Blu-ray Review: Otto Preminger Noir Collection

★★★★★
Alongside Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, and John Huston, Otto Preminger was one of the most influential film noir directors in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. This new collection by the BFI gives us three of his finest works, namely Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). The collection itself is handsomely, if a little sparsely, presented with a small but informative booklet, and trailers and commentaries for each film.

All three features are gorgeously presented in 1080p transfers from 2K scans, but the shining star in this regard is undoubtedly Where the Sidewalk Ends; the image is exceptionally clear and crisp, faithfully representing cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's seductive and ominous cityscape of deep, sinking blacks and violent shards of light. Preminger regular Dana Andrews is excellent here as Detective Dixon, from whom the director elicits a subtle evocation of a fundamentally good man who does very bad things.

Elsewhere, Gene Tierney gives an achingly sympathetic performance as beautiful love interest Morgan Taylor, and her father, Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully), poignantly embodies the film's sense of decency and pathos trapped in a world of corruption and moral decay. Whilst Where the Sidewalk Ends offers what most audiences expect from a classic noir - cops, corruption, moody lighting, and a jazz-inflected soundtrack - both Whirlpool and Fallen Angel offer unusual, even experimental, experiences, not least because of their exploration of the psychologies of their female characters. Whirlpool's Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is the unfortunate kleptomaniac seduced by David Korvo (Jose Ferrer), a duplicitous homme fatale whose hypnotic abilities and preening affectations recall both Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931) and the eponymous villain of Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), whereas Fallen Angel plays with the well-worn trope of the virgin / whore dichotomy, inverting to a certain degree the audience's expectations of female agency. Indeed, June's (Alice Faye) third-act remark that her and Eric's (Dana Andrews) predicament is "straight out of a book" drips with sardonic self awareness: a self awareness which is also found in Whirlpool's stand-out scene, in which a somnambulant Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) incriminates herself in an eerie and superbly shot sequence that uses the conventions of horror cinema as much as that of noir.

Preminger pays direct tribute to silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a reference that wryly points us toward the shared psychologies of noir and horror, a thematic thread that winds itself intriguingly throughout all three films. It is a small shame, then, that neither Laura (1944) nor Angel Face (1952) have found their way in to this collection, but the three films on offer here work well as a loose trilogy, all sharing preoccupations with psychology, charlatanism, and moral ambiguity. Where the Sidewalk Ends is the standout feature, a culmination of the concerns of Fallen Angel and Whirlpool, and a maturation of the visual style he created with cinematographer LaShelle. This box set is proof positive that Preminger casts a long shadow over the legacy of noir. With the entries on offer here, that shadow shows itself to be just as seductive and compelling as its owner's creations.

Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp

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