Because of You (1952) / Outside the Law (1956) / The Midnight Story (1957)
BOX SET STREET DATE: DECEMBER 14, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Emerging from the quiet darkness of a year and change gone by comes the fifth volume in KL Studio Classics’ Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema series. In keeping with its predecessors, volume five makes good with a trio of lesser-known black and white finds that have been lingering in the Universal Studios back-catalog. At least one of these titles, 1957’s The Midnight Story (starring Tony Curtis), sees its home video debut on any format with this release.
Also like previous installments in this series, the viability of these films’ “Noir” credentials is debatable. Being from the movement’s later “classic” era (just before “Noir” was defined by critics and therefore self-aware), the 1950s, however, grants more flexibility within the already-malleable form. The shapes, sizes, and possiblies of what constitutes “Film Noir” are many, not few. But it is because of this versatility, not despite it, that outing a film labelled as such for after-the-fact marketing reasons as non-Noir matters. No lover of Film Noir wishes to see the term distilled to encompassing any black and white movie with a crime angle. In the past (as we’ve had to point out in reviews of volumes II, III, and IV), these Kino sets have unfortunately leaned into this trap in the past.
This time, we have two films from studio utilitarian director Joseph Pevney (who’d go on to direct some of the great classic Star Trek episodes), and one by sci-fi/horror favorite director Jack Arnold. How do these titles rate as bona fide Film Noir? Read on…!
Because of You
DIRECTED BY JOSEPH PEVNEY/1952
A so-so movie at best, 1952’s Because of You registers primarily as an odd duck; it’s the kind of flick with a toe in multiple genres. In fact, it’s almost as though screenwriter Ketti Frings spins a wheel o’ genres every time things begin to settle.
Loretta Young appears to be playing against type as a criminal’s moll who finds herself incarcerated instead of getting hitched. As Because of You goes on, however, her matronly sweetness wins out, propelling the story of a twice-dejected woman and mother forward with near-Mrs. Doubtfire-level contrivance.
Young plays Christine, first imprisoned for getting caught with her fiancé’s (Alex Nicol) stolen envelope of Something Important. From there, she’s released to be a nurse, treating soldiers as they get laid up while fighting in World War II. One soldier, Steve Kimberly (Jeff Chandler, not his best work), falls hard for her. Christine breaks it off with her criminal fiancé while he’s still doing time just as Steve sets about aggressively pursuing her. She caves and marries him. They have a little girl named Kim Kimberly.
But when Christine is forced into violating her parole, everything falls apart. She figures that her best way to get close to her estranged child is go the Marvel route. No, not super-heroics, though that is one of the few genres not evoked in this movie. Christine becomes a stage magician for kiddie parties called Miss Marvel. Eventually, she finds herself entertaining a birthday party with her daughter in attendance. From there, she ingratiates herself to her and her new mother. But what will happen when Steve finds out…?
On her thoroughly stuffed commentary track, film historian Samm Deighan does a valiant job of breaking down the film’s many forms. They include but probably aren’t limited to the crime film, the “wartime trauma drama” (as she dubs it), the prison film, the woman’s weepie, a crime road movie, a regular road movie, and a fully generic domestic drama. And, with a magic act. Stand back and squint at it, and it kinda-sorta blurs into an alienated female Film Noir. Hence, its inclusion here. The blend as described sounds more engaging than it is. If anyone is in fact in the market for a film historian’s feature-length analysis of Because of You, Deighan’s rundown is better than the movie itself.
Outside the Law
DIRECTED BY JACK ARNOLD/1956
In the never-ending game of “Noir or Not?”, 1956’s Outside the Law is one Kino Dark Side of Cinema title wherein the answer is unabashedly “YES”. A lean and mean B-movie programmer with no big stars, but a taut atmosphere of urban crime and stretched-thin crime-stopping, Outside the Law ticks many a Film Noir box.
The film, taking place in 1946, ten years prior to its production, proves to be a decently satisfying black and white excursion into the grayscale world of counterfeiters and the U.S. Treasury agents who chase them. As directed by Jack Arnold, Outside the Law is a tidy character piece about John Conrad, alias Johnny Salvo (Ray Danton), a delinquent-turned-inmate-turned-Army infantryman in World War II. (His uniform sports the “Big Red 1” patch, meaning, this guy’s seen some stuff). Now that the war’s over, Salvo’s just another flailing vet in the postwar malaise that so much of Noir is all about.
