LAURA
PANIC IN THE STREETS
CALL NORTHSIDE 777

(Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)
 

 Click on the radio to hear Joel Blumberg's interview about Fox Noir with DVD Classics Corner  host Dick Dinman! 

 

Film noir fanatics who jumped for joy when Warner Brothers and Universal released their exemplary Film Noir Collection and Criterion delivered definitive versions of Twentieth Century Fox's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET and NIGHT AND THE CITY  have further reason to rejoice now that Fox has just unleashed on dvd three titles that many consider among the most interesting of the genre. 

If LAURA (1944) isn't the smoothest, smartest, wittiest and most sensual film of its type ever made we'd like to know what is. From the very first gracefully dreamlike panning shot of an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment that is so memorably accompanied by Clifton Webb's urbane voiceover it becomes immediately apparent that this is one noir which won't venture into the dark back alleys, forbidding wharfs, cheap bars and gaudy dance halls that typically provide the backdrop for the tough-talking mugs, corrupt cops and double-crossing dames that customarily populate this type of film. 

If the plot doesn't sound like much (a tough and cynical detective (Dana Andrews) falls hopelessly in love with the portrait of a beautiful murdered woman (Gene Tierney) whose death he's investigating) then you've failed to take into account director Otto Preminger's unusually crafty and intelligent handling of a scintillating and sharp screenplay that gives a great cast, including Clifton Webb (his talking picture debut), Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Dorothy Adams, and, in the title role, Gene Tierney, the chance to inhabit some of the most entrancing and beguiling personages ever seen and heard on celluloid.

If the viewer's inability to imagine anyone else playing the part is the criteria for what constitutes a truly superlative and unique acting job, Webb's performance qualifies hands down. Indeed, his Oscar-nominated interpretation of acerbic radio personality Waldo Lydecker is that rare perfect marriage between actor and role, and the unjustly underrated Dana Andrews somehow manages to uncover a variety of revelatory colors in a role that in less accomplished hands could be pat and routine. Ironically, only Gene Tierney's comparatively tentative and girlish interpretation reveals an occasionally inappropriate awkwardness that, despite her great beauty, somewhat undermines one's ability to believe that she has sufficient substance to entrance a character as refined and urbane as Lydecker, as it would be a few years before Tierney would blossom and mature into a truly accomplished actress in THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (available from Fox and highly recommended.) 

Ever since the advent of dvd LAURA has been one of the most requested titles of classic film buffs. One look will tell you why.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the cinema legacy of director Elia Kazan is aware that his ability to consistently coax the very finest performances from his actors is a given in virtually all of his films, and in this respect PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), a tough and terrific tale of the search for a bubonic plague-carrying killer (Jack Palance) by a dedicated and frustrated doctor (Richard Widmark) and a blunt and streetwise detective (Paul Douglas) is no exception, since Widmark, Palance (his film debut), and most particularly Douglas deliver fine performances, as do Zero Mostel and Barbara Bel Geddes in important supporting roles. But what really imbues this based-on-fact thriller with a stinging dose of authenticity is the rough and riveting manner in which Kazan utilizes the city of New Orleans and its inhabitants to absolutely fantastic effect so that virtually every scene is super-charged with a harsh electricity that makes the viewer sit up and take notice, and it bears mentioning that Kazan's handling of the long chase scene that brings this absorbing film to a close is also top-notch. 

CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948) also benefits immensely from location work in the seamy underbelly of Chicago, but there are countless other pleasures to be derived from this true story of an initially skeptical reporter (James Stewart) who eventually comes to believe that a man (Richard Conte) sentenced to life for killing a policeman is innocent and doggedly sets out to prove it against all odds, among which are fine performances from the entire cast (especially Conte and Lee J. Cobb) and the extremely proficient yet unobtrusive direction of veteran Henry Hathaway. But the real icing on this particular cake is the superb work of Stewart, whose handling of the slow and gradual transition that transforms this originally hard-bitten and cynical character into a dedicated individual committed to freeing an innocent man is a  thing of great beauty and the most prominent plus in a carefully crafted and well-executed film. 

The full-screen black and white transfer of PANIC IN THE STREETS is very fine. The excellent grey scale and black level, combined with a comparative lack of damage, low degree of grain and high level of sharpness makes this one of the better non-restoration renderings. Overscanning that obscures a certain amount of visual information on all four sides of the frame somewhat compromises the quality of the full-screen black and white transfer of CALL NORTHSIDE 777 and intensifies the grain to a minor degree, and the full-screen black and white transfer of LAURA is perfectly acceptable, though decidedly not the restoration that a film of such legendarily high quality merits. As with all other Fox full-screen black and white releases it is best to avoid the echoey pseudo-stereo reprocessing and stick with the clean and clear monaural sound option. 

--DICK DINMAN

 

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