Blu-ray Review - Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, January 28th, 2021  

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Jan 07, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Film noir is a term which can set film historians and critics’ mouths to frothing over whether the label is simply a retroactive title given to post-World War II United States thrillers in the 1940s, or a legitimate subgenre. Regardless where someone may land on that debate, the appreciation for these kinds of films have only increased in recent years as distribution platforms make them readily more available. One of the best recent efforts devoted to getting more of these niche films seen by wider audiences has been undertaken by Kino Lorber and their Dark Side of Cinema series. Now in its fourth edition, it shows no sign of letting up on delivering cinematic gut-punches from the 40s and 50s; this time involving John Farrow’s Calcutta, Michael Gordon’s An Act of Murder, and Joseph Pevney’s Six Bridges to Cross.

Calcutta is a 1946 Paramount feature centered around three American pilots who arrive in India. The pilots Neale (Alan Ladd) and Pedro (William Bendix) discover their friend and co-pilot Bill (John Whitney) has been strangled. While Neale follows clues as to who killed Bill and why, he gets further involved with Bill’s fiancee Virginia (Gail Russell), as she also actively seeks to uncover the mystery of Bill’s murder. Following a shady importer (Paul Singh) and a jewellery merchant (Edith King), Neale and Virginia reveal an international smugglers plot which puts them all in severe danger.

Calcutta was made in mid-1945, though remained unreleased until 1947. When it finally debuted, it was to a modest box office and a mixed critical response. When it was eventually sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, it became a moderate favorite amongst noir fans. While I am an absolute fan of the stellar poster work which plasters the case, the film does little to stand out from the rest of the pack.

The production design of the titular setting, constructed on obvious Hollywood backlots, is thoroughly impressive, especially considering the scope of the movie. The cast of fantastic character actors do a solid enough job (notably Bendix and Russell). But, while I do especially love Edith King’s performance, her role feels wholly modeled after Sydney Greenstreet’s turn in The Maltese Falcon. While this isn’t a major flaw, it brings to light the fact that Calcutta constantly impresses as a hodgepodge of borrowed characters and design choices from other noir. Consequently, compounded by its lackluster musical score, it struggles to maintain an identity of its own.

An Act of Murder is a 1948 Universal film which truely stretched the idea of what a film noir could encompass, centered on a judge and his family. Calvin (Frederic March) serves the bench in a small Pennsylvania town, resolute in his conservative ethics, which includes stern ideas on the immorality of murder. But the status quo changes when his wife Cathy (Florence Eldridge) falls victim to a fatal and painful disease. Calvin struggles with the decision to end Cathy’s life, and when he finally follows through with his plan, he turns himself into the police. The following trial is to determine whether or not he is guilty of murder or mercy killing, though he is making little effort to defend himself, being racked with guilt.

This is certainly the most unique feature of the three present in this volume, with its story structure, themes, and direction somehow exalting the typical tropes of noir, while simultaneously subverting them. The film is a struggle of conscience. It debates hot-button issues such as mercy killing, suicide, and how life is defined by circumstance rather than absolutism. While this film is largely remembered as being the first instance where the iconic “Courthouse Square” set was used, which would be reused in countless other theatrical and television projects (most famously as the ‘50s set in Back to the Future), it deserves considerably more recognition for its singular brand of storytelling. It also helps that both March and Eldridge are fantastic, and even though Edmond O'Brien’s role as the lawyer David Douglas is sadly underbaked and under-utilized, his performance is still strong enough that I (surprisingly) can forgive the lack of characterization and screen time.

Six Bridges to Cross is a 1955 Universal motion picture, almost a decade removed from its fellows in this release, and based upon the infamous 1950 armed robbery of the Brink's Building in Boston, Massachusetts. While initially structured as a coming-of-age story of the boy Jerry Florea (Sal Mineo), he soon grows into a well-loved petty thief and gang leader (Tony Curtis). Though he tries to convince his de facto guardian, the policeman Edward Gallagher (George Nader), that he’s done with crime, he soon starts planning a heist at the Brink’s security company, where he recently secured a job.

This is a weird and wild mixed bag. While its opening theme song, sung by Sammy Davis Jr, has this wonderful proto-James Bond flair about it, it also feels fairly out of place comparatively to the tone of the rest of the work. The plot is easily understood, but also you can see each twist some twenty miles before it occurs, following every typical noir cliche without saying all that much. Even as Curtis and Mineo are suave and delightfully cheeky in the lead role, the rest of the cast feels so ultimately by-the-numbers, that it’s a mild struggle to recall anything specific that they actually accomplished. Though the film is entertaining, it lacks staying power with the audience, which is a real shame. More to the point, Stanley Kubrick would come out the following year with The Killing, another heist film which is infinitely more successful at handling its noir tropes, along with similar themes of greed and comeuppance, and the resolution that crime doesn’t pay.

Kino Lorber is not usually known for their robust home releases, and this issue shows no signs of deviating from this norm. While I may be rather mixed about the productions present in this volume of The Dark Side of Cinema, the audio commentaries by the fantastic film historian Samm Deighan, and noteworthy film critic Nick Pinkerton, impress as master’s level film analysis courses. Their information flows like a tidal surge, and yet it can come off dry as a desert for those who do not prefer this more clinical approach to film history. While these tracks are wonderfully dense and detailed, besides a 1955 television promo with Curtis, a few extra trailers, and some optional English subtitles, that’s where the supplemental features end. Though that will certainly not be a large deterrent to hardcore devotees of noir, the Blu-ray collection’s asking price may be a bit of a stumbling block to the more fiscally-constrained of fans.

(www.kinolorber.com/product/film-noir-the-dark-side-of-cinema-iv-calcutta-an-act-of-murder-six-bridges-to-cross-blu-ray)




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