British Noir III DVD Review: A Nice but Slight Look into the Genre

Film noir seems like the quintessential American genre. The French term literally means black film and was used as a descriptor for the dark cynicism of films being made by Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Most likely when you hear the term you think of any number of classic American films that fit into the category. But there are a great many films made outside of the United States that could be classified as noir. The genre’s style – stark black and white photography, dark shadows, off-kilter camera angles were mostly taken from German Expressionism. The pitch-black plots and deep cynicism were a product of World War II and were felt across the globe. Though most of the classic film noirs were made in American the genre was being made by filmmakers from Japan, Germany, France, and many other countries. Never ones to be outdone by the Americans, the Brits got into the noir game as well and made numerous films that fit neatly into that category. Soon, Kino Lorber is releasing their third set in a series entitled British Noir.

It contains five films from 1940 to 1956 which run the gamut from straight-noir to musical-comedy-noir to melodrama-noir. The stars and directors are mostly unknowns, at least to this middle-aged American but there are a few names I recognize like Carole Landis, Glynis Johns, Honor Blackman, and Terence Young.

To be honest, when I opened my mailbox the other day and found this set sitting in it, my heart sunk a little bit. Oh, I’d ordered the set and was initially glad to be able to review it, but there are just so many other things to watch and so precious little time. Five British noirs that I’d never heard of suddenly didn’t sound like that good of a time. But then I got to watch them and you know what, these films are mostly rather good. Mostly.

Third Time Lucky (1949) is the best of the bunch. It stars Dermot Walsh as Lucky, a professional gambler, and Glynis Johns as Joan, his lucky mascot. They meet when he jumps into her cab pretending to be a policeman. He yells at the cabbie to outrun some guys following them. By the time the rides over, he’s fessed up and they’ve become fast friends.

He’s extremely superstitious and figures she can bring him luck. She’s bored and he’s interesting so she’s happy to play along. There are funny rules like how he clicks his lighter three times before lighting his cigarette, or how she can’t look at him when he rolls or hold a cigarette and a glass with the same hand. But they get along well and for a while, she does seem to bring him luck. By the time his luck has run out, she’s fallen for him. He starts borrowing money from the kinds of fellows you don’t want to be in debt to and things get pretty grim.

This is the most classical noir in the set. There are lots of great backlot gambling sets and colorful characters. The story stays interesting and the performances are good across the line.

Brass Monkey (1948) is the most ridiculous film in the set. It starts out like a Maltese Falcon rip-off and turns into a musical revue. The titular statues are a mystical set of three monkeys in Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil poses. They’ve been stolen from a Japanese temple or some such thing and the rest of the film revolves around catching the thieves (and jokes, and a whole lot of singing).

Carole Landis (in her last film role before her suicide that same year) stars as Kay Shelton, a woman coming back from vacation who is given the monkeys by her boyfriend. He says it’s a gift but really it’s because he’s a known smuggler and she’ll not get stopped by customs. She thinks it’s junk and gives it to her friend Caroll Levis (Caroll Levis, playing himself). Hijinks ensue.

The first half or so is pretty standard noir fair though with quite a few more jokes than most. It comes across fairly well. The highlight is Avril Angers (also playing herself). She’s an utter delight as Levi’s dingbat secretary. For the last twenty minutes or so, all pretense of an actual dramatic film is dropped and we’re given a musical revue in the guise of Levis’s radio show (the real-life Levis had a very similar radio show). Carole Landis does a song, Avril Angers does a song, some old guy plays a saw, and then there are a few more songs. For the most part, the camera stays with the music, but every now and again, it will move to the police questioning someone about the monkeys. Then it’s back to the songs. Either somebody wanted to do a musical revue with Caroll Levis and was told they needed to add in a crime story because that’s popular, or somebody wrote half a crime story and they didn’t know how to end it so they just decided to throw in some songs and call it a day. However this happened, you might as well fast forward to the end unless you really liking hearing old songs.

The Frightened Lady (1940) sits somewhere in between the extremes of the first two films. Adapted from a play by Edgar Wallace (who also wrote the first draft of the original King Kong), it is set inside a creaky old mansion where a creaky old lady (Helen Hayes) worries about the family legacy because the last male heir (Marius Goring) has yet to marry or sire a child. She’d like that to happen with her secretary (Penelope Dudley Ward) who is actually related to them but that doesn’t seem to matter (in fact, it becomes an interesting thematic point with the film taking a few digs at the incestual nature of old English families).

But mostly, it is a murder mystery with some mysteriously creepy footmen and a few dead bodies. It is pretty instantly forgettable (in fact, I had to look up the plot because I’ve already forgotten most of what happened) but quite enjoyable in the moment your watching.

Tom Conway stars in Breakaway (1956) as Duke Martin, a classic suave British detective, with Michael Balfour as Barney, his rather dimwitted sidekick. It is the second film in which those two played these characters (the first was Barbados Quest from 1955). A pre-Pussy Galore Honor Blackman also stars. The story involves some kind of chemical formula that keeps melting at supersonic speeds or something. Honestly, I couldn’t make any sense of it, but the details never really matter in these things anyway.

It is more a spy story than a film noir, but it has some decent cinematography. Conway is passable, though a little past his prime. Balfour is too goofy, and Blackman doesn’t have much to work with. There are enough twists and turns to keep you awake and watching, but not enough to make me seek out the first film.

And lastly, we have Tall Headlines (1952), a film that is far more melodramatic than any noir has any right to be. In fact, it is so not-a-noir I find it hard to believe the film belongs in this set. It was directed by another James Bond alumni, Terence Young but don’t go expecting action scenes, suave sophistication, or innuendo as this film is all about the emotional turmoil.

When a young man loses himself and murders a young woman, his parents and two siblings must face the repercussions of having an (eventually) convicted and executed person in their family. They move to a new house and change their names and try to get on with their life but the sting and stench of the scandal stick with them. There’s a feeling within them that all their neighbors and anyone they meet knows their darkest secrets and is judging them, but really they can’t get over it within themselves. The pain of what happened grows like a cancer, eating at the family structure until it nearly destroys them. The performances are good and the story eventually sucked me in, but it all is a little over the top for my tastes.

The five films presented in British Noir III are not by any means the greatest movies ever made, or even the best film noirs I’ve ever seen. But most of them are interesting and well made and worth the watching for genre buffs. They are pressed on two DVDs (The Frightened Lady, Brass Monkey, and Breakaway on one disk, Third Time Lucky and Tall Headlines on the other) so as you can imagine the quality here is not great. But its not as bad as it could be. I noticed quite a few scratches and quite a bit of quality fluctuations, but all things considered, they are all still quite watchable. There are no extras.

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Mat Brewster

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