DirectorWilliam Dieterle, Lewis Allen, Bretaigne Windust, Harry Horner, Joel Newton
Release Date(s)1949-1953 (May 10, 2023)
Studio(s)Various (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
- Overall Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Australian Blu-ray import.]
Imprint’s Essential Film Noir: Collection 4 is a nice selection of better-known classics and more obscure titles, all under license from Paramount, even though one, The Enforcer (1951) was an independent production first released by Warner Bros., a second, Beware, My Lovely (1952), originally an RKO release, and a third, the obscure Jennifer (1953), released by Allied Artists. All but Jennifer are derived from 4K scans by Paramount, the other titles being Rope of Sand (1949) and Appointment with Danger (1950). The handsomely packaged set is packed with extra features.
Casablanca (1942) had been a commercial and critical high point for its producer, Hal B. Wallis. He unsuccessfully tried to recapture some of that Hollywood magic with Passage to Marseille (1944), a movie that reunited director Michael Curtiz with much of the earlier film’s cast: Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Helmut Dantine. However, Passage to Marseille wasn’t very good, partly because of its absurd and confusing flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback structure. Wallis left Warner Bros. for Paramount soon after, a studio where he enjoyed the same degree of success he had at Warner Bros.
Rope of Sand (1949) was Wallis’s second attempt to replicate Casablanca’s success, and it’s no better than Passage to Marseille. For Rope of Sand, Burt Lancaster assumes the Bogie-esque leading role, with Casablanca actors Claude Rains playing the Claude Rains role, Peter Lorre playing the Peter Lorre role and, cast against type, Paul Henreid playing Conrad Veidt’s old part. French actress Corrine Calvet more or less in Ingrid Bergman’s pole position.
Each of the big Hollywood studios had their own look, their own “house style,” but Wallis was clearly so determined to emulate his crowning glory that Rope of Sand even resembles a Warner Bros. movie, despite having been made at Paramount. It’s a slick, A-budget production well directed by William Dieterle, full of phony African continent exoticism, but it’s only superficially entertaining.
The story is vaguely set in a fusing of South Africa and what is now Namibia, in the fictional city of Diamanstad, which everyone confusingly pronounces “diamond stud.” Anyway, sadistic police commandant Paul Vogel (Paul Henreid), itching for respectability, watches over the mining operations of the Colonial Diamond Co. In an early scene he discovers a few stones hidden in the open wound on a miner’s (Mike Mazurki) arm, Vogel sadistically ripping away the bandages to expose the crime.
Meanwhile, American drifter Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster) returns to Diamanstad, to recover a cache of diamonds hidden in the off-limits desert ruthlessly guarded by Vogel. Wealthy, refined Colonial Diamond Co. manager Fred Martingale (Claude Rains), sensing the reason for Mike’s return, plots to use exotically beautiful but duplicitous nightclub “trollop” (as Vogel calls her) and blackmailer Suzanne (Corrine Calvet) to exacerbate tensions between Mike and Vogel. Two years earlier, Vogel tortured Mike in an unsuccessful attempt to learn the location of that bushel of raw diamonds.
The movie has a few enjoyable moments: Mike’s high-stakes poker duel with Vogel, and Mike turning up at Vogel’s residence immediately after for a postgame confrontation. Claude Rains and Peter Lorre, as they almost always were, are fun to watch, even if they’re both playing only very slight variations of characters they had played many times before, with Lorre particularly wasted. Henreid got a lot of praise for his monstrous Vogel but, truth be told, he’s never believable, his distinguished good looks and cultured manner at odds with the “pig” (as others describe him) he’s supposed to be playing. By contrast, Conrad Veidt, in Casablanca, could be immensely threatening sitting at a desk chatting on the phone. Henreid overacts (he enjoyed playing the part), though the tepid script all but invites him to.
