Universal Noir #1 – Blu-Ray Review

Indicator has now gone diving into the depths of the Universal archive for more tales of tough guys and hard dames after releasing five volumes from the Columbia archive. This compilation doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of the Columbia sets, where there was always at least one absolute classic. While there sadly isn’t one of those here, plenty of noir fun is still to be had. Burt Lancaster, Dan Duryea, Vincent Price, Edmond O’Brien, Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame all inhabit the dark streets that these films pay a visit to.

The Web is the first one up, and is one of the best films in the set. Edmond O’Brien’s Bob Regan is hired by Vincent Price to be his personal bodyguard because a former employee is allegedly out to get him. Edmond kills the employee, and starts to suspect that he may have been set up by Price, whose businessman, much like his character in Laura, has an ambiguous sexuality (as did the man himself.) Ella Raines plays Price’s sexy secretary, who Regan falls for. Raines is very good, but her finest role came a few years earlier in Phantom Lady.

The film was directed by Michael Gordon, who graduated from B-noirs to direct studio fare like the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy Pillow Talk and the José Ferrer version of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Larceny is next up, a pretty run-of-the-mill noir with John Payne as a conman who attempts to swindle a war widow out of her money for a non-existent memorial. Dan Duryea plays the mobster who Payne’s conman is subservient to. An incredibly young Shelley Winters is great as the tough-as-nails moll. The side characters are far more interesting and exciting to watch than Payne, who is too self-conscious in his first outing in a noir to shed his previous image from acting in musicals in favour of being a tough guy. Payne tried to play James Bond back in 1955, and even owned the option to the Moonraker novel for nine months before it lapsed, after studios didn’t agree with Payne’s “high opinion of James Bond as an action character that could sustain one movie, less an entire series”… Payne’s most notable noir is Kansas City Confidential, which he ended up owning 25% of.

Larceny‘s director George Sherman was a prolific director of mainly B-westerns and some lesser noirs, but none of his films have left any serious dent on film culture. His final film, the John Wayne vehicle Big Jake, is probably his best known.

Kiss the Blood off My Hands is one of those American noirs that’s actually set in the United Kingdom. Burt Lancaster plays Bill Sanders, a former prisoner of war who now lives in London. Sanders is obviously suffering from PTSD but of course that term isn’t used. He gets in a fights, kills a man, and hides out with the assistance of nurse Jane Walton (Joan Fontaine). Then he gets involved with a hoodlum who forces him into doing a robbery under threat of dobbing him in to the police.

Lancaster had just done The Killers, his breakthrough part, so this comes fairly early in his career. You’ve seen this plot a lot of times so it’s not the most original idea. Original director Robert Siodmak left partway through pre-production to do Cry of the City, so Norman Foster took over. Foster was an interesting character as a filmmaker who had worked with Orson Welles on the infamously unfinished It’s All True, which would have been Welles’ third film for RKO. Foster also made Journey Into Fear, which Welles may have shot some of—no one really knows what happened with that. That was a noir-ish spy thriller which was adapted from a book by Welles and Joseph Cotton. Foster is also one of the people who may have known where the uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons ended up—the print he was working on while with Foster in Brazil. Foster was an uneven director, with a bunch of Mr. Moto mysteries under his belt from the ‘30s as well as a side career as an actor. He did a few more studio films, but his best film is probably Woman on the Run, a great noir shot in San Francisco with Ann Sheridan.

Lancaster was doing Sorry, Wrong Number at around the same time as Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, so there were potential schedule conflicts putting pressure on production. In the same year he did Criss Cross with Siodmak as well. Lancaster was at his noir peak here, and definitely carries the movie.

Abandoned has an interesting premise: it’s a docu-drama noir like The Naked City that tries to be an expose about a current issue. This one is about a black-market baby ring that is uncovered when a woman tries to track down her missing sister. The police aren’t helpful, but she teams up with a cynical crime reporter played by Dennis O’Keefe. It’s fine, but not great. Gale Storm, who in real life was a hard-core alcoholic, plays the female lead. She had a brief singing career, but her film career ended by 1952. After that she had a long-running TV sit-com called The Gale Storm Show and was a lead in My Little Margie, although later she just did occasional TV appearances on shows like The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.

My least favourite in the set is Deported, a Robert Siodmak film but made at the tail end of his noir trajectory. It’s basically an unofficial biopic of Lucky Luciano. Mobster Vic (Jeff Chandler—the most un-Italian-looking guy ever) is deported back to Italy, where he woos a countess to try to get his money back and gets involved with the Italian black market. Chandler was not that interesting in the movie, so it’s not great.

Naked Alibi is the best of the lot—obviously because it’s got Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame. Chief of police Joseph Conroy (Hayden) tails Al Willis (Gene Barry), who was connected to a bunch of robberies including some where cops were killed, down to Tijuana. Hayden has just lost his job because of police brutality on Willis and he wants revenge on him. As it turns out, he’s right about Willis.Grahame plays a nightclub singer who gets involved with both men and plays them off against each other for her own ends—and of course it does not end well for her.

The plot isn’t the point, of course. Hayden and Grahame are always engaging to watch, and there’s some nice cinematography on show where the film was shot on location In Tijuana. Hayden turns in his usual awkward portrayal as a big tough dude. Director Jerry Hopper mainly worked in TV, but did direct a few other films.

The boxset includes commentaries on all the films from various critics and historians, appreciations of the stars and actors, wartime propaganda films from the ’40s, image galleries and trailers. The release is topped off with a 120-page book with new essays by Iris Veysey, Jill Blake, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Sabina Stent, Sergio Angelini and Walter Chaw, extensive archival articles and interviews, new writing on the various short films, and film credits. 


Ian Schultz

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