- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

The Home Entertainment division of 20th Century Fox has found it convenient to group DVD editions of selected titles from the studio’s vintage library in a category called Fox Film Noir. Though meant as the highest of compliments, that French term has grown stale with overuse and critical deference by American borrowers. A climate of opinion exists in which “noir” is uttered with near reverence and considered the cinematic genre of genres.

Fortunately, the examples in the Fox library were made in a period (mid-1940s to mid-1950s) when people still thought in terms of murder mysteries, crime thrillers and topical melodramas. Most of the pictures remain durably intriguing and entertaining; at current retail sale prices of $13 to $16, they also are reliable bargains among Hollywood semiclassics and time capsules.

Arbitrarily, I decided to sample the copies of Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (1944), and Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950) — movies I liked upon first acquaintance but hadn’t revisited for many years.

Both were pivotal undertakings for their respective directors. “Laura” was Mr. Preminger’s first major hit and salvaged his career at Fox, where he was anything but a favorite of studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck.

“Panic” sent Mr. Kazan off on a fresh scent, exulting in the semidocumentary, scenic and atmospheric attractions of New Orleans, which emerges, arguably, as the “major character” — a gritty, ominous backdrop to a manhunt plot about a public health crisis, the discovery of bubonic plague in a murdered illegal alien.

Mr. Preminger had been sacked by Mr. Zanuck in 1937. A trusted protege of theater impresario Max Reinhardt’s in Vienna before fleeing the Nazi threat, he rebounded as a Broadway director and actor, partly by playing German menaces.

He was back on the Fox lot during World War II only because Mr. Zanuck was in Europe, preoccupied with supervising his own documentary unit during the American buildup.

Reluctantly, he permitted Mr. Preminger to remain as the producer of “Laura,” which originated as a Collier’s magazine mystery serial.Dissatisfied with the earliest rushes from director Rouben Mamoulian, Mr. Zanuck decided to let the producer double as director.

“Laura” is one of those curious cases of a movie whose mystique was enhanced later off the screen by a brief, haunting Johnny Mercer lyric that supplemented composer David Raksin’s main title theme.

(Their combination of words and music created a pop standard that was never heard on the soundtrack of the movie itself.)

Certain mystery devices also remain tantalizing: the impression that the title character has been murdered before the movie begins, a misapprehension sustained for about 50 minutes, and the switch in which the presumed victim, Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt, a glamorous advertising executive, becomes a murder suspect after turning up alive — but still imperiled.

Like heroines in the romantic comedies of the period, Laura is faced with a choice of three suitors: an infatuated police detective played by Dana Andrews, an affable wastrel of a playboy played by Vincent Price and a consummately effete snob — Clifton Webb making a memorable film debut.

In its aftermath, Mr. Webb became one of the studio’s most improbable box-office assets for more than a decade. Both Mr. Webb and Miss Tierney later surpassed themselves as patrician types in Fox’s savory 1946 movie version of Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” which probably qualifies as “film noir” these days.

The DVD copy of “Laura” in my possession didn’t glisten as much as I desired until the final sequences, a possible disservice to cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who won the 1944 Academy Award for black-and-white cinematography.

The format seems more flattering to Joe MacDonald’s camera crew for “Panic in the Streets.” Known as “Port of Entry” and “Outbreak” while being shot, “Panic in the Streets” never evolves into an account of a large-scale public health menace. In his memoirs, Mr. Kazan attributed the eventual title to self-pity in the Fox sales department: “They were nervous about the popular appeal of the film.” Never a major hit, “Panic” nevertheless leaves a lasting, exemplary pictorial impression once you have seen it.

Mr. Kazan, a Zanuck favorite after the success of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Boomerang,” had the trust of his patron and the run of New Orleans. His response to the immediacy of the city, around the clock and from docks to dwellings, is wonderfully tactile and vivid.

The scenario also interweaves a trio of acting teams that stay with you: Richard Widmark as a Navy public health officer and Paul Douglas as a police captain; Jack Palance and Zero Mostel, a spellbinding physical mismatch, as Dickensian criminal cronies; and Mr. Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes as a persuasively devoted marital match. Mr. Kazan recalled that this was the period in which Miss Bel Geddes still had her “big nose.” She also had one of the most attractive temperaments and voices introduced in the 1940s.

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