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DVD Review: Film Noir

By Glenn Abel

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photo Warner Home Video and Universal Studios Home Entertainment this week bring to market a swarm of film noir titles previously unavailable on DVD. No weak sisters here: The nine titles from the 1940s include such heavy hitters as "The Asphalt Jungle," "Gun Crazy" and "The Big Clock." Even the lesser-known films, such as "The Set-Up" and "Black Angel," have their revelations.

Warner's five titles come individually (retail $19.97) or as part of a boxed set, "The Film Noir Classic Collection" (retail $49.92). Go for the set. All DVDs have commentaries but little else in the way of extras. Universal counters with a quartet of deadly fare, part of their "Noir Collection" and retailing for $14.98. No extras.

Here's the dope on these DVDs, from the best on down. Unless noted, the black-and-white images are about what you'd expect: OK gray scales with age-related wear such as speckling and scratches. Audio is serviceable mono.

GUN CRAZY (1949). Believe the hype from team Tarantino: This is a sensational film -- smart, sexy, violent and emotionally on target. A great place to start because all of the classic noir elements dwell here: A good-hearted tough guy (John Dall) who should know better. A blonde siren, devious and deadly (Peggy Cummins). The inexorable downward spiral. Money. Sex. Death. For a B-movie that shot blanks when it was released, "Gun Crazy" has gone on to great things, ending up in the National Film Registry -- right up there with its better-heeled soul mate, "Bonnie and Clyde." Joseph H. Lewis' direction is relentless. "Crime in 'Gun Crazy' is a performance art," commentator Glenn Erickson notes. Exhibit A is the famous bank robbery scene, one long, unbroken take from the perspective of a back-seat driver. (Warner)

OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Film noir brings to mind the big city, shot hard and cold, Caligari-like. "Out of the Past" begins and ends in a small town but remains classic noir. Robert Mitchum is the mug seeking escape from the city and his violent past, a plot staple of films in the noir cycle, commentator James Ursini explains. The vastly entertaining "Past" is another Film Registry title. The RKO pic features killer performances from Jane Greer as the femme fatale and newcomer Kirk Douglas as the smooth gangster. The dialogue sings: "Build my gallows high, baby," Mitchum purrs to Greer. Ursini's relaxed commentary lays out the basics of noir. (Warner)

THE SET-UP (1949). Two years before "The Day the Earth Stood Still," Robert Wise directed this familiar but entrancing tale of a boxer betrayed by his trainers. It's based on a long narrative poem and takes place in real time, a lean 72 minutes. Robert Ryan is the aging fighter who is "always just one punch away." It's the story of "a life in chaos -- trying to make sense of it in five rounds," commentator Martin Scorsese says. The film is full of wide-open faces and terrific 30-second character studies. "Every frame counts," Scorsese says. "You know you're in the hands of a true visual storyteller." The best looking of these DVDs. Wise, who also provides commentary, says this is one of his top films. It was his last for RKO. (Warner)

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). "You may not admire these people, but I think they'll fascinate you," a young John Huston says in a filmed introduction to this rare noir project from MGM. The director, as usual, was right on target. A lot of the credit goes to his cast. The film is full of terrific performances, including those from Sam Jaffe as a criminal mastermind and Sterling Hayden as his muscleman. Echoes from "Jungle" can be heard in the many crime procedurals that followed. The disc suffers from the commentary by academic Drew Casper, who has trouble staying on topic. Co-star James Whitmore looks back in audio clips. (Warner)

CRISS CROSS (1949). Burt Lancaster and director Robert Siodmak created the noir touchstone "The Killers" in 1946. They reunite in this tale of a heist gone wrong. Lancaster is the love-sick fool, and Yvonne DeCarlo pulls the strings. Dan Duryea is the gangster seeking payback. Great location shots of postwar Los Angeles. Far and away the best-looking of the Universal discs. Music by Miklos Rozsa. (Universal)

MURDER, MY SWEET (1944). Crooner Dick Powell tried to darken his image in this Raymond Chandler adaptation, but some will find him a snippy Philip Marlowe. Regardless, "Murder" is a straight shot of noir, thanks to Edward Dmytryk's inspired direction. The DVD looks great -- there's a nice bed of black for all that gray smoke. The look of film noir usually is traced back to German Expressionism, an influence much in evidence here. About half the narration comes directly from Chandler's novel. Commentator Alain Silver knows his stuff -- he wrote the book "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles." He points out that only about a dozen true film noir films featured private detectives -- half of them based on Chandler books. (Warner)

THE BIG CLOCK (1948). Humor is pretty scarce in film noir; giggles come hard while staring into the abyss. Paramount's "Big Clock" pauses for comic relief while recounting the story of a media executive (Ray Milland) racing to solve the murder of his boss' mistress. The film feels like one of Hitchcock's wrong-man tales. "Big Clock" is famed for its sweeping modernistic sets, but this disc's muddy transfer makes it hard to appreciate them. Time for a restoration. (Universal)

BLACK ANGEL (1946). Entertaining murder mystery set in ritzy Los Angeles. Dan Duryea is the alcoholic piano man trying to solve the murder of his estranged wife. Peter Lorre is on hand to add sleaze and menace; Broderick Crawford plays the tough but fair homicide captain. A good-looking DVD, but beware the shrill audio. Directed by Roy William Neill of "Sherlock Holmes" fame. (Universal)

THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). Based on "an entertainment" by Graham Greene, but not all that entertaining. Reasons to watch: The first teaming of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd; cinematography by John Seitz ("Double Indemnity") and Laird Cregar's delicious turn as a blubbery ladies man. (Universal)

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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