KISS OF DEATH
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS
HOUSE BY THE RIVER
Tired of being bombarded by the relentlessly commerce-driven and artificially cheery atmosphere that characterizes every Holiday Season? Twentieth Century Fox Home Video and Kino Video have thankfully provided much needed respite for the humbug crowd by bestowing the lucky viewer with the perfect antidotes with which to survive the season: five truly terrific film noir classics which will help bolster up our sagging spirits by thrusting us in the company of crooked cops, psychotic killers, duplicitous dames, depraved and murderous husbands, unfaithful wives, unscrupulous shysters, and serpentine swindlers. These denizens of the dark thankfully provide us with the heapingly generous portions of corruption, depravity, humiliation, perversity and violence that we need to put us in the proper holiday spirit --- at last it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
So much has been written about the astonishing film debut of Richard Widmark as the psychopathic maniac Tommy Udo in the still remarkably tough and tense KISS OF DEATH (1947) that his bold and blistering performance (truly the most spectacularly audacious introduction of an actor in the entire decade of the 40's) has had the unfortunate side affect of obscuring the sensitive and beautifully-crafted work turned in by Victor Mature as small-time hood and eventual stool pigeon Nick Bianco. Make no mistake about it: Mature's performance is so fine that he becomes the heart and soul of Henry Hathaway's gripping gangster tale, even managing to circumvent the Widmark fireworks display that frequently explode around him. His is truly one of the most skillful and definitive noir performances in memory.
Dana Andrews, like Mature, remained scandalously underrated (and un-nominated) for most of his career, but anyone interested in watching a fine actor able to convey a staggering variety of emotions in a subtle and non-showy way should take a long, hard look at Andrews' stellar work in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), in which he portrays a brutal cop who mistakenly kills one of his suspects and spends the rest of the film trying to cover the inadvertent crime up. Otto Preminger's direction is up to snuff and most of the supporting cast turn in credible work, but Andrews is so singularly splendid that he provides the primary reason to venture WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.
"I was much too young and immature-looking to effectively play the tough detective in Hathaway's THE DARK CORNER (1946)," star Mark Stevens confided to me in an interview a few years before his death, a fact that becomes instantly apparent when viewing this final Fox Noir dvd release of the year. (Stevens would evolve into a convincingly hard-bitten type as he matured.) And while the presence of Dana Andrews or Richard Conte would certainly have supplied a far more grounded centerpiece for this taut thriller, there nonetheless are ample pleasures to be derived from the performances of William Bendix as a corrupt but dumb mug, and especially Clifton Webb, who craftily embellishes his Oscar-nominated performance in the previous LAURA with yet more freshly supercilious but deadly wit. Even Lucille Ball manages to make something of her improbably-written role as Stevens' girl Friday.
Probably the most gratifying noir news of the year is the appearance, courtesy of Kino Video, of a newly mastered transfer from a 35mm Library of Congress negative of Fritz Lang's hypnotically enticing classic SCARLET STREET(1945). This dour and disturbing chronicle of a middle-aged milquetoast (a superb Edward G. Robinson) who is victimized by a cheap trollop (Joan Bennett) and her slimy pimp boyfriend (a brilliantly repulsive Dan Duryea), remains one of the most compulsively watchable examples of film noir at its most relentlessly fatalistic. And the fact that we no longer have to endure the hideous desecration of this dark gem in the disgusting public domain atrocities that were previously released is cause for enthusiastic celebration.
Even more hosannahs should be thrown in Kino's path because of their dvd release of conceivably the most forgotten film in Fritz Lang's oeuvre, HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1949), a little thriller that efficiently belies its modest origins by way of Lang's astute and unfussy direction and a corker of a performance by Louis Hayward (whose career by this time was wastefully relegated to B-level swashbucklers) that fairly bristles with malevolence and cunning. Hayward plays a remorseless Victorian ne'er-do-well who assaults and murders his wife's virginal housekeeper, attempting to pin the crime on his hopelessly hapless brother. No question about it: HOUSE BY THE RIVER is a forgotten film that demands and deserves considerable recognition.
All three of the Fox full screen black-and-white transfers are sharp with minimal grain and excellent grey scale. The transfer of SCARLET STREET is the most unexpectedly astounding, and HOUSE BY THE RIVER, while not entirely damage-free, looks very good indeed. The mono sound is fine on the Fox releases (avoid the faux-stereo option at all costs!) and SCARLET STREET and occasionally unobtrusively hissy on HOUSE BY THE RIVER.