In trying to recycle so much of Casablanca, the art direction and screenplay fudge things in unbelievable ways. Though less obvious to 1949 moviegoers, the sets and art direction, with lots of Arab and Moorish flourishes, generally resemble Casablanca a lot more than they do South Africa which, after all, is located at the other end of the continent. It’s like populating a movie set in Miami with quaint covered bridges, New England churches, and apple orchards. At the Rick’s Café American-esque nightclub, Josef and Miranda Marais perform a ridiculous musical number called Zulu Warrior; Mbaqanga it isn’t, and it sure ain’t As Time Goes By.
Script-wise, Mike unbelievably falls in love with the scheming Suzanne, even as she plots against him and, more unbelievably, she falls in love with him, apparently for no reason other than he’s a good kisser and clearly preferable to Vogel, who virtually commands her to marry him.
Particularly outrageous is a climactic scene where, out in the desert, in the middle nowhere, Mike gains the upper hand over Vogel. He then does the kind of thing only incredibly stupid heroes do in movies: he empties his gun so that he can physically confront up the man who tortured him—twice!—in a fair fight.
Overall, Rope of Sand is not bad, just unmemorable. So unmemorable that, going in, I was certain I hadn’t seen it in 40 years or more, on commercial television, only to realize afterward that not only had I seen it as recently as 2015, I had even reviewed an earlier Blu-ray release. Imprint’s Blu-ray, derived from a 4K scan, is generally good though rather dark for my tastes; my recollection of the earlier Blu-ray release from Olive Films in 2014 was that it was brighter and nearly equally eye-pleasing.
Extras include a new audio commentary track by film historian Samm Deighn and a video essay on the film by historian José Arroyo. (Film Rating: B-)
Much better is Appointment with Danger (1950), a solid crime film-police procedural that was part of a vogue in the late-‘40s/early-‘50s, celebrating various crime-fighting branches of the government, perhaps most famously Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), about U.S. Treasury agents. By 1950 that well was already running a bit dry, as this film follows the derring-do of the United States postal inspectors. Directed by Lewis Allen and starring Alan Ladd, the film’s genre tropes are nevertheless intelligently and evocatively done, the film throws a couple of interesting curve balls, and two of its supporting cast offers, in hindsight, one pretty hilarious surprise.
That surprise is apparent in the opening scene: at the Hotel Compton in Gary, Indiana, a U.S. postal inspector named Harry Gruber is strangled to death by two men who plan on dumping the body in neighboring La Porte. The two ruthless, increasingly paranoid killers are Joe Regas and George Soderquist, and played by—Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, later Sgt. Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon on TV’s Dragnet. Seeing the pair noir-ing it on the wrong side of the law is very amusing all by itself.
However, in preparing to dump Gruber’s body, a passing nun, Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert) gets a good look at Soderquist particularly, though without quite realizing what she is witnessing. Later, misanthropic postal inspector Al Goddard (Alan Ladd) traces her to a convent in Fort Wayne, where she identifies Soderquist in a mug book. She goes into protective custody as antsy Soderquist is ordered by gang leader Earl Boettiger (Paul Stewart) to skip town and Regas goes rogue to find the sister and kill her. Goddard, meanwhile, decides to infiltrate the gang, whom he suspects is planning on robbing a mail truck with $1 million in cash.
London-born Phyllis Calvert was a Gainsborough star of British melodramas of the 1940s particularly, though her incredibly long career stretched from 1927 to 2000. She made a handful of Hollywood films in the late-‘40s and early-‘50s but never caught on in the U.S. She’s very good here, however, playing a sweet but never sickly-sweet nun, whose humanity very slightly chips away at Goddard’s cynicism. It’s the best thing about the picture, a clever deviation from the genre’s “bad girls” opposite leading men. However, in the second half she’s largely absent until the climax, though the script interestingly then contrasts Sister Augustine with Earl’s dame, hard-boiled Dodie (Jan Sterling), who is almost equally interesting. She starts out as a ditzy blonde mainly interested in seducing Goddard, but is revealed as far more self-aware and pragmatic than first imagined.
