DVD Review: Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5

Now Available to Own

Titles Included: Armored Car Robbery; Backfire; Cornered; Crime in the Streets; Deadline at Dawn; Desperate; Dial 1119; The Phenix City Story

Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Although it ushered in an era of superior heist movies including The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, Richard Fleischer’s grainy docudrama style thriller manages to impress in spite of its straightforward approach, thanks to a sharply written screenplay and crisp fast cuts that ensure that a car chase still puts us on edge sixty years after it was filmed on location in Los Angeles.

With extraordinary attention to detail and impeccable knowledge of the thieves as well as the police, we follow criminal mastermind Dave Purvis (William Talman) who is revered in the underworld as the only schemer to have ever successfully robbed an armored car.

Working with a new crew including the husband (Douglas Fowley) of a stripper (Adele Jergens) with whom Purvis has been having a clandestine affair, Purvis plans another elaborate heist, which turns into a shooting gallery soon after it starts, sending at least one man to the morgue on the sides of both the cops and the robbers.

Determined to seek justice on behalf of his dead partner, Lt. Jim Cordell (Charles McGraw) employs a variety of police methodology from good old fashioned shoe leather as a man goes undercover to state of the art techniques like bugging a vehicle to try and nab the hold up men.

The shortest film in the collection, clocking in at a mere sixty-eight minute running time, Armored may not offer anything new to the genre in terms of the endless heist films that most likely crime movie fans have seen over the last several decades but it still makes for a compelling screening, given the talented cast of character actors all on their game as evidenced in a well-executed supporting turn by Steve Brodie as a caught in the crossfire villain.

Likewise this RKO Picture is particularly of interest due to its truly intelligent and highly authentic screenplay that at times I feared could act – in regard to Purvis’ behavior – as a model guide on how to live in the shadows and not get caught… unless of course, you fall for the wrong stripper and/or have Lt. Cordell after you.

Backfire (1950)

As far as brilliant hooks go, Backfire’s first act is a humdinger. Convalescing following a serious spinal injury in the war, Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) undergoes thirteen surgeries with the strict orders that when he’s finally released he should forget about his dream to run a ranch with best friend Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien) since all he should be lifting is a pencil.

The only problem is that the man who’d always regularly visited and kept in touch with him during his hospital stay has fallen off the map for more than a month. This leaves Bob deeply concerned about what kind of trouble his friend Steve could’ve encountered which alarms him even further after he receives a strange female visitor in the middle of the night with ominous news about Steve.

Adding more suspicious fuel to the fire of Bob’s stressed mind, as soon as he walks out of the hospital he’s picked up by the local police who are eager to track down Steve as well, informing Bob that he’s wanted for the murder of a notorious gambler.

Longing to prove Steve’s innocence even if it means doing just that without the assistance of his missing friend, Bob ignores the advice of the boys in blue that playing cops and robbers is a game best left to kids or officers and sets out to search for answers, eventually zig-zagging his way through a parade of shady characters whose stories reveal that Bob may not have known Steve quite as well as he thought.

Along for the ride is Bob’s new Florence Nightingale style love interest as Virginia Mayo aids Bob in his quest as the woman who nursed him back to health and continues doing just that in a more romantic fashion once he’s discharged.

While the dogged determination of MacRae’s character makes him the ideal Noir everyman eager to discover the truth about a complicated turn of events that occurred when he was under the surgeon’s knife in an amateur sleuth model we still see today in Neo-Noirs like Memento or Frantic, unfortunately director Vincent Sherman’s intelligently plotted work begins to lose our interest as he meanders from one location to the next.

Perhaps a solution to the pacing issue may have been seasoning the final act with a little more “show me” action instead of “tell me” stories or a more generous amount of edits to shorten the already succinct ninety-one minute movie but despite the uneven finished product, it’s nonetheless one of the stronger entries in this admittedly weak collection.

Cornered (1945)

A veteran song and dance man from his earliest days portraying crooners and hoofers in Warner Brothers classics like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, after Dick Powell’s successful and lauded turn as a serious dramatic actor tackling Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, he reunited with director Edward Dmytryk in the Noir tinged post-war conspiracy thriller Cornered.

Woefully miscast as a returning POW out to seek revenge for the murder of his bride of less than three weeks, Dick Powell’s ex-RCAF pilot Laurence Gerard goes on the hunt to locate the Nazi collaborator responsible whom he believes has faked his own death and may be hiding out in Argentina.

With a wooden delivery of poorly written dialogue and a tendency to make up for the drudgery of the unremarkable script by going way over the top in bigger scenes to the point where he carelessly throws a gun across the room at a lamp and nearly bursts into tears in front of others in a way that never feels authentic, the only thing memorable about Powell in Cornered is just how bad he is in a role that barely convinces us Gerard can find his hotel room let alone unravel a mystery.

