There were so many good films noir in the '40s and '50s that Warner Bros., in its fourth installment of noir classics, still hasn't run out of deceitful floozies and street-lit hoodlums to reexplore. If anything, the interest in packaging these heretofore dismissed genre quickies seems to be growing; this collection is Warners' heftiest, including 10 films on five DVDs.
It's only fitting that many of the pictures in this set aren't archetypal noirs. Warner has come to use the word 'noirâ?� liberally, for better or worse, encompassing several genre mashups with uncharacteristic noir themes. Some of the material chosen for this collection is a stretch from such pulp-fiction cornerstones as Out of the Past, the Asphalt Jungle and Murder, My Sweet, which made Vol. 1 such an essential purchase. By branching out the definition of noir, this set proves to be an even more enriching experience because it shows that there's more to this dark and vital movement than femmes fatale, hard-boiled detectives and sleazy sax scores.
The shiniest gem in the assemblage is Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1948), which should be ranked among Citizen Kane and Breathless as one of the greatest debuts in film history. One of the most truthful and emotionally transcendent B-pictures ever produced, this film about two lovers trying to flee a life of crime has long been sold in lousy bootlegs and gets Warners' typically glorious treatment.
Another underrated classic is Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence (1948), with Robert Ryan as a vengeful, club-legged WW II veteran and Van Heflin as the seemingly angelic community leader harboring a deplorable secret. This multilayered, gripping story poses countless moral questions about guilt, redemption and justice, and you never feel like you're being lectured. Then there's Crime Wave (1954), shot with claustrophobic intensity by genre maven AndrÃ© De Toth. Unadorned and grisly, this brutal noir about an ex-con trying to stay straight was based on a Saturday Evening Post short story, and lurid truth shines through the film's humanism. Sterling Hayden is particularly memorable as an obsessive detective who, told by his doctor to stop smoking, chain-chews toothpicks instead.
Another title long circulated in shoddy bootlegs is Don Siegel's The Big Steal (1949), a three-car chase/road movie shot in Mexico with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer falling in love as part of the plot. This is an interesting case of a screwball comedy ' complete with a classic 'meet-cuteâ?� ' hoodwinking us into believing it's a noir. You could also make the case for Mystery Street (1950), with its atypical noir setting and lack of suspense, as more of a straight-up police procedural than a noir. Likewise, the later-period Illegal (1955) ' starring Edward G. Robinson as an alcoholic, guilt-drenched prosecutor who sells his morality to the mob ' should really be dubbed a legal drama.
As for the purest of noir films, some of the best are here ' Anthony Mann's suffocating Side Street and the psychological disturbia of John Farrow's Where Danger Lives, both from 1950. Overall, there are three masterpieces, two near-masterpieces, three interesting noir excursions, one mediocrity (the well-made but standard boilerplate, jealousy thriller Tension) and one clunker (the flatly directed Decoy). Unlike most genre-specific sets, there might actually be something for everyone here.