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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.

5 Film Noir Killer Classics
Questar | Buy at

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.

Essential Film Noir
No collection is complete without these classic movies.
Warner 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.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
John Huston's debut film set the mold for the genre and made Bogart the face of it.

The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks proves there's no genre he can't do, crafting one of the most intricate noirs of the 40s.

The Third Man (1949)
Carol Reed's classic has some of the most vivid imagery of any film noir, and a performance by Orson Welles that is unforgettable.

Touch 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.

Film Noir (10-Movie Set)
Brentwood/BCI | Buy at

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.

Donald 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.


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