Additionally, it's unintentionally hilarious when you consider how little logic is employed by our hero who willingly and constantly walks into traps that pretty much everyone who’s seen a movie before can see coming long before it’s too late for Gerard. While Cornered would have been excellent comedic fodder for the characters on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as a movie in its own right, it makes you feel incredibly nostalgic for the days of Dick Powell, music man.

Crime in the Streets (1956)

Speaking of musicals, aside from the killer credit sequence that intercuts violent action with the film’s cast and crew, when Crime in the Streets begins, it’s pretty hard not to view the picture in comparison with other teen gang fare of the era like West Side Story. However, instead of the sweeping numbers like "Maria" or "I Feel Pretty," this jazz punctuated production helmed by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel replaces music with endless speech-making in essentially the afterschool special version of WB’s far more popular title, Rebel Without a Cause.

Having originally aired on television under the direction of Sidney Lumet as part of “The Elgin Hour,” Crime in the Streets finds a majority of the actors recreating their roles once again for the film, which includes an electric and intense turn by John Cassavetes in his breakthrough performance as the eighteen year old leader of the street gang The Hornets who tests the mettle of his fellow hoodlums when he begins to plan the murder of a neighborhood snitch who sent one of their friends to jail.

Although a majority of the group bails on Cassavetes’ murderous motives, future film director Mark Rydell and Rebel star Sal Mineo pal along with their leader despite the best efforts of social worker Mr. Wagner (James Whitmore) who hopes to change the boys’ minds before they let their broken homes in the slums get the better of them.

Unflinching and potent, it's still tough to watch today as a menacing Cassavetes towers over his younger brother or threatens to stab Mineo in an alley in an especially eerie scene considering the tragic death of the actor in real life. And while nothing about Crime in the Streets feels the least bit indicative of Film Noir, as a social justice picture that called attention to escalating youth violence, it’s a searing document of the time and societal temperature.

Likewise, despite the best efforts of a talented ensemble cast, the movie just tries to cram in far too many speeches for its own good, which both challenges the viewers at home to absorb what is in reality on par with a night at the theatre and the actors as well in making the sudden personality flip of a key character in the end feel a bit too sudden.

Daring and stylish, while it’s doubtful you’ll ever want to watch Crime a second time, it’s certainly hard for fans of Cassavetes and Mineo to resist the opportunity to see the men work side-by-side.

Deadline at Dawn (1946)

In just one of the crackling lines of dialogue penned by Clifford Odets in a script based on William Irish’s novel, June Goth (Susan Hayward) tells sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams), “this is New York, where ‘hello’ means ‘goodbye’.” And sure enough the two strangers band together when faced with a very long goodbye after encountering the dead body of a boozy floozy who just so happens to be the sister of one of the city’s most notorious gangsters.

Saddled with a wad of dough and a hazy liquor soaked memory from his chance meeting with the victim earlier that evening, the na├»ve Alex is sharp enough to know that he isn’t capable of murder but knows that he’ll be the first man fingered for the crime once the police and the gangsters discover what’s happened.

Due to return back to base on the six a.m. bus, kind-hearted dance hall girl June teams up with the troubled Alex to clear his name by trying to track down the real killer in the four hour window they have left, with only the sighting of a nervous man and a limping blonde to go on.

Dividing up the search, which later adds a third amateur sleuth to the mix in the form of cab driver Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), June and Alex eavesdrop, backtrack, hunt for clues and attempt to walk in the footsteps of a murderer in this admittedly far-fetched offering that warrants a pretty large suspension of disbelief from audience members as the characters just “wing it” while hoping to stumble on a lead.

Oddly matter-of-fact and eerily calm given the fact that they’re sharing temporary headquarters with a corpse, thinking nothing of helping themselves to whatever is in the woman’s icebox and leaving their fingerprints on everything in sight, the set-up of Deadline at Dawn is awkward to say the least.

And while the movie is done zero favors from a seemingly bored performance by Williams, Odets’ sharp ear for dialogue keeps you watching. Moreover despite the fact that you’re not sure you’re on board with the turn of events, Deadline is improved twofold by a genuinely surprising finale including the reveal of the actual murderer which even the savviest viewers are sure not to expect.

Desperate (1947)

On the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Red Shoes, editor Thelma Schoonmaker reveals that whenever she’s in the process of cutting footage alongside longtime director and collaborator Martin Scorsese, they always leave Turner Classic Movies playing on the side wall for inspiration.

And one of the great things about devouring vintage cinema is that even in less than stellar B-pictures, you may be struck by something whether it’s a transition, a voice-over, an unexpected entrance or an interesting technique for what could’ve been an otherwise straightforward dialogue scene that simply dazzles the senses and gives you that indescribable celluloid rush of excitement over discovering something new.

This occurred not once but three times during director Anthony Mann’s Film Noir Desperate to such an extent that the inner film geek in me wished that I could somehow send the movie to the attention of walking encyclopedia Scorsese, even though chances are he’s probably seen it before.

