Pop Culture — Get your noir on with new DVD series

Get your noir on with new DVD series

by Dan J. Szczesny

Smoke, shadows, dames and gangsters finally brought into the light

Film Noir is a genre discovered in retrospect.

In its post-World War II heyday, Film Noir primarily meant detective or gangster movies, usually B-grade.

The name Film Noir was first coined by French film critics (literally meaning “black film”) who couldn’t help but notice the gloomy and dark look of so many films released in the mid-1940s.

Technically,  Film Noir relates to the look of a film as opposed to its content. Rooted in the German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, in such films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) or Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the American equivalents became famous for stark lighting, shadows (and shadowy figures) jagged camera angles and distinctly anti-hero characters.

The maverick and often independent film makers were out to smash the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies during this same time period.

There is usually a tough cop, military man or reporter as the protagonist and he is usually damaged in some way, either through drinking or disillusionment with society.

There is almost always a dangerous but beautiful woman, a Hollywood stereotype whose path can be traced straight from the great Louis Brooks, through Kathleen Turner in Body Heat and pretty much any film made by Joe Eszterhas. (Though maybe it’s just that Eszterhas hates women: see Showgirls.)

At any rate, the Hollywood studios have finally begun to understand what fans of the Criterion Collection already know: there are film buffs out there who want more than an unwatchable trailer with their classic movies.

Fox has finally entered the classic movie fray with a new series of Film Noir DVDs, starting this month with three of the great ones - Laura, Call Northside 777 and Panic in the Streets.

All three films are milestones for one reason or another, and the restoration looks perfect. At $14.99 the DVDs are priced to move and all three have commentary tracks actually worth listening to as opposed to the normal self-congratulatory pap most blockbuster DVDs come with.

Purists take note: none of the tranfers are widescreen because the original movies were not made in widescreen ratios. 

Call Northside 777

Ascerbic and cynical reporter P.J. O’Neal (Jimmy Stewart) begins an investigation into an 11-year-old cop killing. He works for a tough newspaper in a tough town and has a tough night editor (Lee J. Cobb). But it’s nothing compared to the resistance he meets as be begins to unravel what appears to be a massive cover-up that points right at the Chicago Police Department.

Stewart picked this role specifically because it played against his usual character. It’s A Wonderful Life came out, and flopped, the year before, and he was looking to develop a harder-edged persona.

Extras include an excellent audio commentary, trailers and a Fox Movietone News Clip of the movie’s premiere.


The bloody killing of a New York society girl (Gene Tierney) brings hard-nosed detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) to the case. But as McPherson begins to investigate, he finds himself falling in love with a corpse. Then the corpse shows up very much alive.

 The work of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle became a Film Noir standard and earned him more than a dozen Oscars, including one for his efforts on Laura. Check out the interrogation scene at the police station. It’s one of the reasons why LaShelle is a genious and Tierney is a star.

The DVD is loaded with extras, including two biographies, trailers, restoration comparisons and several audio commentaries.

Panic in the Streets

The killing of an illegal immigrant in a New Orleans slum doesn’t raise an eyebrow until a U.S. Military Doctor (Richard Widmark) confirms that the immigrant had pneumonic plague. Now, the doctor must help track down the killers within 48 hours or risk an outbreak of apocalyptic proportions.

Fun fact: Sure, director Elia Kazan went on to direct some of the greatest films in Hollywood history such as On the Waterfront and East of Eden. But he also named names in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1952, which led to the Blacklist that ruined many careers in Hollywood. Two actors named by Kazan were Barbara Bel Geddes and Zero Mostel, both of whom he directed in Panic in the Streets.

Film Facts

The exquisite Gene Tierney, at left, only 24 at the time Laura was filmed, was still honing her acting chops. But with cheekbones that could cut glass and a smouldering sideways glance, no one paid much attention to her acting technique. One year later, she brought her Femme Fatale experience of Laura to her Oscar-nominated role in Leave Her to Heaven. In that role she played a woman so consumed with the need to be loved that she was willing to kill for it.

Panic in the Streets was the first major role for then unknown Jack Palance, at right. The picture won an Oscar for Best Story and catapulted Palance into a career that would span five decades, including Batman.

-  Dan J. Szczesny

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