Film Forum claims that 40 of their 70 “B Noir” features are unavailable for home viewing, though accounting for the editions of uneven quality and dubious legitimacy filling our city’s finer video stores they ought to slash the now-or-never number by at least a dozen. I mention this simply to alleviate the behemoth lineup’s aneurysm-inducing urgency; everyone save the comfortably unemployed is advised to chance the obscure, and consider this an auteur-skewed guide for future catch-up…
The retro leads with Kubrick’s The Killing and Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and scuffs up their lurid A-student polish from there. Robert Wise’s immaculately paced boxing drama The Set-Up is a bit faux-naif for this company, but let that slide for its vision of backlot Americana (called “Paradise City,” even) and an uncharacteristically open performance by the incomparable Robert Ryan. Wise indulges his depraved side with Born to Kill, tailored to Lawrence Tierney’s brutish shoulders and taboo erotic fascination.
Tierney gets his own triple feature, as does Richard Fleischer, who reins in the too-clever-by-half witness protection railway thriller The Narrow Margin, glossing plot holes with flashy camerawork. Also best enjoyed on its own terms: Robert Siodmak’s The Phantom Lady, for the frisson of florid lighting and primitive psycho-sexual hysteria; and Rudolph Mate’s sorta-legendary D.O.A., in which Edmond O’Brien discovers he’s been poisoned and has 24 hours to find out why, and by who. Inevitably, it’s frantically compressed— you can practically hear Mate, offscreen, beating out “hup-two-three” with a riding crop.
The graceful pulp of Nicholas Ray’s epochal They Live By Night was a flattering companion to Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy at Film Forum’s “Essential Noir” series a year and a half ago (funny how things overlap). Lewis gets slightly too much credit for shooting a hold-up in a single take from the getaway car (if you’re going to improvise a centerpiece sequence, cast actors who are comfortable improvising), but amour fou fits his extreme temperament.
Lewis also contributes the Platonically ideal The Big Combo, all wailing saxophones, obsessive cops and smooth criminals, and superb cinematography by the retro’s true star, John Alton — whose style, shards of white light piercing black pools, so defines noir that little else seems sufficiently stark. Alton’s seen to his best advantage in his collaborations with Anthony Mann, notably the tense (unfortunately voiced-over) counterfeiter-busting T-Men. And look, I’m out of space with a dozen notables left to mention…it’s going to be a good six weeks.