Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Last year I updated a review of Kino Lorber’s box set Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema from 2016. I found it interesting that Kino Lorber waited four years to release a second volume, yet that set was quickly followed by a third and a fourth. They may not be finished. We shall see. But today I’d like to report on how this second volume stacks up.
First off, I’m delighted to see any film noir titles released on Blu-ray, especially those that other companies have passed over. The five films in the first set aren’t exactly what you’d call obscure titles, not with stars like Barbara Stanwyck, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Shelley Winters, George Sanders, Dan Duryea, and Cornell Wilde. Heck, Big House U.S.A. alone features Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr., Charles Bronson, and Reed Hadley. Most of these films are quite good, and I consider He Ran All the Way and Big House U.S.A. must-own titles.
But you have to wonder what happened between the release of the first and second volumes. Problems finding the right combinations of films? Rights issues? Finding original elements in good enough shape to restore? The first volume features films from United Artists; the second, titles from Universal. The second volume (as well as the third and fourth) contains only three films each. In a five-film set, two lesser movies still make the set worth picking up, but in a three-movie set, at least two of them had better be worth having.
Thunder on the Hill (1951) kicks off this second volume with director Douglas Sirk at the helm, a man often considered the king of melodrama, but don’t expect to see lush Technicolor, banal situations or Rock Hudson.
As the film opens during a thunderstorm in Norfolk, England, Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is busy trying to manage her convent’s hospital ward when police Sergeant Melling (Gavin Muir) brings her a surprise. Since torrential rains have closed area roads, the police are bringing someone to stay in the convent hospital until the storm passes. That someone is the condemned murderer Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth).
Even before Carns’s arrival, neither the nuns nor the Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) are pleased with the way Sister Mary manages the convent. She runs a tight, efficient ship, but always has to have things her way. Sister Mary’s allowing Carns lodging until she can be transferred to prison practically sets off a nun riot. Yet after meeting with Carns, Sister Mary begins to doubt the young woman’s guilt.
The Oscar Saul/Andrew Solt script (based on the play by Charlotte Hastings) does a fine job of delivering information and clues at just the right time, and the William Daniels cinematography (just check out the guy’s credits) is a masterclass in the presentation of shadow and light. Thunder on the Hill may not be what you think of as film noir, but Sirk keeps things moving with interesting characters and lots of suspense.
The film’s backstory would’ve been interesting to explore through an audio commentary or a short featurette, but since neither made it to the disc, I’ll give you the short version:
As early as 1947, Universal originally planned for Robert Siodmak to direct the film with stars Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster, but the project was postponed. Lancaster was busy working on the noir drama All My Sons (1948) and Fontaine launched her own production company Rampart Productions with Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Both Lancaster and Fontaine left Universal hanging once again when they both starred in the noir Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948). Fontaine got pregnant, which meant more delays in the production. After this much time, practically everyone associated with the project had to be replaced.
Replacing Joan Fontaine, Universal picked up Claudette Colbert, who was near the end of her film career, but soon focused on stage and television roles. Six years after playing the spiteful Veda in Mildred Pierce (1945), Ann Blyth as Valerie Carns shows she still has plenty of venom in those fangs. Valerie’s love interest is played by Philip Friend, a British actor David O. Selznick brought to Hollywood, but never used. Universal picked him up, put him in a few movies, then dropped him. Friend’s most famous role is that of the pirate Fredric Baptiste, starring opposite Yvonne De Carlo in action/adventure/comedy Buccaneer’s Girl (1950).
Thunder on the Hill is a great start to this set, but what about the other two films?
Next we have The Price of Fear (1956) starring Merle Oberon as Jessica Warren, a successful businesswoman who has a few too many drinks at a club before getting behind the wheel. Jessica accidentally runs down a man, quickly sobers up, and decides to drive away before anyone notices.
Meanwhile, David Barrett (Lex Barker) learns that he’s been pushed out as the co-owner of a dog track by his partner Lou (Tim Sullivan). An angered Barrett threatens to kill Lou, then discovers that the gangster Lou sold out to is after Barrett to bump him off.
Back to Jessica, who’s feeling the guilt and decides to leave her car long enough to call the police and tell all. What a coincidence that Barrett sees Jessica’s abandoned car, jumps in, and takes off. Seeing this unfold as she gets the police on the line, Jessica says, “Police? I want to report a… a stolen car.”
