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A cool batch of darkly told tales

These 10 noir films may be not be as familiar as the classics, but they are surprisingly effective examples of the genre.

July 29, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

THEY were films dealing with sex, murder, lust, mystery and rage, all tinged by moral ambiguity. Shot in atmospheric black and white, the movies featured chiaroscuro lighting that was almost as important as the plotlines.

During the 1940s and through the mid-1950s, as America was enduring World War II and its Cold War aftermath, Hollywood turned out one exceptional film noir after another, including John Huston's seminal detective thriller "The Maltese Falcon," Otto Preminger's romantic noir "Laura," Edgar G. Ulmer's camp delight "Detour," Orson Welles' enigmatic "The Lady From Shanghai," Jacques Tourneur's haunting "Out of the Past" and Howard Hawks' snappy "The Big Sleep."

None of those titles is featured in Warner Home Video's fourth edition of "Film Noir Classics," which in a way makes them that much more intriguing. The 10 films in the collection may be lesser known -- more like second- and third-tier films -- but the noir genre is so deep with delights that brilliance can be found in the most obscure title. And this collection offers some exceptional examples of the genre:

"Decoy," produced by the poverty-row studio Monogram, is perhaps the set's major discovery. It's a rarely seen gem from 1946, directed by Jack Bernhard and starring his wife, English actress Jean Gillie, who is a revelation as a gold digger with murder and money on her mind. (Sadly, Gillie died of pneumonia at age 34 in 1949).

She plays Margot Shelby, the high-living girlfriend of a gangster ("King Kong's" Robert Armstrong) who is about to go to the gas chamber and take with him the secret to where he stashed $400,000 in stolen loot.

In a scheme to retrieve the dough, she comes up with the idea of reviving Armstrong's dead body by having a doctor (Herbert Rudley) administer the antidote to cyanide gas poisoning. She just has to figure out a way to get the body out of the prison and to the doctor's office within an hour so he can revive him. Sheldon Leonard (who gained fame later as a sitcom producer) also stars as tough police detective who almost falls under Margot's fatal charms.

Nicholas Ray is best known as the director of the 1955 James Dean classic "Rebel Without a Cause," but the influential director's film noirs, including "In a Lonely Place," "On Dangerous Ground" and his first feature, 1949's "They Live by Night," are really his greatest work.

Shot in 1947 but held up for release in the U.S. by RKO head Howard Hughes, "They Live by Night," is based on Edward Anderson's novel "Thieves Like Us." (In his 1974 version, Robert Altman kept the novel's original title).

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell give sympathetic, sensitive performances as the ill-fated lovers Bowie, a 23-year-old escapee from a Mississippi prison farm where he was serving a life sentence for murder, and Keechie, an innocent young farm girl. George E. Diskant provided the stunning cinematography -- the fade-out on O'Donnell's face is a thing of beauty.

Revenge of the nerd

"TENSION," from 1949, is addictive fun thanks to noir veteran Audrey Totter's flawless performance as the platinum blond floozy wife of a mild-mannered drugstore pharmacist (Richard Basehart) who wants the finer things in life. She leaves her meek husband for a rich, smarmy guy (Lloyd Gough). After Basehart is beaten up by the boyfriend, the cuckolded husband decides to create a new identity for himself so he can plot the perfect murder. A young Andre Previn supplied the provocative score. Director John Berry made one more terrific noir, 1951's "He Ran All the Way," before he was blacklisted and moved to France.

A superlative 1948 thriller, "Act of Violence" was one of the first films to deal with the effects of WWII on returning GIs, as well as examining ethics during wartime.

Robert Ryan, one of noir's greatest stars, plays an embittered, vengeful veteran with a crippled leg who is determined to murder his former war buddy (Van Heflin), who informed on his squad to the Nazis that his men were going to escape the prisoner-of-war camp. His actions caused the death of all his men, save for Ryan. Directed by Fred Zinnemann ("High Noon"), the film also stars Janet Leigh and Mary Astor, in a remarkable turn as a shady lady.

Other films in the collection include "Crime Wave," "Where Danger Lives," "Illegal," "The Big Steal," "Side Street" and "Mystery Street." Each provides noirish pleasures of its own.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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