The picture makes excellent use of Indiana locales, with some especially good night-for-night cinematography by John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd.), which looks great in this 4K scan. Extras include a new audio commentary by film scholar Jason A. Ney, video essays about director Lewis Allen and the film itself, the latter by noir specialist Frank Krutnik. Also included is a Lux Hollywood Radio Theatre adaptation starring William Holden and Coleen Gray, and a trailer. (Film Rating: B+)
After leaving Warner Bros. in the late 1940s, Humphrey Bogart effectively became his own producer, able to pick and choose his film projects. Ironically, his batting average was about the same as it had been during his starring career at Warner Bros., when he was at the mercy of that company’s whims. For every African Queen (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The Harder They Fall (1956), Bogie appeared in movies that would be totally forgotten if not for him, pictures like Chain Lightning (1950), Sirocco (1951), and Battle Circus (1953).
Because these later Bogie movies were made by a variety of companies for an equal variety of distributors, they weren’t as easily packaged for television and home video distribution as is the case of Bogie’s Warner Bros. period, hence some of these pictures have been a lot harder to see than others. Though originally released by Warner Bros.—it was Bogie’s last film for that company—The Enforcer (1951) was chiefly an independent production made by United States Pictures, the company controlled by Milton Sperling, Harry Warner’s son-in-law. Rights to all the United States Pictures movies released prior to 1960 now belong to Paramount.
The movie itself is a crackling, suspenseful film noir-police procedural with Bogie hunting down a murder-for-hire criminal organization based on Murder, Inc. (Murder, Inc. was an early working title and it was released under that title outside the U.S.) Originally the plan was to name names and even include real former gangsters in the cast, but those ideas were dropped. Still, though fictionalized, many of the characters and incidents are closely patterned after the real thing, adding to its verisimilitude. The film has an outstanding supporting cast of seasoned but not famous actors, and the movie is so good it survives an awkward flashback-within-a-flashback structure that proved ruinous for that earlier Bogie film, Passage to Marseille (1944).
The film’s first act is a stunner, so much so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was originally intended for the third act but repositioned to get The Enforcer off to its spectacular start. Under heavy security, murder-for-hire gangster Joseph Rico (Ted de Corsia), the sole witness in a case against kingpin Albert Mendoza, is in the middle of the night secretly moved to the District Attorney’s offices ahead of his court appearance, scheduled for later that morning.
Rico is terrified. There have already been several attempts on his life, and even surrounded by police officers and despite the assurances of Assistant D.A. Martin Ferguson (Bogart), he’s extremely pessimistic about his chances. One especially good bit has Ferguson trying to reassure Rico that Mendoza is safely locked up, but when Rico reluctantly peers into Mendoza’s cell, Rico’s former boss smiles at him. The camera doesn’t show this, but stays on Rico so that the audience can watch his terrified reaction. This, of course, makes the unseen Mendoza seem almost supernaturally powerful. (He doesn’t turn up onscreen until late in the story.)
The movie then shifts into flashback mode, as Ferguson and Capt. Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts) re-examine the case file of their original investigation. In flashbacks, Ferguson and Nelson attempt to track down contract killers and cut them deals so that they’ll testify against Mendoza, but all are either too terrified or already dead: Mendoza is busily killing them off to cover his tracks. Later, when Mendoza’s organization begins to unravel, more hit men—played by B-Western icon Bob Steele and Wallace Berry stand-in Harry Wilson—are brought in from Kansas City to pick up the slack.
The Murder, Inc.-like operation is slowly revealed via flashbacks-within-flashbacks taking the form of testimony provided by James “Duke” Malloy (Michael Tolan) who, emotionally devastated, claims he was forced to murder his girlfriend (The Wasp Woman’s Susan Cabot); “Big Babe” Lazick (Zero Mostel), a bottom-rung hit man who joined the gang to provide for his family; and finally Rico himself. The film returns to the present for the climax, with Ferguson on the trail of a heretofore unknown witness to Mendoza’s first contract hit, a witness whose identity comes to light in a clever plot twist that attentive viewers will pick up on before Ferguson does.
