The Boss (1956) / Chicago Confidential (1957) / The Fearmakers (1958)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 7, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
It’s hard to lurk in the shadows when the door keeps swinging open to return to the well. But in this case, we’ll let it go, as there’s no such thing as too much Film Noir. KL Studio Classics certainly seems to agree, as it’s ramped up the frequency of its popular “Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema” box set series to a dizzying level. We are now reviewing the seventh volume, with VIII just around the corner.
This time, the focus resides on late-1950s independent studio titles that were distributed by United Artists. Consequently, there’s a heightened grit and even edge that comes courtesy of the noticeably lower budgets and quicker production schedules. It’s a preferred break from the recent glut of the more-polished Universal International deeper cuts, these titles lacking the repetitive contract players and emerging big stars in favor of punchy and volatile leading men and unknown leading ladies with unfortunately short-lived acting careers. Per the tensions of the era, the focuses of these films’ corruption plots are far more institutional than their 1940s Noir forebearers. It’s an above-average lot by “Dark Side of Cinema” standards, each film sporting nice new 2K masters and theatrical trailers. Two very noteworthy directors, Byron Haskin and Jacques Tourneur, bookend this trio of individually packaged Blu-rays. Below, we consider each title individually…
DIRECTED BY BYRON HASKIN/1956
1956’s The Boss is a small-time affair of moderate scope about a character with big vision. Produced by Frank Seltzer Productions and Window Productions, then distributed by United Artists, it ushers Kino Lorber’s ongoing The Dark Side of Cinema series out of the Universal International back-catalog, and closer to good ‘ol Poverty Row.
A towering and rock-hard John Payne (not at all to be confused with John Wayne) takes the spotlight as the intimidating Matt Brady, a heroic World War I veteran who, in the decades to come, depending on one’s point of view, ascends/descends via political corruption. Dejected and alienated as so many postwar Noir men are, Brady proceeds to make a warehouse full of bad decisions that nonetheless make him a wealthy and powerful figure… for a while. Amid all his intensity and passion (the least of which is for his wife, Gloria McGehee- an impotent relationship at best), Brady never knows a second of happiness or contentment. It’s an old, old story, but of course it still holds true- even if it’s not always compelling.
What might be compelling is the screenplay’s treatment of the corruption it’s depicting. The moralistic cacophony of stern, suit n’ tie-wearing white male authority figures barking importantly at one another might become a numbing din were it not for the look-back it now offers. Being a film of 1956 and 1956 values, the term “law and order” is not yet an authoritarian dog whistle but portrayed as a legitimate aspiration for a healthy society.
Although it’s all but impossible to sympathize with Brady throughout this entire movie, he’s the only protagonist we’ve got. Still though, he’s the bad guy erecting a criminal institution- itself intended to be viewed as an abhorrent desecration of the proper, respectable societal institution the way that an undead vampire is an abhorrent desecration of an individual once created in God’s image. These days we’re so conditioned to be weary and skeptical of such “law and order” talk that it’s a little jarring and almost cute, or at least bemusing, to hear a would-be hard-bitten movie like The Boss tout such black & white platitudes.
This makes it even more surprising to learn that the film’s credited screenwriter, one Ben L. Perry, was actually the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Unless there’s some cynical subtext that I’ve failed to pick up on, The Boss’s cookie-cutter morals don’t evoke the uncompromising, contempt-for-this-court attitude that Trumbo is remembered for. Getting paid and moving on to the next one before getting called out were likely his sole motivations here.
Directed with little discernible panache by 1950’s sci-fi icon Byron Haskin (who directed 1953’s The War of the Worlds, among several other such titles), the greyscale, eighty-nine-minute picture has but one standout sequence. It’s a Union Station machine gun ambush that arrives late in the film as gangland warfare begins to tear everything apart. Though Battleship Potemkin (1925) gets all the credit in terms of Brian De Palma’s stylish homage in The Untouchables (1986), it’s not far-fetched to think that The Boss’s similar sequence, set on wide, tall, steps in the same kind of place, was also in that mix.
Which brings us to the film’s most inspired angle, the way that Brady’s brand of old-school calloused man’s-man system-gaming criminals are, by the end, replaced with beady eyed, stringbeany inhuman psychopaths. In the rapidly changing world of this self-described “middle-class city” (based on Kansas City, we’re told on author/film historian Alan K. Rode’s solid, all-business commentary track), the villains make less and less logical sense. Eventually though, we know that the many-layer cake of corruption that we’re all baked into today takes all kinds of bosses. Brady? He’s an unanimated boss baby.
