I always greatly look forward to Film Noir boxsets. There just seems to be an inexhaustible supply of these films out there and so many are hidden gems that when you get four Noirs grouped together it is very rare not to find something exciting hiding there. In common with their excellent previous volumes, Arrow’s third Film Noir Classics boxset doesn’t disappoint, contains just one dud, a great potboiler, a camp classic and a genuine forgotten masterpiece.

CALCUTTA

Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller
Producers: Seton I. Miller
Starring: Alan Ladd, Gail Russell, William Bendix
Year: 1946
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 83 mins

Director John Farrow is perhaps best remembered for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days but I associate him more with his little-known but fantastic 1948 Noir The Big Clock (which David Brook reviewed for Blueprint here, a great review which introduced me to the film). I was delighted then to see his name on the credits of Calcutta, a Noir he made a couple of years before. Though it doesn’t have quite the same unique energy as The Big Clock, Calcutta is a bit of a slow-burn, the appeal of which opens up the further we get into the film. At first, to most modern eyes this will look like a standard B-Picture, all fake aeroplanes and even faker acting, but as soon as the young pilot who has just announced his upcoming nuptials is murdered with crashing inevitability, Calcutta rapidly becomes an involving and atmospheric little potboiler.

Calcutta has a great screenwriter behind it in the shape of Seton I. Miller, whose writing credits include classics like Scarface, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Calcutta, by contrast, feels like the source of a quick buck, but its clipped, hard-boiled dialogue does ultimately give it a brisk, unshowy quality that keeps its 80 odd minutes of screentime moving at an unimpeded clip. Even those used to the grimy world of Noir will likely notice a heightened misogyny in Calcutta, with its exploration of relationships between the genders a little too muddily defined in terms of the screenwriters own sympathies. Still, this sometimes uncomfortable sense of moral ambiguity does add to the impact of Alan Ladd’s lead performance as Neale Gordon, a pilot-turned-amateur-detective investigating his friend’s murder. Ladd often displayed a borderline stoicism in his lead performances which could either be frustratingly or effectively cold. In the case of Calcutta, it is the latter as he barges his way through his investigation with little consideration for anything but the truth.

The film wisely pairs Ladd with William Bendix as fellow pilot and pal Pedro. Bendix and Ladd made ten films together across their career, with Bendix’s rough-hewn likability proving an effective foil for Ladd’s deadpan iciness. In the relationship between the men, we glimpse the closest thing we see in Calcutta to real affection, save perhaps for the one-way love June Duprez’s nightclub singer Marina feels for Neale. Gail Russell is good as the classically ambiguous, wide-eyed innocent but the best performance of the film comes from Edith King, whose handful of scenes as crooked jewellery merchant Mrs. Smith are the highlights. In a film that initially feels a bit stiff in the acting stakes, King gives us a vivid creation, as warm and charismatic as she is reprehensible.

Thrillers in exotic locations were popular around the time Calcutta came out and, with its place name beginning with C title, viewers may go in expecting a Casablanca wannabe. What we actually get is something more akin to Pepe le Moko (which was itself remade in Hollywood as Algiers) by way of a Murder Mystery with elements of Adventure. If its comparatively small budget stymies its potential to capitalise on that latter genre, Calcutta does very nicely in the former one, earning its Noir credentials through Ladd’s hardfaced character and performance. If it falls a little short of being a classic, Calcutta is likely to deliver on the entertainment front for anyone who likes a sleazy tale of violence, deception and intrigue.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE

Director: Robert Montgomery
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Based on the novel by: Dorothy B. Hughes
Producers: Joan Harrison
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez, Rita Conde
Year: 1947
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 101 mins

As a fan of Film Noir, it’s not all that rare to find hidden gems. In fact, given the penchant that develops for the particular atmosphere of these dark little films, it’s much rarer to encounter complete disappointments. Even the failures seem to have a grim charm that makes them fascinating to anyone who’s interest is aroused by a smoking gun and a dangling cigarette. But amidst that proliferation of 4 star films that litter the paths of those who’ll take their morals murky and their femmes fatale, the big 5 star classic, something to put up there with the Double Indemnitys, the Big Heats and the Out of the Pasts, is a more unusual thing on which to stumble. But with the dogged determination of Marlowe and Spade, we Noir fans never stop searching and with Ride the Pink Horse I hit Noir paydirt. It is amazing to me that this absolutely terrific film is so forgotten. It has quite the pedigree, with a script by the legendary screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (the duo that gave us His Girl Friday), a source novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (who also wrote In a Lonely Place, adapted into a Bogart Noir classic) and an Oscar-nominated supporting role for Thomas Gomez. Perhaps the fact that Robert Montgomery, the film’s star, directed Ride the Pink Horse himself is one of the reasons it got lost amongst the works of more famous directors. But Montgomery does a fantastic job in both the acting and directing stakes and it’s slightly baffling that such a strong film as this should be languishing in comparative obscurity.

