Gambling, Baby Trafficking, And Murder: 'Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III'

After releasing the original box set in 2016, Kino Lorber has been moving much faster on their Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema series. The second box set came out in May, three came out a few weeks ago, and four is coming out on July 14th. This review is for the third box set which, like the first, includes a film starring Barbara Stanwyck.

Michael Gordon’s The Lady Gambles is about a woman named Joan (Stanwyck) who goes to Las Vegas with her husband, David (Robert Preston). The first sketchy scene is when Joan gets caught taking pictures at the casino. Turns out hiding a camera in a cigarette box only works if you then don’t draw attention to yourself taking photos, but Joan is allowed to keep the camera (and the film inside). What follows is a cautionary tale about Joan’s growing addiction to gambling. The film is melodramatic but Kino’s release includes one of my favorite solo commentaries to date by film historian, Kat Ellinger, who talks about the decision to frame the movie from the husband’s point of view (the men are made out to be far too “noble” in this movie), other Las Vegas-set noirs, and different ways that gamblers have been portrayed in movies. She also shares an anecdote from Tony Curtis’s autobiography about his cameo appearance as a bellboy.

Like The Lady Gambles, Joseph M. Newman’s Abandoned begins by playing up the fact that this could happen to you. Joan had an ordinary life before she started gambling. Abandoned takes place in a nameless city (though despite all the fuss about keeping it nameless it’s eventually named before the end). It’s also one of those movies where the audience knows more than the characters involved. Paula’s sister, Mary, is dead yet her death has been ruled a suicide and Paula (Gale Storm) is convinced she would’ve never killed herself. Then there’s the problem of what happened to Paula’s niece. Luckily, the reporter who hits on Paula at the police station (Dennis O’Keefe’s Sitko) is good at his job and they go looking for the missing child.

William Bowers and Irwin Gielgud co-wrote the screenplay but, according to film historian, Samm Deighan’s, commentary track, Bowers was more responsible for the film’s amazing dialogue. It’s very Sam Spade-ish and if Storm’s performance can be overly composed, the writing saves her every time. At one point she’s in the same room with the woman who murdered her sister and her face gives nothing away (and it’s not because she has a great poker face). The plot unravels nicely, and Raymond Burr has a juicy supporting role (though whether he’s sympathetic, as Deighan notes, or out to save his own neck, is worth discussing). One scene that plays well in 2020 is watching the antagonists try to juggle multiple phones without call waiting

George Sherman’s The Sleeping City is the most traditional of the three noirs. There’s a femme fatale and Gilbert (Richard Conte) is an undercover cop at the hospital, where an intern (Hugh Reilly) was killed. The violence is unexpected, but the hospital lacks urgency and if Frank Skinner overdid the score for The Lady Gambles, it’s dubiously quiet here. Film historian, Imogen Sara Smith, breaks down the film’s use of real locations (like New York City’s Bellevue Hospital) in her commentary track. As Smith notes, there’s always a concern in undercover stories that the person’s real identity will be exposed. It’s a shame The Sleeping City doesn’t lean more on the risk that Gilbert poses to the patients he treats while pretending to be a medical student.

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III is available now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

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