The Enforcer is terrific and doesn’t at all rely on Bogie’s charisma alone to carry the film, as so many of his weaker, later films expected of him. Indeed, it’s really more a showcase for busy supporting players like Roy Roberts, one of those authority figure types whose face is engrained after hundreds of movie and (especially) TV sitcom appearances, but whose name is unknown to nearly all. Others in plum roles include coarse-faced Ted de Corsia (The Naked City, The Killing); King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), as the cop protecting him; soon-to-be-blacklisted Zero Mostel at his sweaty, comb-over best; Jack Lambert, who had a face like a Dick Tracy villain (and played one, in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma); and Everett Sloane (Citizen Kane).
Largely forgotten Bretaigne Windust is the credited director but in fact he fell ill early on; an uncredited Raoul Walsh helmed most of the film. It’s certainly a lot more like White Heat than Perfect Strangers.
The Enforcer is also much less dated than other police procedurals of its era, partly because it’s so hard-hitting and willing to blur the lines between the good cops and bad gangsters (in one scene Bogie threatens to lock Lazick’s frightened child away in an institution unless Lazick talks), but also because it’s much more realistic and grittier. One shot, for instance, is a close-up of the dead girlfriend’s murder file. The eyes are drawn to a flattering portrait of girlfriend, but pause it and take a look at the crime scene photo to the right, a gruesome photo of the same dead girl after her filthy corpse is discovered in a sedan pulled from the bottom of a swamp. How’d they get that past the censors?
Hard-hitting and uncompromising, The Enforcer is terrific, the kind of classic movie even those who avoid old black-and-white films would find totally engrossing. Special features include a new audio commentary track by noir expert Alan K. Rode and a video essay on the film by Krutnik. A must-see. (Film Rating: A)
An Ida Lupino double-feature make up the fourth and final disc. (Kudos to whomever did the menu page design for its striking main menu.) Amusingly, the first, Beware, My Lovely (1952) was produced by her then-husband (from 1948-51), Collier Young, while the second, Jennifer (1953), co-stars her next, actor Howard Duff (from 1951-84). One of the best noirs ever, On Dangerous Ground (1952), paired Lupino with Robert Ryan, together again in Beware, My Lovely. It’s not nearly as a good, but Ryan’s performance particularly makes it work.
In the wake of the First World War, widowed Helen Gordon (Lupino) hires handyman Howard Wilton (Ryan) as a day laborer to help around her empty boardinghouse, she unaware that, mentally, he’s a powder keg of mental instability. Increasingly paranoid, he steals her housekeys and locks them both inside, she unable to let even nearby neighbors know that she’s being held prisoner.
The story by Mel Dinelli (whose screenplays include The Spiral Staircase and House by the River) began as a 1945 radio play (with Frank Sinatra making, possibly, his dramatic debut), which Dinelli later adapted into a 1950 Broadway play called The Man. Dorothy Gish and Richard Boone starred in that version. The film, which Dinelli adapted and co-produced, is effectively “opened up” here and there, though by nature of its story takes place almost entirely in the Gordon home and necessarily claustrophobic.
It’s a one-idea film, working from a simple premise that the story and its characters play out, effectively, here. Helen gradually realizes Howard is unstable, subtly and diplomatically tries to get him out of her home and, once trapped inside, attempts to leave herself. As each attempt is discovered, this only amplifies Howard’s paranoia, and so on.
Ida Lupino is very good but it’s Robert Ryan’s understated Howard that holds the viewer’s interest. Mental health care was, of course, in its infancy in the early 1950s, and Howard’s condition seems entirely fabricated, as it’s nothing like psychopathic personality disorder or schizophrenia or anything viewers will be familiar with. Most notably Howard experiences periodic complete short-term memory loss: in the opening scene Howard, working in another woman’s house, is shocked when he stumbles upon her dead body in a storage closet, Howard completely unaware that he’s killed her earlier. In not showing the murder and only Howard’s horrified reaction—he flees in terror, perhaps worried he’ll be blamed—it briefly sets up for the audience that perhaps he’ll be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. However, throughout the story Howard clearly feels unease around the closets in Helen’s home, so apparently that memory is selective. It does, however, establish things for the film’s wonderfully satisfying if unbelievable, unusual ending, which I won’t reveal here.
