In Jacobellis vs. Ohio (1964), a U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the First Amendment (an Ohio movie theatre banned the 1958 Louis Malle film Les Amants because they believed it to be “obscene”), Justice Potter Stewart made a famous observation about obscenity that has become a colloquial expression today. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” Potter wrote in his concurring opinion, “and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
I think about “I know it when I see it” whenever the topic of film noir is discussed among classic movie mavens. Noir is often tabbed as a film genre but it’s really a film style—and everybody practices the religion of noir to varying degrees. For example: there are those who argue that a Technicolor presentation like Leave Her to Heaven (1945) doesn’t qualify because it’s not in monochrome nor does it feature chiaroscuro lighting or rain-swept streets or any of the other familiar trappings. To me, film noir is not just a “look,” it’s also a state of mind, in that movies where the subject deals with post-war disillusionment or the corruption of “the American dream” are every bit as “noir” to me even if the male protagonist isn’t outfitted with a gat and trenchcoat, about to be lured to his doom by a femme fatale.
I thought about the Potter observation while watching much of the content on Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954, a Blu-ray collection of nine classic films (some sources report it was released yesterday, others say April 23) as a collaborative effort between Mill Creek Entertainment and Kit Parker Films/The Sprocket Vault. (A huge doff of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear chapeau to Clint Weiler of MVD Entertainment for securing me the screener.) It’s not Kit Parker’s first rodeo in Dark City; they’re released a slew of “Forgotten Noir” DVDs in the past, many of which were reviewed at the old TDOY site. I think resurrecting these neglected cinematic gems is truly doing the Lord’s work (at the same time admitting some of these movies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be), while I’m cognizant that slapping the “noir” label onto a film only because it’s in black-and-white and focuses on crime in its plot is courting heresy among the noir faithful.
Let me give you an example from the Noir Archive Volume 1 set. 1952’s Assignment – Paris! doesn’t really meet my definition of “noir” even though it features direction from Robert Parrish (Cry Danger, The Mob) and performances from familiar noir actors in Dana Andrews (Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends), Audrey Totter (Lady in the Lake, The Set-Up), and George Sanders (The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Witness to Murder). Andrews is a top reporter in the Paris bureau of The New York Herald-Tribune, and he’s sent by editor Sanders to Budapest to replace the Herald-Tribune’s regular correspondent (Joe Forte). During his stint behind the Iron Curtain, Andrews gets information about an American recently tried and convicted as a spy (the info is that American is dead) and when he’s caught passing this news off to his newspaper in coded form, he’s scheduled to meet the same fate. Assignment – Paris! is one of those little surprises you become acquainted with from time to time when you watch classic movies (I was impressed with how engaging it is) but unless you’re prepared to give it a wide berth (I suppose you could argue that its pervasive Cold War paranoiac atmosphere is kind of noirish) you might be wondering how it made the cut for this collection.
The nine films in this collection aren’t strangers to home video; all of them were previously released to DVD as entries in Sony Screen Classics’ “Choice Collection” (their line of MOD titles). I was tempted to dismiss the set because of this…but I wasn’t prepared for the outstanding quality of the prints, and I can think of no better example than The Black Book (1949; a.k.a. Reign of Terror), director Anthony Mann’s offbeat take on the French Revolution. Book is another one of the questionable “noir” entries on this set despite the participation of Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and icons like Richard Basehart, Charles McGraw, and Arlene Dahl. But I was literally blown away by the pristine quality of Book’s print (some of them out there, like the one shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ or the Alpha Video release available at Oldies.com, have really been through the ringer) and I would recommend a purchase of the Volume 1 Blu-ray for this and this alone. (I’ve reviewed The Black Book previously here on the blog…and I’m telling you: a nice, sparkly print makes all the difference in your viewing enjoyment.)
I watched all of the movies on Noir Archive Volume 1 save for 711 Ocean Drive (1950)—I had planned to sit down with this one yesterday morning (when my father decided to take an unannounced nap) but since Mom expressed an interest in seeing it I held onto it for later that evening. I’ve already seen it (I wrote it up for ClassicFlix) but I was interested in revisiting it as I did the previously viewed Escape in the Fog (1945) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950—which is probably my favorite of the nine). Of the films that were new to me I was pretty taken with The Miami Story (1954; I own a copy of this on DVD—I just hadn’t watched it), a “ripped-from-the-headlines” offering starring Barry Sullivan as an ex-mobster who’s recruited to take down a syndicate kingpin (Luther Adler) in Miami. The opening narration (courtesy of William Woodson—This…is Your FBI!) gushes about how honest Miami cops and government officials banded together to take on the criminal element…so you know this is a fictional film, of course. But it’s one of those movies to be enjoyed once you’ve parked your brain in neutral, and Mom’s favorite actress (Beverly Garland) and one of my favorites (Adele Jergens) are in Miami, so I’d recommend it highly.
Address Unknown (1944) is style over substance; Oscar-winning production designer William Cameron Menzies (for Gone with the Wind) sits down in the director’s chair for this tale of an art dealer (Paul Lukas) who returns to his native Germany and succumbs to the seduction of Nazi propaganda. The visuals in Unknown are the show here (I particularly liked the scene where a censor [Charles Halton] arrives at a theatre to put the smackdown on a production) but unfortunately the story (a lot of heavy-handed moralizing) can’t keep up. I was amused at seeing Lukas in the lead role because he had previously copped an Academy Award for his turn in Watch on the Rhine (1943) where his character declares: “I fight against fascism.” (In Unknown…well, he doesn’t fight hard enough.) I think my longstanding animosity towards George Raft kept me from enjoying Johnny Allegro (1949); Raft is an ex-mobster-turned-florist enlisted to investigate George Macready’s shady activities and the climax of the film might remind you of the famous short story/film The Most Dangerous Game (they even telegraph it at the beginning by focusing on Macready’s bow-and-arrow fixation). I did like Will Geer’s Treasury agent in Allegro; the sharp badinage between him and Raft is worth the price of admission. (And Nina Foch is always welcome, in the last of she and Macready’s four films together.)
Nina Foch is also in the cast of The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), the final movie on Noir Archive Volume 1 (and another title that I had collecting dust in the TDOY archives and didn’t get around to watching because…well, too many dust-covered discs in the archives). Ames is an example of “psychology noir” (it was released the same year as similar features such as High Wall and Possessed), in which the protagonist (here played by Rosalind Russell) needs to be “cured” of the psychosomatic paralysis she’s suffering from as a result of her bitterness over the death of her husband in WW2. Crack reporter Melvyn Douglas is on hand to help (even though he’s got problems of his own to work through), and while I’m still on the fence about Janet Ames (I don’t really care for movies that resort to a lot of psychobabble as a rule) I thought Roz was sensational in the lead role…with the movie (directed by Columbia journeyman Henry Levin) sporting an interesting cast in Sid Caesar, Betsy Blair (her feature debut), Richard Benedict, Harry von Zell, Hugh Beaumont, and Frank Orth (running the local watering hole just like he does in the Dr. Kildare movies). The guy who propositions Roz in the opening scenes is Denver “Uncle Jesse” Pyle, and Ames was his feature film debut, too.
My Facebook amigo and man who wields the Flashlight of Doom In the Balcony (Cliff Weimer), reports that there are Noir Archive Volumes 2 and 3 on the way—there’s even a pre-order listing for Numero Dos at Amazon (among the movies featured are The Crooked Web , which I reviewed here). I say brava to Kit Parker and Mill Creek Entertainment for their sterling efforts at prospecting cinematic gold in these collections; they’ve really done this compendium up right.