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Final Gravity

'Dark Film Mysteries' (3-Disc Collector's Set)
(Edward G. Robinson, Anne Sheridan, Mickey Rooney, Tom Neal, Charles Russell, et al / 3-Disc DVD / NR / (2015 / Film Chest)

Overview: 'Dark Film Mysteries' is a robust collection of classic film noir (black film), a genre that became a cinematic staple for American audiences during the mid-1940s through the late-1950s. Viewers were eager to venture into the darker attitude of crime fiction that developed around the Great Depression two decades earlier and finally emerged on film during WWII.

DVD Verdict: So just what is "Film Noir," I hear you ask? Well, Film Noir stories generally developed around suspicious male characters that maintained unsympathetic and doom-filled attitudes that would manifest when they encountered beautiful woman of questionable character (femme fatale). She would use her feminine sexuality to manipulate him into an unsuspecting fall guy generally involving a murder. After the betrayal, the femme fatale would frequently be destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero's life.

Shot in a low-key black-and-white, gloomy visual style with roots in German Expressionist cinematography, these films showed the dark and callous side of human nature, and were filled with an oppressive atmosphere of pessimism, fatality, and doom that was enhanced with shadowy characters and locations swirling with both moody dialogue and cigarette smoke.

'Scarlett Street' (1945) - starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett - kicks off the first DVD of four movies with a tale about how a man in mid-life crisis befriends a young woman, but soon her venal fiancé persuades her to con him out of some of the fortune she thinks he has. It is often said of Fritz Lang that his American films aren't as good as the ones he made in Germany, and judging by the films of his that I've seen so far; this analysis is proving itself to be true. But damn, this one isn't far off. 'Scarlet Street' is simultaneously compelling and unpredictable for it's duration; Lang truly knows how to plot a film, and that is evident throughout.

Then comes 'Woman on the Run' (1950) - starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O'Keefe - it's O'Keefe as Frank Johnson, who flees police after becoming an eyewitness to murder that is the central role here. He is pursued around scenic San Francisco by his wife, a reporter, the police, and ... the real murderer! The film is an infinitely better and more rewarding movie experience now than when it was released in 1950. I actually saw it back then when I was a child and the only thing I remembered was the terrifically-exciting roller coaster sequence. Seeing it again on DVD makes me appreciate everything about it, a film noir classic. To make such a no-nonsense, concise and plausible crime thriller with a sensational finale today certainly seems to be asking for the impossible!

Next up is 'Quicksand' (1950) - starring Mickey Rooney and Jeanne Cagney - it's the story of how after borrowing $20 from his employer's cash register, an auto mechanic is plunged into a series of increasingly disastrous circumstances which rapidly spiral out of his control. One of the lesser-known treasures of classic film noir, this tough little chronicle of a hapless boy taken on a criminal joy ride by his own uncontrollable lusts succeeds partly because of the brick-house design of Cornell Woolrich's original story, partly because of its ingeniously chosen cast. Pairing the still fresh-faced Mickey Rooney with the creepily worn-looking Jeanne Cagney instantly suggests corruption; the subtext that the boy is just a pawn in a weird game being played between this nasty dame and her lover (Peter Lorre, looking one drink over the line) makes the spine crawl.

In the last of the four films on the first DVD, 'Detour' (1945) - starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage - it's quickly revealed how chance events trap hitch-hiker Al Roberts in a tightening net of film noir trouble. This is one of the all-time great examples of film noir. It can practically be used to define the genre: shadowy black and white cinematography; a star-crossed protagonist ("...fate sticks out a leg to trip you."); a femme fatale (the unforgettable Ann Savage as Vera); cynical voice-over narration; ambiguous morality. All these elements are brought together magnificently by director Edgar G. Ulmer, who incredibly made this movie in several days on a shoestring budget.

The second DVD begins with the noir classic 'Inner Sanctum' (1948) - starring Charles Russell and Mary Beth Hughes - and is the story of a man fleeing the police after having committed a murder hides out in a boarding house in a small town. It's a short, bizarre, and yet surprisingly captivating film, so beware! It's totally Twilight Zone when you get to the last two minutes, so hang in there for the hour before that. It has a noir quality that makes it moody, and it has some truly artsy expressionist segments montage in during the flood, partly as psychological metaphor.

