Flicks - Asphalt and alleyways

Femme fatales and cons gone wrong

After decades of musicals and comedies demonstrating the American propensity for walking on the sunny side of the street, Europeans were shocked by the films that began trickling out of Hollywood at the end of World War II.

When French critics first got a gander at the new breed of pessimistic American thrillers that had been suppressed during wartime, they were astounded. These films noir, as French critics dubbed them, expressed something changed in the American temperament; a certainty that things weren't so peachy keen anymore.

There is no better illustration of the dark, corrupt labyrinth of graft and heartache at work in noir than John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston's film is centered on a well-oiled jewelry store heist, led by muscleman Sterling Hayden, that soon begins a disastrous tailspin. Huston's luckless crooks and safe crackers discover — by the sacred code of noir — that human ambition and greed are swiftly punished and any chance for a better life is revealed as a pitiful pipe dream.

Huston's nihilistic masterpiece is one of the classics included in the Warner Home Video DVD set The Film Noir Classic Collection, including Murder, My Sweet (1944), Out of the Past (1947), The Set-Up (1949) and Gun Crazy (1949). All are digitally remastered and feature additional commentary from directors Martin Scorsese and Robert Wise (The Set-Up), and noir scholars and stars such as James Whitmore (The Asphalt Jungle).

Wise's superb The Set-Up is one of the collection's highlights, a film whose view of the morbid trajectory of amateur boxing might make even ringside thug Don King wince. Overage boxer Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) tries to persuade his long-suffering wife that one last round in the ring could mean a take big enough to underwrite the rest of their lives. But Thompson is the only one within a vast empire of corrupt trainers, bookies and thugs who hasn't been told that the fight he's hell-bent on winning has been fixed. Wise captures the vicious nature of the business, of old boxers whose brains have been pureed inside their skulls, and a ringside filled with bloodthirsty "fans" egging the violence on with demented glee.

As the diverse Warner titles illustrate, the beauty of noir is the flexibility of the genre. Each film invests the essential formula of shadow-laced, gritty settings and lowlife characters with its own special flavor and obsessions.

In most Hollywood cinema, sex leads to baby carriages. In noir, lust leads straight to a stint pushing up daisies at the boneyard.

Out of the Past's mega-dose of killer sex is provided by the libidinal appeal of noir's definitive slow-cooker hunk, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum is a two-bit detective hired by a rich slime ball (Kirk Douglas) to retrieve his wayward girlfriend, who's absconded with 40K down Acapulco way. But after one look at Jane Greer's doe eyes, Mitchum drops the thin pretense of a search-and-recover effort to play sex-addled chump to Greer's classic femme fatale.

Gun Crazy adds some Freudian perversity to the dames-equal-trouble noir formula: Director Joseph Lewis' lovers share an inexplicable, mutual lust for firearms. The film features one of the most deliciously naughty seduction scenes on record, of baby doll beauty Peggy Cummins performing pistol tricks at a county fair. Her marksmanship so fires up small-town boy John Dall, he becomes her virtual love slave, gladly serving as triggerman on their bank-robbing crime spree across America.

Long before Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, these honeymoon killers were schooling America in the rotten side of life.

And American cinema hasn't been the same since.


The Film Noir Classic Collection: The Set-Up; Murder, My Sweet; Gun Crazy; The Asphalt Jungle; and Out of the Past is available for $49.92 from Warner Home Video.