Late-to-the-DVD-party Fox restorers have emerged from the vaults with three of their more vivid and anticipated film noir titles. Chief among them is Otto Preminger’s multi-layered “Laura,” which Fox withheld from its “Studio Classics” line to launch a welcome new series highlighting the stylized urban underbelly of America during and immediately after World War II. The Film Noir line may not match the Criterion standard for extras, but the price is considerably more affordable and the restoration work laudable.
Among the classiest noir titles ever made in both style and substance, “Laura” has been well-served in this restoration, with the diamond-hard Oscar-winning photography of Joseph LaShelle restored to its vintage beauty. The single-disc pressing includes versions of the film with and without the montage sequence documenting Laura’s tutelage in style by the controlling Waldo (song-and-dance man Clifton Webb in his first film) which wartime censors deemed “too decadent.” Alas, the picture quality of the scene is inferior to the rest of the restored pic.
Two commentary tracks — one with historian Rudy Behlmer and the other featuring Wesleyan U. film prof Jeanine Basinger and David Raksin, composer of the pic’s eminently whistleable score — provide useful information about the bizarre murder mystery revolving around a cynical detective (Dana Andrews) who tumbles for the portrait of a murdered socialite (Gene Tierney). A&E-produced “Biography” profiles of Tierney and Vincent Price round out the extras.
Though most other Fox noirs live in the shadow of “Laura,” releases two and three in the series, Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” and Henry Hathaway’s “Call Northside 777,” are landmarks in the evolution of urban location shooting.
Made by Kazan just prior to “A Streetcar Named Desire” and considered by many his transitional work between a string of problem pictures for Fox and the emotional intensity of his later, more celebrated, pics, “Panic” won the 1951 screenplay Oscar for the story about plague-infested lowlifes on the lam. It thrums with a neorealist urgency undiminished by time (note D.P. Joe MacDonald’s elaborate location tracking shots, which predate those in Orson Welles’ higher-profile “Touch of Evil” by nearly a decade). Though the disc’s extras are sparse, the fact-filled commentary track, from Film Noir Reader co-editors James Ursini and Alain Silver, is a keeper.
Only Hathaway’s “Northside” among this trio, with its stentorian narration, outmoded technological paraphernalia and grainier look, seems overly dated. Jimmy Stewart turns from cynic to crusader as Chicago newspaperman P.J. McNeal, urged on by editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), to overturn the conviction of an innocent man (Richard Conte) rotting in jail for killing a cop. Another laid-back Ursini/Silver commentary track and the pertinent fragment of a Fox Movietone newsreel on the pic’s Hollywood opening are the only extras.
As with the “Studio Classics” editions and the high-end Criterion pressings of international films, the series carries sequential spine numbers, suggesting the studio’s tardy but apparently firm commitment to making its riches available to a new generation.