Film Noir New Releases in November 2020
Noirvember arrives with a little bit of everything, including noir titles making their Blu-ray debut, significant rereleases, TV noir, noir from Korea, Italy, and Germany, and a very special announcement. And for those of you still on the fence about whether you should pick up a region-free Blu-ray player, this month might just send you over the edge. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in!
The Ladykillers (1955) Alexander Mackendrick (StudioCanal, UK Region B) 5-disc box set (1 4K, 2 BD, 1 DVD, 1 CD); also released as a 2-disc set
First things first: I’m not even sure I’d call The Ladykillers a film noir (although it did play at Noir City 15 in 2017), but it is a film I love. The Ladykillers is the last comedy made at the famous Ealing Studios in England, and if that’s your final comedy, what a way to go out. Alec Guinness stars as Professor Marcus, the leader of a criminal gang planning a security van heist. He and his co-conspirators (Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, and Cecil Parker) must meet in the professor’s apartment and fool his landlady Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, who steals the show) into believing that they’re all members of a string quintet gathering to rehearse. Is Mrs. Wilberforce going to do too much snooping around? Will the professor and the boys have to knock her off? This is a priceless comedy. If you haven’t seen it, you simply must.
I’m not sure I’m going to get this, for several reasons. First, I already have the movie on an earlier StudioCanal Blu-ray. Second, although this release is struck from a new 4K restoration, it also includes “color grading by Technicolor,” which could be cause for celebration (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand what I mean) or a complete disaster. Third, although the 65th Anniversary 4K UHD 5-disc Collector’s Edition includes the film in two aspect ratios (1.37 and 1.66) and a ton of cool stuff I’d love to have (complete details here), I’m not sure I’m going to drop £39.99 (about $52) on this set, but if there’s a good sale, I might just be up for it. NOTE: I’ve heard that Criterion will be bringing this out in the U.S., but there’s no way they’re going to be able to compete with a package like this.
Columbia Noir #1 (1945-1958) (Indicator, UK Region B) Six BD box set
Do. Not. Miss. This. Especially if you live in Europe, or have a region-free Blu-ray player. Wow, Indicator explodes with a terrific box set of film noir titles, some of them appearing on Blu-ray for the first time ever. I’ll go ahead and link to the list of extras here, otherwise this post would approach the size of a Dickens novel. Let’s take a look at each title.
Escape in the Fog (1945) Budd Boetticher
I previously reviewed this film as it appeared in the Mill Creek Noir Archive Vol. 1: 1944-1954 set. In my opinion, this is the weakest film in the Indicator set, but it’s certainly worth watching and owning.
The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis
Think of it as a precursor to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). Treasury Department investigator Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) is tracking down any clues he can find that might help him bring down the mob boss known as The Big Fellow (clearly referencing Al Capone). When a key informant is silenced and a slimy mob lawyer (Barry Kelley) easily covers his client’s every move, Warren grows concerned for the safety of his wife (Nina Foch) and himself. The Undercover Man treads on familiar territory for sure, but does so better than most. Even a “Let’s go get ‘em!” scene with Warren facing a grieving Italian family surpasses its melodramatic script, a scene that most films from this era would’ve lingered on unmercifully. The film also marks the screen debut of James Whitmore. The Undercover Man makes its world premiere with this set.
Drive a Crooked Road (1954) Richard Quine
Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney) is both a great mechanic and race car driver, but he’s socially awkward around women and not much more at ease around men, especially the guys he works with at a Los Angeles garage. Eddie can’t believe it when a woman named Barbara (Dianne Foster) brings her car into the shop and asks specifically for him, even telling Eddie which beach she’ll be at later. When he finds Barbara, she’s with a good-looking guy named Steve (Kevin McCarthy in only his second credited film), a guy she claims is only a friend. Something’s going on here…. The film should be a pretty routine crime noir, but it rises above expectations. Drive a Crooked Road is one of those films that’s better than it needs to be, a picture with good performances, nice tension, a noir feel that simmers beneath the surface, and an ending that doesn’t disappoint. Drive a Crooked Road makes its world premiere with this set.
