Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III Blu-ray Review: Gambling, Murder, and Back Alley Adoptions

If you are a fan of film noir, I hope you’ve been paying attention to Kino Lorber, the boutique video distributor, for they have been releasing all sorts of great noir for several years now. Recently, they’ve been putting out film noir collections that dig deep into the noir closet, finding all sorts of hidden gems. With Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III, they’ve collected three films (Abandoned, The Sleeping City, and The Lady Gambles) that deal with the seedier sides of the city, are populated by dames, bad men, and bullets, and are full of dark shadows and light.

The first film in the set, and the best, is Abandoned (1949). I somehow got into my mind this was a melodrama (or what they used to call a woman’s picture during this period) about a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock and then abandons her baby on a doorstep. What I got was a pretty terrific crime story about a gang of thieves and murderers who steal babies and sell them on the black market.

Paula Considine (Gale Storm) leaves her small town for the big city looking for her sister. It seems sis moved to this shadowy metro several months prior and the last letter she sent seemed to indicate she was in trouble. Weeks later and with no more letters, Paula takes to the city and talks to the police who prove to not be much help. Intrepid reporter Mark Sitko (Dennis O’Keefe) overhears her conversation and inserts himself into the case hoping for a story (it doesn’t help that she’s young and beautiful).

The sister turns up dead from an apparent suicide, but Paula swears she wasn’t the type. He notices that shady private detective Kerric (Raymond Burr) is following her so he sets up a little trap, twists Kerric’s arm, and gets some info from him. It all leads to a back alley adoption ring where young, pregnant women are offered relief in the form of a private retreat and free healthcare, all in exchange for a little black-market baby-selling.

That’s a unique angle for what is mostly a pretty straightforward crime procedural. Some fine acting from the cast, solid direction from Joseph F. Newman, and some terrific noir lighting make Abandoned a must-see for fans of the genre.

The Lady Gambles (1949) stars Barbara Stanwyck as a woman whose gambling addiction spirals her life out of control and into the arms of a notorious gangster. It has a terrific look, a great cast, some interesting ideas, and a few good scenes, but it winds up feeling more like an Afternoon Special than a classic noir.

A reporter from Chicago, David Boothe (Robert Preston), takes his wife Joan (Stanwyck) on a business trip to the Hoover Dam. While he’s out taking photos, she stays in her hotel in Las Vegas. She heads to the casino where she sneaks pictures with a camera hidden inside a cigarette box. The casino owner, Corrigan (Stephen McNally), catches her but after she explains that she wanted a few candids for a potential magazine story (and she bats those famous eyes at him), he lets her go. He even gives her a bunch of house chips which allow her to play, but aren’t actually worth anything.

She gets hooked and soon enough she’s spending real money. Her husband’s expense account money. She loses a bundle. She begs Corrigan for help; she sells some jewlery and stays up all night trying to win back her losses. By dawn, she has won everything back and swears to herself she’ll never gamble again.

Spoiler alert: She gambles again.

And then again. David eventually catches on. She promises to quit again and again but keeps finding tables on which to roll dice and hold cards. He leaves and she spirals farther down, eventually becoming a hired player for Corrigan. The film hints at some of the darker depths into which she plunges but being a mainstream film from the late 1940s there is only so much it can show.

Stanwyck and McNally are terrific, but Preston seems over his head. It looks fantastic and there are moments when it seems the film is gonna knock it out of the park. But then the script gets preachy and it becomes a TV-Movie of the Week.

Sleeping City (1950) is a Dragnet-style police procedural with some noir trappings. When an intern at Bellvue Hospital is shot in the back of the head, police officer Fred Rowan (Richard Conte) goes undercover. He’s had some med-classes in college so he knows his way around a hospital, and he’s friendly enough to make nice with the head nurse (Coleen Gray) and get chummy with the old elevator operator (Richard Taber).

To keep things believable, he has to make regular rounds as any intern would. There are some nicely tense moments when he has to make medical decisions yet clearly doesn’t have the knowledge. But mostly, he works the case like any cop. He asks questions and digs for answers. I won’t spoil what he uncovers but it is good and nefarious.

Director George Sherman makes great use of location shooting at the actual Bellvue Hospital (a rarity at the time). He makes those long hospital corridors and low-level maintenance rooms look wicked and noir-tinted. The main three actors are great, and the story is interesting. It could have pushed the tension a little more and added some real danger, but all in all its a perfectly fine b-movie.

Each film comes with nice looking high definition transfers, various trailers, and an audio commentary from a film historian.

I hope Kino Lorber continues releasing these sets. They are a great opportunity to catch up with some lesser-known film noirs while giving the buyer a great product for a good value.

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Mat Brewster

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