Ryan, one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, knew his way around such tortured characters, imbuing Howard with enormous sympathy, despite his terrorizing of Helen who, conversely, is mostly empathetic but still rather patronizing at times, and does, in fact, repeatedly lie to him in trying to escape.
Extras include a new audio commentary by Jason A. Ney and a video essay on Lupino by film historian Pamela Hutchinson. (Film Rating: B)
By far the most obscure film in the set, Jennifer (1953), was produced by Allied Artists, the former Monogram Studios aiming for a slightly tonier image under the influence of the Mirisch brothers. Jennifer fit the bill: the picture looks no more expensive than the company had been making for years—it couldn’t have cost more than $150,000 to make—yet it sustains a uniquely eerie atmosphere throughout.
Secretary Agnes Langley (Ida Lupino) is hired by Lorna Gale (Mary Shipp) as the live-in caretaker of the sprawling, secluded Gale estate in Montecito, Agnes given the kitchen-adjacent servant’s quarters recently occupied by Jennifer Brown, the previous caretaker, who disappeared without a trace, leaving behind all her belongings. At first Lorna seems to imply Jennifer was merely irresponsible in departing so abruptly, but later Lorna and her friend, local grocery store owner Jim Hollis (Howard Duff), vaguely allude to filing a missing person report.
Her first night alone in the big, empty mansion, Agnes hears noises suggesting someone may be inside the house, and later, going through Jennifer’s belongings, becomes intrigued by the personal diary and a broken 78 rpm record she’s left behind. In town, Orin Slade, Jim’s teenage handyman (29-year-old Robert Nichols, unbelievable but in there slugging), shares gossip that Jennifer was suspected of stealing papers from a prominent attorney that committed suicide, and later Agnes stumbles upon a bankbook showing what look like blackmail payments totaling $70,000. Agnes becomes convinced Jennifer was murdered and that her body is somewhere on the estate, though the evasive Jim is reluctant to go looking for her corpse.
Maybe it’s just because I watched Jennifer late at night, home alone in my attic-like screening room, but I found the film genuinely unnerving. Filmed almost entirely in a real empty mansion, atmospherically photographed by James Wong Howe, it has a less-is-more approach that somewhat bridges the earlier Val Lewton films with Robert Wise’s later The Haunting. Agnes, whose backstory is never explained though it’s hinted she’s already been suffering from her own sort of mental trauma, is not unlike Julie Harris’s character in Wise’s film, and like that character she gradually binds herself with the unseen Jennifer in curious ways. This is the kind of movie that operates under its own internal logic; there’s little in the way of plot and the few characters are deliberately sketchy, but the mood it generates is palpable and the answer to its mystery surprised me.
The film’s credits are singularly curious. There’s no screenplay credit, while the credited director, one “Joel Newton,” has no other credits at all, a virtual ghost himself. The film was apparently an independent production partly financed by Allied Artists. Three Fellows Productions consisted of Berman Swarttz, Bernard Girard, and Richard Dorso, with Girard the actual director, according to some sources. Was Girard blacklisted, or maybe not a member of the Directors Guild of America at the time? Maybe Lupino directed parts of it? It’s too bad Jennifer is the one title in this set with no dedicated extra features, because its behind-the-scenes story is as intriguing as what’s onscreen. (Film Rating: B+)
All of the films are presented with fine LPCM 2.0 mono tracks, with optional English subtitles, and the discs are Region Free.
None of the films in Essential Film Noir: Collection 4 is less than good, and several are excellent. The films are a well-chosen mix of the familiar and the obscure, bolstered by good transfers and loads of valuable extras. Highly Recommended!
- Stuart Galbraith IV