Mill Creek and Kit Parker package nine mid-range Columbia features from the 1940s and 1950s, not all of them strictly noir but all with dark themes — crime, creepy politics, etc. None have been on Blu-ray, and all but one are in fine condition.
Noir Archive 9-Film Collection
Address Unknown, Escape in the Fog, The Guilt of Janet Ames, The Black Book, Johnny Allegro, 711 Ocean Drive, The Killer That Stalked New York, Assignment: Paris, The Miami Story
Mill Creek / Kit Parker
1944 -1954 / B&W / 8 x 1:37 Academy; 1 x 1:85 widescreen / 734 min. / Street Date April 23, 2019 / 49.95
Starring: Paul Lukas, Nina Foch, Rosalind Russell, Robert Cummings, George Raft, Edmond O’Brien, Evelyn Keyes, Dana Andrews, Barry Sullivan.
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté, George Meehan, Joseph Walker, John Alton, Joseph Biroc, Franz Planer, Joseph Biroc, Burnett Guffey, Henry Freulich.
Written by Herbert Dalmas, Aubrey Wisberg, Louella MacFarlane, Philip Yordan, Karen DeWolf, Richard English, Harry Essex, William Bowers, Robert E. Kent.
Produced by William Cameron Menzies, Wallace McDonald, Helen Deutsch & Virginia Van Upp, Walter Wanger, Irving Starr, Frank N. Seltzer, Robert Cohn, Sam Katzman.
Directed by William Cameron Menzies, Budd Boetticher, Henry Levin, Anthony Mann, Ted Tetzlaff, Joseph M. Newman, Earl McEvoy, Robert Parrish, Samuel Marx, Fred F. Sears.
Everybody’s noir-happy these days, what with Eddie Muller drawing a crowd on Saturdays over on TCM, and burnished Blu-ray restorations of once-obscure titles like Detour being given the Criterion treatment. When I first read of a new nine-title Blu-ray noie collection I was more than wary, having run into too many low-quality ‘collections’ that are the Home Video equivalent of K-Tel Records ‘bargains.’ We’d like to get beyond the days when prime noirs in the Public Domain like T-Men and He Walked by Night once showed up everywhere, in awful condition. Kino Lorber and Shout Factory are doing good Blu-ray business individually marketing titles that were once part of multi-movie DVD packages.
The experienced distributor Kit Parker had a big hand in producing this 9-Film Collection, which we’re told will be followed soon by another. The pictures are presented in chronological order. The good news is that even the lower-case ‘B’ titles have good performances and a variety of story content. One is even a costume drama filmed in an unmistakably noir style. A couple are far too elaborate to be called ‘B’ pictures, and the work of some noted noir directors is represented. Several sport name stars, and not in a slumming capacity. This collection ought to create more fans for lovely Nina Foch, if only because she pops up so frequently.
Each show naturally begins with a Columbia logo. We see several different takes on the beautiful Torch Lady, including some earlier versions with crude animation.
The set begins with a show that ought to be acknowledged as a classic. Address Unknown is probably the best non-fantasy film directed by designer William Cameron Menzies, for whom the term Production Designer was invented back in the 1920s. A wartime propaganda film, it shows the evil of Nazi ideology through the German-American experience. Nice Morris Carnovsky and Paul Lukas own a San Francisco art gallery, and Lukas relocates to Munich to buy art. He unfortunately comes under the Nazi influence, which tears the family apart, especially affecting the next generation, young Peter van Eyck and K.T. Stevens. The film’s design is as radical as pictures get — Menzies chooses every unusual angle and composition for its psychological contribution to the mood and the theme. It’s really quite impressive; I wish Menzies had been able to stylize his The Maze in this radical manner. Parts of Address Unknown are as extreme as a UPA cartoon.
The absurd yet arresting spy melodrama Escape in the Fog was written by Aubrey Wisberg, who wrote the excellent escapist spy story They Came to Blow Up America. Nina Foch’s premonition that a man will be killed on the Golden Gate Bridge brings us into a plot by Axis agents to steal a list of U.S. operatives in Japan. The hero is played by an unimpressive William Wright, but Ms. Foch shines. Top-billed Otto Kruger gets to play a good guy, for once. The mismatch of intrigue and supernatural premonitions works, thanks to the sure direction of Oscar Boetticher Jr., aka our beloved Budd Boetticher. It’s his seventh feature — how the bullfighting expert began with war and spy pictures is a good question. Literal fog helps disguise backlot storefronts as being in San Francisco; anti-Japanese sentiment in Chinatown figures in a rescue scene. An important satchel dropped from the Golden Gate bridge miraculously falls onto a boat passing below; an unlikely action that recurs in the later film The Man Who Cheated Himself.
