Film Noir on Blu-ray: ‘Moonrise,’ ‘Gun Crazy,’ ‘No Orchids,’ and the restored ‘Man Who Cheated Himself’

The Man Who Cheated Himself (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD)
Moonrise (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Gun Crazy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Lee J. Cobb takes the lead as Lt. Ed Cullen, a veteran Homicide detective in a secret affair with socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt) while she’s in the midst of a divorce, in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), an independently-made film noir shot on location in San Francisco. When she shoots her soon-to-be-ex-husband (in self-defense), Ed looks over the incriminating evidence and decides that a cover-up is in her best interest. When he’s assigned the case, all looks good, except that his rookie partner—his newlywed and newly promoted younger brother Andy (John Dall)—digs into the evidence and uncovers contradictions in the case, despite Ed’s efforts to nudge him in other directions. It’s a classic good cop gone bad set-up but Ed isn’t greedy or corrupt, merely protective of the woman he loves, which gets complicated because he’s equally protective of his kid brother determined to pull at every loose thread. Wyatt is an unlikely femme fatale, less cold-blooded than practical, but Cobb is excellent as the tough mug of a cop swayed by love and the two deliver a beautifully understated coda that sums up their relationship without a word, merely glances and body language that suggests a tenderness that still exists between them. Dall is the opposite as the bright and energetic rookie on the trail of his first big case, with wide grins and a twinkle in his eye.

Director Felix Feist, a noir veteran, directs the budget-minded independent production with brisk efficiency, moving it along its paces and taking the camera out of the studio and into the city. The imagery is more low-key than the classic noir style until the finale, where Ed and Lois hide out in Fort Point on the Presidio in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (years before Vertigo made it an iconic San Francisco location). Feist makes superb use of the space: the open courtyard, the architecture of arches and open bays, the echoing footsteps of Andy through the brick hallways enhancing the ghostly emptiness and cat-and-mouse tension-+. The crosscutting between Dall striding through the place on a mission to put his brother away and Cobb ducking out of sight with Wyatt in the highest point in the structure while her scarf blows off and plays tag with Dall builds a tension that seems ready to snap at any moment with an easy grace. It gives the film a vivid atmosphere and visual eye unseen in the first two acts of the film.

Unavailable for years in anything but substandard editions, it makes its makes its Blu-ray debut in a dual format edition featuring a new restoration from the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA. The Blu-ray / DVD combo release includes featurettes on the restoration and the locations and the restored original trailer on both discs.

The Man Who Cheated Himself [Blu-ray+DVD]

The most authentically romantic filmmaker of classic Hollywood, Frank Borzage made films where the power of love conquered all, not simply narrative obstacles and stubborn complications but time and space itself. He’s the last filmmaker you would expect to produce a film noir masterpiece yet in Moonrise (1948) he delivers beautifully.

Criterion

Dane Clark is Danny Hawkins, a kid from the backwoods orphaned when his father went to the gallows. The angry kid is bullied into an angry young man by kids who never let him forget his legacy. Pushed into yet another fight, he kills his tormentor in a blind rage and hides the body in a swamp, but the guilt keeps pushing him into lashing out. Gail Russell is Gilly Johnson, a schoolteacher whose career could be in jeopardy thanks to her association with the unstable Danny (not to mention her life when his rage kicks in and he speeds furiously and recklessly down a windy road while his passengers beg him to slow down).

Moonrise has more in common with the poetic realism of 1930s France than with the hardboiled detectives or shadowy tales of corruption and compromise of American crime cinema. The title is perfect: even in daytime there is something nocturnal in Danny’s unreal world. His small southern town is a dreamworld ringed in perpetual mist and haunted by the ghosts and sins of the past and flashbacks are distorted or suggested in shadow, like expressionist echoes of real events. This is a place out of time and space, created entirely on studio sets and photographed with the floating cameras and poetic imagery of a silent movie, lush and claustrophobic and beautifully unreal, like Sunrise as a small town melodrama with a psychologically tormented hero. Borzage invests it with passion and compassion.

Rex Ingram costars as Mose, his hunting buddy and only friend, Allyn Joslyn is the understanding Sheriff Clem Otis, Henry Morgan is the mute, learning-disabled Billy, who adores Danny for standing up for him against the town bullies (notably Lloyd Bridges), and Ethel Barrymore is Danny’s Grandma, who lives deep in the hills and keeps the secrets that torment the boy out a sense of protection.

