video series review by
Gary Johnson


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Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood
Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood

Kino On Video is back with another installment in their "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" video series. Previous installments have given us choice Anthony Mann crime dramas such as T-Men and Raw Deal, as well as non-Mann entries such as Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die. The series plays fast-and-loose with its definition of film noir (for example, the spy intrigue of Hangmen Also Die owes little if any thing to film noir), but all the movies in the series are worth checking out, regardless of whether or not they're true noir.

The newest videos in the set represent three of the most intriguing crime dramas of the post-World War II era: The Naked City, Brute Force, and The Blue Gardenia. While The Naked City is frequently lumped in with film noir, it represents a different crime drama tradition, a tradition honed by producer Mark Hellinger. Hellinger perfected the crime drama-documentary, a tradition that television would effectively mine with shows such as Dragnet and FBI. While The Naked City can only marginally be considered noir, Brute Force and The Blue Gardenia both contain essential noir content and themes. Brute Force seethes cynicism as it takes us into a disturbing world where no one has any chance of escape. The prison environment it portrays crushes prisoners and breeds corruption among guards. The Blue Gardenia gives us an archetypal noir situation as it looks into the heart of its heroine and asks whether she could in fact have murdered a man. Even she doesn't know the answer.

Both Brute Force and The Blue Gardenia have never been available on video before. The Naked City was previously available from Ivy Video, but this new version is a major improvement. All three titles have been digitally remastered by Kino for optimum picture and sound quality.

The Naked City
"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." These final words from The Naked City are among the most widely quoted words of any movie. The movie's narrative style would influence a legion of imitators, such as Joe Friday's narration in TV's Dragnet. During the movie's opening scenes, producer Mark Hellinger serves as narrator, and he emphatically tells us the movie "was not photographed in a studio." The camera moves high over the city, sweeping toward Manhattan: "This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavement. The children at play. The buildings and their naked stone. The people without makeup." We've seen dozens of similar camera shots in the ensuing years, but this camera shot in The Naked City still holds its power. Hellinger's cocky narration makes the difference, for he promises a completely different type of movie. Not some phony Hollywood stuff. He promises something "a bit different from most films you've seen." And the movie makes good on this promise. Cinematographer William Daniels' camera pulls us into the streets of New York and surrounds us with motion and action. His camera isn't just a passive observer; it becomes our tour guide, providing enticing images of one of the world's greatest cities during one of its greatest eras. (Daniels won an Academy Award for his cinematography.) The camera drops us onto street corners, as kids play while water sprays from hydrants, as horses pull milk trucks, as organ grinders attract customers, as elevated trains roar by in the background. Director Jules Dassin surrounds us with a world in motion, and the results are intoxicating. And then the crime drama steps forward. The documentary approach continues as police begin to track down a murderer. We become privy to the detective work: evidence is collected and examined, friends and acquaintances of the victim are questioned, and detectives canvass the city, asking citizens for information. Occasionally the movie begins to bog down in some of its details, as when the victim's parents are called to view the body and the mother attempts to hide her grief with a hard-boiled attitude. And occasionally the performances and the casting leave something to be desired: Barry Fitzgerald is a little too impish to be believable as a veteran police detective. But Howard Duff is delight to watch as a suave ladies man whose lies quickly begin to unravel under closer scrutiny. Ted de Corsia gives a gruff, sweaty portrayal of a murderer. His athleticism becomes perverse, as he delights in proving himself superior. The Naked City isn't a particularly complex movie. The police are wholly good and the crooks are wholly evil. Dassin's Brute Force and Night and the City both presented us with darker and more complex visions. But the simplicity of its moralizing is also part of the charm of The Naked City: the movie asks you to completely give yourself to the promise of detective work and deduction. It's a world where the wicked go punished and the detectives are rewarded with satisfying home lives. And the simplicity of this world is as seductive as the marvelous images captured by Daniels' camera.

Brute Force
While The Naked City takes a semi-documentary approach, Brute Force (also a Mark Hellinger productions) becomes almost expressionistic. The opening shots turn the penitentiary into a formidable fortress. The camera stares up at an imposing, massive tower as rain drips from its walls. Only one bridge leads to the penitentiary, and the mainland is only hinted at. Whereas The Naked City gave us morality in shades of black-and-white, Brute Force is all black. Director Jules Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks create a destructive environment where compassion and hope are routinely crushed. Brute Force presents us with one of the bleakest scenarios ever committed to celluloid: a cell of desperate prisoners plots a breakout in order to escape the torture and brutality dealt out by the captain of the guard, but the guard knows about their plans and attempts to use the escape as his show of power. He hopes to take over as warden by showing how effectively he can stomp out dissent. But everything goes horribly wrong and no one gets what they wants. Brute Force is filled with shocking violence, as when the convicts enact revenge upon an informer by using blow torches to force him under the falling hammer of a massive punch press. But the worst brutality comes from the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). He speaks in calm, soft tones, but he gives off few signs of humanity. He's a cold Nazi-like creation who lusts for power and longs for the feeling of bones crushing under his boot heel. The inmates of cell R17 (including Burt Lancaster, Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell, and others) are certainly no angels themselves, but at least they work for a common cause. However, their efforts are easily destroyed when a member turns rat. In Brute Force, no one can be trusted. The world has become a cesspool from which escape is hopeless. As the prison doctor tells us, "Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes."

The Blue Gardenia
The Blue Gardenia gives us an archetypal noir situation: a murder takes place and the heroine believes that she may have committed the murder. However, because she was drunk when the murder took place, she isn't sure what happened. Film noir would mine this territory well as it examined the dark forces within ourselves and our inability to control those forces (as in Double Indemnity and Fear in the Night). Just three years before The Blue Gardenia was released, Nicholas Ray directed his own essay on this topic--In a Lonely Place. While The Blue Gardenia uses the murder as a gimmick, with no intention of exploring the psychological ramifications for more than a few thrills before restoring normality, In a Lonely Place takes us to the edge of the abyss, giving us a lead character who may or may not be responsible for a series of murders, and then it strands us there. Director Fritz Lang himself characterized The Blue Gardenia as "venomous," but venom is exactly what this movie lacks. Anne Baxter as the heroine is too virtuous to ever really risk our faith. She commits a slight indiscretion by going out drinking with a stranger (Raymond Burr) after her soldier boyfriend dumps her. But there are no murderous tendencies hidden within her psyche. The storytelling solely blames liquor for the err of her ways. And therefore, regardless of the police dragnets, the movie lacks tension. We know she'll be exonerated (unlike Humphrey Bogart's alcoholic war veteran in In a Lonely Place, who may actually be capable of murder). But even if the movie treats its main character with kid gloves, The Blue Gardenia is still a fun movie. Raymond Burr gives one of his best performances as an artist/playboy who routinely takes advantage of every woman that makes herself available to him. Nicholas Musuraca provides the cinematography, including an especially striking image of a mirror shattering as Baxter raises a fireplace poker to strike Burr. And Nat "King" Cole is on hand as a nightclub singer who performs the movie's theme song.


Kino's latest entries in the "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" video series include The Blue Gardenia (1953, directed by Fritz Lang), Brute Force (1947, directed by Jules Dassin), and The Naked City (1948, directed by Jules Dassin). Suggested retail price: $24.95 per tape. For additional information, check out the Kino On Video Web site.

Prior releases in this series include T-Men, He Walked By Night, Raw Deal, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Hangmen Also Die, and Railroaded.