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Revisiting Film Noir of Today and Yesterday

April 16, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Oscar-winning "L.A. Confidential" isn't the only classic film noir hitting the video stores this month. Both Kino on Video and Universal have just released vintage film noir collections.

Kino's "Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood" features three dark-yet-fun flicks ($25 each) from the 1940s. The best of the lot is Anthony Mann's taut 1947 thriller "Railroaded." Though not as strong as Mann's legendary "Raw Deal" and "T-Men," which Kino brought out last year, "Railroaded" is still a lean, crisp, visually arresting murder mystery.

Hugh Beaumont, a.k.a. the Beav's dad, plays Detective Mickey Ferguson, assigned to capture the man who murdered a cop during a botched robbery attempt. When one of the robbers on his deathbed fingers Ferguson's girlfriend's brother, Ferguson sets out to prove the young man's innocence. The bloody trail leads him to a notorious gunman (an icily effective John Ireland).

Lewis Milestone ("All Quiet on the Western Front") directed 1946's "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," a nifty melodrama that marked the film debut of Kirk Douglas. Barbara Stanwyck plays a cool, calculating tycoon who murdered her wealthy aunt several years earlier. She married one of the witnesses (Douglas) to the crime to keep him quiet. But her ordered life drastically changes when the other witness (Van Heflin), a charming con man, reenters her life.

"Hangmen Also Die!," from 1943, is a World War II propaganda piece directed by German expatriate Fritz Lang, from a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang. Featuring the evocative and moody camera work of James Wong Hong, "Hangmen" is based on the 1942 assassination of Hitler henchman Reinhard Heydrich. Brian Donlevy, Anna Lee and Walter Brennan star. Though there's a lot to admire about "Hangmen," it's dated and overlong.

To order any of the Kino videos call (800) 562-3330.

Two of Lang's films are also featured in Universal's film noir collection ($15). However, "You and Me," from 1938, is more a sentimental gangster flick than a traditional film noir.

George Raft plays a former ex-con desperately trying to go legit who marries his co-worker (a lovely Sylvia Sidney) at a department store. Unbeknown to him, though, Sidney is also a former jail bird currently on parole.

The truly offbeat opening musical montage features a song by Kurt Weill.

Much more enjoyable is Lang's 1944 "Ministry of Fear," a complex, exciting World War II spy caper set in England. Based on the Graham Greene novel, "Ministry" finds Ray Milland perfectly cast as a man just released from an insane asylum who stumbles upon a Nazi spy ring. Marjorie Reynolds and Dan Duryea also star.

One of noir's best directors, Robert Siodmak, helmed 1946's "The Killers," an exhilarating adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's famous short story. Burt Lancaster, in his film debut, is wonderful as a washed-up boxer who makes a fatal mistake when he becomes involved with a group of ruthless gangsters.

Ava Gardner, in the role that made her a star, is quite effective as the beautiful but deadly femme fatale Lancaster loves. Edmond O'Brien is on hand as an insurance agent investigating Lancaster's murder at the hands of two killers. Miklos Roza supplied the heart-pounding score. Nominated for four Oscars.

Siodmak also directed the entertaining little 1944 murder mystery "Phantom Lady." Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis and Elisha Cook Jr. star in this suspenser based on Cornell Woolrich's novel about a man (Curtis) who is falsely accused of murdering his wife. His secretary (Raines), who secretly loves him, sets out to prove his innocence with the help of his best friend (Tone) and a detective (Thomas Gomez). The drum scene involving Cook is a real hoot.

Rounding out Universal's collection is 1946's "Black Angel," an entertaining Cornell Woolrich whodunit starring Constance Dowling, June Vincent, John Phillips and Dan Duryea in a rare nice guy role. Directed by Roy William Neill, who directed the majority of Universal's "Sherlock Holmes" mysteries.

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