Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVIII Blu-ray Review: One Out of Three Ain’t Bad

I suppose there were always low-budget movies. As soon as somebody started making money from moving pictures, somebody else probably started making them faster and cheaper in order to earn a quick buck. In the early days of Hollywood, there were entire studios designed to make these sorts of pictures. Sometimes known as Poverty Row Studios, these often went as fast as they came, churning out movies as quickly and as cheaply as they could. They made genre pictures – westerns, comedies, and crime films. These days we call most of the crime films made in the 1940s and 1950s “film noirs” whether they truly fit that categorization or not. Not all of them were good, most of them were pretty bad in fact, as we’ll soon find out. But there is something about these old low-budget noirs that make me keep coming back to them.

Buy Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVIII Blu-ray

Kino Lorber Studio Classics has once again put together three noirs in their ongoing The Dark Side of Cinema release. There was a time when I thought they might run out of film noirs to release, but eighteen sets in and they are still going strong. Well, “strong” might be too strong of a word for these films, but they are definitely still releasing them.

City of Shadows (1955) is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. While watching old B-movies, I can overlook cheap-looking production designs, bad acting, sloppy edits, and a myriad of other things (all of which this film has in spades) but they should never be boring. City of Shadows nearly put me to sleep at least four different times. Not even Victor McLaglen who is usually good for at least a laugh can turn this thing into anything more than a dud.

It follows the life of Dan Mason (John Baer) through his association with big-time gangster Tim Channing (McLaglen). It begins with Mason as a boy slipping slugs into slot machines to get a quick payout. Channing catches him but likes his style and takes him under his wing. The boy becomes a lawyer and learns the ways of getting Channing out of legal jams. But Mason’s heart has never really been into crime and he attempts to make Channing go legit. Channing’s agreeable, but his boys are not; they like the thrilling lifestyle of a gangster. While Mason is setting up Channing with legit security guards, the other guys are still up to no good. It all plays out like mud pie.

There is a love interest (Kathleen Crowley) but who cares? The film certainly doesn’t. The only redeeming moment is at the end where we find a pretty good shoot-out on a ski slope, but even it is just capably shot. There’s no real style to it.

Crashout (1955) is the reason to invest in this set. It starts with a bang and never really lets up. Borrowing footage from Don Siegel’s terrific Riot in Cell Block 11, our film begins with a group of prisoners breaking out, er, I mean crashing out of prison. Guards fire machine guns nailing several of them. Others with rifles scour the surrounding area. We see them shoot Van Morgan Duff (William Bendix) who plays dead after. The guards believe him because we see ants crawling over his bloodied hand. This is a film that relishes in such grimy details.

He then escapes to an abandoned mine where several others are waiting for him. Being that the crashout was his idea and he knew of this hideout, he acts as the leader. But being that he’s been shot and is dying, the others aren’t so keen on obeying his orders. He tells them he’s got some loot stashed on a mountain and if they’ll get him a doctor and save his life, he’ll show them where it is. They do so, then tie the doctor up and leave him in the cave. But just to show us how mean he is, Duff and another man go back and kill the doctor.

Everybody is mean and nasty in this film. All but one are murderers awaiting Death Row. The lone standout, Joe Quinn (Arthur Kennedy), was an embezzler, but we quickly learn he’s willing to do anything if it means getting his hands on more money. I love a movie willing to make all its characters awful humans. Crashout pushes these men to the limits as they are constantly on the run from the law and trying to get to the hidden cash. The film allows itself to slow down periodically, giving us some nice character details, but then it builds the tension right back up, concluding is a terrific battle of wits on the snow-field mountain.

The unfortunately named Finger Man (1955) concludes are trio of Poverty Row noirs and unfortunately, it is not on a high note. Casey Martin (Frank Lovejoy) plays an independently-minded crook who, when he gets caught hijacking a truck and is told he’ll be sent up for life because he’s a four-time loser, agrees to work with the Treasury Department. They are after big-time gangster Dutch Becker (Forrest Tucker) and figure Martin is just the man to help bring him down. It is unclear why they think that because Martin doesn’t know Becker at all and has never worked for his organization.

He doesn’t know Becker, but Gladys Baker (Peggie Castle), a girl who is kind of sweet on him does, so if he can get closer to her maybe she can get him close to him. Gladys says all she wants out of life is for a guy to be nice to her, so naturally Martin acts like a jerk to her. She still falls for him and does introduce him to Decker. For some reason, Martin figures the best way to get on Decker’s team is to act tough so he continually uses Lou Terpe (Timothy Carey), Decker’s right-hand man, as a punching bag, despite Decker regularly telling him that he doesn’t like unnecessary violence. Somehow this works and Martin is securely placed inside the inner circle.

What I’m saying is Martin is a very dumb man who does very dumb things and yet he still wins in the end. Oh, there are a few attempts at tension-building and a lot of voice-over moralizing, but mostly Finger Man is a very dumb movie.

Kino Lorber presents each film with a new HD transfer; they all look good for what they are. There are also audio commentaries for each film in which film historians Gary Gerani, Alan K. Rode, and Jason A. Ney do their darndest to convince us these films are all worthwhile. Lastly, each Blu-ray contains several trailers for other similar films, some of which are better than the actual films.

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Mat Brewster

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