The story of Lucky Gagin, a stranger who arrives in a rural New Mexico town during fiesta, seeking mob boss Frank Hugo, Ride the Pink Horse is a film alive with vivid characters and great performances, but before we even get to those it distinguishes itself as a very well directed film. Robert Montgomery’s taut, appealing style is evident immediately in a silent sequence in which Gagin obtains a bus station locker and hides the key behind a large wall-mounted map, using chewing gum obtained from a vending machine. Montgomery zeroes in on every little action and detail, making a relatively simple process seem instantly intriguing and important. This careful, vibrant style is retained throughout the film, so that what is happening onscreen is always afforded at least as much importance as the crackling dialogue with which Hecht and Lederer furnish the characters. There are also more purely visual moments that jump out, most notably an astonishing sequence in which a brutal beating is framed through children riding on a merry-go-round. The unusual setting of the small Mexican town has a hint of the Western about it but Montgomery infuses it with a Noir sensibility by virtue of the characters he drops into it, with good-natured locals rubbing elbows with big city interlopers.

The cast of Ride the Pink Horse are impeccable, with not a dud performance to undermine the excellent screenplay and direction. Montgomery relishes his morally ambiguous lead role, balancing his dismissive rudeness with a determined sadness that finally makes the viewer begin rooting for him. Thomas Gomez’s big, affable turn as merry-go-round operator Pancho is worthy of the Academy attention it got (although he unfortunately found himself competing against Edmund Gwenn’s beloved Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) but he is just one part of an impressive ensemble which contains such diverse performances as Wanda Hendrix’s wonderfully awkward Mexican teenager Pila, Fred Clark’s chillingly causal, hearing-aid-wearing gangster Frank Hugo, Art Smith’s droll FBI agent Retz and Andrea King’s opportunistic femme fatale Marjorie. Unlike less-ambitious Noirs in which the players fall neatly into instantly-recognisable types in order to move the plot along more quickly, Ride the Pink Horse recognises the value of rich, layered characters and, like Pancho’s merry-go-round, these vivid creations are in constant rotation, keeping the film’s diverse tone in motion. There’s plenty of humour to offset the tension but Ride the Pink Horse is at its best when the stakes are at their highest. Montgomery does not shy away from the brutality of the story, with several beatings, stabbings and murders, but unlike Calcutta’s muddy misogyny, Ride the Pink Horse has a clear moral viewpoint which makes the horrors it depicts more justifiable. It earns its current 12 rating in an era when most Noirs, even some of the nastier ones, tend to get away with a PG certificate.

With its fascinating themes of post-war disillusionment, its unusual rural Mexican setting, its unfussily brilliant direction, its excellently balanced screenplay and its cast who impress without exception, Ride the Pink Horse is one of the great Noirs not routinely acknowledged as such. For my money, this absolute gem can comfortably be filed alongside other lesser-known Noir classics like Raw Deal and Odds Against Tomorrow, that really ought to be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest examples of the genre.

OUTSIDE THE LAW

Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Danny Arnold, Peter R. Brooke
Producers: Albert J. Cohen
Starring: Ray Danton, Leigh Snowden, Grant Williams
Year: 1956
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 81 mins

There was a small glut of films during the 40s and 50s that centred around treasury agents as their heroes. Though this might sound like an oddly bland premise, Anthony Mann’s T-Men is a classic example of how thrilling a good script and strong direction could make the subject. At the other end of the scale, we have Outside the Law, which ends up realising most of the negative imaginings the concept of a treasury agents film immediately conjures. Although there are moments of action here and there, Outside the Law spends a lot of time with men in suits looking at files and projections of bank notes, the minute details of which they dryly scrutinise. There’s an attempt to introduce an emotional centre to the story as an ex-juvenile delinquent is forced to work with his estranged father but this family melodrama proves to be a predictable irritation and the characters are not nearly developed enough to invest in. It’s as if someone was counterfeiting human beings as well as currency.

The main reason Outside the Law may be of interest to fans of classic cinema is the involvement of Jack Arnold as director. Despite being a self-confessed journeyman director who saw his own films as jobs rather than works of art, Arnold became a cult favourite for his stellar work in the Sci-Fi and Horror genres, with classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Outside the Law was given to Arnold as a break from the Sci-Fis and Westerns he’d been churning out in the first part of the decade, and he turns in an efficient enough trundle through what is unmistakably an irredeemably dull screenplay. Its writer, Danny Thomas, would become better known as a writer and producer of sitcoms such as Bewitched, That Girl, and his own creation, Barney Miller. But there’s little of that sitcom charisma evident in Outside the Law. Unless you’re an Arnold devotee or really, really interested in the work of treasury agents, you can safely give this one a miss.

