THE MOB DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD TIGHT SPOT THE BURGLAR
MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS
B&W, 1945, 64m.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Starring Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno, Anita Bolster
B&W, 1951, 86m.
Directed by Robert Parrish
Starring Broderick Crawford, Betty Buehler, Richard Kiley, Otto Hulett, Matt Crowley
B&W, 1954, 83m.
Directed by Richard Quine
Starring Mickey Rooney, Dianne Foster, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Kelly, Jerry Paris
B&W, 1955, 96m.
Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Lucy Marlow, Lorne Green
B&W, 1957, 90m.
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Starring Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield, Martha Vickers, Peter Capell, Mickey Shaughnessy
Turner Classic Movies / Sony (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) and Full Frame
DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD
The flood of classic films on DVD has yielded some real discoveries over the past decade, and no film style has benefited more than film noir. This distinctly American approach to dramas and thrillers featuring femmes fatales, stylized lighting, and fatalistic storylines has flourished since the '70s, and most studios have dug deep into their vaults for odd little gems previously lost to rare after hours screenings on TV. Columbia Pictures released a particularly fascinating set of titles, since their first knockout boxed set of Sony noir titles in 2009, followed by a second set one year later and a pair of oddball Bad Girls of Film Noir four-film collections. After a brief lull, they finally returned with a third official box of classics, this one sold and released under the Turner Classic Movies banner. Interestingly, all five films are a little outside of what one usually expects from the noir label; some are indisputably crime films and many of the visual ingredients are present, but there's a unique wrinkle to all of them that makes this outside the usual parade of killer dames and gun-toting saps.
First up is a major cult film that's been inexplicably absent from home video despite regular cable TV airings over the past few decades: My Name Is Julia Ross, a clever thriller straddling the line between noir and gothic melodrama. Based on the novel The Women in Red by Anthony Gilbert (the pen name of writer Lucy Malleson), it was unofficially remade in 1987 as the excellent chiller Dead of Winter with Mary Steenburgen. Regular Columbia player Nina Foch (Cry of the Werewolf) stars in the title role, a young woman in London struggling to make ends meet and deal with an increasingly serious and difficult relationship with her boyfriend, Dennis (The Return of the Vampire's Varno). She winds up accepting a position as a secretary for the seemingly benign old Mrs. Hughes (The Lady Vanishes' Whitty), only to be whisked away, drugged, and trapped in a seaside house where Hughes and her oily son, Ralph (The Return of Count Yorga's Macready), are trying to pass her off as someone else. What's their insidious plan, and who is this mystery woman whose identity they're trying to impose on poor Julia?
Spring-coiled throughout its brief running time at barely over an hour, this is one of the best films by Joseph H. Lewis and the first in his impressive run of skillful crime titles including So Dark the Night (a prime candidate for a future Sony set), The Undercover Man, Gun Crazy, and The Big Combo. He and his adept cast keep the snappy story moving like a bullet, leading to a wonderfully intense double climax involving a perilous staircase and an unexpected confrontation on the beach. Despite its solid reputation, Sony kept the film out of video circulation even back during the VHS era, so its first official release here is a major cause for celebration. The full frame transfer looks excellent and rises a few notches above TV airings, with far less damage and much silkier black levels than most viewers have seen before. Extras include five galleries (behind the scenes photos, lobby cards, publicity stills, scene stills, and movie posters), the theatrical trailer, and a copy of the database info written on the film for TCM's site. Like the other films, this one is presented on its own disc with a healthy bitrate.
Next up is the much gritter The Mob, an entertaining hardboiled tale mainly designed as a vehicle for actor Broderick Crawford. Still riding high after the success of Born Yesterday and his Oscar-winning lead role in All the King's Men, he became something of a noir staple for a few years in films like Scandal Sheet and Fritz Lang's Human Desire before moving to TV popularity with Highway Patrol. Here he's a detective named Johnny Damico, who goes undercover to break up a criminal network operating out of the city docks after he witnesses a murder committed by someone wielding a police badge. He poses as an irascible dock worker to get into the labor racket that's slowly eating away at the city, all under the guise of a feigned suspension from the source. How long can he tangle with this mob before his cover's blown?
The storyline here isn't really the selling point, as The Mob is mainly an exercise in moody style with an amazing rogue's gallery of ultra-manly character actors: Richard Kiley, Neville Brand (Eaten Alive), Ernest Borgnine, John Marley, and even a bit role for Charles Bronson. You can practically smell the stale cigarette smoke and whiskey wafting off the screen, while composer George Duning (Picnic) supplies just the right dose of swanky musical polish. This one also never made the rounds on home video before, only occasionally popping up on TCM; again the full frame transfer is more restored and detailed than the version aried on TV, with the usual excellent, sleek appearance of most of Sony's black-and-white offerings on DVD. Extras are the same here as above except for the absence of the TCM database article.