As it stars Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas, The Guilt of Janet Ames carries almost too much star power to be classified as a ‘B’ picture. It’s pretty weird: the three female screenwriters make much of the show an expressionist revisit of the famous du Maurier story Peter Ibbetson. The result is a truly twisted wartime tale about a woman having difficulties with her status as a war widow, a subject Hollywood didn’t always handle with tact. While Rosalind Russell’s Janet lies on a hospital bed (it’s a long story), a reporter (Douglas) hypnotizes her for a strange purpose — to find out why she’s determined to meet the five men whose lives were saved by her late husband, when he jumped on an enemy grenade. The fantasies that the reporter takes Janet through reveal the truth about her motives, which will likely offend modern feminists! Just the same, the dream fantasies are very interestingly filmed, some through plastic curtains and others reduced to shadows. A special extra is future TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar as, what else, a stand-up comedian. Harry Von Zell and Richard Benedict appear, as well as Betsy Blair, in her first movie.
The Black Book is the famed ‘French Revolution Noir’ that sprung forth from the team of director Anthony Mann, cameraman John Alton, writer Philip Yordan and producer/art director William Cameron Menzies. Like a Classics Illustrated comic book turned into a fever dream, this epic in miniature somehow convinces us that we’re in 1789 France, on a tiny budget. It still carries an original Eagle-Lion logo, with a Columbia torch lady added later on — the original title was Reign of Terror. Often seen in choker close-ups, the actors are just as fevered — Richard Basehart’s Robespierre waxes sinister, along with such expressive types as Richard Hart, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw, Norman Lloyd and Wade Crosby. The story moves so fast that we become confused; I’ve seen it twice and will attempt to get it straight this third time. Arlene Dahl and a very good Robert Cummings are the romantic, subversive agents trying to keep possession of an important MacGuffin Black Book. In his second film, uncredited, is the feisty little Rusty Tamblyn.
Nina Foch makes another big impression in Johnny Allegro, while leading man George Raft is his usual non-presence. Cameraman-turned director Ted Tetzlaff did this picture right after his The Window, and keeps the pot a-boiling in a story tailored to Raft’s narrow notions of self-image. An escaped con who served in the O.S.S. (without a background check?), Raft’s Johnny Allegro is enlisted by government agent Will Geer to follow mystery lady Glenda (Foch). He gets the goods on a traitorous Mr. Big, a counterfeiter named Vallin (George Macready), who has an outpost on an secluded island. Raft tangles with various henchmen, saves Glenda and puts paid to the bad guys; by the finale the show has turned into a new version of The Most Dangerous Game, with archer Macready hunting down Raft with a longbow. Macready’s ‘Morgan Vallin’ sends us to the IMDB, as the name is awfully close to his Ballin Mundson in the classic Gilda.
711 Ocean Drive is the excellent noir I gave a full DVD review to once before, back at DVDtalk in 2010. An ambitious telephone lineman works a slick technical trick to rig race results in bookie joints, and almost takes over the entire wire racket. For content I couldn’t add anything except to say it’s held up very well — Edmond O’Brien is still fresh and sassy, at least four viewings later. The HD image, even is slightly compromised, is an appreciable improvement.
I also reviewed The Killer That Stalked New York, when it was the lead-off title on Sony’s ‘Bad Girls of Film Noir’ DVD collection in 2010. It’s not quite a top-notch noir — Harry Essex’s script is weak, and was likely taken on to imitate Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets, a far more compelling public service message about a potential epidemic on U.S. soil. Killer is more in line with Columbia’s cheap docu-noirs about tracking down Red spies, Walk a Crooked Mile and Walk East on Beacon!; just the same, it features Evelyn Keyes, Dorothy Malone and Lola Albright, so who’s complaining?
