Four Noirs


Oh, sure, cram more noir film in my overstuffed queue.

Kansas City Confidential (MGM Film Noir)
“Kansas City Confidential (MGM Film Noir)” (Phil Karlson)

Critic’s Choice: New DVDs:
Digging into the murky depths of the United Artists film library, MGM Home Entertainment has come up with four significant films noirs, all independent productions released in the ’40s and ’50s.
...“Kansas City Confidential,” an imaginative little noir from 1952, exemplifies the bread-and-butter UA film of the ’50s. a meeting point for the up-and-coming and the down-and-out. It was directed by Phil Karlson, a gifted filmmaker who had recently graduated from the Poverty Row studio Monogram, and starred John Payne, a popular crooner of the ’40s who was working his way down from Technicolor musicals at 20th Century Fox.

The Woman in the Window (MGM Film Noir)
“The Woman in the Window (MGM Film Noir)”

“Kansas City” aside, this batch of releases functions as a midcareer retrospective of the always commanding work of Edward G. Robinson, who appears (with his old Warner Brothers stablemate George Raft) in Lewis Allen’s minor but enjoyable “Bullet for Joey” (1955). The other two Robinson films need less introduction: Fritz Lang’s “Woman in the Window” (1944) and “The Stranger” (1946), directed by Orson Welles. Again these are films that have circulated for years in substandard copies but are presented here in versions very close to the original materials. (Both were originally released through RKO, though the rights apparently went to UA after RKO closed down.) “The Woman in the Window” casts Robinson as a stuffy professor of psychology who becomes dangerously involved with a woman (Joan Bennett) whose portrait he has seen in the window of an art gallery. Though rife with Lang touches (like the clock faces that seem to stare down at the characters), this slow-moving, deliberately morose film is too diffuse to be truly effective, something Lang himself must have realized when he reconvened the same cast (including Dan Duryea, as the heavy in a straw hat), for a do-over in 1945: the masterly “Scarlet Street.”

Scarlet Street (Remastered Edition)
“Scarlet Street (Remastered Edition)” (Fritz Lang)

The Stranger (MGM Film Noir)
“The Stranger (MGM Film Noir)” (MGM (Video & DVD))

“The Stranger,” in a radiant new print, gains most in this collection. Long and, to me, unaccountably dismissed by Welles scholars for being too “commercial,” it may be Welles’s most explicitly political work, made at a time when his activism was at its height. Robinson is a soft-spoken agent of an international war crimes commission who comes to a small village in Connecticut in search of one of the architects of the Holocaust, the notorious Franz Kindler, and finds him (Welles, of course) teaching at a boys’ school under an assumed name and about to be married to the daughter (Loretta Young) of a Supreme Court justice. If “The Stranger” feels like the most conventional of Welles’s films, it may be because it is told in chronological order, without the flashbacks and competing narrators that give his work its cross-stitched density. But his distinctive storytelling technique remains intact, as he passes the point of view from character to character, offering a span of perspectives. He begins with Robinson’s investigator, shifts to the war criminal (made strangely sympathetic, like Norman Bates in “Psycho,” when we see him cleaning up neatly after a murder) and finally adopts the point of view of Ms. Young’s character, an angelic figure (named Mary) who refuses to believe in her husband’s guilt. Welles did not control the editing (a prologue, showing Kindler in South America, was chopped off) and his depth compositions are relatively restrained. But so is his taste for the bizarre and carnivalesque, making this his most naturalistic film. He seems surprisingly comfortable in this register, though he would never again return to it

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Only seen one of these: The Woman in the Window. Great stuff. Robinson as an uncharacteristic sympathetic softie turns out to have surprising range and charm.

I've seen The Stranger years ago, and liked it a lot. Looking forward to seeing a better print (Netflix still lists only the old, poor print).

Robinson's reputation is seemingly typecast as a tough-guy, but he's more than that. 100 movies as he famously says in the DVD extras of Soylent Green.

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This page contains a single entry by swanksalot published on July 10, 2007 10:13 PM.

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