by Donald Melanson
November 05 , 2004 |The last few months have been a boon
for film noir aficionados. Warner Bros. recently released a superb
box set with five classic films and Universal followed shortly thereafter
with a number of titles from their catalogue in a new film noir
line. But many classic noirs are not owned by the big studios and
as a result wind on DVD in cheap public domain editions.
Movies like Detour, D.O.A., and Scarlet Street,
to name a few, are all available in multiple DVD releases that vary
wildly in quality. The problem for noir fans is that it's often
difficult to know which version is the best.
A recent trend with companies relying on public domain films, however,
has been to package 5, 10 or more movies together and sell them
at a bargain price. So while there may be a few duds or low-grade
transfers, there's bound to be at least a couple of gems mixed in.
I spent some time recently going through two sets full of film noir.
Film Noir Killer Classics
I hadn't heard of Questar before getting this set, but if it's
any indication of the quality of their other releases, I'll certainly
be looking forward to what they do next. 5 Film Noir Killer Classics
collects some of the best noirs available in the public domain:
D.O.A., Detour, The Stranger, Scarlet Street
and Killer Bait (also known as Too Late for Tears).
Questar also one-ups other budget DVD companies by throwing in an
additional disc full of bonus features.
The set has already gained a reputation among noir devotees for
containing the best version of Edgar G. Ulmer's masterful low-budget
film Detour (1946). While it's far from perfect, it looks
like this is the best we're going get for the foreseeable future,
and it alone is reason enough to pick up the set. The transfer does
have a slight grayish-blue tint to it, but if you find it bothersome
it can be corrected with your television settings.
Also included is one of my personal favorite film noirs, D.O.A.
(1950), directed by Rudolph Mate. The film, starring noir mainstay
Edmund O'Brien as a man who discovers he's been poisoned and has
only 24 hours to track down his own killer, is one of the most frenetic
noirs I've seen and, I think, is one clear inspiration for Steven
Spielberg's Minority Report. The transfer is not quite as
good as the disc put out by the Roan
Group, but it's certainly passable (although it has the same
tinting problem as Detour).
Next up is one of Orson Welles' less appreciated films, The
Stranger (1946). Welles continues his one-two acting-directing
punch, starring as Franz Kindler, a former Nazi official leading
a second life as a professor in a small New England town. It also
looks better than any other DVD release of it I've seen. Rounding
out the set are Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945), which
unfortunately doesn't far as well in the transfer department, and
Killer Bait (a.k.a Too Late for Tears), which is not
quite on the same level as the other films in the set but still
a very enjoyable noir.
collection is complete without these classic movies.
Film Noir Classic Collection
includes: Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, The Set-Up, The Asphalt
Jungle, and Murder, My Sweet. All five of them top drawer noir.
Maltese Falcon (1941)
John Huston's debut film set the mold for the genre and
made Bogart the face of it.
Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks proves there's no genre he can't do, crafting
one of the most intricate noirs of the 40s.
Carol Reed's classic has some of the most vivid imagery of
any film noir, and a performance by Orson Welles that is unforgettable.
of Evil (1958)
Considered by some to be the last true film noir. If it is,
you couldn't ask for a better end.
The disc of extra features is the real surprise here. It includes
two short features on film noir (What is Film Noir? and Femme
Fatale - The Noir Dame) a collection of film noir posters and
38 trailers. Unfortunately, the trailers cannot be accessed individually
- you either have to watch them all or fast-forward to the ones
you want to see. Nevertheless, it's a much better collection of
extras than what's usually found on these budget releases.
I should also mention the packaging, which is by far the best
I've seen from a public domain-oriented company, and better than
what we see from many major studios. The six discs are housed in
book-style case with clear plastic "pages" for each disc. It's a
great solution that saves a lot of space on a shelf.
Noir (10-Movie Set)
Brentwood's film noir set has four of the movies in
the 5 Film Noir Killer Classics set but, unfortunately, most
of them fare better in the Questar set in terms of picture quality.
That said, there's still quite a bit to recommend here.
Apart from the films I've already discussed in the previous review,
the stand out movie here is He Walked By Night (1948). While
the film is credited to Alfred Werker, it is widely recognized that
it was as least mostly directed by the great Anthony Mann. DVD Talk's
Glenn Erickson described it as "To Live and Die in L.A., circa 1948",
and it certainly laid the template for a number of movies to follow
(not to mention TV's Dragnet). The transfer is also surprisingly
good by far the best of the ten movies included in the set.
The four movies duplicated in the Questar set are The Stranger,
D.O.A., Detour, and Scarlet Street. Borderline,
Call It Murder, The Red House, Kansas City Confidential,
and The Second Woman are unique to this collection. Of these,
my personal favorite is Kansas City Confidential (1952),
a great crime thriller with strong noir elements directed by Phil
Karlson. It's a heist movie, but like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing,
it's really more about the intrigue behind the heist than the heist
itself. There are better DVDs of the film available, but the transfer
here is passable.
As with the Questar set, Brentwood includes a ton of trailers for
movies of the period, but there are no ther extra features. Considering
you can get both of these sets (a total of 11 different movies)
for the price of two regular DVDs, it's worth picking them both
up if you're a fan of the genre. Casual noir viewers would do well
to check out the Questar set first.
Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack and
a freelance writer for hire. He also rants and raves about movies
on his film blog.