HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951)
Universal Pictures, 76m 41s
NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED (1955)
Columbia Pictures, 75m 2s
This "Classic Crime Double Feature" from Mill Creek Entertainment combines a couple of non-horror offerings directed by William Castle, best known as “The King of Gimmicks” responsible for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), THE TINGLER (1959) and 13 GHOSTS (1960). Based on this sampling, I tend to favor Castle's interactive horror works, but noir completists should find some points of interest in this 2-disc Blu-ray set.
The first disc presents HOLLYWOOD STORY, which gets off on the right foot with a pristine-looking opening credits sequence that speaks to the quality of the transfer and the above average condition of the source material, save for the occasional scratches here and there. The Universal International Pictures production is narrated by Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), who welcomes his old friend Larry O'Brien (top-billed Richard Conte) to Los Angeles by way of New York. The experienced producer Larry has set his sights on Hollywood film production and plans to make use of the shuttered National Artists Studio, a location once famous for churning out silent films. Larry quickly becomes fascinated with the 1929 murder of accomplished movie director Franklin Ferrara. The agent Mitch is not on board with the idea of digging into the unsolved crime, but Larry is determined to move forward with an all-in mentality.
With the tenacity of a disciplined historian, Larry dives headfirst into his research of the 22-year-old homicide. Essentially he assumes the role of hardboiled detective in a swamp of disparate people once connected with the long departed silent filmmaker. Erstwhile screenwriter Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull), who often collaborated with Ferrara, now lives in what appears to be an abandoned seaside shack. Sally Rousseau (Julie Adams), daughter of the silent star Amanda Rousseau, would prefer Larry to walk away from the project. Even more dismissive of Larry's true story concept is his longtime business partner Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). The desperate Charles Rodale (Peter Brocco) obviously knows something crucial if he can survive long enough to communicate it. While Larry tirelessly works to simplify the complexities of the cold case, Police Lieutenant Bud Lennox (Richard Egan in an irritating performance) eyes an open-and-shut solution that seems too obvious to be true. One would hope Lieutenant Lennox is a cut above the law enforcement officials who failed to make any significant progress on the murder at the time of its discovery. How investigators could have missed the physical evidence uncovered by Larry is tough to fathom.
This B movie's structure feels overly prefabricated until Larry visits the seedy Ajax Hotel, where the proceedings finally enter film noir territory in earnest. A great wisecrack from quirky hotel resident Sylvester (Joseph Mell) seals the deal ("This is the first killing we've had this year!"). Such eccentrics are regulars in the film noir, where society's castaways have a voice. But most of this programmer's qualifications as a noir film rest in the strong work of Richard Conte in the lead. His Larry O'Brien has a LAURA-like obsession with hanging around the bungalow once occupied by the fallen filmmaker Franklin Ferrara. That tendency allows Larry to solve the cold case, all while the police prepare to lock up the wrong man. Larry may not be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is consistently a step ahead of the smug Lieutenant Lennox. In fact Larry must directly take over for the wounded Lennox in pursuit of Ferrara's killer, who has no choice but to attempt another disappearing act. The endgame chase through a movie prop warehouse is foolproof noir, even if the climactic sequence is all over and done with too rapidly.
HOLLYWOOD STORY is based on the case of director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922), whose murder remains unsolved. Writers Frederick Kohner and Frederick Brady also owe a debt to Paramount's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), the quintessential reflection upon the film industry's painful transition from the silent era to sound. Both films suggest that adjustment was more difficult for some than others. In an overt nod to the Wilder film, HOLLYWOOD STORY includes some actual stars of the silent era: Francis X. Bushman, Betty Blythe, William Farnum and Helen Gibson. Surface similarities aside, Castle's film hardly compares to the Billy Wilder noir classic, but if nothing else HOLLYWOOD STORY keeps the viewer wondering which character will be caught without a chair to sit on when the music ends. Cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie worked on an assortment of other film noirs of the 1950s, such as BACKFIRE (1950), CAGED (1950), HIGHWAY 301 (1950) and HELL BOUND (1957). Guthrie would reunite with Castle to lens MACABRE (1958) and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
Next up is the more dynamic film of the two, the noir docudrama NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED, produced by the eclectic Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures. The featured protagonist is portrayed by Arthur Franz, who anchored director Edward Dmytryk's disturbing film noir THE SNIPER (1952) as the unbalanced killer Edward Miller. This time out Franz is locked in as Dan Corbett, a stand-up-guy with his eye on a Landing Ship Medium fixer-upper he intends to use as a timber transport vessel on the Mississippi River. To make that plan a reality, the former Navy man accepts work on the docks of New Orleans, the second-largest port in the country after New York. According to the voice of the narrator, somehow New Orleans has avoided the corruption associated with New York. Unsurprisingly, it seems the same brand of crookedness that plagues the Big Apple has found its way to the Big Easy.