Turns out that the guy also has issues with his old man (Onslow Stevens), who’s a Treasury Department higher-up. When a connection is discovered between Salvo’s buddy’s widow, Maria Craven (Leigh Snowden), and some major counterfeiters, Agent Conrad brings in his son to assist on the case. And by assist, he means getting close to Ms. Craven to pump her for information. But things get really dicey when the new man in her life (Grant Williams, who’d go on to star in Arnold’s next film- his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man) turns out to be a total heavy.
Grafted on top on the socked jaws and black eyes that Salvo suffers in the course of this personal caper is a surprisingly succinct procedural. In fact, one could easily argue that Arnold is more interested in the whys and what-fors of the T-Men’s strategies than the plight of Johnny Salvo. But, it all works for the viewer- if not for everyone involved. This movie comes amid Jack Arnold’s hot streak at Universal International, which had already yielded The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, This Island Earth, and Tarantula. Despite those major successes, the studio saw fit to kick him over to television. By the 1960s, Jack Arnold’s once-winning career had become a steady flow of Gilligan’s Island and Rawhide helming. Perhaps the very narrative efficiency that he demonstrates in Outside the Law (carefully contained long takes and a judicious balance of character and plot) caught the eye of Universal’s TV execs.
Anyhow, Outside the Law is a terrific inclusion to this Noir box set. Likewise, the new audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith is a terrific inclusion to this disc. Smith brings a welcome levity to his fact-filled guided tour of the movie, providing amusing asides to his obligatory actor biographies and contextualizations. The transfer looks quite good for such a previously rare film.
The Midnight Story
DIRECTED BY JOSEPH PEVNEY/1957
For an aficionado of 1950s cinema (such as this critic), there’s a lot to dig about the Tony Curtis starrer, The Midnight Story. As professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney says in his absolutely terrific commentary track, the film is a curious blend of two forms that flew high in the decade, melodrama and Film Noir. But mostly, it’s Curtis essentially going undercover in an Italian household in hopes of sniffing out the murderer of a beloved priest.
While Ney points out a number of great facts in terms of Italian representation on screen up to this point, a little bit of the BIG acting on display here goes a long way. (Most of the actors playing the family were not, in fact, true Italians). Curtis, still in his studio-forged heartthrob phase, fares better amid this clan by simply staying quiet and showing that knowing smile of his. He’s cool here, there’s no doubt, even if he doesn’t like dancing at the neighborhood mixers, and prefers waltzes to that newfangled rock n’ roll.
In the vein of his more-talented contemporaries Brando and James Dean, Curtis’s character wields a sensitive streak. It’s the very attribute that got him into this pickle in the first place. He’s actually a motorcycle cop who’s turned in his badge when denied the opportunity to chase a hunch he has about the killing. He manages to move into a bedroom in his suspect’s home, and then promptly falls in love with the guy’s daughter (Marisa Pavan). All the while, he’s also spending his days working for the guy (Gilbert Roland) at his San Francisco seafood place. Soon enough, he’s engaged to the daughter and praying hard that he’s got the wrong guy. But what if he was right all along? And what will happen when they inevitably find out his (former) profession?
Despite its title, much of The Midnight Story takes place in broad daylight. All the better to show off its authentic San Francisco exteriors (in CinemaScope, no less), including the areas of Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf (where the seafood place is). Nonetheless, it’s hard to get excited about a lot of the movies that Tony Curtis found himself in during his time as a Universal contract player. The Midnight Story, while marginally more interesting than many, can’t help but land in this camp. But it ends on such a note as to warrant it a place among the subtly morally agitated “maybe Noirs” of its day.
All three of these 1950s Hollywood deep cuts look quite good though not great on these new Blu-ray releases. Besides the newly recorded audio commentaries, bonus features also include each film’s theatrical trailer, and a few others. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jack Arnold’s Outside the Law is the standout film among the three. Still wondering if they can be considered true Noir, or not? More-so than several of their Dark Side of Cinemapredecessors. So that’s always nice to be able to say. But as always, however, Noir or not, it’s simply great to have these obscure titles made available, particularly in high definition.