Bad Girls of Film Noir: Vols. 1 & 2

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment made some peculiar choices in assembling its new two-volume set, Bad Girls of Film Noir, specifically in terms of what to include and what to omit. Some of the movies in the set are only noir films by the loosest classification of the genre, a couple of them aren’t very good, and some of the women featured are decidedly un-bad. Missing from the collection are Columbia gems with legitimate femme fatales like Gilda, The Crimson Kimono, Screaming Mimi, and Human Desire. Instead, we get eight other pictures, all being released on DVD for the first time — it’s likely Sony saw a box set as the best opportunity to move these titles.

The first volume opens with Earl McEvoy’s 1950 film The Killer that Stalked New York, which stars Evelyn Keyes. The titular grammatical oddity is a hint into the plot. Smallpox, not Keyes’ Shelia Bennet, is the murderer at the center of the drama. Bennet is a once-innocent lady who fell in love with a smuggler named Matt Krane (Charles Korvin), and on an unseen jewel run to Cuba she contracts the disease. Not realizing she’s carrying a deadly virus, she infects a few people she encounters before returning home to Krane.

Her man, it turns out, has been two-timing her with her sister, and he gives them both the slip as soon as he’s able to get the $50,000 worth of diamonds Shelia scored in Cuba. When she figures out Krane’s game, she fights her way through terrible symptoms in an effort to find and kill him, all the while infecting dozens of people she runs into along the way. Health officials try to track down the virus’ source, and McEvoy presents more a public health scare movie than a revenge thriller gone wild. The detective-work segments drag, and the dialogue (“Smallpox in New York City,” says one official. “Wow!”) is most dated in these scenes. It’s a fun movie, but it’s a good first clue that we’ve got a somewhat disappointing box set on our hands.

Lizabeth Scott, marvelous in the 1949 United Artists noir Too Late for Tears, can’t save Henry Levin’s Two of a Kind (1951) or Irving Rapper’s Bad for Each Other (1953). It’s really too bad Two of a Kind is a snorefest, because it has more of the elements of noir than any other movie except one included in either volume of the set. With an insurance scam, Scott as an unpredictable minx, a man willing to cut off part of his pinkie for some cash, and a murderous lawyer, Levin’s film has it all — but it still falls flat. There are good scenes (did I mention a man losing a piece of his finger?), and the classic noir theme of love as a spoiler of good people bears a strong presence, but the details of the crooks’ scheme are just too boring and unsexy to make the movie worthwhile.

As for Bad for Each Other, ignore the gritty photography and you hardly have a film noir at all. Charlton Heston stars as a Korean War vet who returns to his Pennsylvania mining town and half-falls for a local woman with money (Scott). True, his greed drives him to make selfish decisions, but those decisions are about what kind of medicine he pursues, not about who to kill or how to rob. Watching Heston this early in his career is nifty, but the movie is lightweight, and the heart-warming finish isn’t very heart-warming. Paramount’s Dark City, released three years earlier, offers a far more engaging Heston-Scott matchup in a movie that actually is a film noir.

The Glass Wall (1953, directed by Maxwell Shane) is the best move in the set, but it also doesn’t clearly belong. I’m not even sure who I’m supposed to think is the bad girl in this one. The only female in a central role is Gloria Grahame’s Maggie Suthand, who does all she can to help save the film’s hero, Peter Kaban (Vittorio Gassman), from deportation and death. Admittedly, Maggie’s desire to live through a freezing New York night does at one point coax her into stealing a coat, but by no means does she belong next to Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson or Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In fact, there’s hardly any ill will in any single character in the whole movie, which revolves mostly around a misunderstanding.

However, Gassman is wonderful as the desperate immigrant on the run, Joseph F. Biroc’s cinematography does wonders for post-war New York, the music is great, and the array of New York characters in small parts is winning (one bathroom attendant, in particular, steals a terrific scene). If you’re not rooting with all of your heart for Gassman’s Kaban by the end of this film, chances are you have strong right-wing opinions about immigration.

From the start, Volume 2 is a better collection than Volume 1. Henry Levin’s second entry to the collection, Night Editor (1946), is an infinitely better movie than his later Two of a Kind, which appears on the first disc of the first volume. Set up as a newsroom procedural, Night Editor cuts back to tell the story of a murder investigation that took place some years in the past. William Gargan plays a cop caught in an extramarital affair he can’t get out of, and Janis Carter shines as his wild-card paramour. From the storytelling structure to the photography to the double-cross filled plot, this is real noir, the only hard-boiled movie here without a runny yolk. It’s not an outstanding movie, but it is what the box set claims to offer: a good, gritty crime picture with a top-notch bad girl.

After Night Editor, Sony’s second volume quickly becomes a Cleo Moore box set, featuring Hugo Haas’ One Girl’s Confession (1953), Lewis Seiler’s Women’s Prison (1955), and Seiler’s Over-Exposed. Moore plays, in all of these movies, a foxy and misunderstood woman trying to make her way in the world. In none of them, though, does she play a bona fide femme fatale.

Her Mary in One Girl’s Confession and her Lila in Over-Exposed come close, but her character is the protagonist in both movies, and in both movies she’s a sweet young woman pushed to her breaking point who makes some greedy decisions — but she’s not a scheming cutthroat. By the time Mary smashes a man’s head with a bottle, she’s already been through quite a bit, and viewers are firmly on her side. When Lila tries to blackmail a gangster, maybe we tisk-tisk, knowing she should have stayed in Maine with her beloved, but we never see her as a villain.

One Girl’s Confession is almost as boring as Bad for Each Other, but after Mary gets out of prison and begins working for a gambling restaurant owner, things move along. Over-Exposed is neither as sex-filled nor violence-ridden as Columbia marketing executives wanted audiences to think when it was initially released, but it holds up as a decent film decades later, and it also offers a glimpse into how gender-biased most professions were just a couple of generations ago.

Women’s Prison is a real hoot. It’s not a mystery/thriller, but it has enough grit to make up for what it lacks in suspense. Moore is one of several inmates who harmlessly and charismatically suffer under the iron fist of Ida Lupino’s Amelia Van Zandt, the wicked subordinate to the prison’s male warden (Barry Kelley). Van Zandt runs the female half of the joint, and as she begins to lose her control over her inmates, she gets more and more maniacal. Interesting for its social connotations (“The state legislature won’t come through with the dough” for a separate facility, laments the warden), the real reason to watch is for Lupino’s delirious performance.

The central problem with this set is that the movies so rarely deliver what the collection’s title promises. In total, the four discs of “Bad Girls Film Noir” contain more than five hours of average-to-very-good viewing material, and both volumes are exciting products for lovers of films of the ‘50s. If you’re looking for a “best femme fatales” collection, though, look elsewhere.

There’s no commentary from film scholars on the discs, but the few extra features that are included are fitting. There are theatrical trailers for all of the movies on Volume 1. The first disc also has a seven-minute interview with Terry Moore (the female lead from the original Mighty Joe Young who had a small part in Two of a Kind) in which she talks about signing a contract during the hey-day of Hollywood’s star system. Each volume also offers a 25-minute TV special. Trailers for One Girl’s Confession, Women’s Prison, and Over-Exposed are included in Volume 2.

RATING 5 / 10