Criterion gives the film its Blu-ray and DVD debut from a 4k digital transfer of the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and it looks amazing, with great detail, rich texture, excellent contrast, and a sense of depth to the image. The sole supplement in an informative conversation between film critic and historian Peter Cowie and Borzage expert Herve Dumon and there’s a leaflet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp.

Moonrise (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Moonrise (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

Gun Crazy (1950), the greatest of the criminal lovers-on-the-run thriller, explodes onto the screen in a fury of sex and guns and love and violence. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, it is a masterpiece of style and a blast of cinematic ecstasy on a budget barely bigger than a B movie.

Gun Crazy

John Dall is a reformed juvenile delinquent turned gentle marksman Bart Tare and Peggy Cummins is Annie Laurie Starr, a sexy sideshow markswoman in a cheap travelling carnival. Bart is obsessed with guns from an early age but at heart a sensitive guy. He dives into life of crime to hang on to Annie, a psychotic wildcat whose eyes light up whenever she shoots someone. Yet she’s no mere femme fatale and her passion for Bart is genuine. She simply desires money more. Both are, in their own way, gun crazy, and when they come together the results are explosive.

Lewis turns this thriller of criminal lovers on the run into the most explosive and passionate films to stir sex and guns and love and violence into a “Bonnie and Clyde” tale the burns fast and hot with emotional fire and stylistic ecstasy. At times shot with a documentary realism on location, at others with bravura style and expressionist exaggeration, Lewis creates one riveting set piece after another on a starvation budget. He photographs one heist, and the subsequent high speed getaway, in a single long take where the camera never leaves the back seat of the car. But what fuels the film is a smoldering passion that burns through the screen as their doomed romance careens out of control down the highway to hell.

It was produced by the King Brothers, who saw the film as something that could break out of the B-movie circuit and stand on its own, and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo co-wrote the script under the name Millard Kaufman. Young Russ Tamblyn (under the name Rusty) plays the boyhood Dall in the opening scene. It’s a film noir masterpiece and an exemplar of stylistic ingenuity and creative invention on a budget.

The Blu-ray debut is mastered from the 2013 restoration, mastered from a newly-created fine-grain print from the original negative, and it looks superb, with a strong, bold image with sharp resolution, great detail, dynamic contrast, and natural-looking grain. It features commentary by critic and film noir specialist Glenn Erickson, carried over from the earlier DVD release, plus the 68-minute documentary Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.

Gun Crazy [Blu-ray]

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948), the original British adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel, has a notoriety that, disappointingly, does not translate to dramatic engagement.

Kino Classics

Jack La Rue, who looks like a poor man’s Humphrey Bogart, is given a terrific entrance that establishes him as the cock of the walk and is just fine (if never genuinely commanding) as the tough guy with a sop of a heart under his ruthless front. He’s the nightclub impresario and gangster who kidnaps a jaded heiress (Linden Travers) and falls in love with her, much to the frustration of his partners. Their illicit affair is ostensibly at the heart of the condemnation of the film but their chemistry isn’t all that convincing. In fact, neither of them is able to convincingly exude passion for anything. The production is studio-bound and the attempts at American accents and gangster talk is awkward at best. And the direction by St. John Legh Clowes (who also adapted the novel) never manages to bring a snap to the underworld milieu, a passion to the supposedly mad love, or a savage edge to the mercenary twists.

There’s more fun to be found around the details at the edges of the story: a reporter (Hugh McDermott) who repeatedly pulls a gun while he pursues his story and peeps on a showgirl getting undressed, gang members shacking up with their latest conquest, and (my favorite) a cigarette girl whose outfit includes a zipper that goes right down the front (and gets tested by more than one customer). The British production fails to capture the American milieu but, at the same time, it throws out sexual suggestions that American movies hadn’t permitted since the pre-code days. It makes for a failed thriller but an interesting curiosity, a cult item notable for its sleazy milieu and lurid edges.

The new Blu-ray and DVD editions from Kino Lorber is a significant upgrade from the previous VCI DVD, with a clean, sharp picture and no supplements beyond a trailer.

And, as luck would have it, Kino has also released a newly restored and remastered edition of The Grissom Gang (1970), Robert Aldrich’s remake of set in the Depression-era Midwest.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (70th Anniversary) [Blu-ray]
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (70th Anniversary) [DVD]

Discs provided by Flicker Alley, Criterion, Warner Archive, and Kino Classics for review purposes.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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