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dvd review: Bad Girls of Film Noir

by Leonard Maltin
February 23, 2010 7:35 AM
4 Comments
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(Volumes 1 and 2)


How can I say I enjoyed watching these new two-disc sets from Sony when most of the films aren’t very good? The answer lies in the peculiar fondness film buffs like me harbor for second-tier Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 50s and the people in them. For instance, Night Editor (1946) is an undistinguished B movie about a married cop who’s led astray by a femme fatale…but the femme in this case is a startlingly beautiful Janis Carter. You can’t take your eyes off of her as she leads William Gargan into a whirlpool of trouble. (The title, by the way, is almost meaningless, since the film is about a cop, not an editor; the story is told in flashback by a veteran newspaperman. I suppose Columbia was hoping to launch another series along the lines of The Whistler—like this one, inspired by a radio anthology show.) Never mind that the flashback supposedly takes place in the 1930s—

—and the fashions and hairstyles are modern. It’s only 68 minutes long and it holds your interest. The same can be said, to some degree, for all eight movies in the Bad Girls of Film Noir collection.

Since I started with Night Editor, I’ll continue discussing Volume 2: One Girl’s Confession (1953) was the second of eight films that buxom blond Cleo Moore made for writer-director-producer-actor Hugo Haas. Haas is a fascinating, forgotten figure who was the absolute auteur (and star) of his films, which were made independently but released by major studios like Columbia. They all promise some degree of sexuality—personified by Cleo, who’s almost a caricature of a sex symbol—and consistently fail to deliver! For the most part they deal with a self-pitying older man (Haas) who moons over a younger woman.

Ironically, Cleo gets a much juicier starring role in a Columbia programmer not made by Haas. In Over-Exposed (1956) she plays a woman who’s had nothing but bad breaks, until she learns to make her way in the world as a nightclub photographer. Moore isn’t a bad actress, and although the film is no great shakes, it indicates that she had potential. As a story of its time, about the choices a single woman has to make, it’s fairly interesting, but she and leading man Richard Crenna have no chemistry whatsoever. (It’s interesting to note that, having just wrapped up a long run as squeaky-voiced high-school student Walter Denton in the TV series Our Miss Brooks, with Eve Arden, Crenna returned to the role in a theatrical feature, the same year Over-Exposed presented him as an adult leading man—with a hot leading lady.)

Cleo Moore is also part of an irresistible ensemble in Women’s Prison (1955), a competent if uninspired movie that recalls more serious efforts like Caged (1950), if only because it recasts two of that film’s costars, Jan Sterling and Gertrude Michael. Ida Lupino is the steely warden here, with Howard Duff as a sympathetic doctor, Phyllis Thaxter as a new arrival who can’t take the heat, and Audrey Totter as a convict whose husband (Warren Stevens) is in the men’s prison right next door. Executed by a cadre of B-movie stalwarts (producer Bryan Foy, director Lewis Seiler, and screenwriter Jack De Witt, with a story provided by Crane Wilbur), Women’s Prison is formula filmmaking that offers no surprise, but the comfort of familiarity.

Volume 2 also features a half-hour episode of a nameless 1954 anthology series featuring Cleo Moore, Dane Clark, and Barbara Hale. It’s innocuous and fun to watch. On Volume 1 there’s another episode from the series written by Blake Edwards; it resembles one of his radio private-eye scripts, with Howard Duff as the investigator and Janet Blair as his mysterious client.

Two of the films in Volume 1 are marginally better than those in the companion set, although their qualifications as film noir are debatable. Gloria Grahame is one of the poster girls for noir enthusiasts, and she’s good, as usual, in The Glass Wall (1953), although the film is mainly a vehicle for Vittorio Gassman as an Italian immigrant on the lam in Manhattan. Part of the film’s appeal is its New York location footage, most of which was apparently shot by a second unit using body doubles for the leading actors. Climactic scenes showing the United Nations building, still under construction, are fascinating. There’s also a wonderful interlude in a jazz club where Jack Teagarden and Shorty Rogers are playing.

