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on 12 December 2007
Playing fast and loose with term "noir" this Warners boxset,while not a patch on Vols 1 & 2,is still pretty good entertainment.
It comprises
Border Incident(1949)Uncompromising drama from noir expert Anthony Mann has Ricardo Montalban starring as an undercover Fed determined to crack mexican border smuggling ring.Beautiful night time shooting on rugged landscapes, film packs a punch with it's mix of social realism and the dangers for the undercover officers.
His Kind Of Woman(1951)The pick of the bunch.Overlong and more melodrama than noir,John Farrow's picture benefits from excellent casting and wonderful dialogue.
Robert Mitchum plays Dan Milner,a down on his luck gambler,who accepts $50,000 to go to Mexico where he meets amongst others luscious chancer Jane Russell and ham actor Vincent Price.He also finds out that he is to be bumped off with exiled mobster Raymond Burr returning to the U S as the new Milner.Mitchum and Russell are great together,Price is a hoot as the actor(Mitchum;"Don't worry,You'll get a first rate funeral in Hollywood,at Grauman's Chinese Theatre".Price"I've had one thanks.I died there already") and the always reliable Charles McGraw scores as a heavy.
Lady in the Lake(1946)Disappointing gimmick noir from star/director Robert Montgomery.In this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel,Montgomery plays Marlowe in the first person which means to say that we only ever see everyone else from his point of view and him only ever in a mirror.Story complications hold the attention but Montgomery is no Bogart and only Lloyd Nolan scores as a tighly wound hoodlum.
On Dangerous Ground (1952)Nicholas Ray's picture benefits from a typically muscular performance from Robert Ryan who will stop at nothing to apprehend slow witted killer even if it means playing on the nerves of the killer's blind sister(Ida Lupino)to get him. Ryan is as "cold" as the frozen terrain he is hunting on and Ray captures Ryan's self loathing beautifully.Haunting score by Bernard Herrmann.
The Racket(1951)John Cromwell's police procedural pits psychopathic gangster Nick Scanlan(Robert Ryan)against childhood friend(and the only honest cop around)Captain McQueeg(Robert Mitchum)Striking portrayal of political and police corruption acts as the backdrop for the inevitable showdown between the two.William Talman is excellent as patrolman who decides to follow McQueeg's lead.

Nice transfers and you get a extra disc with assorted documentaries from the usual talking heads on noir.
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Border Incident starts off in the typical `Your Government Working For You' fashion that makes so many noirs start at a crawl before finally getting into the story. The dialogue feels like it hasn't just been approved by every law enforcement body in America and Mexico but written by them as well. At first it looks like Anthony Mann's style will never surface through the MGM production line sheen, but having got the advertorial exposition out of the way he seems to gradually wrest control away from the suits the further away he gets from them on location until it's definitely a Mannly film, and one that offers a direct point of transition between his noirs and his dark psychological westerns. By the time its ill-starred characters have moved from a secure world of visual order and perfectly composed balance and traversed a hostile landscape as desolate as the people-smugglers' morality to end up in one of Mann's beloved mountain/canyon shootouts, there's no doubt who is calling the shots.

Mann's trademark violence is also very much in evidence, with the film offering one truly strikingly unpleasant death for 1949 - when shooting and being brutally rifle-butted in the head doesn't finish off the victim, something even more searingly violent does the trick: dust to dust indeed. But that's very much in keeping with the characters' brutally disinterested attitude to death. People aren't just killed, they're literally swallowed by a callous and impersonal land that leaves no trace of their ever having existed. Once there's no more profit to be made from the illegals or their own cohorts, they simply disappear forever. Mann had no equal in using the landscape to define character, but here the landscape itself is not just a character but an accomplice.

A big part of the credit belongs to cinematographer John Alton, who Mann apparently insisted on taking with him when he moved from Eagle-Lion to a contract with Leo. His deep blacks, his great sense of changing perspective (an important visual motif in all of Mann's films), his intelligent use of long lenses to expand the moral and physical distance between protagonists, and one remarkable night sequence where a truck leaves an almost luminous trail of dust in its wake help elevate what could have just been a production-line procedural into something much more primal and substantial. It's not just a matter of making striking images - the director and cinematographer's complimentary visual imaginations don't simply serve the story but also establish these characters' place in the world and their shifting relationships as power and loyalty become increasingly fluid commodities.

Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy may seem unlikely leads, but they work better than expected, and there's a great cast of character players to back them up - Alfonso Bedoya, Arnold Ross (so memorable in Mann's Reign of Terror), Charles MacGraw, Arthur Hunnicutt and the great Sig Rumann. Quietly towering over them all is Howard Da Silva's confident and almost casual ringleader, a man who finds that control is illusory. Despite having the best (but still unshowy) dialogue, the temptations to become a stereotype are avoided in favor of a much more interesting and rounded creation - he doesn't need to act menacing because he has people to do that for him.

Like most of Mann's noirs (with the exception of the period thriller Reign of Terror), it's not one of the great Mann films - but it ends up a damn good one. I kinda liked it...

On Dangerous Ground is a flawed favorite, boasting an exceptional performance from Robert Ryan as a man as much attracted as repulsed by his own capacity for violence - the look on his face before beating a suspect into the hospital, the almost sexual glee tinged with disgust as he repeats "Why do you make me do it?" to justify his own imminent enjoyment to himself give him a disturbingly raw emotional violence that's far more worrying than anything his fists can do. Even Ward Bond's distraught and vengeful father of a murder victim is disturbed by the joy of the hunt he finds in that face. Nicholas Ray's camerawork is similarly on the brink of falling to pieces in the opening city section, eavesdropping in and out of windows and windscreens before erupting into a brutal alley chase shot with a bold use of handheld camera that's still seems shockingly vital for a 50s studio picture. They're both matched blow for blow by Bernard Herrmann's strikingly violent score, with a main title like a sword slashing through flesh and striking bone but with passages beautifully underlining the loneliness and sadness behind the savagery. Mad With Much Heart indeed.

Even the prolonged section with Ida Lupino's blind woman and the possibility of another, more compassionate way of life avoids mawkishness, not least because pity is neither sought nor given. Only the miraculous ending doesn't work. Whether this is due to the 10 minutes of studio-imposed cuts and the re-editing and restructuring the film went through during more than a year on the shelf or whether it was always a problem we'll probably never know (it would have been nice to have included the script as an extra, especially since Glenn Erickson's scripted audio commentary is often awkwardly delivered and often lacks the substance of others in the Film Noir boxed set). There is definitely the feeling that the whole third act of the movie has gone, making Ryan's decision seem almost arbitrary and not allowing us to see if he really has changed back on his home ground. Indeed, it probably would have been better to have ended the film a minute earlier with the almost purgative drive back to the city. But so much of what has gone before is so remarkable that it's a failure you can forgive.

I'd never been able to get past the first couple of reels of The Racket on TV and it certainly looked like being the makeweight of this collection, but once you get past the lunking Howard Hughes-imposed Nicholas Ray-directed prologue it turns into a surprisingly engaging and gripping crime drama. Structurally it's certainly unusual, probably as a result of Hughes' typical interference - it's more than 17 minutes before Mitchum makes his entrance, and there are some sporadically awkward crosscuts to inserts shot by Ray and others after John Cromwell (who co-starred in the play the film was based on in the 1920s) had left. Robert Ryan is surprisingly not quite there for once: not exactly bad, but somewhere between phoning it in and, in his early scenes at least, possibly drunk on set - his timing is slightly askew, his usual excellent instincts abandoned along with his sense of proportion in moments that are just a little over the top. But there's so much to admire that even the unlikely escalation of the feud between the two protagonists is carried along. There's a fine shootout in a garage, a neat car chase that sees the cops plough through a billboard for a mob-backed political candidate and a terrific death scene at the end. The supporting cast are intriguing too, with William Conrad's cop and Ray Collins' DA both corrupt but not so entirely that they're lost causes: they exist in a gray area that throws the leads into sharper relief. Eddie Mueller's audio commentary is quite excellent and well worth listening to.

His Kind of Woman should be a mess, but somehow it emerges as a highly enjoyable insane asylum of a movie as much thanks to as in spite of the constant interference by Howard Hughes: credited to John Farrow, Richard Fleischer spent months shooting and reshooting the yacht finale at the mogul's whims in a desperate attempt to get out of his own studio contract. Even Raymond Burr's villain is a case of third time lucky after Howard Petrie and Robert J. Wilke played the part without meriting Hughes' approval. Snappy dialogue ("You're the guy who shot (him). How did it feel?" "He didn't say."), unlucky gamblers, fortune-hunting gals, randy Wall Street types (played by no less than Mr Magoo himself, Jim Backus), Nazi plastic surgeons, Italian mobsters, Robert Mitchum betting his shoe and ironing his money, and a very wonderful hotel set courtesy of Albert D'Agostino - this has everything Hughes' money could buy. Mitch and Jane Russell have real chemistry, and she comes over as far more genuinely likeable than in many of her contemporary roles: for all the chaos, you get the sense that they're actually having fun (certainly she looks genuinely happy when she sings in her opening scene). But the show belongs to Vincent Price's ham actor, who doesn't fear death - he's too well-known to die - loves guns, never shuns the spotlight - even if it is wielded by gun-toting mobsters - but isn't too wild about his wife. He should destroy the movie if you're still expecting the bleak noir it began as, but by the time he appears you know that this is a log ride that drifts with the prevailing current and his outrageous hamming somehow compliments the sadism and prolonged action of the extended finale perfectly. A shame that the DVD has a noticeable scratch during the yacht sequences

Lady in the Lake is a lot more fun than a gimmick movie should be. Perhaps that's because the script is good enough not to need the gimmick, which is just as well because Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter are far too arch for their roles to really convince. The gimmick, of course, is that aside from the bookends and sporadic interruptions to fill in details, the film is shot almost entirely from Phillip Marlowe's point of view: we see what he sees, and the lens gets punched when he gets punched. Doubling as director, Montgomery has fun with the technique, allowing the camera's `attention' to get sidetracked by a passing secretary or getting knocked out by a suspect, although he is completely stumped as to how to show a phone call, leading to the film's worst shot (a dull shot of a door with a receiver in the foreground). You tend to forget you're watching the gimmick, and in some scenes, such as Marlowe crawling away from a car wreck to a phone booth, it works incredibly well. There are some problems with the plotting, though: there's a huge clue to the central mystery in the cast list (two, in fact), and it's a shame that the entire lake section of the story is simply relayed in straight-to-camera dialogue (by far the most awkward part of Montgomery's performance). Jayne Meadows' performance also veers the film to the purely comic, but Lloyd Nolan is a convincingly unpleasant flatfoot and there's one great one-sided Christmas Eve phone conversation in the police chief's office.
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on 27 October 2008
I bought vol.4 of this series first. That contains 10 excellent films on 5 discs. Of course, I knew there were just 5 titles (plus a documentary on separate disc) on this set. However, I hoped the films would make up in quality what they lacked in quantity (after all, they are similarly priced), but am left disappointed. BORDER INCIDENT & ON DANGEROUS GROUND were enjoyable, but HIS KIND OF WOMAN, LADY IN THE LAKE & THE RACKET I found rather boring (& ended up switching all three off).

But, there you are, you take a chance on these noir films. I love the genre, generally, but they can't all be to one's taste, I guess. Judging by previous reviews, others feel differently. However, in future, I think I'll rent first.
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