DIRECTED BY SIDNEY SALKOW/1957
Does anyone miss movies where a deep authoritative voice narrates over shots of skyscrapers, bustling citizenry, and speeding cars? If so, look no further than 1957’s Chicago Confidential. Again, like it’s set mate The Boss, this is more of a political corruption/crime tale than what most folks consider “noir”. But that’s okay. Also like The Boss but even more-so, it’s an out-and-out Poverty Row-type production. (Courtesy of Peerless Production; distributed by United Artists). There’s just something nice and satisfying about opening titles made up of generic white block letters announcing unknown or darn near unknown. It feels authentic.
Director Sidney Salkow pounded out a lot of movies in his time, including most prominently The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. By comparison, Chicago Confidential is pretty far under the radar, but he still does a fine job of keeping things moving. Not only (as its original poster announced) rip through “Chi” like a hurricane, it rips across the screen in seventy-seven minutes. Nice. Brian Keith (The Parent Trap) stars as Jim Fremont, a district attorney with his eye on becoming governor. Fremont knows that a conviction for accused murderer in a union- tangled mob hit, Arthur Blane (Dick Foran) would be a political slam dunk. Just one problem: Blane was framed. And the bad guys are aggressively moving in on all credible witnesses. Will the truth come out on time?
Chicago Confidential manages to come off as something of a down-n’-gritty piece of work even as it wields all that air of J. Edgar Hoover-reverence that hasn’t aged well but was so common in these films. (Establishing shots of governmental seals; said shots set to patriotic music; pervasive humorlessness; lots of scenes of stressed-out men in rooms speaking tersely). It’s good. Good enough, at any rate.
Curious newcomers to the film (which is likely the larger subset of this Blu-ray’s viewers) should beware that the blonde in the little red dress who adorns the disc’s cover art doesn’t remotely resemble anyone in this black and white film. In a true rarity for KL’s Noir box set titles, there is, unfortunately, no audio commentary for this one.
DIRECTED BY JACQUES TOURNEUR/1958
I wasn’t too far into Jacques Tourneur’s 1958 sociological thriller The Fearmakers (based on the same-titled novel by Darwin Teilhet) when I realized that it was truly something that the films in these Dark Side of Cinema sets commonly aren’t: unmistakable Film Noir. Although it came out during what’s traditionally regarded as the final year of the classic Noir wave (before Film Noir became the self-aware form “Neo-Noir”), 1958 (actually, if one strictly considers Welles’ Touch of Evil as the last of the classic Noirs, then The Fearmakers came along six months after that), it wields several distinctly Noir tropes from the outset. Enough to warrant a checklist…
Dana Andrews stars as Alan Eaton, a former P.O.W. in the recent Korean War (where he was brutally brainwashed), back to reclaim his place in the public relations firm he walked away from to serve overseas. (Former serviceman: check). He returns to a U.S. that has become aggressively caught in the throes of the Cold War (emerging Cold War tensions: check) to find that his business partner is dead (a mysterious death as a catalyst: check) and there’s no place for him in the new structure. (Postwar alienation: check). He manages to worm his way into a job at his own firm only to uncover horrendous corruption within. (More postwar alienation, and Cold War tensions: check and check). The only ally within seems to be the alluring snake-eyed secretary, played by a Henry Silva-esque Marilee Earle. (Potential Femme Fatale: check).
Film buffs know that when the name “Jacques Tourneur” is on a film, that film is worth checking out. Noir fans know this particularly well, thanks to his vital entry Out of the Past (1947) and Nightfall (1956), not to mention his three horror-Noirs for producer Val Lewton. Though I found The Fearmakers to be worthy of that company (if not quite on that level in terms of style), not everyone agrees. For example, the audio commentator for this Blu-ray, professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney. Though Ney describes himself as a “big tent Noir guy” (which I, based on my past Dark Side of Cinema reviews, could easily be accused of not being- though I do think of myself as such), he spends considerable time dismissing The Fearmakers from the form. Agree or disagree, Ney delivers a heck of a commentary. It’s frankly refreshing to hear a track wherein the subject is analytically called into question.
Though The Fearmakers does fall prey to some questionable writing choices and is glaringly on the wrong side of the nuclear weapons proliferation issue (anti-nuke crusaders are sketchy commie sympathizers), the film is a compellingly watchable thriller that plays like a murderous Mad Men scenario with a lit Cold War fuse. It blows the cover off “weasel words” and polling manipulations so common in advertising and public research and makes several arguments that are all the more potent today. Andrews, though never an A-lister, makes for a great speech-prone lead here, fracked by a memorable Mel Tormé in crazy-thick glasses and a duplicitous Dick Foran.