Dark Film Mysteries (Film Chest Media Group, NR)

Dark Film Mysteries 75The directors were willing to take a chance on a crazy storyline or to shoot in real locations rather than on studio sets.

 

 

 

There are lots of ways to watch a movie today, from going out to the theatre to watching it streaming on your computer. Intermediate between those two experiences is that of watching a film on DVD, which offers the advantages that you don’t have to leave your home (or even, you know, put on pants) but you also are not dependent on the speed and reliability of your internet connection to deliver a satisfactory experience. A third advantage is that when you own DVDs, it primes you to watch certain movies over and over, so they become like old friends you can turn to on a whim, because they’re part of your personal library.

This preliminary meditation on formats for film viewing is relevant to the 11 films in the Film Chest collection Dark Film Mysteries, because all are in the public domain, and many or all are available from websites like archive.org or YouTube.com for streaming on your computer. Of course, when no one owns the copyright, no one may have an incentive to do any restoration on a film, and some of those “free” copies are in pretty rough shape. So there’s a fourth advantage to watching a film on DVD: in some cases, it has been restored so you can watch it without being distracted by the poor quality of the image and audio.

The state of the films included in the Dark Film Mysteries collection (some are film noir, some are not) varies from as good as it gets to what you might see on a free version. Not surprisingly, the name-brand studio films tend to look the best, probably because the negatives survived in better shape, while the Poverty Row films tend to look the worst. On the other hand, the extremely low-budget productions are often the most interesting, because the directors were willing to take a chance on a crazy storyline or to shoot in real locations rather than on studio sets.

I’ve always found it hard to get into Scarlet Street (1945, directed by Fritz Lang), because it just seems so overblown, with poor Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) victimized both by his shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) and by the scheming Kitty (Joan Bennett) and her thuggish boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea). Still, a lot of people like it, and the cinematography by Milton R. Krasner is excellent, as is the sound and image on this transfer.

Woman on the Run (1950, directed by Norman Foster) is essentially an Ann Sheridan vehicle, with great location shooting in San Francisco, a bang-up finale shot at an amusement park, and appearances by Dennis O’Keefe, John Qualen, and Victor Sen Yung. The story (about an artist witnessing a mob execution and going into hiding, and a marriage that’s on the rocks) is fairly preposterous, but this film is still fun to watch. The image is quite soft on this one, and often the contrast is often exaggerated to the point where there’s no detail in either the whites or the blacks.

Quicksand (1950, directed by Irvin Pichel), stars Mickey Rooney as an affable auto mechanic who, in best film noir style, falls for a beautiful blonde (Jeanne Cagney) who mans the cash register at his favorite diner. Goodbye, life on the straight and narrow: Mickey’s characters starts doing things like “borrowing” money from the cash register to take his lady friend out on the town, and as the title suggests, the more he struggles against his fate, the worse it gets. The image quality is OK, not great but watchable.

Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is a little masterpiece of efficient noir storytelling, shot on a miniscule budget and with nothing included in the film that is not required. Al (Tom Neal) is a musician hitchhiking west to join his girlfriend, but along the way has the misfortune to get a ride from a guy who up and dies on him, and then picks up a hitchhiker (Ann Savage) who is pure evil. Ulmer offers as bleak a view of life as you are likely to find in any film, and gets it all done in just over an hour. Although the sound is fine on the transfer, the image is quite soft and there are lots of pops and scratches as well.

If you have a taste for the bizarre, then Lew Landers’ Inner Sanctum (1948) should be just your cup of tea. The biggest name on screen is probably Fritz Leiber, who for no apparent reason plays a psychic (delivering prophesies while on a train, no less) in a framing device not necessary to the main story. In the latter, a man (Charles Russell) kills a woman and dumps her body, but is observed by a kid (Dale Belding) wearing the weirdest beanie ever seen on the silver screen. Of course, the killer ends up staying at a boarding house run by the kid’s mother, and even winds up sharing a room with him (!). Those were indeed more innocent times—we’ll just put this strange man in the same room as our pre-adolescent son, because what could possible go wrong? The image quality is reasonably sharp, but whites are frequently washed out.

Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (1952) is a caper film, in which Preston Foster assembles a crew to hold up an armored truck. There’s lots of violence and creepy masks involved. The hired hoods are played by Jack Elam (memorable as the eccentric in The Twilight Zone episode where everyone is trapped in the bus station during a snowstorm), Lee Van Cleef (the gay hoodlum Fante in The Big Combo), and Neville Brand (Al Capone on The Untouchables TV show). The image and sound are sharp and clear throughout—it’s one of the best preserved/restored films in the collection.

The Stranger (1946) was Orson Welles’ third released film as a director, and shares the dubious distinction of being his only film that was a commercial success at the time of release. The visual style will be familiar to anyone who as seen Citizen Kane, but the story is pure postwar melodrama, about a high-ranking Nazi (Welles) settling down in a small New England town and marrying a young American woman (Loretta Young) who hasn’t a clue, it seems, about anything in the world. But fear not, Edward G. Robinson is on the case as a representative of the U.S. War Crimes Commission, and as part of his efforts to convince Young that her husband is not who he claims to be, shows her film from the real concentration camps (the first time such footage was included in an American film). The image quality is quite good, and shows off Welles’ distinctive visual style.

Fear in the Night (1947), directed by Maxwell Shane, is another film too bizarre to be anything but a B-picture. And I mean that in the best way—as Val Lewton noted, a small budget often equates to more directorial freedom, and that’s certainly true in this adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story. In his first film, DeForest Kelley’s (Dr. McCoy on Star Trek) dreams that he committed a murder—or was it reality? Shane uses a lot of visual devices to suggest altered states of consciousness, which can get wearying, and there’s tons of voiceover, the noir director’s favorite money-saving device, but the weirdness of the story really carries the day. The image quality is a bit soft, but given the amount of visual distortion used deliberately, it’s not too distracting.

When Edgar Ulmer had some money to work with, he could crank out studio-standard pictures with the best of them. Case in point: The Strange Woman (1946), an overbearing costume melodrama set in 19th Century American which is mainly of interest today because Hedy Lamarr plays the lead. Her character is a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhoda Penmark—all the boys go for her (and you can’t blame them—she’s never looked better), but she’s really Satan in a Sunday hat (or as the Book of Proverbs more colorfully puts it, “her mouth may be smoother than oil, but her end is as bitter as wormwood”). As a child, she almost drowns a classmate, then plays the hero by saving him. As an adult, she plays the noble lady while seducing a string of men, including Gene Lockhart, Louis Hayward, and George Sanders. The image quality is among the best in this set.

I wonder if anyone involved with The Red House (1947, directed by Delmar Daves) thought about the fact that in a black and white film, we can’t tell which house is the red one. Apparently not, but the film is still worth seeing, primarily for the cast (Edward G. Robinson, Judith Anderson, Lon McCallister, Allene Roberts). Robinson and Anderson play a brother and sister who are bringing up their orphaned niece (Roberts), but wouldn’t you know there is a secret lurking in their past, with the evidence lurking right on their property. The Red House has the feel of a Val Lewton movie, complete with spooky night walks, and the dangers of the night and the forest are contrasted with the wholesomeness of the daytime and interior scenes. The image and sound quality are both quite good.

If you’re a noir fan, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is probably already familiar to you. Directed by Lewis Milestone (yes, the same guy who brought us All Quiet on the Western Front) and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, and Kirk Douglas (in his first film), it’s an epic production of an operatic story too large for real life. Honestly, with these characters, I kept thinking of Gone Girl and Tyler Perry’s character’s remark: “You two are the most fucked-up people I have ever met, and I specialize in fucked-up people.” Aside from the fact that there are more than two fucked-up people in Martha Ivers, that quote pretty much sums up the moral qualities of the leading characters, and makes the reference to Lot’s wife at the end of the film ring all the truer. The image quality is great, as is the sound, so you can just sit back and enjoy this tale of Biblical proportions.

There are no extras on the discs. | Sarah Boslaugh

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