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FILM NOIR: The Dark Side of Cinema III by Roy Frumkes

(KINO Lorber) A 3-Blu-ray Collection, featuring ABANDONED (Universal 1949), THE SLEEPING CITY (Universal 1950), and THE LADY GAMBLES (Universal 1949)

Blu-ray Review by Roy Frumkes

I hadn’t seen Collections # I or II, and I wondered if they were scraping the bottom with this latest trifecta.  But, happily, such was not the case.   All three of these hard-edged, gritty  noirs from the Universal B-feature library are full of surprises, avoid clichés left and right, are beautifully shot and art directed in the noir style, and feature uniformly strong performances.

Well maybe except for Gale Storm, whose kooky persona I loved in her 50’s TV comedy show – My Little Margie - so I started my viewing with ABANDONED (’49), in which she plays a country mouse looking for her sister in the big city and attracting all the wrong people, except for newspaper writer Dennis O’Keefe, who’s only half wrong, and then he gets emotionally involved in her plight and becomes the right person for her to embark on her adventure with.   The crime is black market babies. While Storm (who sings “Taps for the Japs” in 1942’s FOREIGN AGENT) is pleasant but lacking depth, the dominant thespian presence in the film, more and more as it unfolds, is the ever-villainous, threateningly-bulky Raymond Burr.  Before his TV successes with the long-running shows Perry Mason and Ironside he was every noir director’s favorite sleaze-bag.  (And if his noir and TV successes aren’t enough for you to place him in some cinema pantheon. then check out GODZILLA and REAR WINDOW.

Here in the terrific third act, Burr has pretty much supplanted O’Keefe and Storm as the focal point of the show, which is not really an inappropriate twist for a Noir.  And the third act impressively weaves together a great many threads, more even than I remembered existing in the narrative.  Director Joseph (THIS ISLAND EARTH) Newman runs a tight ship, keeping things moving not only in his blocking and designed transitions, but by making sure his cast has props to work with.  Peter (‘props’) Cushing would have gotten along splendidly with him.  Christopher Lee….maybe not…

THE SLEEPING CITY (1950) is my favorite of the collection. Richard Conte plays a detective with some medical training who is assigned to infiltrate the staff of the largest general hospital in the US in order to discover who killed one of the doctors.

Somehow, and remarkably if you think about it, the production wangled its way into Bellevue, which was the largest hospital in the country, and shooting inside the vast cathedral of healing (most recently used to store Covid-19 victims in a makeshift morgue) acts like a magnet, demanding viewers’ attention at all times and perhaps even more so today considering the ‘cinema time capsule’ effect.

It also played to the then-recent ‘police procedural noirs’ and the neo-realist films from Europe, which were thrilling audiences around the world at that time. As far as documentary-like noirs of the period, I prefer it to Jules Dassin’s much lauded NAKED CITY. As for the cast, I remember Coleen Gray from Kubrick’s THE KILLING playing Sterling Hayden’s wimpy squeeze. Having watched it numerous times, I came to believe that what I was seeing was the extent of her range.

Wrong.  She’s powerful and surprising in this, playing the kind of role she apparently wished she’d gotten more of.   (FYI - She’s also good in 1957’s respectable little ‘B’ THE VAMPIRE) And then there’s co-star Richard Taber, who plays the hospital’s opinionated and colorful elevator operator. Visually he conjures an image of Willem Defoe with acromegaly.  His performance is over the top, yet still convincing, and for whatever reason he only appeared in one other feature.

THE LADY GAMBLES (1949) Again, another surprise from the Vault of Universal ‘B’s.  Barbara Stanwyck plays a seemingly happily married woman who plunges into the addictive world of gambling, becoming more desperate and cringe-worthy with each sequence.  It begins with a shockingly brutal scene rivaling Sam Fuller’s opening to THE NAKED KISS , and if it weren’t for the disappointing wrap-up I’d have said I liked this as much as I liked Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND.  The prime co-star is Stephen McNally as the casino owner who lures her into her obsession, though not without voicing concerns about her fate, which she ignores.  His character is nicely nuanced.  As her husband, who is late to the ball, Robert Preston was never someone I warmed up to, so I leave it to you to decide if he deserves our sympathy or if he deserves what he gets.

Kino Lorber understands the value of supplements, and all of these releases, and most of their other releases, include feature-length commentaries by authorities in the field.  ABANDONED, for instance, is accompanied by a running commentary by film historian Samm Deighan.  There is a knack to doing a rewarding commentary, and Ms. Deighan has yet to master the form.   Her pacing is too slow, her bag of insights filled with redundancies.  I don’t want to be too critical – she does present ideas to mull over, such as the interpretation of Femme Fatales as a nightmare vision of the liberated woman. 

Sara Smith has speed and cadence under control in her interpretive delivery. Amusingly, after touting her own credentials as the right person for the assignment, at minute number four she gets the director’s name wrong. Hey, I’ve done a few of these – they’re tough.  She has clearly done her homework however (Conte, in his countless, thankless non-roles, once even played a dog barking off stage), and her appreciation of the form and of this particular film are laudable (She makes the valid and often overlooked observation that a film such as this, shot on location, we have the privilege of seeing what the times looked like.) 

And last, accompanying THE LADY GAMBLES, is Kat Ellinger, a familiar voice on the commentary circuit, and though I very much like the voice, I can’t place the accent (no one could pin down W.C.Fields’ accent either, and George Cukor believed that it wasn’t an accent he was born with, rather that he made it up.) She is fascinated with this female-centric noir, something of a rarity in the genre.  Which is interesting indeed, and whenever the narrative seems to be leading Ms. Stanwyck into melodrama, cinematographer Russell (TOUCH OF EVIL) Metty stamps NOIR on every frame, disallowing us the misstep of straying from the genre.


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