Because film noir began as a B-movie genre, a lot of future great directors got their start telling inexpensive crime stories, draped in shadow. Two of the best—Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann—share a DVD in Warner's fourth "Film Noir Classic Collection" box set. The Mann film, 1950's Side Street, is a tense morality play, with Farley Granger as a New York postal carrier who tries to steal $200 and winds up stealing thousands, from the wrong sort of people. Mann makes the movie about Granger's mounting panic, focusing on his sweaty face as he pries open a file cabinet, then rushes to an empty rooftop to count his loot. Side Street is an early example of location-heavy "docu-realism," but Mann injects meaning into the sometimes-dry documentary style, including a climactic car chase in which the vehicles look like toys, racing through an inescapable maze.
Granger also stars in Ray's debut film, They Live By Night, an adaptation of Edward Anderson's Bonnie and Clyde-riffing novel Thieves Like Us (later remade by Robert Altman). It's a strikingly poetic first feature, more about the naïve romance between young hoodlum Granger and his reluctant nursemaid Cathy O'Donnell than it is about robbing banks and dodging cops. The helicopter shots of a car chase that play over the opening credits announce Ray as a superior stylist, but They Live By Night drives past its repetitive plot via the believably human concerns of these underworld types, who grumble about the way they're treated in the press and cynically point out that the institutions they steal from are the biggest crooks of all.
Compared to Ray and Mann's literalism, the dreamy quality that noir godfather Fritz Lang brings to his 1944 thriller The Woman In The Window (now available as part of MGM's noir DVD series) feels deceptively soft. Edward G. Robinson plays a married criminology professor who's lured into the apartment of sexy model Joan Bennett, then surprised by her lover. Robinson kills him, then uses his expertise to cover up the crime. But his anxiety increases when his best friend, police detective Raymond Massey, calls him in to consult on the case. Nunnally Johnson's screenplay is deliberately paced and talky, but Lang makes every effort to get to what the story's really about: guilt, arrogance, paranoia, and the universal thirst for violence that makes Robinson's eyes light up as he thrusts a pair of scissors into his victim's back.
Key features: Good short featurettes and commentaries on the Warner disc; nothing on the MGM.