“Supervisor Irving Briskin would take prospective writers to an outer office where there was a list of titles on a blackboard … Breskin would ask the writer to pick a title that sounded interesting and so some sample pages. On that basis, a screenplay would be assigned – but the title came first!” – Don Miller, B Movies.
And here we go with nine interesting titles, mostly B movies, some of them film noir (or noir's sister genre, the B&W crime drama), nearly all of them from Columbia Pictures and all released from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, in a stunning new set of so-called "minor" films that nonetheless fans will savor, a veritable high-resolution sample box of low-budget B&W cinematic art in shadows and fog.
Address Unknown (1944) Produced and Directed by William Cameron Menzies - 75 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
A German expatriate who runs an SF art gallery returns to the Fatherland and falls under the sway of Nazism, to the horror of his partner back in the Bay.
Sheer propaganda and while it’s the most stylish and cinematic of the films in the set, too much of it turns out to be a hoot for the film to gel properly; these Germans and their children are just the HAPPIEST, jolliest people this side of Snow White’s dwarfs until the shadow of the Swastika falls over them.
“It is true that his Brownshirt troops are of the rabble. They pillage and are part of the Jew baiting. But these may be minor things.”
Paul Lukas and Morris Carnovsky are our two conflicting partners; Carol Esmond is the upright Baron with the Fascist heart; Peter van Eyck and K.T. Stevens are the young lovers trying to make a relationship work under, um, difficult circumstances. In some ways, the most impressive film in the set (and it landed two Oscar® nominations, for its Art Direction and its Score) and since when did style over substance ever bother noir fans?
Escape in the Fog (1945) Produced by Wallace MacDonald, Directed by Budd Boetticher - 65 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
Perhaps my favorite film in the set is next, helmed by the guy who’d go on to make great Westerns in the next decade but who was just starting out here. Everything we love about B movies, including tubing in enough fog to choke a herd of elephants to hide the tiny sets. Nina Foch has a dream that a man is being murdered on the Golden Gate Bridge, and wouldn’t you just know that her fantasies are becoming real. The worst leading man in the set (William Wright; imagine putting Eb from Green Acres in a mustache and calling him a leading man), but Otto Kruger, who surprisingly isn’t playing a Nazi agent, gives the film a lot of gravitas.
Miss Foch, explaining her powerful visions: “I don’t need a drink, I’m not ill, I’m not insane, and I’m certainly NOT the victim of HALLUCINATIONS!”
Brisk, fun movie although you’ll have to complete suspend disbelief to accept Ernie Adams, runt-faced unhealthy-looking park tramp in an endless string of serials and B-movies, as a waiter in a fine hotel. Cinematography is by George Meehan, who was all over the Columbia lot in those days (showing how fast they shot shorts and B-movies); he averaged more than a feature a month in 1945, plus some comedy shorts.
The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947) Directed by Henry Levin - 83 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
Our first A picture in the set; Rosalind Russell’s husband was killed during the war, and she’s intent on visiting the men for whom he sacrificed his life to be certain that they’re “worthy.” Melvyn Douglas is the reporter who’s helping her (and also happens to be on the list); other recipients of her husband’s largesse include Hugh Beaumont and – get this – Sid Caesar!
Guessing who Roz is when she refuses to identify herself: “Maybe she’s the daughter of a wealthy herring merchant, caught in the web of an international spy ring!” Say, that sounds pretty good – hope THAT movie’s on the set, too.
This one’s rather long, but interesting and bizarre in its way.
The Black Book (1949) Eagle-Lion Films
Produced by Walter Wanger and William Cameron Menzies, Directed by Anthony Mann - 89 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
The Black Book (also known as Reign of Terror) is the #1 film in the set for which everyone seems to be salivating; it wasn’t produced by Columbia, it’s an independent Walter Wanger Production with the most esteemed director in this set. Another A picture (or A minus, if there was such a thing), and probably the only Historical Film Noir – it’s set during the French Revolution, with a rather miscast Richard Basehart as the sinister, power-mad Robespierre (my, what Conrad Veidt, had he lived longer, could’ve done with this role) and the never-too-impressive Bob Cummings(!) as our Hero, teamed with Arlene Dahl to prevent the Black Book from falling into the wrong hands and their heads from falling into the guillotine basket.
Robespierre to an underling: “I cannot decide whether to promote you or denounce you.”
While we prefer our noirs in the rain-soaked alleys and streets of a teeming metropolis, we’ll admit that this film is a delight, silk pants and all, gorgeously shot by John Alton, noir's greatest cinematographer.
Johnny Allegro (1949) Produced by Irving Starr, Directed by Ted Tetzlaff - 80 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
George Raft is coerced by a treasury agent into helping break up the racket of a counterfeiter and instead finds himself in yet another remake of The Most Dangerous Game. We find Mr. Raft the dullest “big star” of the Golden Age of Hollywood to still manage to keep our attention during his films, and we’ve never figured out how that oxymoron even works. Nina Foch and Will Geer co-star.