I especially enjoyed Two of a Kind (1951), a snappy film with a great premise. Smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott plays a larcenous lady who seeks out Edmond O’Brien because he’s a perfect candidate for a scheme she’s hatched with lawyer Alexander Knox. They want him to pose as the long-lost son of a wealthy couple who was abducted when he was three years old. He has no family ties, no traceable background, and is willing to lose the tip of his little finger to complete the masquerade. What could possibly go wrong? The prolific James Edward Grant provided the story, which has several neat twists; James Gunn and Lawrence Kimble executed the screenplay, which is smoothly directed by Henry Levin.

Lizabeth Scott also stars in Bad for Each Other (1953), a soapy saga with Charlton Heston as a poor, small-town boy who succumbs to temptation and becomes a doctor for pampered society women. It’s pretty predictable but also quite watchable, although Scott’s bad-girl character is underwritten; we know she’s bad because she and her father (played by Ray Collins) keep telling us so. Irving Wallace and Horace McCoy fashioned the screenplay from McCoy’s novel, which I presume had a lot more in the way of character development and detail.

The last selection bears the attention-getting title The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), and it’s hard to label this a film noir when it so often seems like it was produced by the Department of Public Health. An opening montage of New York City (narrated by an uncredited Reed Hadley) extols the virtues of the city of eight million, then sets up the possibility of one person affecting the entire population. That’s because Evelyn Keyes, who’s smuggled some diamonds into the country from Cuba for her no-good husband (Charles Korvin), has unwittingly carried small pox with her.

While the Feds are after her for the jewelry, the City health department conducts a furious race against time to discover who is infecting people with the dreaded disease. Former assistant director Earl McEvoy, whose directing career was brief, does a solid job telling this story, scripted by Harry Essex. Keyes does a fine job as the doomed woman, with Lola Albright as her sister, William Bishop as a heroic doctor, and Dorothy Malone as his nurse. The tight-knit film (running a mere 79 minutes) is populated with interesting characters, played by familiar actors like Barry Kelley, Ludwig Donath, Art Smith, Roy Roberts, and Whit Bissell, along with such unbilled players as Jim Backus, Richard Egan, Paul Picerni, and young Beverly Washburn.

A most enjoyable feature of Volume 1 is an interview with the very engaging Terry Moore, focusing on the early phase of her career, including Two of a Kind. While she doesn’t have strong memories of the film or its director, she does talk about how she longed to play a “bad girl” like Lizabeth Scott.

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4 Comments

  • Debra Levine | July 12, 2010 6:42 AMReply

    Leonard, your Lizabeth Scott fans may enjoy my brief item on her (rare) public appearance at the Academy in Beverly Hills on June 28, 2010.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/debra-levine/film-noir-honey-lizabeth_b_633725.html

    Cheers, regards, Debra Levine

  • mike evans | May 4, 2010 6:21 AMReply

    I haven't seen any of the films in this collection , but for me the ultimate Cleo Moore moment is her bit as masochistic Myrna in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground. Her scene with Robert Ryan virtually defines noir sexuality.

  • Bill Muhr | February 27, 2010 2:39 AMReply

    As somebody once said,"Classic movies are better than ever!"
    I believe it was you,Leonard! I am a 71 year old retired USAF Major. I have loved classic movies ever since they were...well,new. I have your most recent Classic Movie Guide and your Movie Crazy book. I am in hog heaven. I have not read all of the Guide,yet,but give me a little time. Movie Crazy is superb! Noah Berry,Jr. is one of my favorites and my all-time favorite will always be Roy Rogers. But, I like all kinds of films as long as they are classics. New films can only keep some folks attention by exploding. Oh,well, tastes change. Just want to let you know that you are appreciated as the foremost movie expert in the world. I thank you for your persona. You are a nice man even when you give a BOMB to some movie that really deserves it! Thanks, Bill Muhr Tucson,AZ

  • Lou Lumenick | February 23, 2010 10:57 AMReply

    Leonard, The Killer That Stalked New York was inspired by a real-life Smallpox scare in 1947 NYC. The actual carrier wasn't a gangster's moll but a middle-aged businessman who returned from Mexico and died before authorities even knew he had infected anybody. But they DID vaccinate more than 6 million people in less than a month, still one of the largest such programs ever.

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