A look at the different noir box sets Kino released in 2022.
We may be deep into the dog days of winter, but that’s no reason not to backtrack a bit and rekindle the spirit of Noirvember. In recent years, the penultimate month of the year has become synonymous with celebrating the dark side of classic cinema with a wide array of gumshoes, femme fatales, and double crossings that can be crammed into the space of 30 days.
But who says that the end of Noirvember should ever have to come? Longtime fans of the genre certainly don’t believe that, with most keeping their noir watching going throughout the year. However, for those who may have just celebrated their first Noirvember and aren’t ready to put the genre to bed yet, the folks over at Kino Lorber have churned out plenty of new additions to their noir box set series, Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, to keep fans satisfied.
The seventh installment of this series takes place in the underworld of politics and big business as an ambitious WWI veteran (John Payne) quickly climbs the ladder of corruption and power thanks to family connections, leading to dangerous consequences in The Boss. Next up, in Chicago Confidential a state attorney (Brian Keith) tries to break up a local gambling syndicate and help an innocent man clear his name of murder. Lastly, taking place in the nation’s capital, The Fearmakers sees Korean war veteran Dana Andrews return to the business he left behind which is now a front for communist activities.
Straying from the typical genre mold ever so slightly, this collection might not seem terribly noir, but fits just enough thanks to the tropes these films touch on. The underhandedness of dealings from city and government officials all fit right at home in the noir landscape, as does each hero’s need to fight against them. Political ruthlessness and the presence of communism, especially in the cold war-centric The Fearmakers, give a feel of realism that wasn’t always easy to spot in earlier films. Adding the threat of the red scare was also the perfect way to illustrate how the genre could adapt to the 1950s, while cities such as Chicago and Washington function beautifully as noir locales. If the Lincoln memorial finale in the third movie is a bit overblown, it doesn’t take away from the overall set’s age-old theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Further proving that noir could lend itself well to other genres, this set tests the limits of where the darkness of cinema could venture. Taking a page out of Agatha Christie, Lady on a Train stars Deanna Durbin as a young socialite who tries to prove she witnessed a murder aboard a train on her way home for the holidays. In Tangier, the effects of WWII are explored as a dancer (Maria Montez) and a war correspondent (Robert Paige) try to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. Take One False Step rounds out the set with a twisty (and oddly humorous) story about a college professor (William Powell) who becomes the number one suspect when his former flame (Shelley Winters) goes missing.
This film set is pure classic noir with a slight comic twist and edge to at least two of the titles. First off, an always-game Durbin splendidly leads Lady on a Train. With just as many laughs as suspenseful twists and turns, the movie can be farcical, frothy, and a solid mystery noir yarn that even manages to give its star a song or two to sing. Meanwhile, mystery film legend Powell stars in the surprising Take One False Step. Playing a heightened version of his famous Nick Charles, Powell rolls with the film’s many punches as the somewhat slapsticky noir provides one comedic set-piece after another, including an awkward college lecture, a cute dog scuffle, and harried side characters, before ending the proceedings with a gag that tops everything that came before. By default the most conventional of the set, Tangier doesn’t offer much in the way of humor, yet still proves a diverting exercise in the art of international espionage with enough real-life elements to make it a more than fitting end to the set.
Personal noir is probably the best description of Kino’s tenth set as raw human drama permeates throughout each of the three selections, all of which take place in the world of boxing. In Flesh and Fury, a young deaf fighter (Tony Curtis) falls for a beautiful blonde (Jan Sterling) who is determined to make him the top boxer in town at any cost necessary. Curtis returns to the noir world again with The Square Jungle playing a prizefighter desperate to escape his working-class roots and make a name for himself, even at the risk of losing his soul. The set is rounded out by the Audie Murphy-starring World in My Corner, in which the actor plays an up-and-coming boxer who will go to any lengths to make it big for the girl he loves (Barbara Rush).
It’s no surprise that the backdrop of boxing would make for solid drama, but the way it meshes with noir takes it to a level that’s even more riveting. Although many of the typical noir elements aren’t present, the imprint of the genre remains there. Flesh and Fury is the one that proves this best with a heartbreaking Curtis who gives the film his all as a man so consumed by the ring and all it promises, he doesn’t realize he’s being brought down by it too. Curtis’s work in The Square Jungle likewise ventures to some noir-stained places thanks to the well-crafted script, which depicts themes such as honor, pride, and the complex relationship between a damaged father and his son’s determination to not become damaged himself. The title closest to traditional noir, World in My Corner, goes for an even darker turn by looking at the looming shadows of the boxing world. The film does an excellent job of illustrating the ring as a symbol; the key to life and success and the only salvation from literal death.
Following our time in the ring, this final set opts for a look into the desperate edge of noir, exploring the life and death situations faced by the men and women who populate the dark side of cinema. An Aldous Huxley short story provides the basis for A Woman’s Vengeance in which a wealthy man (Charles Boyer) is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife thanks to thanks to the accusations of a jealous admirer (Jessica Tandy). In I Was a Teenage Shoplifter, Mona Freeman plays an amateur petty thief who gets into serious trouble when a secret shoplifting ring recruits her against her will. Finally, in Behind the High Wall, John Gavin takes a rare lead turn as an inmate who is reluctantly pulled into a prison break and is soon accused of stealing a large sum of cash by a crooked warden (Tom Tully).
This set certainly sees the noir stain expanded as each of the three titles explores moments of pulsating suspense and the emotional elements which come into play for everyone. Behind the High Wall shows just how well noir can bleed into different genres as this tale of a prison break gives way to a story seeped in morality. Meanwhile, the best way to describe I Was a Teenage Shoplifter is “internal noir.” Sure, the twists and turns are there, but it’s the main character’s inner struggle with her situation that’s at the root of the film as the audience sees her go from girl to woman right before their very eyes. And even though noir is no stranger to melodrama, few handle the theme the way A Woman’s Vengeance does with forces such as culpability, deceit, guild, and passion driving this compelling story.
One group that keeps Noirvember alive all year long are the good folks at the Film Noir Foundation. Housed in San Francisco, the FNF is the industry’s most ardent champions of film noir who painstakingly rescue and restore titles that were once feared lost. In support of the organization’s efforts, the FNF holds a traveling retrospective festival known as “Noir City,” where many of these lovingly restored films are presented for a weekend hosted by the foundation’s president, Eddie Muller, the czar of noir. For those fans of film noir who are unfamiliar with this incredible organization, I urge them to take a look and see all the wonderful and exciting ways this group is keeping the genre alive.
All of the above sets are available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. For more information about the Film Noir Foundation, please visit http://filmnoirfoundation.org.