Mr. Geer, head of the T-Men: “My friends call me Schultzy.”
Mr. Raft, not flipping a coin: “I’m not one of them.”
Pretty good picture thanks to its twists and turns; co-written by, of all people, Guy Endore, who wrote The Werewolf of Paris, which became the movie Curse of the Werewolf, which we like better than this but heck, nobody ever said George Raft was Oliver Reed.
711 Ocean Drive (1950) Produced by Frank N. Seltzer, Directed by Joseph M. Newman - 102 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
A film whose timeliness (it was an age of rackets-busting) inspired the studio to stretch it out to maximum length for A bookings despite its B trappings. Edmund O’Brien (in many, many crime dramas and noirs, and excellent in all of them) is a two-bit telephone repairman who hits the big time when he goes to work for a betting syndicate and learns how to game the system. Joanna Dru and Otto Kruger co-star, and you have to (well, we had to, anyway) LOVE a movie with Gidget’s dad, Don Porter, as a vicious gangster.
Miss Dru, on Mr. O’Brien’s offer to come over and fix her broken cooling system: “First guy I ever met that made air conditioning sound like etchings!”
We’re also treated to an official-looking notice at the film’s opening that real-life gangsters tried to stop the filming and the actors were performing under duress, so we can excuse any lack of polish, I assure you, on their part.
The Killer that Stalked New York (1950) Produced by Robert Cohn, Directed by Earl McEvoy - 79 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
Another independent production that was distributed by Columbia; dopey Evelyn Keyes smuggles $400,000 worth of diamonds into New York from Cuba for her worthless husband, who plans on dumping her and absconding with the dough and her sister(!). Unbeknownst to the wacky couple, though, is that Evelyn has also brought back smallpox, and while she searches Manhattan for her rotten hubby, she's infecting folks with the dread disease and getting sicker and sicker herself: it's only her thirst for revenge that's keeping her alive. She thinks all the folks chasing her are cops, but half of them are doctors trailing Typhoid Evelyn.
The only one of the films in the set we’d seen before; it’s on one of the must-own Columbia/Sony “Bad Girls of Noir” DVD sets. We like it a lot; narrator Reed Hadley is WAY too cheery, though, and alas, much of the dialog consists of folks sprouting statistics about vaccinations and disease, just as if real folks talked that way. Somebody does mention "the clammy hand of DEATH!", so not all the dialog is unrealistic. A good Hans Salter score, and the film makes a great double-feature with the similar-plot-but-different-disease Panic in the Streets.
Assignment—Paris! (1952) Directed by Robert Parrish (after Phil Karlson was fired) - 85 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
Probably our least favorite film in the set, and not because we were getting tired of noir (we don’t think). Dana Andrews is a crusading journalist investigating the crooked Commie rats running Hungary who just happen to be arresting reporters, and he’s helped by editor George Sanders and swell dames Audrey Totter and Märta Torén (who?).
Hungarian leader’s uplifting radio announcement: “I wish to make a brief statement concerning the light sentence of only 20 years given to the American spy. I hereby warn the western nations NOT to regard this LENIENCY as a sign of WEAKNESS!”
Narration (not for the only time in the set) is by William Woodson, whom we all remember (I’m sure) for a lot of voiceovers, notably as the bombastic announcer of the 1960s TV series The Invaders.
The Miami Story (1954) Produced by Sam Katzman, Directed by Fred Sears - 75 min. / B&W / 1.85:1
Ending the set with a Sam Katzman production from the director of Republic’s worst serials would seem like a management decision for clearing out the theatre, but heck, we kind of liked this one (and note it’s the only widescreen film in the set).
Nice guy Barry Sullivan was once framed by the mob and spent time in stir, and his friends the Feds are willing to blow his cover now that he’s a respectable family man, unless he plays ball and infiltrates the Mob for them, and isn’t that just like our government?
Getting a con loose so they can tail him: “Through the behind-the-scenes efforts of the City and Police Chief Belman, Louis Mott was released from jail on a trumped-up parole.” (In case that voice sounded familiar, it was The Invaders guy again.)
I can’t be too hard on any film that boasts both Beverly Garland and Adele Jergens, and I’m not going to be too hard on this one, that’s for sure. Considering Katzman produced it and it has no rockin’ teens, gorillas, or zombies in it, it’s still pretty darn interesting.
Well, that's the Set
And frankly, it's a bargain. No bonus material, but nine films, all making Blu-ray debuts and all looking terrific. Columbia has so much great stuff locked away in its vaults, including great B movie series like Boston Blackie and cliffhanger serials like The Iron Claw, that this set gives us hope for more, more, more - and at least two more Noir sets have been promised. The Noir Archive 9-Film Collection carries our highest recommendation for nine entertaining movies that look and sound sensational for your viewing pleasure; fedoras optional.