Rob Edelman: Dark Crimes
As filmmakers go, Fritz Lang and William Castle are as dissimilar as Billy Wilder and Edward Wood. Lang, who directed various classic silent films in Germany before escaping the Nazis and coming to Hollywood, is a certified auteur, while Castle is best known for producing and promoting gimmicky low-budget scare films mostly during the 1960s. But the two are linked in DARK CRIMES: FILM NOIR THRILLERS, VOLUME TWO, a DVD compilation released by Turner Classic Movies.
Four films may be found in the set. Two are directed by Lang, and two are helmed by Castle. Of the quartet, only one really qualifies as film noir. These days, all-too-often and for marketing purposes, any crime film is dubbed a film noir. But in truth, the term refers specifically to those dark, moody dramas that came out of Hollywood during and after World War II. These films reflect on the fact that millions were losing their lives in this well-documented conflict and atomic bombs were being dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the fear that future wars no longer would be fought with conventional weaponry. The technology now existed which would allow humankind to blow itself to bits.
Also, with one glaring exception, none of the films in the set is a bona-fide classic. But each is noteworthy in its own way, and each serves to reflect on the time in which it was made.
Of all the films in the package, UNDERTOW, the first William Castle title, which dates from 1949, is the one genuine film noir. Scott Brady stars as a World War II veteran who has just been separated from the service. All he wants is a quiet, peaceful future, but this is not to be as he finds himself framed on a murder wrap. Beyond its plot, UNDERTOW exudes a vivid post-war feel in its depiction of a veteran who has experienced plenty of combat-related action and yearns to embrace serenity. And here is a trivia note: Appearing all-too-briefly in UNDERTOW as an unnamed detective is a star-to-be by the name of Rock Hudson. Even though his presence is barely noticeable, he does earn screen credit and, interestingly, his first name is spelled "Roc."
Castle's other film is HOLLYWOOD STORY, which dates from 1951. Film buffs in particular will savor its storyline and its obvious connection to Billy Wilder's classic, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Richard Conte plays an Orson Welles-like producer who arrives in Hollywood to shoot his first feature. It is to be based on the unsolved 1929 murder of a top silent film director-- and the HOLLYWOOD STORY scenario mirrors a real-life mystery, also unsolved, involving the 1922 demise of director William Desmond Taylor.
One could not begin to cite all the historical references in HOLLYWOOD STORY, as well as the guest appearances by various then-aging silent screen stars. At the time, as pointed out in HOLLYWOOD STORY, many once-upon-a-time movie luminaries had become bit actors or were queuing on unemployment lines.
The first Fritz Lang title is the third film he directed in the U.S. It is titled YOU AND ME, it dates from 1938, and it features a strangely compelling scenario involving a kindhearted, forward-thinking department store owner who employs ex-cons as salespeople. George Raft and Sylvia Sidney play a pair of former lawbreakers who fall in love amid a host of complications.
What makes YOU AND ME a real curio is that it is as much a romantic comedy-with-music as a crime film. There's a score written by Kurt Weill, which incorporates THREEPENNY OPERA-style lyrics to comment on the plot dynamics.
However, Lang's MINISTRY OF FEAR, released in 1944 and based on a Graham Greene novel, is easily the best film in the set. The setting is England during World War II. Ray Milland plays a man who has just been released from a rural asylum. All he wants is to head for London and get back into the flow of life but, in a Hitchcockian twist, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time which leads to his tangling with enemy agents.
MINISTRY OF FEAR is a taut thriller about a man who is truly alone. You do not know if the various individuals he meets are good guys or bad. Do they want to help him, or harm him? That is to be determined by him-- as well as by you, the viewer.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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