Summer of Darkness: Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2007)

The summer of 2007 has been belly belly good for aficionados of film noir (guilty, your honor!). Recent DVD reissues include Criterion’s long awaited restoration of Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole, a trio from MGM including Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the WIndow, Orson Welles’ The Stranger and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (all three sporting transfers superior to public domain prints on previous DVDs) and now  there’s an outstanding  10-film set from Warner Brothers, the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4.

The real jewels among the treasures in the Warner Brothers box set are a pair of cult films that hardcore noir geeks have been itching to get their mitts on for years-Crime Wave and Decoy (both on one disc-it’s almost enough make me believe that there is a God).

Crime Wave (1954) was directed by Andre de Toth, perhaps more well-known for stark westerns like Ramrod (1947) and Day of the Outlaw (1959). After languishing in B-movie obscurity for decades, this strikingly photographed, low-budget wonder has built a cult following.

The story itself is fairly standard issue; an ex-con trying to go straight (Gene Nelson) is framed and blackmailed by two former cell mates (ubiquitous noir heavy Ted de Corsia and a  young Charles Bronson). Nelson’s character gets a shot at clearing himself by helping a homicide detective (played by a hulking, toothpick-chewing Sterling Hayden) bring his blackmailers to justice.

The two main factors setting Crime Wave apart from other era B-movies are the meticulously composed cinematography (by DP Burt Glennon) and the heavy use of L.A. locations. Although the decision to shoot almost exclusively on location was  based more on pragmatism (budgetary constraints) than artistic vision, it makes the film feel less dated than its contemporaries. The DVD transfer is nearly flawless, taken from what looks like a pristine vault print.

Major kudos to whoever had the inspired idea to pair up film noir expert Eddie Muller with the master of modern pulp crime fiction, James Ellroy for the commentary track. Muller’s encyclopedic torrent of trivia and savant-like grasp of All Things Noir is always a kick (I recommend his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir)-and having Ellroy in the passenger seat is icing on the cake.

Ellroy is a riot; panting and growling his way through the commentary and acting like a perverse version of the proverbial kid in the candy store as he spots and identifies familiar L.A. locales.

Most interestingly, Ellroy posits the film’s location filming as a time capsule of the 1950s LAPD milieu that informed his “L.A. quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). Fans of L.A. Confidential (the book and/or the movie) in particular will fall out of their chair when Ellroy exclaims “That is Bud White!!” the first time Sterling Hayden’s  LAPD detective shambles onscreen.

And then (hoo, boy) there’s Jack Bernhard’s Decoy (1946), the closest thing to a David Lynch film prior to, well the moment David Lynch unleashed his first film on an unsuspecting public. Featuring a truly demented performance from British actress Jean Gillie as one of the most psycho femme fatales ever (replete with an insane cackle that could de-calcify your spinal column at twenty paces), this mash-up of Body Heat with Re-animator defies description.

Gillie masticates all available scenery as Margot Shelby, mastermind of a gang of thieves, who comes up with an elaborate scheme to (literally) bring a former associate back from the dead following his execution in the gas chamber (as one does) so she can put the squeeze on him and find out where he hid $400,000.

In order to get to that loot, Margot charms and unceremoniously discards a string of hapless chumps in record time (the film runs less than 80 minutes). In the film’s most infamous scene, she runs over her lover, then for giggles, backs up the car and runs over him again (remember, this movie predates Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by a good 20 years). A must see for genre diehards who think they’ve seen it all.

Warner is selling the five double feature discs in the box set “a la carte” as well; but they list at $20 each. I would recommend picking up the box set-Amazon and some of the brick and mortar retailers are selling the collection for around $40 (averaging out to $4.00 per title) making this set the bargain of the year for noir enthusiasts.

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