Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV Blu-ray Review: Too Much Melodrama, Not Enough Noir

For Part IV of their Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema series Kino Lorber Studio Classics is releasing three films from the late 1940s – mid 1950s that aren’t exactly the type of film you think about when you want to watch a noir, but there is enough crime, enough stark black and white, and enough dark nights of the soul to call it that anyway. If nothing else, there’s a young Tony Curtis being as charming as ever.

Calcutta (1947) is an interesting blend of World War II-era exotic location drama mixed with touches of film noir. Alan Ladd stars as Neal Gordon, a pilot who flies the Calcutta to Chungking route with his two American buddies Bill (John Whitney) and Pedro (William Bendix). When Bill is found murdered by strangulation, Neal and Bill decide to play detectives and get themselves mixed up in all kinds of foreign intrigue and a nasty smuggling ring.

Neale confronts Bill’s fiance Virginia (Gail Russell) at her engagement party. Despite being old buddies with Bill, he’s never met Virginia and only learned of the engagement the day before the party. Also, she’s got one heck of a bejeweled necklace around her neck which she says Bill bought her, but Neale knows there is no way a pilot could afford such a thing. Will she be the femme fatale every good noir is looking for? Kinda, sorta, not really.

Gail Russell was discovered in high school and put under contract the moment she graduated. Despite her movie star looks, she was painfully shy and had great trouble performing in front of the camera. Paramount hired acting coaches and put her on the fast track to stardom. To quell her nerves, she turned to the drink which eventually ended her career and sadly died alone in a low-rent apartment at the age of 36. It is a tragic story, but unfortunately not a novel one in Hollywood. Far too many young women have fallen into similar traps.

Here, she’s got the look of a great femme fatale, but none of the sizzle. A film set in an exotic location needs an exotic leading lady and Gail Russell is far too prim, proper, and American. That doesn’t stop Neale from falling for her though. From the moment he sees her, he distrusts her, and he often declares his genuine dislike of all women, yet before the second act rolls around, he’s getting all gooey-eyed at her. Luckily for us, there’s plenty of action, intrigue, and exoticism to be found elsewhere.

A mysterious Indian starts following Neale and Pedro around. When confronted, they learn he is Mul Raj Malik (Paul Singh), an importer/exporter who seems to know something about what’s going on but refuses to say what that is. There’s also Mrs. Smith (Edith King), a jewelry merchant who sold the fateful necklace to Bill. She leads him down a trail in which he discovers stolen jewels aboard the same type of plane Bill was flying before he was murdered and when he starts getting shot at, he knows he’s playing with his life.

Ladd has his cynical, Bogart-esque leading man role down pat and William Bendix works well as his sidekick (even if he isn’t given nearly enough screen time). It says something about Bendix that I immediately recognize him as an actor and feel a great fondness for him even though I’ve only seen him in two other films (Lifeboat and The Glass Key for those keeping score at home).

Direction by John Farrow and cinematography by John F. Seitz is fine, but not all that memorable. The script sags a bit in the middle but all in all, it’s a perfectly solid little crime drama.

I’m not sure who is in charge of calling things “film noir” at Kino Lorber Studio Classics but whoever designated An Act of Murder (1948) as one should probably check their blood-alcohol level. It is a melodrama, and a morality tale, for sure, but it hardly categorizes as a crime flick much less a noir. I will say this about it, I was surprised at the direction it took.

Frederic March stars as Judge Calvin Cooke, a conservative law-and-order type who only considers the letter of the law when sentencing crooks not sentimental things like intent. As the film begins, he squares off with David Douglas (Edmond O’Brien), a bleeding-heart defense attorney. Things take a twist when it turns out David has been dating Ellie (Geraldine Brooks), the judge’s daughter. But just when you think we’re headed towards a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? type social drama, the judge’s wife Catherine (March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge) becomes deathly ill.

For a while, it feels like it is leading to a place where the judge is going murder his wife to save her from the pain and have a softening of the heart, but the film takes a few more odd turns. It ultimately lands where you expect this type of film to go, but it was nice to see it take a few unexpected twists before getting there.

I don’t know how this film played to audiences 70-some years ago, but I can’t expect anyone being able to take it too seriously today. Its social message is mostly in the right place but it’s also really old fashioned in places. The doctor tells Catherine everything is just fine and promises not to tell her husband she’s been having dizzy spells and headaches. Then, he immediately calls the judge to let him know his wife is dying, but he definitely shouldn’t ever mention this fact to his wife.

March is good and his relationship with Eldridge is as loving and warm as apparently their real relationship was. It is well made as far as melodramatic morality films go, but I was sure hoping for more noir.

We get closer to that with Six Bridges to Cross (1955) but not nearly close enough. It is a standard story of a young criminal hood and his rise to power and eventual fall. Less standard is the cop who more or less adopts the guy trying to help him at every turn. It helps that Jerry the hood is played by Tony Curtis (but hurts that he’s turned on all his boyish charm and left out the dark cynicism he’s capable of as seen in films like Sweet Smell of Success and The Boston Strangler).

Ed the cop is played by George Nader, who takes Jerry under his wing after more-or-less accidentally shooting him when the teenager is caught robbing a store. Despite Jerry constantly getting into trouble, going in and out of jail, and becoming a stool pigeon (if only to squeal on those stepping on his turf), Ed never gives up on him. Always willing to put in a good word for him and bail him out in hopes he’ll someday reform. Well, almost always. When a couple of million dollars is stolen from an armored car facility right across the street from one of Jerry’s gas stations, Ed figures it’s time to cut all ties. Naturally, things get patched up in the end, in a way that only works if you are a believer in death bed confessions.

There are some nice location shots of Boston. Nader is effective as the low key cop with a soft spot. Curtis is charming but should have mingled that with something more menacing.

Each film comes with a 1080p transfer, an audio commentary from a film historian, various trailers, and Six Bridges to Cross has a fun interview with Tony Curtis from 1955.

I’ve watched all four of Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema sets (and reviewed three of them for this site) and I hate to say it, but this is the worst of the bunch. There is enough going for all three films to make them worth watching for classic film fans, but they simply don’t scratch my film-noir itch, instead they lean too far towards social issue dramas. I’m still thrilled Kino Lorber is putting out these sets and I’m looking very much towards their next release, but if you are looking for some lesser-known, but still great noirs, I’d go with any of their other sets.

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Mat Brewster

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