Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XIX Blu-ray Review: Loads of Stars, Tons of Thrills

Kino Lorber continues their excellent series of releasing relatively obscure film noirs. For this, their 19th set in the series, we find three films that are all pretty good, but not quite classic, that star some terrific actors. In Dark City (1950), Charlton Heston (in his first screen role) stars as a sort-of gangster who accidentally drives a man to suicide and must come to terms with the consequences. In No Man of Her Own (1950), Barbara Stanwyck plays a penniless, unmarried pregnant woman who assumes the identity of a woman who died in a train crash. In Beware, My Lovely (1952), Ida Lupino plays a woman trying to survive the night with a mentally ill psychotic (Robert Ryan) who has trapped her inside her own home.

Buy Film Noir The Dark Side of Cinema XIX Blu-ray

Charlton Heston wasn’t a particularly great actor but he made some great movies. The whole NRA thing kind of turns me off of him as a person, but I love his on-screen persona. In Dark City, he plays Danny Haley, a well-educated man from a good family who nevertheless has stakes in an illegal gambling joint. He likes playing at being a gangster. After the cops raid his place a few too many times, he decides that maybe he wants out of this life. But he needs some cash to get out of town.

He meets a guy named Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) who just so happens to have a $5,000 check in his wallet. Danny invites Arthur to play poker with him and his cronies (played by Jack Webb, Ed Begley, and Harry Morgan). They let him win the first night to get his spirits up then cheat him out of everything (including that $5,000 which doesn’t belong to him, but the company he works for).

When he learns that Arthur killed himself after the game, Danny knows he must lay low for a while. When Arthur’s brother starts murdering everyone involved in that poker game, he knows he must find a way to stop him, even if it means working with the police.

Dark City is a pretty terrific little b-noir. Heston is great as Danny and the supporting cast is stacked (I haven’t even mentioned Lizabeth Scott as his put-upon girlfriend). It never quite goes as dark as I want it to, and the tension isn’t laid on as heavy as I’d like, but overall, it delivers.

For its first half, No Man of Her Own plays out more like a melodrama (or a “woman’s picture” as they used to call them) before taking a turn for the more noir-ish. Barbara Stanwyck stars as Helen Ferguson, a penniless, pregnant woman who has just been given the boot by her live-in boyfriend. She boards a train, any train just to get out of town, but only has the money to sit on her suitcases. A friendly couple offers up their seat and befriends her.

Then the train crashes. This is the best scene in all three movies. I have no idea how they filmed it, but for a special effect from a 1950s movie, it is out of this world. The crash kills her newfound friends and Helen finds herself in a hospital. For reasons it is best not to get into, everyone at the hospital thinks she is Patrice Harkness, the recently dead, newfound friend. Learning that the real Patrice had never met her husband’s family, Helen decides to take the identity of Patrice and live a rather well-to-do life.

The family takes her in with pleasure. They dote on the baby (it survived the crash and was delivered while she was knocked out in the aftermath) and enjoy her company. Things are going very well indeed until that old boyfriend (Lyle Bettger) shows up. He blackmails Helen, threatening to tell the family about who she really is.

This was my least favorite film in the set. The first half is too melodramatic for my tastes. There is a lot of drama created by whether or not the family will figure out who Helen really is, but it never really goes anywhere. There is a love interest, a best friend, and a lot of other nonsense that just didn’t do anything for me. Once the ex-boyfriend shows up, things get more interesting, but it’s never enough to make this film a really good one. But that train crash scene? That’s worth the price of admission all on its own.

Robert Ryan was born to play the heavy. With his large physique, chiseled face, and seething intensity, he’s a natural fit to play tough, violent, psychopathic men. But what I love about him is that there is always a sensitivity behind his eyes. Even at their heaviest, Ryan’s performances allow his characters a humanity often not seen in villains.

Similarly, Ida Lupino often played the love interest, or the woman in trouble. She was always sensitive, but never soft. Her characters had a strength inside them, a toughness.

With Beware, My Lovely, she plays Helen Gordon, a war widow who runs a boarding house. When Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) comes looking for work she immediately hires him, both needing some help around the house, but also always willing to help a man in need.

What she doesn’t know, and we do, is that Howard is a disturbed man. The film opens with him at another house, doing odd jobs. As he finishes up, he comes looking for the lady of the house only to find her dead, stuffed into a closet. He knows he did it, but has no memory of it.

The film takes its time building up to him doing it again. At first, Howard just acts a little strange. He gets a little confused or repeats himself. Slowly (a little too slowly for my tastes), he turns angry and violent. He steals the key and locks Helen inside the house. He refuses to let her go. He has moments where the potential violence seethes behind his eyes. But then he’ll forget himself and he goes back to normal, as if he was just a handyman doing a day’s work.

Lupino is brilliant. Trapped inside an impossible situation, she must outwardly be all smiles and kindness so as to not upset Howard any further while secretly trying to find any means of escape. As the tension builds, her own fear mounts, and yet there is also an understanding that Howard is a sick man and she truly wishes him no harm. Ryan is likewise fantastic. In his less frantic moments, he plays Howard like a sad sack, a man down on his luck who truly doesn’t understand why so few people are understanding towards him. Then in a flash, there will be anger behind his eyes, and we’ll know he could turn violent at any moment.

It never quite boils over in the way I wanted it to, the film keeps things at a low simmer, and the finale is lackluster, but those performances are great and the film is well worth watching.

The entire set is worth watching. These sets tend to focus on the lesser-known film noirs which sometimes means the films aren’t that good, but all three of these films are well done, making the set a definite must-buy.

Each film comes with an audio commentary and loads of classic trailers.

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Mat Brewster

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