordan
Starring: Richard Conte, Jean Wallace, Cornel Wilde, Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman
Running Time: 87min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The Big Combo follows Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) as he doggedly pursues local crime lord, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). He's ordered to drop the case due to his wasting huge amounts of the force's time and money on it, but he goes against orders as he spots a final way to put an end to Brown's stranglehold on the city. The mob boss' one weakness is his girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), who he likes to have around, but has grown to hate him and the life she now leads because of him. Diamond tries to use her to bring Brown down and falls for her himself in the process.
The Big Combo is a much more conventional noir than the other titles in the set, but it stood out as a clear favourite for me. The film takes almost all the most typical noir tropes, from the shadowy cinematography, to the hard-boiled dialogue, to the femme fatale, and plays them all so effectively it feels like a 'best of' compilation of the genre. Director Joseph H. Lewis was known for his ability to take throwaway material and turn it into something far better than it deserved, and he does just that here. Noir expert Eddie Muller, who provides a commentary to the film, suggests the success of The Big Combo isn't all down to Lewis, which may be true, but whoever was responsible for the end product, it ended up bloody good.
Muller points a lot of responsibility towards cinematographer John Alton and not without due cause. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, which is quite a feat considering how cheaply and quickly it was likely made. Quite a lot of the shots feature wonderfully long takes and the use of high contrast lighting, shadows, perspectives and bold, unusual framing is sublime.
Another knockout aspect of the film is Conte's portrayal of Brown, the chief villain. He's frightening whilst rarely being physically aggressive. He often has a thin smile on his face as he reminds everyone of their place below him. He's a truly despicable character, yet forever watchable. His chief goons, played by Brian Donlevy, Earl Holliman and a young Lee Van Cleef, are also well formed, with Donlevy providing a downtrodden ex-boss itching to get back to the top, whilst the other two are cold killers whose relationship has some not-so-subtle homosexual undertones. This last point, on top of a shot that strongly suggests Brown is giving Susan oral sex, show that The Big Combo was quite the boundary pusher at the time and some sequences still have the power to shock. A 'torture by hearing aid' scene stands out in particular, as well as a silent assassination featuring that same aid.
Big, bold and brutal, it's quintessential noir at its best. With a superb villain, some stylish and confident direction, on top of some of the finest noir photography I've seen, it's up there with the best of the genre, even if it never attempts to break the mould.
Four Film Noir Classics is out on 20th November on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The films look decent, although The Dark Mirror shows some lines and dirt as well as some big cigarette burns between reels. Audio is pretty solid too although I noticed some background noise and subtle crackles on Secret Beyond the Door when listening through headphones.
There's an impressive array of special features included. Here's the list:
- Commentaries on all films by leading scholars and critics Adrian Martin (on The Dark Mirror), Alan K. Rode (on Secret Beyond the Door), Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme (on Force of Evil), and Eddie Muller (on The Big Combo).
- Noah Isenberg on The Dark Mirror, the author and scholar provides a detailed analysis of the film.
- Barry Keith Grant on Secret Beyond the Door, the author and scholar introduces the film.
- The House of Lang: A visual essay on Fritz Lang s style by filmmaker David Cairns with a focus on his noir work.
- Introduction to Force of Evil by Martin Scorsese.
- An Autopsy on Capitalism: A visual essay on the production and reception of Force of Evil by Frank Krutnik, author of In a Lonely Street: Film noir, genre, masculinity.
- Commentary on selected Force of Evil themes by Krutnik.
- Geoff Andrew on The Big Combo, the critic and programmer offers an introduction to and analysis of the film.
- Wagon Wheel Joe: A visual essay on director Joseph H. Lewis by filmmaker David Cairns.
- The Big Combo original screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM content)
- Four radio plays
- Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow for all films.
- Hardback book featuring new writing on all the films by noir experts and critics including Michael Brooke, Andrew Spicer, David Cairns and Tony Rayns and more [Limited Edition Exclusive]
It's wonderful to see such a collection of features for a genre that has been ill-served on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK until recently. It's all of a high standard too – there are no fluff pieces here. The commentaries and essays are well researched and helped me better appreciate the films. I was a bit frustrated by the Big Combo commentary though, as Muller spends most of the time picking flaws with the film and poking fun at some of it. He does make some interesting comments about the film though, with plenty of background info about the cast and crew. At the end he comments on his commentary though, saying he wanted to point out issues with the film to help dispel the auteur theory that the director is everything. That's fair enough, although I got a little fed up of him bad-mouthing a film I adored.