If you can buy into all the coincidences in The Price of Fear, you’ll probably have a good time, but Dick Irving Hyland’s screenplay truly turns this story into Happenstance City. Part of the fun of this one is in seeing some noir nasties such as Warren Stevens and Philip Pine, as well as the sometimes slightly goofy Charles Drake, who’s pretty good here.
The film is directed by Abner Biberman, whose name you might recognize from his television work in the 1950s and ‘60s, including episodes of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Ben Casey, The Outer Limits, and a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. Maybe you’ve never heard of scriptwriter Dick Irving Hyland. I hadn’t either. Of the 15-or-so scripts he wrote, his best-known are Hi, Beautiful (1944) and Kilroy Was Here (1947), not exactly box office champions. The Price of Fear certainly contains noir elements, but melodrama is always waiting in the wings during this picture, saying, “Hey, it’s my turn now!” Like Claudette Colbert in Thunder on the Hill, Merle Oberon was on the downward slope of her career with The Price of Fear. She would appear in only four more films during the next 17 years.
Ah, now we come to The Female Animal, which gives us much to talk about. As most noir fans know, this is the film that was paired in a double feature with the masterful Touch of Evil (1958), both films being produced by Albert Zugsmith. In the box set’s lone commentary, film historian David Del Valle and director David DeCoteau correctly point out that The Female Animal suffers from many things, but its biggest flaw is that it’s too similar to Female on the Beach (1955), starring Joan Crawford, Jeff Chandler, and Jan Sterling.
In The Female Animal, we have Hedy Lamarr playing aging movie star Vanessa Windsor. The opening scene where Vanessa is being attacked on a bridge of questionable construction provides the backdrop for this frame story. We see the onlookers awaiting her fate, but we don’t know what their looks mean at this point.
Later, bodybuilder and film extra Chris Farley (I know; now you can’t think of anything else, can you?), played by George Nader, rescues Vanessa from a falling stage light.
Okay, now hang with me here… Vanessa - much older than Chris - asks the second-rate actor to keep an eye on her villa, but we all know she wants more than that. While Vanessa is out, Chris has an encounter with a wild young woman named Penny (Jane Powell, playing drunk far better than I would’ve imagined), who’s immediately ready to put less distance between them. Chris doesn’t know it, but we do: Penny is Vanessa’s daughter. What’s going to happen when mama finds out? The movie was directed by Harry Keller, but just imagine what Douglas Sirk could’ve done with this.
The Female Animal is loaded with problems, but that’s also what makes it so appealing. First and foremost, the picture starts as a film noir, but quickly moves into melodrama and pretty much stays there, despite some wonderful cinematography by Russell Metty, who shot a lot of good and great films, including Touch of Evil.
Second, Hedy Lamarr is far too young (only 44) and gorgeous to play an aging actress whom we’re to believe is a desperate alcoholic with an adult daughter played by Jane Powell (who was 29 at the time). George Nader looks a bit younger than his actual 37, but not that much younger. I’m sure no one watching this movie in 1958 was struggling with the math, but no one would’ve believed Lamarr was anywhere close to being over the hill.
The best role in the film goes to the actor with the least amount of screen time, Jan Sterling as Lily Frayne, another actress we’re meant to believe is about to be past her prime. Like Nader, Sterling was only 37 at the time, and the attempts to make her look older (mostly through heavy eye shadow) are laughable. Sterling’s Lily delivers razor-sharp quips and knows how to turn it on when Chris comes within a hundred yards. Had she been given one or two more scenes, Sterling would’ve walked away with this picture.
For what it is, The Female Animal isn’t bad, it’s just not a film noir (or at least it's not one for very long). It’s not even a particularly good melodrama, but it is interesting. I certainly don’t regret seeing it, and I’ll probably watch it again before I revisit The Price of Fear.
Kino could’ve called this box set “Actresses on the Way Out,” and it would’ve been accurate. Unlike the leads in the two other films in this set, The Female Animal was Hedy Lamarr’s final movie, but her story doesn’t end there. If you’d like to know more, check out the 2017 documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.
It would’ve been nice to have had more extras in the set besides trailers and the lone audio commentary for The Female Animal. But to their credit, Kino delivers a nice audio/visual package with this set. These films have probably never looked better, and if you can pick up this set at a good price, I’d do so.
All photos from DVD Beaver. Please consider supporting them.