The front of the packaging touts that it's "introduced by Martin Scorsese," and this indeed is true for disc three, Drive a Crooked Road. He offers a quick video chat about the film's director, Richard Quine (who helmed some of Kim Novak's more notable films), and the transitioning career of its star, Mickey Rooney, who was diversifying from his previous musical hits for MGM. Actually Rooney had developed something of a cinematic fascinating for cars in the '50s, first in The Big Wheel and then again as an auto mechanic in big trouble in the memorable 1950 noir, Quicksand. This particular film (co-written by Blake Edwards!) came four years later and feels like something of a companion piece, with Rooney as another mechanic, Eddie Shannon, who falls for a dame named Barbara (Foster). As it turns out, she's setting up him to be the getaway driver for a bank robbery, and when she talks him into participating, he's sucked into a criminal nightmare with the dangerous Steve (McCarthy,a year before his iconic role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Harold (Forbidden Planet's Kelly).
Rooney's vulnerable performance is the real highlight here, of course, and his sadsack demeanor and short stature make him an ideal patsy turned avenger. The shooting style is a little glossy and bright for a noir film, especially the opening scenes, but the subject matter definitely fits, especially Foster's turn as a manipulative seductress. Apart from the intro, the galleries here cover the same territory as above along with a pressbook thrown in for good measure. The transfer is excellent once again, and the change in the cinema screens of the world is reflected here as this is the first title presented in anamorphic widescreen, framed at 1.85:1. An open matte version has also circulated on TV, but the framing here looks far more ideal. The mono sound is also solid, including another score by Duning.
On we go to disc four with the first and only one of the set previously available on American home video (VHS only), the '55 thriller Tight Spot. Dance legend Ginger Rogers stars here (with a really bizarre, frumpy hairstyle) in an excellent turn as a hardened criminal moll who decides to turn state's witness against a nefarious gangster (Lorne Green!) under the guidance of the district attorney (Robinson, wonderfully jowly). Her boyfriend's already dead on his way to offer testimony, and now she has to decide where her courage and loyalty really lie.
This one was directed by Phil Karlson, a busy craftsman with an occasional classic under his belt like Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story, and the approach definitely drifts even further from the darker terrain of immediate post-WWII noir. The stage play origins of the story give it an odd feel not unlike Rogers' color/scope thriller from the previous year, Black Widow; why she decided to move in this direction instead of sticking with musicals or romantic comedies is anyone's guess, but the results are certainly wild to behold. Oddly, this was also included in an earlier Japanese noir set of Sony titles (the rest are more familiar and widely available in the U.S.) as well as a standalone PAL release in the UK; that same excellent source material appears to be carried over here along in a glossier and more impressive new anamorphic transfer, and it looks mavelous throughout. The same gallery variations are included here, and the energetic theatrical trailer is a bit curious as it promises a film "tense with suspense" and "long, loud, low-down laughs!" Well, yeah, Brian Keith has a few fun zingers, but...
And finally we conclude with disc five, 1957's The Burglar. Scorsese returns to introduce this one as well with a two-minute appraisal including an explanation of his affection for both the big heist sequence and the relationship between the two leads, Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield. In fact, Jayne really rose to prominence on the basis of this film, which was eventually buried in the wake of her more famous hits like The Girl Can't Help It. Duryea plays Nat Harbin, the leader of a trio of crooks who decide to swipe a valuable necklace from a phony spiritualist; however, a shady cop spies the heist in progress and kidnaps his sister, Gladden (Mansfield), leading to a string of deaths and double crosses. Though still fairly minor and definitely a B-level film, this is an engrossing and strangely twisted noir with some wicked visual flourishes and nicely delivered dialogue. The heist scene itself is indeed a gripping curtain raiser, and as usual the underrated Duryea carries his leading man responsibilities quite well. The transfer here is a little trickier to evaluate since the film is much rougher and gritter in texture than its companions; presumably the anamorphic presentation here is accurate to the source material, which has an almost dirty, documentary-style veneer at times. Other extras include the theatrical trailer, lobby cards, a few movie posters, and regular movie stills. It should go without saying that this is a really terrific set and an easy recommendation for even the most casual noir fan. Bring on volume four!