The world wasn't exactly desperate for yet another film noir DVD box set, but here we are, with an inspired seven-film retrospective, Film Noir Collector's Edition, out this week courtesy of Chicago-based Questar Entertainment, who are better known for PBS and nonfiction releases. No matter that five of these films were also released in a 2004 Questar box, Killer Classics, or that the scant bonus features are all boilerplate, or that each of these prints looks like it's been gathering mildew in a Universal broom closet for the last five decades; when more than a half-dozen minor masterpieces reenter the marketplace, however unceremoniously, these complaints seem trivial.
This dully named Collector's Edition is notable for containing two unsung films by noir masters Orson Welles and Fritz Lang (The Stranger and Scarlet Street, respectively), and the legendarily slapdash, under-seen masterpiece Detour, but these aren't the only pleasures on display. The film noir style's elasticity is seen in full effect: tense wrong-man chase sequences in D.O.A.; small-town grand guignol in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; treacherous femmes fatales in Scarlet Street and Killer Bait; and political paranoia in The Stranger and Suddenly, featuring Frank Sinatra as a would-be presidential assassin who takes a family hostage. Here are 720 minutes of chain smoking and bourbon guzzling, botched murders, and doomed romance, and if these films lack the kinetic cinematography and silky-smoky ambience of the most legendary noir, there are enough noteworthy actors—Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Edmund O'Brien, Sterling Hayden, Lizabeth Scott, Welles, Sinatra—and crackling scripts for this collection to be considered exemplary. An artistic movement's true value is perhaps best appreciated not in its greatest achievements, but in its more humble, formulaic successes, and these seven movies therefore testify to the aesthetic tenets and lasting impact of film noir.
Here is the sort of elevated pulp that inspired Godard's famous quip, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun," and like that quote, something about this approach to filmmaking never goes out of style. Surely it has to do with the ultimate simplicity of the narrative and thematic conventions, which require little more than petty criminals and an irremediably bleak treatment of their misdeeds. It's this Manichean bleakness that makes film noir so improbably relevant and approachable to contemporary audiences, despite the datedness of the films' technology and gender politics. For all the now-quaint slang, the total absence of minorities (other than as musicians or service workers), and the often cheap-looking scenery, the classic noir style hinges on a few blunt, time-insensitive assumptions: that men and women often bring out the worst in each other, that a single moment of reckless impulsiveness can shatter a person's life, and that our willing obsession with money amounts to a kind of pathetic, unavoidable Stockholm syndrome.
Of course, if it were only the films' once-fashionable existentialism that made noir great, the contemporary market wouldn't bear the countless box sets, or demand the overused prefix "neo-" to describe every new dark-hued serial-killer drama. What animates the classic noir movies of roughly 1944 to 1958 is their complex mixture of fatalist philosophy and artistic liberation; they paradoxically contend, "The world is rotten, but how exciting to make a movie about the rot!" It was the only plausible response to recent history, which at the time included both the Holocaust and the cinematic watershed of Citizen Kane. America was newly flush with cash, the means of filmmaking were suddenly available to a wider swath of people, and Welles had shown how to employ the methods of German expressionism in service of exuberant, American storytelling. The country's filmmakers were in thrall to dark German chiaroscuro just as the country at large was reeling from a more sinister kind of German darkness. No wonder something like Killer Bait is simultaneously so lurid and sexy. Its female protagonist's life is destroyed by her obsession with an unearned $60,000 bounty that literally falls in her lap; we don't need to get too psychoanalytical to appreciate how the era's filmmakers would be drawn to stories about poisonous inspirations.
Suddenly is the outlier here, the film with the least claim to being an archetypical noir. There's paranoia, political and otherwise, as well as a sense of mounting dread in this story of a WWII veteran and hitman, John Baron (Sinatra), who commandeers a family's house for use as a sniper stage when the president makes a surprise stop in the title town. The film also gestures, in its climactic moments, toward the same fatalism that animates the other films in the set. Our sympathies, however, lie with the upstanding town sheriff (Hayden), also trapped in the house, who tries to bring him down. Baron differs from the murderers in Detour, Martha Ivers, and The Stranger not because he's more sadistic or crazed, but because he seems so in control of his actions. Sinatra gives a commanding, and surely controversial for its time, performance, but it takes until the final moments of his plan for his eyes to convey that essential combination of regret, confusion, and terror that any proper noir protagonist expresses from the get-go. These men and women are aware, if only subconsciously, that the plots they hatch are doomed to fail, and the stories' tragedy stems from their obstinate determination when by all appearances they should (and often do) know better. Baron is a psychopath, but an altogether too clear-eyed one for this sensibility. When he fails, it's a surprise, and the result of bad luck as much as anything else (his flaws are his own, not our collective ones).
