OUT OF THE PAST
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE
MURDER, MY SWEET
(WARNER HOME VIDEO)
One of the most constant complaints we get from visitors to our DVD CLASSICS CORNER site is the sometimes strange and inappropriate choices that various and sundry home video outfits make when it comes to releasing "Golden Age Classics" on dvd. To some it seems as if many of the least worthwhile films of that era sometimes "escape" into the marketplace for no rhyme or reason, while countless bona-fide gems seemingly remain locked away indefinitely. Warner Home Video's release of five classic film noirs proves once and for all (as if, at this late date, anyone needed proof!) that that the Warner folk responsible for making the choices as to what gets released are as passionate and, more important, knowledgeable about the film classics as you and I. For the incredible fact is these canny celluloid mavens have, in one fell swoop, released four acknowledged noir masterpieces as well as one fantastic much discussed "lost" film which easily qualifies as one of the quintessential pinnacles of the genre.
OUT OF THE PAST is, to my mind, the greatest noir ever made! So much has been written about this particular film that it's difficult to know where to begin. What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before, and far more eloquently. Suffice to say that watching Robert Mitchum (Bosley Crowther in his original New York Times review dismissed Mitchum as "Bing Crosby on barbituates") get entangled deeper and deeper into a web of doom spun by Jane Greer is an uncommonly mesmerizing and seductive pastime . The great performances, direction by Jacques Tourneur, photography by Nicholas Musuraca, and score by Roy Webb all contribute to a cinematic experience unlike any other, the enjoyment of which seems to increase every time I'm fortunate enough to see it.
The old laser-disc's problems of murky image and low level sound have been substantially corrected in this very good, if not completely damage-free, full screen black and white transfer, which without question restores this monumental film to the best shape it's been in since its original release. (I can save a lot of space by telling you here and now that the transfers of all the other noirs in this review, all of which are full screen black and white, are even better --- in fact, virtually flawless, a fact that is down-right miraculous in the case of the little-seen GUN CRAZY!)
After OUT OF THE PAST my second favorite noir is John Huston's bold and groundbreaking THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, a tale of the planning, implementation, and gradual unraveling of a major jewel heist that is so breathlessly original in every conceivable way that it fostered countless similarly themed "heist" pictures such as Jules Dassin's RIFIFI and Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING. But make no mistake about it: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is the one, the only, the original. There is simply no way anyone will ever top the career-defining performances of Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen , James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Marc Lawrence, and Anthony Caruso. (The Great Caruso told me this was his favorite film.) In every way, shape and form, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is the equal to Huston's earlier THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, a similarly themed film about a bunch of losers who let a fortune slip through their fingers. No greater praise can be given.
Hard to believe, but my third favorite film noir of all time is MURDER, MY SWEET, which more closely captures the uniquely witty and colorful spirit of Raymond Chandler's great novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY than any other version. While John Paxton's screenplay is tight and assured, Edward Dmytryk's direction sharp and direct, the supporting cast top-notch, and Roy Webb's score stings with darkly ominous suggestion, MURDER, MY SWEET is the only film reviewed here that can justly be called a one-man show. That man is, of course, Dick Powell, whose performance as tough as nails private detective Philip Marlowe is so sardonically sublime that he was able to put his 30's crooning days forever behind him. So perfectly did he embody the hard-boiled Marlowe that author Chandler, no less, called Powell his favorite Marlowe. Not bad, when you consider that among the many others that subsequently played Marlowe were two guys named Bogart and Mitchum.
The biggest discovery among all the noirs reviewed here is GUN CRAZY, an independent film that made absolutely no impact of any kind upon its original release, but through the years, though little seen, has somehow acquired a mythic reputation among noir fans. And no wonder! Here we have a case where, despite a better than competent cast and an uncommonly insightful and blunt screenplay by Mackinlay Kantor and Millard Kaufman, the main credit has to go to the director Joseph H. Lewis, who imbues this Bonnie-and-Clyde-type tale with such galvanizing inventiveness and energy that this doom-laden tale actually becomes an energizing experience that borders on the joyful. (Lewis' other noir masterpiece THE BIG COMBO is an infinitely darker and bleaker film - but no less great because of it.) And Warner's transfer, in its virtual perfection, makes one wonder how they were able to find such great elements for such a comparatively obscure independent film.
While THE SET-UP has all the prime ingredients that great noirs have (uncommonly taut direction by the increasingly stuffy and commercial Robert Wise, stark black and white photography by Milton Krasner so effective that it transforms entirely studio-bound sets into gritty in-your-face reality, a screenplay (in real time) by Art Cohn that so unrelentingly conveys the squalor and ugliness of a third-rate prizefighter's existence that every frame of this compact 72 minute feature virtually stings the viewer, and a cast headed by noir icon Robert Ryan at his very best) I'm not sure I would, because of its subject matter, classify THE SET-UP as a legitimately noir film. What it unquestionably is, however, is one of the three greatest anti-boxing profession films ever made, the other two being Mark Robson's double dynamite duo of CHAMPION and THE HARDER THEY FALL. And THE SET-UP proves, once and for always, that Robert Ryan is one of the greatest and most truthful actors in film history. What he achieves in THE SET-UP is a performance so bereft of actor's self-awareness and vanity and of such unblinkingly candid and raw power, subtlety, integrity and genuine grit that it makes one acutely aware of how ill-used this uncommonly fine actor was in most of his subsequent films. Ryan is a towering figure in that small, select pantheon of truly brilliant actors, and THE SET-UP, noir or not, is a blistering testimony to the enormity of this man's talent.