Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference To The American Style
Last year's well-received Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection had the advantage of drawing on a studio library stuffed with essentials: Out Of The Past, The Set-Up, Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, and Murder, My Sweet all exemplify noir's dark shadows and soupy morality. The initial Fox Film Noir DVD titles also seem to fit the genre mold well, given that they're shot in inky black and white and are all about murderers. But Laura is more a drawing-room mystery than a noir, while Call Northside 777 fits best into the short-lived docu-realism movement of the late '40s. Only Panic In The Streets, with its dissection of greed and paranoia, is gamy enough to qualify as a true noir.
Still, all three films appear in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference To The American Style, whose editor, Alain Silver, contributes two commentary tracks in collaboration with cohort James Ursini. The duo chat amiably over Call Northside 777 and Panic In The Streets, pointing out the great shots and elucidating how the movies document the pervasive corruption of post-war America. In Call Northside 777, Jimmy Stewart plays a jaded reporter who doesn't expect to find much when he investigates a decade-old cop-killing, and certainly isn't prepared for the utter sincerity of the man in jail for the crime, or the stonewall job he gets from the authorities. The story unfolds in step-by-step procedural detail, pausing to note how a reporter requests an expense voucher from his editor, and how photographs get transmitted by wire. Outstanding location shooting and Stewart's driven performance turn a sober film into a vibrant, exciting one, even though the hero and the jailbird he champions are really too noble for noir.
As for Panic In The Streets, it begins in the New Orleans slums, where small-time gang-lord Jack Palance orders the murder of a sick crony. The crony turns out to be riddled with plague, and as public-health officer Richard Widmark canvasses the criminal underworld for clues to the disease's source, he finds a lack of cooperation and trust that may condemn a whole city to an epidemic. Director Elia Kazan lavishes as much attention on a scene where Widmark grumbles to his wife about unpaid household bills as he does on a scene where he incites a merchant-marine crew to mutiny, and the equal emphasis on domesticity and squalor gives Panic In The Streets metaphorical latitude. The illness that threatens Widmark's middle-class life could be crime, poverty, Communism, or any other taint that can spread from one infected man to an entire community.
Laura is the only one of the first three Fox Film Noir releases that doesn't have a Silver and Ursini commentary, because the DVD was originally slated to be in the Fox Studio Classics line. Instead, it contains A&E Biography episodes on Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, and higher-toned commentary tracks by Rudy Behlmer and Jeanine Basingerall features common to the Studio Classics. Maybe Laura should've stayed in that line. It's a good movie, with Tierney playing an idealized woman whose murder captivates police detective Dana Andrews. But Laura is too flip for noir. Plot twists and a cast of colorful upper-class villains take precedence over any real indictment of romantic obsession. Fox could've easily switched Laura with another Tierney vehicle just released as a Fox Studio Classic, Leave Her To Heaven. That film is in picture-postcard color and has the tenor of a melodrama, but Tierney's poisonous love for her husband connects to the central American-ness of noir. It's about our fear that prosperity will choke us to death.