5 Against the House (1955) Phil Karlson
Four college guys pull up to a Reno casino called Harold’s Club, giving themselves one hour to soak up the atmosphere and lose a little money before heading back to school. Two of the guys (Kerwin Mathews and Alvy Moore, forever remembered as Hank Kimball from the TV show Green Acres) are hopelessly awkward and immature, but the other two (Guy Madison and Brian Keith), both Korean War veterans, are interested in the ladies (cue Kim Novak) and money. These two guys concoct a plan for all four of them to knock over the casino. It takes awhile to get there, but the last third of the film is certainly worth the wait.
The Garment Jungle (1957) Robert Aldrich, Vincent Sherman
Lee J. Cobb stars as Walter Mitchell, owner of a New York garment factory who fights tooth and nail to prevent unionization, despite the wishes of his employees. Mitchell hires gangster Artie Ravage (Richard Boone, in top form) to keep the employees in line, but Mitchell’s son (Kerwin Matthews) becomes one of the leading agitators for the factory workers, also becoming close friends with one of the union organizers (Robert Loggia). More drama than noir, The Garment Jungle still packs a powerful punch with some great performances.
The Lineup (1958) Don Siegel
The Lineup presented 1950s audiences with a concept that’s common now, but was very unusual for the time: making a movie based on a television show. The Lineup was actually a CBS radio show (1950-53) and a TV show (1954-60) before Don Siegel got behind the camera and literally ran with the idea. One of the film’s poster (not shown here) touts “Too hot…too big…for TV!” And it was.
Two San Francisco police inspectors (Warner Anderson and Tom Tully) investigate the fatal crash of a taxi driver carrying a suitcase containing stolen figurines housing heroin. Two gangsters (Eli Wallach and Robert Keith, both excellent here) seek to track down the goods.
Siegel made some good films, some great ones, and at least two that will probably be remembered forever (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry), but The Lineup is one of his most effective efforts that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Many of its scenes are gloriously cringe-worthy and Wallach is absolutely masterful as the psychotic gangster. The Eddie Muller/James Ellroy commentary on the DVD is a must, although Ellroy gets so weird at times, you can almost hear Muller scooting his chair away from him.
Although I have most of these films on DVD, I preordered this set as soon as it was announced. Indicator does a tremendous job on its releases, and Columbia Noir #1 promises to be a stellar package. And don’t think that #1 designation is lost on me. I’m expecting several more Columbia Noir box sets in Indicator’s future. (I’ve just gotta prepare my wallet for them…)
King of New York (1990) Abel Ferrara (Arrow, UK Region B)
Christopher Walken plays drug kingpin Frank White, who arrives home from prison with a plan: to return to the streets in full Robin Hood mode, sharing the profits of his drug empire with the poor. Yet White discovers that the New York City streets are different from when he went into prison; tougher, more jaded. No problem. White’s lieutenants (Lawrence Fishburne, Steve Buscemi) share his determination to take down a major Columbian dealer (Ernest Abuba) and Chinatown’s main drug lord (Joey Chin). Opinions on the movie are all over the place. Many critics and audiences couldn’t get over the constant stream of profanity and unrelenting violence (Ferrara’s wife reportedly walked out of the film’s preview), but others embrace it unreservedly. Your mileage may vary. The film also stars David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, and one of my favorites, Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from Breaking Bad).
The new 4K restoration is being released by Arrow only in Region B for now. A Region A Blu-ray has been available in the U.S. since 2007 from Lionsgate and was also repackaged as a Wal-Mart exclusive triple feature in 2014 with Lord of War (2005) and Freelancers (2012). Arrow also released the film on Blu-ray in 2012 (again, only as a Region B disc), and the supplements appear to be the same on this new release. A 4K disc is also getting an Arrow release, so if you already have the 2012 edition and don’t have a 4K player, you might want to stick with what you’ve got.
