[23 October 2012]
Hoo boy, this DVD is a party. For fans of kitschy old movies, it might actually be two parties, or four, or six. The print quality is variable, the sound is murky at times, the acting of course is over-the-top when it’s not entirely wooden and the storylines are absurd. Anybody have a problem with that? Didn’t think so.
As the guy who writes PopMatters’ weekly Don’t Open That Door!, I’ve got a better-than-average familiarity with B-movies and their attendant delights. However, Weird Noir is a different beast than, say, The Deadly Mantis or They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Film noir is a style all its own, one given to tough guys and tougher dames, criminal acts taking place in murky shadows, and the promise that any situation, however bad, is always capable of getting worse. At their finest, noir films turn a grimy flashlight on the underbelly of the American dream, and what we see there makes us squirm.
Needless to say, the movies in this collection are far from the finest that the genre has to offer—and they are more likely to make us chuckle, or perhaps snort in disbelief, than anything else.
The standout here is Fear No More (1961), a geniunely twisty little thriller that opens with a young woman named Sharon boarding a train for San Francisco at her employer’s behest. Before long, Sharon must confront an armed goon, a dead body, another dead body, and her own unsavory past in the mental institution. Oh and there’s also a helpful French guy who gets entangled in things—poor fellow!—and who starts putting the pieces together. Before its 80 minutes are over, the movie will have audiences figuring it all out, only to have to figure it out again.
That movie takes the prize for inventiveness and surprise, but every film here is worth a look. Ranging in length from 62 to 85 minutes, the stories don’t demand a huge investment in time—they were most likely the second features for drive-in double bills—but they deliver entertainment out of proportion to their brief running times. Stark Fear (1963) features Beverly Garland (a cult favorite in her own right) dealing with no-good husband; we first encounter him hurling drinking glasses at her photograph, which is usually an indication of trouble in paradise.
Fallguy (1962) brings us a bouncy, be-bopping soundtrack and the story of a well-meaning teenager named Sonny, who plays good Samaritan when a mob boss gets shot and drives off the road. Needless to say, Sonny’s benevolent intentions only land him in more hot water, as both the cops and the mobsters struggle to set him up as the murderer.
Promisingly-titled The Seventh Commandment (1961) manages to concoct an amnesiac preacher whose touch can heal the lame—nice work if you can get it. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for us, there’s a blonde bombshell in his past who’s ready to blackmail him for all he’s worth, and at this point the good reverend is worth quite a bit. Before you can say, “How far would a guy go to save that children’s hospital he’s building?” you find out—and it’s pretty far, indeed.
Meanwhile, Girl On the Run (1953) uses a sinister carnival setting (has there ever been a not-sinister carnival?) to convey a sense of unnerving dread as a pair of young lovers go underground after—of course!—being framed for a murder they didn’t commit. Charles Bolender deserves special mention here as the gangster-in-chief and overall heavy; his performance is genuinely great, and his gritty, deadpan demeanor elevates the whole movie. Supposedly Steve McQueen is visible as an extra, six years before his starring turn in 1959’s The Blob, but I didn’t spot him.
There are no extras on this two-disc set, but that’s hardly a cause for complaint. With six movies amounting to four and a half hours of material, there’s plenty here to enjoy. And yes, sometimes the pacing flags or the acting is too flat to even be amused by; I’ll admit that my attention wandered away from time to time. But there is a charm to these old movies that is lacking in today’s slicker, oftentimes more unkind Hollywood product, and a what-the-hell-let’s-go-for-it verve that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In The Naked Road (1959), young Gay Andrews is kept hostage by an unsavory justice of the piece as collatoral for Gay’s boss’s speeding ticket. Yep, you read that sentence right. Complications ensue. Man, they just don’t write ‘em like that anymore.