The box's other films more ably demonstrate that the saddest outcomes are the ones we're too weak or stubborn to avoid. Detour is a scuzzy, ham-handed bit of filthy pulp that, despite being padded with stock footage and needlessly lengthy monologues, barely lasts an hour. But what an hour it is. There's not a single character of any real depth or complexity, nor a single wise decision made by any one of them. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is as weak-willed as they come, a man who wallows in self-pity and thrives on abuse from whichever woman happens to be closest, and yet we see him, in a few extended early shots, reeling off Chopin without even looking at the piano. All the farcical tragedy that befalls him on a subsequent cursed road trip seems even more pathetic in this context; director Edward G. Ulmer shows us a man of almost freakish, instinctual artistic talent, and then pushes him off a cliff. We first meet him at the end of his story, when he's an unshaven alcoholic—noir-speak for a fate worse than death—and disgusted by the very sound of a jukebox in a bar. In this universe, weakness will always crush talent.
The Stranger, too, encapsulates this box set's strengths perfectly: It's a nominally politically-aware, dime-store story told with gusto and attitude and style, held together by incredible performances and some characteristic Wellesian formal flourishes. The film is largely built around single-take conversations in which the characters reveal as much through their body language and glances as they do through speech. The college town, where an at-large Nazi mastermind (Welles) hides in plain view as a history professor, is drawn like a gerbil maze, from the lord-like innkeeper who seems to see everyone's comings and goings, to the structurally improbable clock tower, worthy of Caligari, that hosts the climactic showdowns. Like Touch of Evil, it's a lurid story in rococo clothes; if it's slightly less inspired and politically conscious than the later masterpiece, everything about The Stranger is still perfect enough to make this the very definition of "forgotten classic." Ironically, if it weren't directed by Welles, this would probably be considered a masterpiece; only in the context of his career and ambitions does it seem in any way minor.
Scarlet Street starts almost wholesomely and retains that feeling for what, relative to the rest of these films, seems like forever. But once the protagonist Chris Cross (Edward G. Robertson) is fully duped by his manipulative extramarital girlfriend, his life spirals further and further out of control. The last 30 minutes are like a nervous-breakdown highlight reel, where Cross transitions from beleaguered, unloved husband to murderer, conspirator, alcoholic, and unsuccessful suicide. Fritz Lang, for whom this is a nearly light feature, clearly relishes these characters and their relationships, and the final reel smacks of hurried production. But on the whole this movie is a nearly plaintive, anxious melodrama, with only a few inspired uses of sound (numerous violent scenes are scored only by the sounds of passing trains) to hint at the personality behind the camera.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, above all, is a horrifyingly sad portrait of wasted lives. As an heiress whose fortune and marriage depend upon a violent secret, Barbara Stanwyck is a touch too regal and dignified to convey her character's inner emptiness, but Kirk Douglas gives perhaps the most soulful performance in this whole box as her tortured alcoholic husband. Hiding behind his own clean local reputation and never far from a scotch bottle, Douglas's drooping mouth and horrified eyes reveal the depths of a man in his mid 30s who's only recently matured enough to see how ineffectual and spineless he's been for his whole life thus far.
The postwar progression of American fear is evident in the differences between The Stranger and D.O.A., which anticipates the nuclear-apocalyptic hysteria of Robert Aldrich's later Kiss Me Deadly. Accordingly, the tone is closer to paranoid fantasy than gritty realism. Essentially a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller with a more immediate, clear threat to the hero (O'Brien), D.O.A. differs from most noir because of the seeming randomness of hero's misfortunes. The sins and missteps of Scarlet Street, Martha Ivers, and The Stranger are the result of past transgressions burbling violently into the present. Their protagonists are punished for attempting to outrun their own bad choices, whereas D.O.A. offers something more frightening, more like death from above.
O'Brien's Frank Bigelow is poisoned at a bar, given mere days to live, and he spends the film trying to uncover who did him in. His connection to the murderers is tenuous, and his guilt scarcely incriminating. Unlike his equivalents in the other titles in this set, he might seem to be suffering unduly, but looked at from another angle, his plight is just a literalization of an age-old noir trope. The films, like their literary counterparts, remind us that there's something inherent in our natures that obstructs our perceived right to a normal life. Bigelow's danger may have originated externally, but he's still incapable of outrunning it. The film noir period traces the evolution of war from Great to Cold, and thus from clearly delineated villains to more insidious threats. And the movies, even the small sample here, reflect a growing realization that the scale of "crime" itself was evolving from localized instances of human frailty into a larger network of bad habits and untrustworthy instincts, to which no one is immune. Fedoras go out of fashion, but that fear seems only more prescient as the years pass.
Film Noir Collector's Edition hits stores on May 18 courtesy of Questar. To purchase click here.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.