Eyewitness (aka Sudden Terror, 1970) John Hough (Network, UK Region B)
Although this film was released on Blu-ray in the U.S. from Kino Lorber about this time last year, I totally missed it. This new UK edition from Network is no doubt sourced from the same 4K remaster as the Kino. More on that in a moment.
I remember that Sudden Terror (the film’s American title) was in and out of theaters so quickly in 1970, I was never able to see it until recently. (If your library has Kanopy, you can watch it there.) Although the film contains strong thriller and espionage connections, it is also a remake of the 1949 film noir The Window. In Eyewitness, Mark Lester (two years after his most famous role in the award-winning Oliver!) plays Ziggy, a young boy who invents stories to impress his older sister (Susan George) and grandfather (Lionel Jeffries), all of whom live together in a lighthouse in Malta. When Ziggy witnesses the assassination of a visiting president, not a single person believes him… except for the assassin. The Kino release includes a 6-minute interview with Mark Lester, trailers, and two audio commentaries: one with critics Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger, the other with director John Hough and uncredited writer/executive producer Bryan Forber. Network always delivers a fine product, but they are usually light on the extras, so expect this to be a bare-bones release.
Alfred Hitchcock: 4-Film Collection (Warner Archive) 4 Blu-ray discs
Back in September, Warner Archive packaged four film noir cornerstones, all previously released individually on Blu-ray. They’re doing the same thing in November with four Hitchcock classics, all of which contain at least some noir element:
I Confess (1953)
Dial M for Murder (in 2D and 3D, 1954)
The Wrong Man (1956)
I’m assuming that the special features from the individual releases (which are pretty light) will remain intact. While the Warner Bros. four-disc film noir collection is a great starter set for folks new to noir, the Hitchcock set may not the best introduction to his work. Yet if you’re missing any of these on Blu, it might be worth picking up. (It will certainly take up less shelf space.) As far as I can tell, none of these films appear in any of the major Region A box sets, since those are generally Universal titles.
Dragnet (1954) Jack Webb (Kino Lorber)
Most people under the age of 40 (maybe even 50) will have no idea who Jack Webb was, and those who do recognize the name will know Webb only from the TV show Dragnet (1951-1959 and 1967-1970), unaware that he said more than "Just the facts, ma'am," and had an earlier career in films as well as radio (1949-1957). This 1954 theatrical movie features Webb as LAPD Sgt. Joe Friday and Ben Alexander as his sidekick Officer Frank Smith as they investigate the murder of a local goon (Dub Taylor) who worked for racketeer Max Troy (Stacy Harris). If you’ve seen any of the episodes from the TV series, you know what to expect. Fans of the show will definitely want to pick up this 2K restoration presented in two aspect ratios: 1.75:1 and 1.37:1. The film also features Richard Boone, Ann Robinson, Virginia Gregg, Vic Perris, and Dennis Weaver, and includes an audio commentary by critic Toby Roan.
Two Films by Bong Joon Ho: Memories of Murder (2003)/Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) (Artificial Eye, UK Region B)
In Korean with English subtitles
Artificial Eye has paired up Memories of Murder (2003) with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), which seems a bit odd. Sure, they’re both directed by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (who directed last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite), so pairing the director’s first two feature films does make sense. Although Memories of Murder can certainly stand on its own, perhaps Artificial Eye wanted to make sure the director’s first film didn’t get left out in the cold (or in the doghouse, as the case may be). Barking Dogs is a satirical version of the 19th century novel by Marie Louise de la Ramée, A Dog of Flanders, but Memories of Murder is a gripping, unforgettable police procedural very much reminiscent of Zodiac (2007), although Memories of Murder (based on actual serial killings in South Korea) came first. It’s common knowledge that Criterion will release Memories of Murder sometime in 2021, so North American fans will probably want to wait on this one, especially since the Artificial Eye announcement contains no information about extras.
