Is it just me or has film noir made an incredible and strange comeback? The oft-imitated, but difficult to define genre was highly popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, and had a resurgence in the 1980s and early 1990s (with modern updates and a “neo” attached to the beginning of the monicker). It more or less died out afterward (with few exceptions). It isn’t that we are suddenly seeing new noir being made and shown in the movie theaters (if we were allowed to go to the movies), but that a new generation of film lovers seem to be discovering noir for the first time. Or perhaps old fans have found new ways to declare their love of the noir.
For the last couple of years, I’ve participated in what is cheekily called Noirvember - "November + Noir" get it? - where fans watch, discuss, and discover all sorts of classic noirs. TCM now has its own weekly showing of film noir, righteously called Noir Alley which airs Saturday nights with host Eddie Muller. And it seems to me that more and more boutique Blu-ray shops are releasing top-notch editions of all kinds of film noirs, not just the certified classics. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe this love of noir isn't so new, maybe Noirvember has been happening for a long time, maybe these films have been released in special editions for ages and I'm just now noticing. Whatever the case, I'm thrilled that so many noirs are available in so many forms.
Back in 2016, Kino Lorber released five-film noirs in a set they called The Dark Side of Cinema. They've just released Volume II and it is a good one. It covers three films - Thunder on the Hill, The Price of Fear, and The Female Animal - all three not exactly classics, not exactly well-known, and not exactly perfect examples of film noir, but interesting to watch just the same.
Thunder on the Mountain was made in 1951 by Douglas Sirk who was just at the beginning of making a long string of melodramas that made him famous and won him the affection of movie lovers the world over. It stars Claudette Colbert as Sister Mary Bonaventure, who runs the hospital wing of a convent in Norfolk, England. The film begins as a massive storm has flooded most of the town causing many of the townsfolk to take shelter inside the convent. This includes Valerie Carns (Anne Blyth), a woman who was convicted of murdering her brother and is set to be executed the following day.
Mary being a kindly nun, and this being a film noir, she naturally takes a liking to Valerie and decides that she surely must be innocent. Despite the fact that Mary's got a convent full of people who haven't been convicted of murder who need her attention, including a woman about to give birth to her child - several weeks prematurely - who is literally begging Mary to help her, she spends the entire movie ignoring everyone but Valerie, going so far as to take a dangerous boat ride in order to bring back Valerie's boyfriend, Sidney (Phillip Friend).
Not that this matters, or that I cared, for I was rooting for both women, and the film is good enough to make all other concerns slip away. The convent setting is perfect for some terrific noir lighting by William H. Daniels, and Sirk does a wonderful bit of directing. Colbert is terrific, especially since most of her head and body are covered with those outfits nuns wear in movies, revealing only her very expressive face.
There are some oddities in the plot. There is a nurse (Phyllis Stanley) who clearly hates Mary, makes several disparaging remarks towards her, and the film seems to be aiming for a showdown between the two but it never comes. Neither is there any real reason provided for the hatred and that subplot just sizzles out before it gets going. Mary talks to her Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) about the guilt she still feels over the death of her sister and how she feels her faith slipping, but again these things aren't explored at any length. It is as if these ideas were either forgotten or perhaps cut from the script or the film to save time and keep things moving with the murder mystery. These flaws keep it from being a true classic, but are not so severe as to not make it worth watching.
In a similar manner The Price of Fear (1956) has the potential to have been a beloved classic but falls just a little short. This time it isn't the bad plotting but the poor acting from the two main leads. David Barrett (Lex Barker) is a standup guy who runs a dog track completely on the level. When his partner is bought out by local gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), things turn bad for David. Real bad. After an angry confrontation with the old partner (in which he is heard to threaten to kill him) and some more angry words with Edare, David runs out and catches a cab. Noticing a car following close behind, he jumps out of the cab, runs down the road, and steals a car.