Assignment: Paris is a real want-to-see title. It’s by Robert Parrish, a favorite director with at least four gems to his name: Cry Danger, The Purple Plain, The Wonderful Country, and In the French Style. On his fourth film Parrish appears to have been handed a ‘get out of jail’ assignment, an anti-Commie tale of the kind used to separate cooperative directors from potential pinkos. Assignment: Paris is actually a well-written tale of oppression in Hungary, with the ruling party arresting and trying journalists as spies. Dana Andrews is a hotshot correspondent who follows one newsman already murdered; while his new girlfriend and loyal boss (Märta Torén & George Sanders) having to blackmail a communist leader to get him freed again. Some actual locations were filmed in Paris. A cheap stentorian narrator breaks in once in a while, but the good screenplay and logical action speaks for itself. Former noir femme fatale Audrey Totter is part of the news office, an atmosphere that, due to the presence of Sanders and Andrews, makes us think of the later While the City Sleeps.
The final entry The Miami Story is the first title in widescreen, and the first to show Columbia product that’s too low-end to be a regular ‘B.’ Producer Sam Katzman’s a gangland tale with a few street shots filmed in Miami, and the rest shot here in Los Angeles. It’s pretty funny when two cars pull off the road outside the Florida town, and suddenly we’re in the equestrian area of Griffith Park. It’s a standard racket-busting story. Feds enlist an ex-gangster to take down a big bad racketeer (Luther Adler) whose vices include a prostitution ring run by his girlfriend (Adele Jergens). Barry Sullivan is the compromised crime-fighter, whose young son is of course kidnapped by Adler in the final act. Of special note is the great Beverly Garland, who, like everybody else, struggles with the rushed direction. Fred Sears’ camera blocking sticks to a maximum two angles per scene. And every time a location changes, Katzman jumps to stock shots. This brand of cut-price filmmaking is several rungs below the great pictures Phil Karlson began turning out for Columbia the next year. This is also the year that Katzman gave Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen their first break at Columbia.
I consider this collection very attractive — nine titles in passable Blu-ray quality. Amazon is initially charging less than $4 each… and I rarely tout prices at CineSavant.
Coming up in July is a Volume 2 set in this series, which we’re told will contain Bait (1954), The Crooked Web (1955), The Night Holds Terror (1955), Footsteps in the Fog (1955), Cell 2455, Death Row (1955), 5 Against the House (1955), New Orleans Uncensored (1955), Spin a Dark Web (1955), and Rumble on the Docks (1956).
Mill Creek & Kit Parker’s Blu-ray of Noir Archive 9-Film Collection is a plain-wrap but good quality encoding of nine B&W Columbia features from 1944 to 1954. All but the last is formatted in the Academy ratio. Historically speaking, the nice thing about Sony in the home video era is they have repeatedly remastered everything in their library, to maintain the highest quality.
Three movies per disc can be a problem, depending how the discs are authored. It’s possible to compress too much information on a single Blu-ray, to the point that image quality is affected. Last year Universal tried to get by with an inadequate information level on one of their 1950s monster movies, and the fan outcry was pretty loud. Three films on a Blu-ray sounds like a lot, but some positive factors come into play. The shows are all B&W, which cuts down on the bits needed to display each frame. And neither are these movies very lengthy. Two of the discs average 80 minutes or less per film.
The Columbia logos pop up clean, crisp and steady for each picture, and the blacks look deep as well. I scanned all nine shows, and with one exception the only scenes I saw that seemed slightly affected were ones involving opticals or scene transitions — film that would have been duped and be coarser in grain. The only feature with issues is Escape in the Fog, which has problems in the first reel not related to the encoding. The picture has a slight flicker and some titles dance around — it looks as if the entire reel had to be rescued from an undesirable source. The rest of Escape from the Fog suffers because many scenes are optically reprinted to add a fog effect. When transferred, foggy scenes don’t encode well, giving the appearance of patchy or blocky grain, or mottled contrast.
That doesn’t mean that Escape looks bad, it’s just not as good-looking as the other eight pictures. Nobody threw this collection together; I think they worked these encodings to the best advantage, and that the fans of these pictures will consider the package a bargain.
The Keep Case contain three discs on two spindles, and both my copy and the copy of another reviewer arrived with the piggy-backed disc floating free in the box. However, mine was not scratched. I think I’ll swap out this ersatz 3-disc case, for a real 3-disc case of a title I won’t be looking at as often. There’s some good content here.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Noir Archive 9-Film Collection
Movies: A Mix – Excellent through Good -minus
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed: April 5, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson