Arrow has compiled this extraordinary set of four film noirs—although I would argue that they may be slightly stretching the classic label in the case of the one or two of the films. Still, they are all of varying degrees of good to noir mastery. The collection is led by one of the perfect noirs of all time, The Big Combo, which contains some of the most iconic imagery of noir cinema. The other three films are Force of Evil (which features one of John Garfield’s best roles) and two solid but somewhat lesser films, The Dark Mirror and Second Beyond the Door, from noir masters Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang respectively.
The Big Combo is a masterclass in noir, directed by Joseph Lewis (the normal middle initial H. is missing from his name in the opening credits, probably due to budget constraints!) Lewis’s reputation has had a massive revival, spurred on by this film but also by his deranged lovers-on-the-run classic Gun Crazy. The Big Combo almost plays like a greatest hits of everything we love about noir. The almost dreamlike photography by John Alton elevates the film’s fairly routine story of a cop trying to take down a mob boss. Lewis and Alton, by the way, were able to composite the scenes to hide the film’s budgetary shortcomings.
Noir icon Richard Conte plays the mob boss Mr. Brown (QT took notes?) who is at his mean and nasty best, and the cop’s girlfriend is the only thing she could possibly be: a burlesque dancer! It came out in 1955, the same year as Kiss Me Deadly, and like that noir classic it’s a deeply sadistic film with a much-celebrated torture scene that involves a hearing aid… Lee Van Cleef plays a homosexual heavy, there is a subtle scene where he and another man are sleeping in separate beds but in the same room, but of course it wasn’t till the ’60s that married couples were even seen sleeping in the same bed in post-Hays Hollywood films. Lewis even has a subtle reference to oral sex between Conte’s mobster and his girlfriend, the suicidal Susan, who is played by Jean Wallace. It’s a stone-cold noir masterclass, and gives Lewis’s Gun Crazy a run for its money as his best film.
Next up is The Dark Mirror, which is easily the weakest film of the set even though it’s directed by noir heavyweight Robert Siodmak. It’s a fairly routine noir: a woman is guilty of murder but there’s a catch… she has a twin. The detective can’t figure out which one did it, since one has a cast-iron alibi. A psychologist gets involved with one of the girls—or is it the other one? It’s a fun Freudian romp, but when compared Siodmak’s other noir films, like The Killers and Cry of the City, it seems fairly lightweight. However, it’s full of twists and turns as you would expect, and overall a fun watch.
Force of Evil is a long-time favourite of Martin Scorsese’s (he supplies a short introduction on the disc) because, along with On The Waterfront, it was one of the first films he ever saw that depicted the reality he saw outside his front door. John Garfield plays a scumbag lawyer working for a powerful New York gangster who wants to destroy his competition. It’s a strong condemnation of capitalist greed, and is directed by Abraham Polonsky, who refused to testify during the HUAC witch trials. Polonsky was instantly blacklisted, but still wrote scripts under other names, most notably the excellent Odds Against Tomorrow. Garfield was a predecessor to the method actors of the next decade, but his career was cut short by illness and the blacklist. His wife was a commie, but in an attempt to save his career he even wrote an essay condemning communism. Still, he refused to name names, so his career went into the toilet. He died at 42 from a heart attack, which is long believed to have been a result of the stress created by his blacklisting.
The set’s final film is Secret Beyond the Door, which is the Fritz Lang film of the set. Lang was of course one of noir’s greatest directors, mainly due to the fact a lot of the visual and story techniques were things he had pioneered in his German expressionist films of the ’20s and the early ’30s. It’s inspired by the Bluebeard fairytale, but updated into a creepy melodrama about a woman who marries an architect, but soon starts wondering about the permanently locked door in their house, which he designed. There is a creepy disfigured secretary, and his new wife doesn’t find out about a previous wife who died under mysterious circumstances until after they married, so she starts wondering about him, and thinking that perhaps he killed her predecessor… It’s as beautifully shot as you would expect from Lang, put together like a horror film and with opening credits that look like they stepped out of a surrealist painting. It’s not as well constructed as most of Lang’s other noirs, but there are lots to admire and I’m sure it will improve on subsequent viewings.
Arrow has compiled a package that makes you feel like you have pulled off a heist: it’s that rich with fantastic extras. Each film has a commentary track, and TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Mueller does it for The Big Combo. There are interviews with various film critics and writers for each film, visual essays, radio plays, trailers for all the films included and in some cases for other films by the same directors as well. The screenplay for The Big Combo is a Blu-Ray extra, and to top it all off there is a massive hardback booklet with new and reprinted essays, reviews and interviews related to the films in the set.