That car belongs to Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon), a successful businesswoman who just happened to hit an old man with that car just a few moments earlier. She fled the scene of that crime but guilt has brought her to a payphone where she is but moments away from calling the cops to turn herself in. David stealing her car changes her mind as now she can report the car stolen and put the frame job on him.
Oh, and that ex-partner of his? While David has been on the run, Edare has been a-murdering. One of his henchmen does a drive-by with a shotgun and they are all set to put frame David. The cops nab him for both crimes then realize he couldn't have been stealing cars and running over an old man on one side of the town while at the same time hitting his old pal with a shotgun on the other. The choice is which crime to nail him for?
David owns up to the hit and run figuring it to be the lesser of two crimes, and besides, the cabbie will testify for him when he needs him to. This will buy David time to solve the murder and with any luck, he'll stay out of prison. Naturally, Jessica involves herself and now we've got ourselves two murders, an innocent dupe, a crime boss, and a femme fatale. That's film noir Yahtzee.
Director Abner Biberman does his best with what is clearly a very limited budget. He gives the cheap sets a classic noir look and moves things along at a nice pace. The story is filled with good twists and turns, and I really think this would be considered a great film were it not for Oberon and Barker. They generate absolutely no heat for each other (something a noir of this sort desperately needs). Barker is wooden and Oberon smolders about as much as an ice cube. Despite its flaws, I really rather enjoyed The Price of Fear. What its got going for it is plenty enough for late-night viewing.
The thing about film noir is there is no one accepted definition of exactly what it is. One of the great joys of being a film noir fan is arguing over which films should even be considered as noir and which ones should not. I'm having a hard time believing anyone has strong feeling for The Female Animal (1958) to fit inside the genre. Melodrama? Definitely. Behinds the scenes Hollywood film? Sure. Romance? Why not. But noir? Not a chance. But no matter what I think, here it is in this set and here I am talking about it.
Hedy Lamarr stars as Vanessa Windsor, a big-time star just a little past her prime. When a rogue camera nearly kills her on set, she's saved by Chris Farley (George Nader), a hunky extra who just happened to see the camera fall and acted fast. To thank him, she invites Chris back to her beach house in Malibu and they have a long, lovely night of romance. She says she's looking for someone to take care of the house and offers him the job. He takes it but soon bristles at being her "kept man".
Some other night, he's sulking in a bar and notices a beautiful young woman (Jane Powell) being hassled by her date. The guy is clearly trying to liquor her up in order to take advantage of her and when he pushes a little too hard, Chris steps in. They wind up at the beach bungalow and she makes a few moves on him herself. He rebuffs but when she returns the next day, he's game for a little seduction. A few kisses in and she informs him that she's actually Vanessa's daughter, Penny, and now she's ready to ruin his "soft touch" with her.
Naturally, both women fall in love with him, setting up a not-all-that-interesting love triangle. This is another case in which the script doesn't seem to know what it's going for. At times, it acts like Sunset Boulevard with Vanessa as the aging actress whose star is fading and Chris as the stud who brings her back to life. At other times, it focuses on Penny, who spends most of the film angry at her mother because she only adopted her for the publicity and now that she's no longer a cute child, she's been tossed aside. There's one character, a rich friend of Vanessa's, who has her own boy toy and loudly gives advice on how Chris is quite the prize, something Chris hates and continually fights to prove he's more than just a kept man. But none of this is focused on for long enough to give the film any real depth.
The performances are solid and it's just trashy enough to make it interesting. As with the other films in this set, the lighting and camera settings are quite good. Writing that plot out, I feel like I shouldn't have enjoyed this film at all, but it really is quite entertaining even if it is all a bit batty.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents each of these three films with a lovely cleaned-up transfer. Extras are light with only a handful of trailers included and one commentary (on The Female Animal). I'm so very thrilled that sets like this continue to come out. It is fantastic that film noir seems to be enjoying a new day in the sun (however dark and shadowy it may be). Sets like this go a long way in showing that it isn't just the established classics that should be watched but that there are many smaller films well worth your time.