Il Bidone (The Swindle,1955) Federico Fellini (Criterion, Essential Fellini box set)
In Italian with English subtitles
In this stunning, lesser-known Fellini work, Broderick Crawford plays a small-time, middle-aged swindler who’s grown tired of pulling con jobs outside of Rome with his partners (including Richard Basehart). Il Bidone is filled with contrasts, most notably the humorous lightness in the first half vs. the devastation of a country recovering from WWII in the second half. The last 30 minutes of this film are absolutely stunning. This picture has needed (and deserved) a Blu-ray release for a long time. It’s uncertain whether it will be released separately as well as in the upcoming 14-film Essential Fellini box set, but for now, the box set seems the way to go. That package includes two illustrated books filled with content, notes on the films by scholar David Forgacs, essays by filmmakers Michael Almereyda, Kogonada, and Carol Morley, critics Bilge Eriri and Stephanie Zacharek, novelist Colm Tóibín, and dozens of pages of photos of Fellini memorabilia. The extras on the Il Bidone disc alone are rather light: a new audio commentary by Frank Burke, author of Fellini’s Films and coeditor of A Companion to Federico Fellini, and a 40-minute video interview with writer/producer/director Dominique Delouche, in French with English subtitles.
The Irishman (2019) Martin Scorsese (Criterion) (UK release on November 30)
I reviewed The Irishman last year, so if you don’t already know the basic story of this gangster epic, you can read my review (which does include spoilers, so be warned). Like many, I have mixed feelings about the film, and athough it’s more of a gangster picture than a film noir, no noir fan will want to miss it. This 4K digital master includes a roundtable discussion among Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, a new documentary on the making of the film, featuring Scorsese, the lead actors, the producers, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and others, a new video essay written and narrated by film critic Farran Smith Nehme on Scorsese’s singular formal style in the film, “The Evolution of Digital De-aging” program on the visual effects created for the film, archival interview excerpts with Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and International Brotherhood of Teamsters trade union leader Jimmy Hoffa, a trailer and teaser, and a written essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
The Lost Weekend (1945) Billy Wilder (Kino Lorber)
I am aghast that The Lost Weekend has never had a North American Region A Blu-ray release until now, but here it is, struck from a new 4K master. Although some consider the film more drama than film noir, the noir elements are stark and unrelenting, capped by an Oscar-winning performance by Ray Milland as a struggling writer on the road to self-destruction by drinking. Extras include an audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, a radio adaptation (probably the 30-minute Screen Guild Theater presentation from 1946, featuring Milland and Jane Wyman), A Trailers from Hell segment with Mark Pellington, and a theatrical trailer. If you’re a big fan of the film, you might also want to consider the Eureka/Masters of Cinema Region B Blu-ray from 2012. Although it is not derived from a 4K scan, that disc does include a three-hour series of exclusive interviews with director Billy Wilder, made for BBC’s Arena television program, a Screen Guild Theater radio adaptation, and a seven-minute introduction by director Alex Cox.
Babylon Berlin, Season 3 (2019-2020) Created, written, and directed by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten (3 BD, Kino Lorber)
In German with English subtitles
If you’re missing Babylon Berlin, you’re missing one of the best noir-stained shows on TV. I know it takes place in 1929 Germany, but the show has noir written all over it. Last month I mentioned that the first two seasons are available from Kino Lorber, now we have the third.
And if that’s not enough to keep you busy for awhile, let me tempt you with this: The AFI Silver, in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation, just announced it will be hosting Noir City International, a virtual film noir festival with video introductions by Eddie Muller. The virtual festival will run from November 13-20, 2020. Stay tuned here for more information, but you can also sign up for the Film Noir Foundation mailing list for the latest. This is very exciting, probably the best news movie lovers have received in 2020!
Everyone take care, stay safe, and watch some great film noir in Noirvember.