A New Film Noir Collection – It’s the same, but different

A skeleton is found one morning, having washed up onto the beach. There are no clothes, no flesh, and no clues as to what happened. Or are there? In comes the forensic expert who correctly identifies the bones as being those of a woman and helps a detective string together the pieces of what happened to the unlucky lady.

Is this a plotline from the next episode of CSI? It certainly could be, but it's actually the plot of Mystery Street, directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape), and starring Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn) as Lieutenant Peter Morales.

Mystery Street is just one of the gems that make Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 worth the price. While the ending is destined from the start in Mystery Street, watching the tale unfold and the origins of CSI come to pass in the form of Dr. McAdoo of Harvard University (Bruce Bennett) more than make up for it. It is a fast-paced film, well handled by Sturges, and the young Montalban shines in his role.

However not every film in the set is quite as exciting or fresh fifty years down the line, such as Where Danger Lives, starring Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue (and with appearances by Claude Rains and Maureen O'Sullivan). In this story, a doctor falls in love with a woman who has attempted suicide, and ends up drawn into her web of lies, deceit, and trickery. Mitchum, as Dr. Jeff Cameron, is given the impossible task of convincing the audience that he would completely throw away his current relationship in hopes of being able to love, and save, Domergue's Margo Lannington. The cast is strong enough, and Claude Rains gives a good performance in his small role, but the story fails to engender any sort of sympathy for Cameron. The notion that he has a concussion and so may not be thinking straight as the story progresses is a foolish way to try to make him more appealing to the audience.

Mitchum appears again in the set in The Big Steal, which places him opposite Jane Greer, from the true noir classic, Out of the Past. The Big Steal may not be as good as Out of the Past, but it is certainly better than Where Danger Lives.

The Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 includes ten different movies on five discs: Act of Violence/Mystery Street, Crime Wave/Decoy, Illegal/The Big Steal, They Live By Night/Side Street, Where Danger Lives/Tension. All the films have been digitally remastered and look wonderful. Additionally, each comes with a brief featurette and theatrical trailers.

Perhaps my favorite in the set is Illegal, starring Edward G. Robinson as an ex-prosecutor and directed by Lewis Allen. Robinson was in numerous film noir pieces, including the famed Double Indemnity. Here though, Robinson is the lead, and has to face the enormity of his mistake upon learning that he sent an innocent man to the chair. After going on a serious bender, he ends up working as a not terribly honest, but incredibly smart, defense attorney. Eventually, he has to make a decision between doing the right thing and continuing to head down his current path. As with many noir pictures it is at times funny but more often dark and serious. Robinson is, as usual, a true standout and carries the entire movie.

One of the best features of this set, however, are the DVD commentaries. Each film has a film professor or historian discuss the work, including looks into the filmmakers, actors, and genre as a whole. Having worked for him in the past I may be partial, but Dr. Drew Casper's look at Act of Violence is a real treat. Though it sounds at times that he (and many of the other people providing commentary tracks) are reading from notes, the sheer depth and breadth of information provided by Casper is quite astounding. He provides information on every aspect of the film and genre and is well worth the time it takes to watch the movie again.

Not every movie in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 is the strongest entry into the genre, but they all have aspects that intrigue. For a fan of the genre or older movies, it is a worthy addition to any collection.

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