Roadblock (1951) / Nocturne (1946) DVD Reviews: Misplaced, Unconventional LA Noir

Two forgotten - and highly enjoyable - low-budget thrillers from RKO make their way to DVD courtesy the Warner Archive Collection.
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Since the inception of the Warner Archive Collection several years ago, film noir enthusiasts have become highly appreciative of the manufactured-on-demand label's tendency to dust off the occasional crime drama from the vaults. Indeed, these noir titles even receive their own special banner atop the DVD covers - indicating the Warner Archive's obvious pride in releasing these items. For the beginning of 2014, the WAC have brought out two more titles for aficionados of this dark moving picture subgenre to add to their collections - both of which were produced by RKO Radio Pictures and have their own share of unique twists: 1946's Nocturne and 1951's Roadblock.

Now then, since I introduced them in chronological order, I will - naturally - start with the latter flick first. Here we witness the sorrowful descent of an otherwise sharp insurance investigator named Joe Peters (Charles McGraw, of Spartacus and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World fame). As our tale begins - can be seen using his sharp mind to trap equally-cunning crooks who have made off with ill-gotten gains. But Joe's world turns upside-down when a swindler of a dame named Diane (Joan Dixon) pretends to be his wife in order to get a plane ticket - and they are forced to stay in the same hotel room when their plane is grounded due to bad weather. And, just like the idiot he really is, Joe falls for the wrong gal; a broad with the ability to turn any head and break every heart in the process.

Alas, Joe's honest salary will never be enough to make someone like Diane love him. She is accustomed to having the finer things in life, presently being afforded for her by Los Angeles gangster Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore and his incredible voice). So, like the even bigger idiot Joe really is, he joins forces with his sworn enemy in order to steal $1,250,000 in cold hard cash right - money that is both being transferred and insured by his own damn company. Yeah, it's like that. Things go from awkward to unexpected when Diane finally admits to loving Joe for the true upstanding honest individual she thought he was (and which he used to be), while Joe's truly-truly-honest partner Harry (thr roughly-chiseled Louis Jean Heydt, a.k.a. "That Guy") starts to smell a rat in this organization.

Conspiracy, robbery, murder, a high-speed chase throughout LA's famous concrete river bed long before it ever became fashionable (and back when it was a new concept), and the most expensive fire extinguisher in cinematic history: they all add up to the long-standing sum of that whole crime thing not paying off in Roadblock, as written by the collective efforts of Richard H. Landau & Daniel Mainwaring (story) and George Bricker & Steve Fisher (screenplay). Nicholas Musuraca (Stranger on the Third Floor, Cat People) was cinematographer, and Harold Daniels directed. Interestingly, Daniels directed several movies in the latter half of his short-lived career were either subliminal gimmicks or wound up being re-cut, re-edited, and re-released later in history, including his 1957 magnum opus, Bayou - which became the infamous Southern drive-in favorite Poor White Trash four years later.

Turning the clock back a few years, we find ourselves whistling the haunting titular tune of Nocturne - which the 1946 film gently thrusts upon us in the very beginning of the film. A regular lady-killer of a tunesmith is seen at his piano, playing his latest composition for his latest (and unseen) ex-plaything, who - like all the other gals that preceded her - he misogynistly dubbed "Dolores". It is then that Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley, whose final film wasthe 1988 horror favorite Waxwork) meets his untimely demise, but when the police investigate the crime scene, they see nothing but a suicide on their hands. Everyone, that is, except for Lieutenant Joe Warne (the one and only George Raft), who personally starts to annoy and interrogate seemingly-innocent individuals in order to assure his murder theory holds water.

Warne's obsession soon lands him in hot water with his superiors - and even hotter water once he meets the diabolically desirable Frances Ransom (WWII pin-up favorite Lynn "Woo Woo Girl" Bari), who has the unenviable distinction of being one of Vincent's infamous conquests. Soon stripped of his badge because of his reluctance to play by the rules, Warne dives deeper into an even harsher world where the person(s) unknown responsible for Vincent's death are determined to keep the true details of the songwriter's demise a secret. Edwin L. Marin directs this fascinating yarn, which features the co-starring talents of one-time Tarzan Jane Virginia Huston, future TV director Joseph Pevney, Myrna Dell, Mabel Paige, Bern Hoffman, Queenie Smith, and a bit part by bit player Gladys Blake.

Nocturne was produced by Joan Harrison, who was a regular writer/producer for several Alfred Hitchcock vehicles, and is reported to have co-penned this uncommon entry in the film noir field. And it's hard to argue that she didn't once one witnesses some of the grittier aspects of the feature - such as when Raft tosses a pot of boiling hot coffee into a thug's face. These heavier moments are then counteracted by moments of Raft at home with his onscreen mother (yes, that's right: our hero lives at home with his mum in this one!), who, in one delightfully amusing scene, attempts to solve the crime that so perplexes her son with one of her old lady friends - much to Raft's surprise and chagrin.

Speaking of Raft, let's ponder this casting call for a second here. Usually the tough, undefeatable gangster, seeing George as the fallible good guy with bad luck is odd to say the very least - whether he's getting tossed around like a rag doll by a muscular henchman, or sitting in the kitchen waiting for his mother to cook him a couple of eggs whilst on the lam from his own police force. It's weird. And yet, somehow, it works.

Also of note here are several moments wherein we get to see the ever-expanding, always on-the-go nightclub scene of mid '40s Hollywood (Hey, is that the Brown Derby I spy? Why, it is!) as well as a genuine peek at the RKO studios, which is featured as itself in one memorable scene - presumably (or at least possibly) shot this way to keep the film within its own limited budget. And, since I'm on the subject of Nocturne's budget (look, there was a reason I chose to discuss this movie last, kids), it's obvious that Nocturne had some time/money constraints gnawing at the story's hamstrings. It's a pity, too - as the thought of this one being even better than it already is can be quite exhilarating. In fact, if I had my druthers, I would love to see someone dig up the original story and remake it - and that's not something I say all that often.

In fact, the same could be said of Roadblock. Fortunately, though, we have the real deals here - as made available to us by the folks at the Warner Archive. Each film looks quite lovely, and is presented in its original Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) with mono English sound and absolutely no special features whatsoever. Like many WAC titles, the DVD cases feature the original theatrical artwork of the respective title.

In the long run, both of these titles come highly recommended to noir fans, but were I asked to pick one out of the duo to keep for all time, I would like to enter the following lines of ultimately unforgettable film noir-esque dialogue from Nocturne as part of my testimony, Your Honor:

"He was a ladykiller. But don't get any ideas - I ain't no lady."

"I like that alibi. It's round. It's firm. It's fully packed."

"Now why don't you hop on your scooter, sonny boy, and blow? I've got to emote!"

Wow. We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen.

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