THE FEMALE ANIMAL

Director: Harry Keller
Screenplay: Robert Hill, Albert Zugsmith
Producers: Albert Zugsmith
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, Jane Powell, Jan Sterling
Year: 1958
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 82 mins

Film Noir has always been a hard genre to define, resulting in arguments between those who talk about “pure Noir” and those who consider a wider range of films as being permissible for inclusion under the shadowy umbrella. Though I have a certain notion of what a Noir film is to me, I’ve long since acknowledged that casting the net wider results in a much more interesting discussion, and have come round to the argument for many Noirs I might not have previously considered as such. The Female Animal, a strange little love triangle Melodrama that once served as the A-Picture on a double feature for which Orson Welles’ Noir classic Touch of Evil was the B-Picture, is a film I didn’t really see as Noir myself but I can totally understand how some do. It has blatant connections to Sunset Boulevard, a film which is increasingly mentioned among classics of the Noir genre and which, despite me initially not thinking of it in that way, absolutely warrants inclusion. But while Sunset Boulevard was a blackly-comic masterpiece leavened with shades of the Crime genre, The Female Animal is a much more straightforward look at a man torn between the love of an ageing movie star and her hard-drinking daughter, with no guns drawn or crimes committed, other than societal injustices against women.

Though The Female Animal may not have entered into the pantheon of great Noirs, it has tentatively begun to make its mark as something of a camp classic, which is the best way to appreciate its charms. The film is perhaps most remembered as the final appearance of Hedy Lamarr, who’s forty-four years on Earth may make her seem too young to play the “ageing actress” role but, given society’s attitudes, both vintage and contemporary, towards women over forty, she actually feels ideal for the part. More awkward is the casting of Jane Powell, fourteen years Lamarr’s junior, as her daughter and George Nader as her “younger” lover (all of a scandalous six years younger). Fortunately, suspension of disbelief is not a problem in a film like The Female Animal, which thrives on its absurdity as much as its tragedy. The film is played completely straight but is not without its acid wit, a good deal of which comes from Jan Sterling’s wonderful supporting role as sardonic former child star Lily Frayne. Her lines are bitingly caustic but also stingingly candid, as in a reference to being chased round a desk which testifies to the devastating toxicity of Hollywood long before MeToo started calling it out. Robert Hill’s screenplay, though it leans into the salacious nature of the subject matter, has frequent moments of clear-eyed brilliance like this, including a line from Lamarr about diamonds that ought to be an all-timer, were it not for The Female Animal’s subsequent drift into obscurity.

The structure of The Female Animal is interesting, with an opening sequence that introduces its three female leads with accompanying onscreen credits in sitcom style, giving way to a prolonged flashback that explains the heightened state in which we find everyone from the outset. It’s refreshing to see a film, especially one considered Noir, that so prominently foregrounds female characters, and all three actresses throw themselves into their roles, albeit in an exaggerated manner that is a blast to watch but stops short of actual greatness. The complexity of the gender politics sometimes blurs into confusion, with the final sacrificial scene feeling like an unfortunate archetypal whimper in a film that largely avoids such concessions. But overall, The Female Animal provides exactly what might be hoped for by viewers who are able to tune into its peculiar approach. I must admit I found it hard to get a handle on the film at first and thought I was in for a disappointment, but ultimately, once it clicked, I had a great time with its cultish excesses.

Four Film Noir Classics Vol. 3 is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on August 7 2023. Special features are as follows:

-Original lossless mono audio on all films
-Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing on all films

-Audio commentaries by leading scholars and critics Nick Pinkerton (Calcutta), Josh Nelson (Ride the Pink Horse), Richard Harland Smith (Outside the Law) and David Del Valle (The Female Animal)

-Brand new visual essay on Calcutta by critic Jon Towlson

-Brand new visual essays on Ride the Pink Horse and The Female Animal by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

-Brand new visual essay on Outside the Law by author and producer Kat Ellinger

-Vintage radio play version of Ride the Pink Horse, starring Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix and Thomas Gomez

-Theatrical trailers

-Image galleries

-Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow
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-Double-sided fold-out posters for each film featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow
-Limited edition hardback collector’s book featuring new writing on the films by film critics Andrew Graves, Jon Towlson, Barry Forshaw and Nora MacIntyre

Four Film Noir Classics Vol. 3
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