As in many American film noirs, the predominant theme of Warner Bros.‘s Film Noir Classic Collection No. 5 is the frequently represented idea of escaping the guilt that many war veterans and their loved ones presumably associated with their violent pasts. While a warped sense of duty dictates protagonists’ actions, the driving force behind most of these films is an inescapable fear of being trapped with no other option left save pulling a gun and using it. Cornered, from 1945, features a widowed war veteran (Dick Powell) out to avenge his wife, who died in a bombing perpetrated by an ex-Vichy terrorist. In 1947’s Desperate, a vet-turned-truck driver with a pregnant wife tries to live the postwar dream and make some quick extra-legal scratch, but only winds up hunted by both the police and a vindictive gangster (a young but already rather stout and jowly Raymond Burr) after a deal goes awry and he gets framed for murdering a policeman.
Backfire, from 1945, features one of the more thoughtful variations on the haunted-war-vet trope. Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) has just left an L.A. veteran’s hospital after recovering from an extensive series of surgeries in a vain attempt to discover what became of Steve Connolly (Edmond O’Brien), a war buddy now suspected of murder. The men originally had planned on pooling their money together and buying a ranch, but now they have to rely on their tried-and-true war-forged sense of camaraderie that’s mostly assumed and rarely shown. This leads Bob to ask for help from former commanding officer Ben Arno (Dane Clark), now fittingly the head of a funeral home. Eventually, the film shifts focus to the point where Ben is revealed to be in the grip of an unshakable psychosis that would fit right in with the asylum inmates of Fuller’s Shock Corridor, handily deflating both the concept of honor among men that have fought side by side with each other and the idea that these men could ever neatly really leave behind their emotional baggage.
The return of these psychologically ravaged men of war has created an inescapable rift in society that 1950’s Dial 1119, a tonally wonky, existentialist noir that centers around a hostage situation in the ironically named Oasis Bar. Before a Jimmy Olsen lookalike takes out a pistol, we learn from the Oasis Bar’s patrons just how close they all are to throwing in their respective towels. One’s an expectant father, two make up an adulterous spring-winter couple with plans to elope, one’s a barfly with a piercing laugh, and another is a burnt-out journalist. Their infrequent kvelling about whatever obligations they’re looking to escape lends the film an odd but welcome slapstick quality (“And don’t bring God into this,” says the older Don Juan to his young paramour. “He’s got bigger fish to fry!”)
While Dial 1119‘s conclusion only winds up confirming the idea that life is in fact worth living, the hostage-taker’s central dilemma is remarkable (spoiler alert): He’s become so deeply unsettled by the idea one can have a justification for murder if you are a soldier, that he creates an elaborate story about having gone to war, though in reality he was deemed unfit to serve. When confronted by his psychologist, who tells him point blank that he created this alternate personal history to give him an excuse to murder innocent civilians, the boy quickly silences that sole voice of reason. On top of that, until Dial 1119‘s happy ending, it seems likely that nobody, not even the police, can save the hostages from certain doom. They are eventually seated at the bar at gunpoint and forced to face their reflections in the mirror behind a wall of booze. They, too, have become infected, if only momentarily, with the panic that afflicts their psychotic would-be executioner. That haunting shot answers the central question of, “How far does a man have to go to prove that he’s right?” that lingers over Dial 1119 and so many other exceptional film noir.
The other highlight of the set is young Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery from 1950. Here, traditional notions of morality are only cursorily enforced, leading audience members to root for the bad guy. The passionate cynicism that pervades the violence in Fleischer’s more mature works, like 10 Rilington Place and Soylent Green, is what makes this story of a mastermind robber and the police search to catch him so eminently brutal.
While Armored Car Robbery‘s plot gives equal time to both the cops and the robbers they’re chasing, it’s clear that the film’s real sympathies lie with the calculating crook Dave Purvis (William Talman). Purvis is more charismatic and certainly smarter than the cops, constantly able to change his plans at a moment’s notice, including dispatching a wounded collaborator that’s been gut-shot and is begging for an ambulance. Attempts to make the police more human by introducing a revenge subplot and having beat officers drool over burlesque dancers fail to make the long of the arm endearing. Then again, they’re not trying very hard considering how much more attention they lavish on Purvis. Even his inevitable death is spectacular: He runs head-on into an oncoming private jet as it touches down on a runway, as if he couldn’t hear, see, or feel the plane’s impending descent. Sometimes, the boogeyman really is better off without emotional baggage.
Warner Bros.'s presentation doesn't want for anything. There are almost no distracting audio hisses or pops on the soundtrack nor any scratches or bad wear on the archival prints that were used. But there's also no noticeable sign that anything has been done to restore the prints beyond their current level of quality. Still, the prints look rather good for 60-year-old films that rarely get screened.
There are two trailers in this four-disc set. And nothing else.
There are no real clunkers in the set, but not surprisingly, there are more than a few middling films sandwiched between a couple of genuinely striking stories of postwar paranoia.