Lake [1998]

Two peak achievements by as many top noir directors ... a customized vehicle for one of noir's premier icons ... an oddball experiment in making a truly "private eye" movie ... and a Howard Hughes remake of his earliest contribution to the gangster genre. Such are the five titles corralled for Warner Home Video's third box set of film noir classics. For eye-popping dynamism coupled with ferocious intensity, no noir director matched Anthony Mann. Border Incident (1949) was Mann's and cinematographer John Alton's first film for MGM following a string of darkly dazzling low-budget beauties at Eagle-Lion (T-Men, Raw Deal, The Black Book, et al.). In structure it's virtually a remake of T-Men, transposed from the shadowy city where a Secret Service team battled counterfeiters, to California's Imperial Valley where the Immigration Service sets out to infiltrate a gang exploiting--and often murdering--Mexicans eager to work the farms. From the opening night scene of three laborers trying to recross the border and meeting a grisly end, the movie relentlessly imagines ways the human body can merge with the earth. Visually stunning, and replete with memorable villains (headed by Howard Da Silva, a past master at making affability lethal), this is one of Mann's strongest noirs and surely his most inventive. Its neglect can be explained only by people's assumption that nothing worthwhile could come of a movie top-billing Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy (as the government agents). Wrong, wrong, wrong. After a scalding first reel in big-city night streets, Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (RKO, 1951) likewise forsakes familiar noir terrain for the countryside--the mountains and snowfields where city cop Robert Ryan seeks a psychotic killer. For both the actor and the director, Ryan's character is an exemplary creation: a man with personal demons whose overzealous pursuit of criminals has pushed him into sadism. His passage from urban darkness into the silent white mountain country becomes a redemptive journey, thanks largely to his interaction with a blind woman (Ida Lupino) in an isolated farmhouse whose younger brother may be the quarry he's after. Ray developed the screenplay with A.I. Bezzerides under the supervision of producer John Houseman (for whom Ray had made his feature debut, They Live By Night). The film boasts a thrilling music score by Bernard Herrmann, anticipating his great soundtrack for North by Northwest. His Kind of Woman (also RKO, 1951) is a vehicle for both RKO's reigning bad boy, Robert Mitchum, and Howard Hughes' definitive coup of distaff engineering, Jane Russell. Their characters cross paths en route to a seaside Mexican resort, where she aims to continue her gold-digger pursuit of Hollywood ham Vincent Price, and Mitchum will figure in a plot to get deported mobster Raymond Burr back into the U.S.A. The slow-brewing romance between this dauntingly tall, broad-shouldered pair gives off little heat, but the players' good-natured, weary-pro rapport as they go through their mostly preposterous paces makes for very good fun. Still more is supplied by Price, who just about steals the movie when he gets to extend his sub-Errol Flynn screen heroism into real life--all the while supplying his own florid running commentary on the action. The urbane director John Farrow filled the movie with one delicious, what-the-hell-is-going-on-here scene after another (highlight: a bored Mitchum ironing his money), but that wasn't enough for studio boss Hughes. Richard Fleischer was brought in to stretch the climactic melodrama aboard Burr's yacht in the harbor, and the picture grew to an overblown two hours in length. Not that you're likely to regret a minute of it. Robert Montgomery directed and played Phillip Marlowe in Lady in the Lake (MGM, 1947), Raymond Chandler's novel as adapted by Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming). The gimmick is that, apart from a few scenes of private detective Marlowe chatting us up in his office, everything is viewed through his eyes, with Marlowe himself remaining unseen unless he glances in a mirror. This literal-minded conceit is more curious than compelling; the camera simply doesn't see the way the human eye does, and the artificiality constantly calls attention to itself. Montgomery, a suave actor who enjoyed playing it coarse and obnoxious on occasion, makes his screen Marlowe more smartass than any other ("dumb, brave, and cheap"). With him cracking wise off-camera, much of the movie is really carried by Audrey Totter, a swell late-'40s dame who has to stand up under more relentless scrutiny than even her shifty character deserves. The Racket (RKO, 1951) is the second film version of a 1920s play about municipal corruption, gangsterism, and the attempt to squash an honest police precinct captain. John Cromwell had acted in the original Broadway production, which may help explain why, as director, he let so much of this movie turn back into a play. Eventually studio boss Howard Hughes, who had produced the 1928 film version (directed by Lewis Milestone), once again called in another director to do salvage work. That was Nicholas Ray, whose scenes include police captain Robert Mitchum's pursuit of the man who has just bombed his home. Mitchum's fellow cast members include Robert Ryan as the ultra-paranoid gangster; husky-voiced noir blonde Lizabeth Scott as a nightclub thrush romanced by Ryan's brother; future Perry Mason D.A. William Talman as a dedicated street cop; and Ray Collins and William Conrad as two municipal officials negotiating a delicate dance with morality and expediency. --Richard T. Jameson

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