NOIR ARCHIVE VOLUME 1: 1944-1954 / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING :DANA ANDREWS, RICHARD BASEHART, ROSALIND RUSSELL, AND OTHERS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Classic film noir, the flavour of this nine-film collection from Kit Parker Films, is an odd beast. The films classified under this umbrella were not a conscious collection, there was no movement associated with their directors and stars; they were just films, mostly crime films, but films all the same. The term film noir was coined by a French critic in 1946 but not applied as a stylistic term until the 1970s. Therefore, there is no definitive list of noir classics, but movies by Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, and John Huston, and films where the main character is a down-at-heel private detective, an ageing boxer, or a femme fatale, are all good examples of the genre.
The nine films featured on this three-disc set run from 1944’s Address Unknown to The Miami Story from a decade later. True to the loose definition of the genre, they feature a variety of protagonists - mob bosses, hitmen, reporters, bookies, widows - and range from period dramas to spy movies and gangster films, taking in the oddity that is The Killer That Stalked New York, whose principle villain is small pox. And, as with any collection that casts its net so widely, it’s a mixed bag.
The pick of the crop is 1949’s The Black Book, which is perhaps better known as Reign of Terror. A story of the French revolution, it is beautifully directed by Anthony Mann, and stars Robert Cummings as a patriotic Frenchman who steals the identity of a prosecutor. The prosecutor was in possession of a black book, full of the names of those to be guillotined, and Robespierre (played with great fun by Robert Basehart) wants it! The snag? The book is missing, and it’s a race to find it before his identity is uncovered...
The following year’s 711 Ocean Drive centred on a small-time gambler, played by Edmond O’Brien. A telephone engineer who owes money to his bookie, he uses his technical skills to help expand the operation, but falls foul of both the police and gangsters muscling in on his turf. Things get even trickier when he falls for the wife of his nemesis, and the scene is set to watch the downfall of an ambitious yet immoral man. Joseph M Newman’s direction is classic noir, all sordid locations and realistic set-ups. As one of the more straightforward noir classics featured here, 711 Ocean Drive holds up as an archetype of the genre.
The earliest film in the set, Address Unknown, uses the Nazi threat to Jewish lives as its base, with the wonderfully underrated Paul Lukas as an art dealer in wartime Germany. In business with a Jewish partner who emigrates to the US, Lukas falls under the spell of the Nazis and his association with evil brings about tragic consequences, leading to a surprising twist at the movie’s climax. At just over seventy minutes long, Address Unknown makes the most of its running time, and the direction by exalted cinematographer William Cameron Menzies is wonderful.
Henry Levin’s 1947 melodrama The Guilt of Janet Ames is a different animal entirely. The titular Ames is a war widow whose husband sacrificed himself to save the lives of five other men. One of the men, a drunken newspaper reporter who is suffering from survivor’s guilt of his own, helps her to see how her husband’s sacrifice affected the lives of those he saved. Tight and psychological, when viewed through modern eyes it's clear that most of the characters featured in the movie are suffering from PTSD, and it’s an early - if cautious example of WAR NOT ALWAYS GOOD.
Johnny Allegro’s reformed criminal hunting down treasonous counterfeiters, and Assignment Paris’s Communist-encountering reporter, further illustrate the breadth of the scope of the films contained in this set, and that gets thrown even wider by The Miami Story’s semi-documentary warning tones, Escape in the Fog’s pseudo-supernatural elements, and The Killer That Stalked New York’s epidemic-based tragedy. All nine films have something to recommend them - beyond the refreshingly short running times, which range from 65 to 105 minutes - and the performances of Nina Foch, Rosalind Russell, George Raft, Dana Andrews, and Barry Sullivan, brought to life by the direction of Fred F Sears, Robert Parrish, Earl McEvoy, Ted Tetzlaff, and Budd Boetticher, are gripping and engaging.
As you’d expect from a three films per disc set, there are no extras, which lets the movies - transferred almost perfectly in 1080p and with a mono soundtrack - speak for themselves. Unusually in this modern age, this is not a set to be binged but rather sampled sparingly, letting the flavour of each picture settle into the palate, and the moral dilemmas faced by the protagonists ask questions of the viewer. While Noir Archive Volume 1 is by no means definitive, it is a diverse dip into a long-vanished golden age of filmmaking.