Dan becomes friendly with blonde temptress Alma Mae (Helene Stanton), a woman with ties to Floyd "Zero" Saxon (Michael Ansara), an organized crime figure who heads what seems to be a legitimate freight business. Dan's flirtatious connection with Alma leads him to Joe Reilly (William Henry), his wife Marie Reilly (Beverly Garland) and her brother Scrappy Durant (Stacy Harris), a former prizefighter. Dan accepts a job as a longshoreman under Joe's supervision.
Marie understands nice guys like Dan can get tangled up in their own ambitions. She knowingly cautions Dan when she summarizes, "We're living on the top of the waterfront. Anything can happen." That sense of unpredictability, especially in terms of sudden violence, is precisely what defines the noir city. Marie underscores the film's Marxist agenda when she expresses her disdain for the endless greed that characterizes American businessmen. Her sentiments are preceded by the murder of her husband, who attempted in vain to break away from the grasp of Zero. Joe Reilly's death by gunfire cruelly validates his wife Marie's concerns about free-market capitalism. Apparently one cannot demand a bigger share at the table without making an enemy out of someone on the other side.
Dan fits the bill nicely as the sympathetic noir tough guy with sufficient gumption for an undercover assignment. He is also ready to let his fists fly when the occasion calls for such behavior (it is his punching power that gets him noticed in the first place). What makes him a particularly interesting noir protagonist is his connection with pain. When he is on the receiving end of pain, he absorbs repeated left hooks to the liver. That area is a soft spot for anybody, even a tough-as-nails guy like Dan. When he reluctantly dishes out pain, he accidentally kills someone he considers a friend! That death occurs in a boxing gym, a location that never seems out of bounds for a noir story; the shadiness and savagery of pugilism always mesh well with the noir universe. This example of the genre even includes cameo appearances by former bantamweight world champion Pete Herman and future junior middleweight champ Ralph Dupas. Notable noir miscreant and professional wrestler Mike Mazurki has a more prominent role as one of Zero's problem solvers. The mere presence of Mazurki adds a certain level of credibility to any film noir. For evidence, witness his turns in MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), I WALK ALONE (1947) and NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950). Location footage assembled by cinematographer Henry Freulich adds authenticity in the form of Pontchartrain Beach (and its perfectly noirish carnival element), Diamond Jim Moran's Food For Kings, The Roosevelt New Orleans hotel, Adam Comeaux's Lounge & Bar and The Court Of Two Sisters.
Like HOLLYWOOD STORY, NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED shares some common ground with a famous predecessor. With its waterfront corruption and boxing subtext devised by screenwriters Orville H. Hampton and Lewis Meltzer, any viewing of NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED will cause director Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) to leap to mind. And like Larry O'Brien of HOLLYWOOD STORY, Dan Corbett steps up to the plate to bring down an elusive criminal; neither Castle film conveys much faith in the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies. Also as occurs in HOLLYWOOD STORY, the chase sequence does not punctuate the final act the way it should, but NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED is definitely the more exciting production of the two. It is also the most noir thanks in part to the oppressive environment. Through his characters, Castle emphasizes the enervating heat of New Orleans, where tempers flare easily. It is an unforgiving urban maze in which an escape route leads to a padlocked gate. Where Castle falters is the scenes that feature the heavies, which I consider missed opportunities. Castle's coverage of Zero and his crew is indifferent at best, and scenes driven by dialog sometimes exude a one-take shooting schedule.
HOLLYWOOD STORY is framed at 1.36:1, a close approximation of the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (the packaging inaccurately claims 1.33:1). NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED comes in at 1.85:1, as correctly advertised. Neither disc offers any supplemental material.