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Noir
The Dark Side of Hollywood

video review by
Gary Johnson

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KINO ON VIDEO
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RELATED LINK:
Review of "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" (Part One)

In 1996, Kino On Video released one of the best video sets of the past decade--"Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood"--and now they are adding to their catalog of film noir entries with another trio of videos. "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood--Part Two" gives us Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die!, a WWII thriller laid out amidst the shadow-filled photography of James Wong Howe; Barbara Stanywck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, and Kirk Douglas in the melodrama, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, with razor-sharp dialog by Robert Rossen; and John Ireland at his creepy best in Anthony Mann's police detective thriller Railroaded.

Unlike Kino On Video's previous trio of noir videos, which were all directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton, the new set isn't built around a cohesive formula. For example, Hangmen Also Die!, notwithstanding an occasional noirish image, can only marginally be considered film noir. It contains no femme fatales, no police detectives, and no seedy back alleys. It's set in the very un-noir environment of war torn Czechoslovakia, with German gestapo agents wreaking havoc on the citizens of Prague. In addition, both The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Railroaded have already been available on video from other companies. And Railroaded is even one of Mann's weakest noir thrillers. So Kino On Video's "Noir--Part Two" is somewhat disappointing.

However, Hangmen Also Die! is a real find, regardless of whether or not it can be considered film noir. Available for the first time on video, Hangmen Also Die! recalls other Fritz Lang classics such as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Filmed with Lang's characteristic relish for large-scale events that involve several central characters, the movie captures an intense and inspiring portrait of people teaming up to survive against the horror of Nazism. Inspired by the actual 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's most feared henchmen (and thus the title of the movie), the movie is concerned with the process of revolt and how people can be drawn into a revolutionary cause. With characteristic attention to the machinery behind an event, Lang subordinates the personalities of the central characters in favor of the overall sweep. The Nazis become decadent gangsters, with Alexander Granach in particular scoring as Gestapo Inspector Gruber. Dennis O'Keefe is also on hand, and he gets into a couple fist fights, as if he's in a detective thriller. At one point, he's even knocked out and tied spread-eagled on a bed after a run in with Gruber. But O'Keefe's role is largely a thankless one, and not until the movie is almost over does he get to take action. Most of our sympathies go to Anna Lee as a Czech citizen who witnesses the Gestapo pursuit of the assassin (Brian Donlevy) who killed Heydrich. After she points the Gestapo in the wrong direction, she soon becomes caught up in the Czech movement to rid their country of the Nazis, especially after her own father (played by Walter Brennan) is arrested when the Gestapo orchestrate a mass execution of Czech citizens. Co-written by Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang, Hangmen Also Die! is an underrated gem. It's nowhere nearly as powerful as Lang's "Mabuse" movies, but it's a powerful depiction of Nazi atrocities and the human spirit that allowed the Czech citizens to prevail. (Hangmen Also Die! was digitally mastered from a 35mm print newly struck from the original, but slight damaged, nitrate negative. Some of the images, particularly in the latter half of the movie look burnt out, with little detail.)

Directed by Lewis Milestone (who also helmed non-noir movies such as All Quiet On the Western Front and The General Died at Dawn), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is one of the highlights of the film noir period. With a magnificent score by Miklos Rozsa, the movie packs a powerful punch, right from the opening credits as the music builds like a thunderstorm. The opening sequence, set 18 years in the past, shows us the terrible secret that will bind together the main characters--when Martha's aunt died under mysterious circumstances. And then the movie jumps to the present, to show Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas) bound in a loveless marriage. They call each other "Mr. O'Neil" and "Mrs. O'Neil" and haven't slept together in years. Martha's true love, Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), left town on that fateful night long ago. Sam, now a streetwise gambler, stumbles back into town when he's driving aimlessly around the country. He's so shocked when he sees a sign for Iverstown that he runs off the road and smashes up his car. Thus, Sam is stranded in Iverstown. And when Walter (now the District Attorney of Iverstown) hears about Sam, he fears the worst--that Sam has blackmail on this mind ("Do you think he'd leave a touch worth millions?" he says)--while Martha hopes that her and Sam's love is ready to bloom into a torrid love affair. Many of the scenes in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers become too talky, with the camera placidly and unimaginatively recording the conversations, but Robert Rossen's dialog is so sharp that the movie never bogs down. "Do you know what's on my mind, Martha?" says Walter. "I think I do," she says. "And that's where it will stay unless of course I tell you differently." Barbara Stanwyck, who defined the femme fatale with her performance in Double Indemnity, creates a perverse and twisted character who has never known love. Her entire adult life has been designed to protect the skeleton in her closet. Lizabeth Scott is also on hand, at her enticing best, as a woman fresh out of prison who falls for Sam.

Anthony Mann's Railroaded lacks the contributions of photographer John Alton, one of the most important ingredients in Mann's classic noir films, such as Raw Deal and T-Men. As a result, Railroaded is one of Mann's less visually interesting movies. In addition, Railroaded is saddled with Hugh Beaumont as the leading male actor, and he's a hopelessly bland hero. The movie could've used a tougher hero, such as Dennis O'Keefe, who starred in both Raw Deal and T-Men. But the movie also has John Ireland, one of the most underrated actors of the '50s and '60s. And it also has Jane Randolph, who excelled at playing gun molls. In addition, Sheila Ryan gives a strong performance as the good girl who refuses to believe that her brother is responsible for a hold-up. She launches her own investigation and ends up in the hands of Duke Martin (Ireland), a psychotic small-time hood who hopes to get rich quick by turning on his employer and orchestrating the hold-up of a betting parlor. But everything goes wrong, and his accomplice gets shot in the face by a policemen (in a well-staged scene where the policeman crashes through a window). To cover up Martin's involvement, the wounded man fingers Ryan's brother as his accomplice. The movie's best scenes all feature Ireland. His Duke Martin doesn't think twice about killing people. In one scene, he watches as Ryan and Randolph duke it out in Randolph's apartment. He stays in the shadows and smiles as the cat fight sends the women rolling over furniture and onto the floor, pulling hair and slapping one another. Randolph dresses like she's a glamour queen and lolls around her apartment, swilling down gin until her speech is slurred. Unfortunately, however, much of the movie revolves around Beaumont mooning over Ryan and hanging around her house. Even when Beaumont shows up with a search warrant, the drama focuses on the dull dialog exchange between Beaumont and Ryan.

This trio of videos is well-worth owning, even if it is something of a let down after the revelations in the previous trio of "Noir" releases. Hangmen Also Die! is the most important release here, but only because it was previously unavailable on video. The best movie of the bunch is The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and if you've only got money for one video it's the one to buy.

RELATED LINK:
Review of "Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" (Part One)

 



"Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" (Part Two) is a new three-cassette video series from KINO ON VIDEO. These videos include Hangmen Also Die! (1943), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and Railroaded (1947). Suggested retail price: $24.95 each. For more information, we suggest you check out the Kino Web site: http://www.kino.com.

 
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