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Rob Edelman: Dark Crimes, Film Noir Thrillers

There are two primary reasons why I shell out money each month for the privilege of cable television. One is having access to a range of baseball games during the spring and summer months. The other is Turner Classic Movies, otherwise known as TCM. 

In addition to broadcasting a variety of classic and not-so-classic movies, TCM also offers for sale individual DVDs as well as DVD sets of films that are connected by star or genre. One package that TCM has just marketed caught my attention because it features three top-notch film noirs, and I always have been attracted to the artistry of film noir. The set is titled DARK CRIMES, FILM NOIR THRILLERS. Three of the great crime/pulp novelists of the era were involved in one way or another in their creation. They are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. And all three films plunge their characters into seamy worlds where deceit and murder are the rule of the day.

The earliest is THE GLASS KEY, which dates from 1942. THE GLASS KEY features Brian Donlevy as a political leader who is as colorful as he is crooked. Alan Ladd-- at the very start of his career as a tough-guy leading man-- plays Donlevy’s loyal associate, and Veronica Lake-- she of the famed blonde peekaboo hairdo-- is the woman to whom both are attracted. Ladd and Lake, who in their own way are as sizzling a screen combo as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, also star in THE BLUE DAHLIA, released in 1946. Here, Ladd is a newly-minted war veteran who comes home to a wife who is more concerned with partying and playing around than with properly greeting her mate. By the way, William Bendix, a fine but mostly forgotten character actor, has key supporting roles in both films. In THE GLASS KEY, he is a brutal thug with a fondness for drink who is addicted to using Ladd as a punching bag. In THE BLUE DAHLIA, his character is a rarity for a post-World War II film: a short-tempered veteran who has memory issues that are the result of a severe war wound. And if you think about it, the veteran’s issues likely will not disappear with the passage of time.

The final film in the package is PHANTOM LADY, from 1944. Here, a man, played by Alan Curtis, is the prime suspect in the murder of his wife. Of course, he is innocent, but his only alibi is the title character: a mystery woman with issues of her own whom he met in a bar while his wife was being killed. But then the phantom lady disappears off the face of the earth, and the only person who can save him is his devoted and persistent secretary, who is played by Ella Raines. By the way, one of the highlights of PHANTOM LADY is a knockout of a sequence that features some frenzied jazz musicians playing up a storm.

One reason why I am attracted to the best film noir is that the dialogue in them is sharp and tough. Here is one example, from THE GLASS KEY. One character asks another: “Where did you learn how to cook?” The response is: “My first wife was a second cook in a third-rate joint on Fourth Street.” Film noir dialogue also can exude a romanticism, and a longing. In THE BLUE DAHLIA, the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake characters meet and are attracted to each other. As they part, Lake says to Ladd: “Don’t you ever say goodnight?” Ladd responds: “It’s goodbye. And it’s tough to say goodbye.” Lake then asks: “Why is it? You’ve never seen me before tonight.” And Ladd tells her: “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere. The trick... is to find you.”

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.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.