When girls are good they are very good, but when they are bad they are even better. And during the height of the film noir genre in the 1940s and '50s, some of the juiciest roles for women were as femmes fatales in snappy B-movies. Sony's terrific two-volume "Bad Girls of Film Noir" DVD collections, due out Tuesday, offer eight scrappy samples featuring several female icons of the genre.
Volume I kicks off with the 1950 thriller "The Killer That Stalked New York." The killer in question is played by Evelyn Keyes, though she isn't a typical film noir villainess. She plays Sheila Bennett, the wife of a two-timing musician who sends her from New York to Cuba to pick up contraband diamonds to smuggle back to the United States. In Cuba, though, she unknowingly contracts smallpox and returns home and begins to spread the infection.
Despite the fact that it was based on a real smallpox panic in New York in 1946, the film was not a success upon release. It has grown in reputation over the years, though, thanks to Keyes' performance and some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography from Joseph Biroc.
Biroc's luminous location photography is also a highlight of "The Glass Wall," the 1953 thriller starring the sultry beauty Gloria Grahame as Maggie Summers, an unemployed young woman who comes to the aid of the desperate Peter (Vittorio Gassman) after he arrives in New York illegally, having fled a Nazi concentration camp.
Grahame and Gassman, who was a huge star in Italy, have a searing chemistry together in this dark tale of two lost souls. "Glass Wall" was also one of the first films to shoot at the United Nations.
Lizabeth Scott headlines 1951's "Two of a Kind," starring as an ambitious young woman who teams up with a crooked attorney (Alexander Knox) in a plot to rob an aging wealthy couple of $10 million -- they enlist the help of a gambler (Edmond O'Brien) to pretend he is the old couple's long-lost son. Scott woos and romances O'Brien while keeping Knox tied around her little finger, but she ultimately turns good girl in this engrossing caper film.
Scott also turns up in 1953's glossy melodrama "Bad for Each Other," as a spoiled rich girl with two previous husbands who sinks her claws into a handsome doctor (Charlton Heston) just returned from serving in the Army. Penned by Horace McCoy and Irving Wallace and directed by Irving Rapper ("Now, Voyager"), "Bad for Each Other" is delicious fun.
Volume II of the series commences with 1946's "Night Editor," a low-budget melodrama starring William Gargan as a police detective with a loving wife (Jeff Donnell) and a young son who finds himself in the grips of a beautiful wealthy married woman (Janis Carter). Gargan lacks personality in this little thriller, but Carter, who quit films in 1956, pulls out all the stops as a conniving vamp who bends men to her will.
The next three films in the set all star Cleo Moore, a long forgotten blond bombshell of the 1950s who was once known as the queen of the B-movie bad girls. She made 18 movies from 1948-1957 and garnered headlines in 1960 when she unsuccessfully tried to run for governor of Louisiana.
Unfortunately, not all of these three are gems.
In 1953's turgid "One Girl's Confession," written, directed and costarring Hugo Haas, Moore plays Mary Adams, a waitress in a seafront tavern owned by a cruel man who had cheated her late father. He treats her so badly that she opts to steal money from him, then confess to the crime so she can go to prison and escape from his clutches. The script, direction and acting are devoid of any style or finesse.
Moore has a smaller role in the sensationalized 1955 melodrama "Women's Prison," a cut-rate version of 1950's "Caged." The great Ida Lupino is the sadistic warden who treats her prisoners with a ruthless hand -- she also has a great upper cut. Film noir shady ladies Jan Sterling and Audrey Totter are among her wards, as well as Moore and Phyllis Thaxter. (Howard Duff, who was married to Lupino at the time, plays the prisoner's kindly doctor.)
In 1956's "Over-Exposed," directed by Lewis Seiler (who also helmed "Women's Prison"), Moore is a vamp who dreams of being rich and famous and finds fortune and heartache as a successful photographer in New York City. Richard Crenna plays a newspaperman who befriends her when she arrives in the big city.
Extras are slim on the discs, which include theatrical trailers, a short interview with "Two of a Kind" costar Terry Moore and noir episodes of the 1950s series "All Star Theater," including one featuring Cleo Moore.
Still, these low-budget programmers -- save for "One Girl's Confession" -- illustrate the breadth of talent working in B-movies during the era. They also reintroduce film buffs to several gutsy actresses whose reputations have been overshadowed by such noir vixens as Barbara Stanwyck ("Double Indemnity"), Mary Astor ("The Maltese Falcon") and Jane Greer ("Out of the Past").