Then comes 'Kansas City Confidential' (1952) - starring John Payne and Coleen Gray - and brings us the tale of how an ex-con trying to go straight is framed for a million dollar armored car robbery and must go to Mexico in order to unmask the real culprits. The film is one of my favorite noir films and films of John Payne. It's one you can watch over and over again and still be entertained. This absorbing crime drama is also one of the most well-crafted movies of its genre. It tells its story with few frills, but with plenty of interesting details and a well-timed pace. John Payne gets one of his best roles, with a very good supporting cast. A strong sense of danger and uncertainty is built up early, and is effectively carried through the whole movie, right up to the end.

Next up is 'The Stranger' (1946) - starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Orson Welles - directed by the latter also, Welles brings us the story of an investigator from the War Crimes Commission who travels to Connecticut to find an infamous Nazi. Edward G. Robinson is the subtle but welcome prize we receive from this outing. The undercurrents of the horrors that have just come before this movie was made and its actions can be seen seething within his duty to find hidden Nazis. He is methodical and intelligent, it so difficult to see the difference between Robinson the man and Robinson the actor here. He is such a talent that we often mistake his ease for something else but acting - and of acting he was a master.

The last film on this second DVD is 'Fear in the Night' (1947) - starring Paul Kelly and DeForest Kelley - where a man dreams he committed murder, then begins to suspect it was real. Yet another decent noir thriller that manages to just sway a little differently than the rest, it's difficult to describe without giving too much away. But, this still remains a most unusual movie with some very really scary moments. Not a lot or tearaway action, but plenty of mind games and surreal goings on, featuring the film debut of Star Trek's very own "Bones," DeForest Kelley.

The third and final DVD in this incredible collection starts with 'The Strange Woman' (1946) - starring Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders - puts us in New England back in the 1820's, where a beautiful, but poor and manipulative Jenny Hager marries rich old man Isaiah Poster - but also seduces his son and his company foreman! An obscure film which, because of surprising creative touches in directing, acting and editing, should be shown more often: more than a potboiler, more than a "women's picture" that did not happen to star Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, it offers an engaging story, characters of substance and - except for a convenient and contrived ending - an honest portrayal of people caught in a web of circumstances and emotions they cannot control.

In 'The Red House' (1947) - starring Edward G. Robinson and Lon McCallister - an old man and his sister are concealing a terrible secret from their adopted teen daughter, concerning a hidden abandon farmhouse, located deep in the woods. A strange tale, 'The Red House' benefits from one of Robinson's most flavorful performances, as a man harboring a dark secret past which returns to haunt him. Ably supporting Robinson is the strong Judith Anderson as the sister, the fine Lon McCallister as a callow but earnest youth, and the striking Rory Calhoun in one of his most impressive roles. Directed in a somewhat standard fashion by Delmer Davis, interest is maintained by uniformly strong performances, and an extensive, full orchestral score by Miklos Rozsa. As in countless other films, Rozsa, inspired by Ravel (and the generic Debussy) weaves a wall-to-wall tapestry of psychological tension, further raising this enactment above its ordinary production design.

Finally, we get 'Strange Love of Matha Ivers' (1946) - starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin - and tells the story of a ruthless, domineering woman who is married to an alcoholic D.A., her childhood companion who is the only living witness to her murder of her rich aunt seventeen years earlier. Barbara Stanwyck is at her peak--sure, confident, and unfailing. Van Heflin's natural talent makes everything he does seem effortless. Kirk Douglas offers a most impressive film debut in what, in retrospect, is an uncharacteristic role. Lizabeth Scott (who seems to me a fascinating cross between Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Clooney) is constantly engaging. Long after her part has faded, Scott's image remains indelibly fixed in the memory. And finally, the great Judith Anderson is on in a strong character role. These are all Full Screen Presentations (1.37:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.

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