Yet although I have no idea if Mann storyboarded the shots in question or rigorously planned out the best way to play with light and shadow, every single time I became entranced by an image onscreen in Desperate, it could be directly attributed to the cinematography by lensman George E. Diskant who ratchets up the tension in his expressionistic visuals from a swinging overhead light that’s used to illuminate the action to the shadow-play and close-up of eyes during a final shootout.

Obviously, given the genre, these ingenious touches are the stuff dreams are made of and Diskant’s bravura approach ensures that even an overly familiar couple-on-the-run plot can suddenly transform an ordinary thriller into what is easily the standout movie in the entire box set.

Newlywed trucker and former army man Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) accepts a job over the phone on his four month anniversary when he’s persuaded by a fifty dollar payday he can’t refuse to transport merchandise from a warehouse.

But when he arrives at the pick-up only to discover that he’s become an unwitting accomplice in a black market heist of stolen goods masterminded by Raymond Burr’s intimidating Walt Radak, the simple gig turns into target practice after Randall blinks his lights at a nearby officer and Walt’s criminal brother is killed in the standoff.

Angry and out for revenge, Radak threatens the life of Randall’s bride Anne (Audrey Long), prompting the two lovers to go on the lam and hide out at her relative’s farmhouse in Minnesota.

While admittedly there’s not much to the sparse screenplay that we haven’t encountered before, thanks to a terrific turn by Burr which causes you to see his famous Perry Mason in an entirely different light along with Diskant’s masterful framing which is sure to make individual shots linger long after you’ve already forgotten what happened in the film, Desperate is quite the Noir discovery.

Dial 1119 (1950)

MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer handed over the directorial reigns to his nephew Gerald Mayer for this workmanlike hostage thriller about an escaped mental patient who steals a gun from a bus driver and holds up a group of people at a neighborhood dive bar.

Demanding a walk-on from the police psychiatrist whose testimony had originally locked him away in the padded cells of the hospital for the criminally insane, gunman Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) gives the authorities a twenty-five minute deadline before he begins to squeeze the trigger for the third time that night.

Needless to say, it’s a far cry from superior hostage sagas like Key Largo. And while screenwriter John Monks Jr. attempts to keep us interested by creating colorful characters among the bar’s patrons including a burned out reporter, an expectant father, a promiscuous barfly among others, unfortunately without seasoning the already short seventy-five minute script with a bit more action or suspense such as attempts to escape or grab the gun, ultimately Dial 1119 becomes a stationary drama where predictably all of the excitement arrives within the last five minutes.

Despite a great payoff regarding which hostage winds up saving the day that admirably goes against genre convention, ultimately Gerald Mayer’s film is a largely forgettable B-movie venture.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Due to a major spoiler that’s given away in the opening thirteen minute news report prologue that kicks off Phil Karlson’s true-life docudrama, it’s easy to understand why this portion has been frequently exorcised from theatrical prints of the picture. And although it’s important to remember that these are real lives being depicted onscreen, most likely today this first segment would advantageously appear as a special featurette on a DVD.

Yet regardless of the fact that WB included the special report style footage hosted by Clete Roberts to maintain artistic authenticity in duplicating the look and feel of the original release for its debut in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Karlson’s Phenix remains as potent as ever.

In chronicling the final chapter of the Alabama border town’s near one hundred year existence as a corrupt, violent, vice fueled slice of organized crime run America, we meet two of the men whose refusal to turn the other cheek caused them to risk their lives to change what had become the status quo.

Even though he’d had success prosecuting Nazi war criminals in Germany, when returning vet John Patterson (Richard Kiley) arrives back in Phenix, he discovers that tackling the filthy “machine” or mob run “syndicate” that’s set up shop on the notoriously dangerous 14th Street is a massive undertaking.

However, despite the fact that they have politicians in their pockets, police who look the other way and juries who are paid off to deliver verdicts to their advantage, John refuses to let criminal boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) hold Phenix residents hostage in their own town.

Persuading his own attorney father Albert “Pat” Patterson (John McIntire) to run for the office of Attorney General of the state of Alabama and canvas the terrain of every city telling citizens exactly what’s happened to Phenix, the Pattersons as well as their brave, like-minded friends and neighbors endure murder, intimidation, threats and mob muscle out in full force to scare away anyone looking to cast a vote.

Since the climax of the film had already been revealed in the prologue in terms of the death of one of the key players, Phenix suffers a little bit in its pacing of an overly long final act, given the fact that we always know exactly what fate will hold for a central protagonist.

Likewise, muddling up the serious dramatic scenes with hand-wringing affectation, the woefully miscast and unconvincing Lenka Peterson sours some of what could’ve been some powerful notes in the work as John’s frightened wife Mary-Jo, while Phenix does struggle to hold our attention from start to finish, overall it’s a still shocking and vital piece of social realist filmmaking.

Produced with polish and vigor that makes the movie doubly effective as both educational and entertaining, The Phenix City Story is yet another terrific offering from the stylish, prolific and talented crime film director Phil Karlson who always excelled when working in the genre, especially when he had the benefit of a spine-tingling true story on his side.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.