Film Noir Classics Collection, Vol. 3
Warner Home Video's Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 3 cuts across two film libraries now owned by Warner, its five movies drawn from RKO, and, surprisingly, MGM, which was the least invested in film noir of any of the major studios -- though when they made a movie in this genre, they succeeded admirably. In this instance, the major MGM entry is Anthony Mann's Border Incident (1949), one of the darkest crime films of its era. Using the 1974 reissue edition, it has been transferred beautifully and is given the best presentation that the movie has ever had on the small screen; even the most darkly lit scenes present useful picture information in a fine full-screen (1.33:1) transfer, and the audio is clean and sharp as well, if not quite as loud as one might like it, but that's overcome easily enough. The one major feature, other than a trailer, is a commentary track by NYU professor Dana Polan, who is more verbose than useful, often explaining the obvious and just about as regularly digressing in dubious ways. (He also gets one important fact that he goes out of his way to cite, wrong: the comic strip Terry and the Pirates did not cease publication a couple of years before Border Incident was produced, as Polan states -- it was still being published in the 1960s.) Much better and more informative and entertaining is Vivian Sobchack's commentary track on John Farrow's His Kind of Woman; a wonderfully stylish if not too clearly plotted noir classic from the RKO library, it's fun to watch on its own terms, and Sobchack manages to join the fun on her commentary while still providing a ton of fascinating information. Also, the movie is complicated enough in its plot to justify the 34 chapters -- one only wishes that there were a trailer as well. Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1946) has one of the most unintentionally funny trailers you'll ever see, pushing a supposed innovation -- the subjective camera -- that, MGM assured the public, was as important as the introduction of sound. The gimmick really didn't work, though it was diverting at times, and the movie does bear a close look as a fascinating failure. Giving it a close look is easy here, in what has to be the best home-video transfer that it has ever received. Even more successful is the joint commentary by scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, who have written more than their share of essays on Raymond Chandler and film noir. Their observations tend to be direct and factual, and deal with what we're seeing and hearing. They also a great job of framing the movie in historical terms; the best observation comes near the beginning, when it's explained how this movie runs counter to the documentary-style crime films that were just starting to manifest themselves at the time. John Cromwell's The Racket (1951) is a somewhat lesser part of Robert Mitchum's output at RKO, with some unusual attributes, but it gets a first-rate commentary track from film noir scholar/enthusiast Eddie Muller, who provides a fun, rambling, wide-ranging series of observations, as engaging in its style as any track of its kind ever done; he's having as much fun watching this movie as we are, and it's infectious listening to him work. The full-screen (1.33:1) transfer is fine, clean, and sharp throughout and with good sound to go along with it. Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1951) comes complete with its original trailer and a commentary track by Glenn Erickson. He's a little stiff compared with some of the other scholars represented in this set, but that's in part owing to the pacing of the movie, which doesn't lend itself to a loose-limbed commentary; he does his best, which is considerable, to deal with what he must to tie together the movie's many facets. The movie looks great, the full-screen picture appropriately dark but filled with detail, and the audio has been given a fine account, bringing out the finer details of Bernard Herrmann's score. Erickson doesn't neglect Herrmann's music, either, which was an essential component of the movie's structure and content. The sixth disc is the most unusual, comprised of the documentary "Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light," hosted by author James Ellroy and featuring observations by directors Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Christopher Nelson, and Frank Miller, among others. This is as good an account of the movie genre as has been committed to film (as opposed to the printed page), delving into the ins-and-outs of the field and its development and later decline, the cinematographers, editors, and composers, as well as the directors who made their names in the field, and the literary roots of the genre as well. The selection of clips is also extremely generous, and the 68-minute film would make the disc worth about 30 dollars by itself, but the makers have also loaded this disc up with a quintet of entries from MGM's short series "Crime Does Not Pay," which are not only superb vest-pocket crime thrillers but contain the early work of directors such as Joseph Newman, Roy Rowland, Fred Zinnemann, and Joseph Losey. Each of the six titles comes packaged in a slim individual slipcase, and each one is adorned with distinctive cover art. Each disc also opens automatically to a cleverly designed and easy-to-use two-layer menu that offers simple access to all of the special features on the disc.