Murder, My Sweet

"Boxing Wednesdays. Wrestling on Fridays." It's fight night at Paradise City, the low-rent, small-town sweatbox in Robert Wise's underappreciated 1949 palooka gem The Set-Up, one of five sterling noirs collected from Warner Brothers' vault for a box set labeled Film Noir Classic Collection. Still filling out the undercard at 35, well past a prime that wasn't so great to begin with, boxer Robert Ryan has had his latest bout scheduled after the Main Draw, when punch-drunk fans are likely to walk out or stick around just to boo. Pit against a young comer more than 10 years his junior, Ryan is such an underdog that his own manager not only agrees to throw the fight, but doesn't bother to tell his fighter about the fix. If Ryan gets knocked out, he's the loser everyone expects. If he wins, he's an even bigger loser.

Though The Set-Up may not be considered a noir by the strictest definition, Ryan's dilemma typifies the existential malaise unifying the genre, more so even than the single-source black-and-white lighting effects, the hard-bitten narration, the femmes fatale, or other obvious signifiers. In a postwar America where cynicism and disillusionment carry the day, small-timers like Ryan try to assert themselves as men, but they're rendered impotent by situations that prey on their weaknesses and rob them of leverage. The heroes in all five of the set's Warner noirs are turned into suckers, yanked around by desires and schemes that are doomed to bite them in the tail.

Take Dick Powell, who plays Raymond Chandler's famous private dick Philip Marlowe in 1944's ornately stylized mood piece Murder, My Sweet. In Kiss Me Deadly, Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer gets information by beating it out of people; Powell, by contrast, gets information when crooks beat it into him. What starts out as a simple attempt to find an ex-con's girl evolves, in typical Chandler fashion, into a virtually indecipherable puzzle. Much of the fun comes from watching Powell get knocked around like a pinball: Whether whacked in the back of the head (twice) or drugged for days, he still pieces together clues between bouts of unconsciousness, and he's always ready for more punishment.

All noir heroes have unhealthy compulsions and a nose for trouble, but none are as victimized by their impulses as John Dall in 1949's spectacularly lurid B-movie Gun Crazy. Dall is cinema's most impassioned gun fetishist; his need to possess (and suggestively fondle) the weapon runs against his gentle nature, which forbids him from ever using it for its intended purpose. This makes him easy prey for Peggy Cummins, an expert marksman and out-of-control bad girl who seduces him in a memorable sideshow shooting contest that's unseemly in its implied eroticism. The film's original title, Deadly Is The Female, could apply to any number of code-flouting noirs, but Cummins deserves the title: Her lusty cries for action are a clarion call that Dall can't resist, even though he knows they'll lead him to damnation.

In his own way, Robert Mitchum knows the feeling. The title of a recent Mitchum biography, Baby, I Don't Care, was lifted from Jacques Tourneur's richly melancholic 1947 film Out Of The Past—a sentiment that speaks to Mitchum's awareness of inevitable doom. The moment he lays eyes on double-crossing beauty Jane Greer in an Acapulco bar, he can probably see far enough ahead to realize where it will lead, but a true romantic can't escape his own nature. After Greer flees crime boss Kirk Douglas with $40,000 in cash, Mitchum is hired to bring her back, but his desire puts them on the lam, with Douglas' men after him. Like a lot of noirs, Out Of The Past begins near the end and tells its story in flashback: It opens with Mitchum running a small-town gas station under an alias, making a game attempt at a fresh start. But he knows better, and when an old acquaintance shows up to deliver a reckoning, Mitchum couldn't be less surprised.

Out Of The Past is a quintessential noir, but John Huston's gritty 1950 caper The Asphalt Jungle would be considered a heist picture if the mood didn't dictate otherwise. The standard "honor among thieves" theme applies, but dishonor gives the film its special noir flavor. Led by mastermind Sam Jaffe, three robbers—safecracker Anthony Caruso, driver James Whitmore, and strongman Sterling Hayden—pull off a jewel score worth half a million dollars, but fencing the goods involves shady lawyer Louis Calhern, who plans to skip town with the money and his mistress, Marilyn Monroe. With a special focus on Hayden, whose brutish snarl masks his essential decency, the film aligns its sympathies with the working-class criminal stiffs who take all the risks but reap none of the rewards. In postwar America, many viewers surely found Huston's underworld looking more than a little bit like its legitimate counterpart.

The five Film Noir Classic Collection discs are short of supplemental features, but they all include commentary tracks, mainly by scholars who do a fine job of outlining the genre's hallmarks, detailing production histories, and making a strong case for each film's importance. The one exception is The Set-Up, which grafts together remarks by director Robert Wise and the passionate and engaging Martin Scorsese, who talks about the film's influence on his 1980 boxing classic Raging Bull. In their respective works, Wise and Scorsese both emphasize the visceral horror inside the ring and the animalistic bloodlust of the spectators outside of it. Such is the continuing appeal of noir.

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