Warner Home Video has set the standard for Hollywood classics on DVD, largely because there's so much material to work with: The studio's archives include the bulk of the MGM and RKO libraries, plus scattered titles from defunct studios and production companies. Last year's magnificent "Film Noir Classic Collection" was devoid of any actual Warner Brothers films: it contained one MGM film, one United Artists, and three RKOs. Warner's second noir set features four RKOs and a Monogram. This may seem like a minor distinction, but the studios of Hollywood's golden age left individualized thumbprints, and even in the grubby world of noir, some prints were cleaner than others.
The Film Noir Classic Collection: Vol. 2 includes films as thoroughly respectable as Fritz Lang's working-class romantic drama Clash By Night and Edward Dmytryk's racially charged military mystery Crossfire, as well as quintessential noirs like Robert Wise's grubby soap opera Born To Kill. But the set's truest RKO representative is Richard Fleischer's 1952 noir The Narrow Margin, a late-in-the-era noir that's both lean and tony. Charles McGraw plays a Chicago police detective assigned to guard state witness Marie Windsor on a train trip to Los Angeles. Over 70 taut minutes, Fleisher and cinematographer George Diskant use the resources of a well-funded studio to get evocative lighting and imaginative camera placement into a realistic train set. The slick approach is a little bloodless in comparison to classic noir, but the material itself makes fine entertainment, from the clever plot twists to crackling dialogue like "She's a 60-cent special: cheap, flashy, and strictly poison under the gravy."
Contrast that with Dillinger, a low-budgeted 1945 Monogram exploitation picture with perennial B-player Lawrence Tierney doing a growly take on infamous bank robber John Dillinger. For the dinky Monogram, Dillinger was practically a blockbuster. According to screenwriter Philip Yordan in his DVD commentary track (shared with a foggy John Milius), the studio tackled the Dillinger story because its big-league competition had sworn off gangsters, and increased box-office prospects allowed Monogram to lure capable actors like Tierney and Elisha Cook, Jr. from the RKO character stable. Journeyman director Max Nosseck makes clever use of stock footage and limited locations to tell a vigorously nasty—albeit historically inaccurate—story about one thug's rise to the top. Dillinger is the real 60-cent special, with extra poison.
By and large, Monogram's output was more along the lines of the triple feature on the single-disc Poverty Row Theater DVD: low-overhead, pulled-from-the-corner-newsstand commercial properties like Detective Kitty O'Day and Private Snuffy Smith. The best of the Poverty Row Theater trio is Club Paradise (a.k.a. Sensation Hunters), a pungent 1945 crime drama with Doris Merrick as a factory worker who becomes an exotic dancer after her sweet-natured musician boyfriend goes to jail for gambling. Like most of the films made by "Poverty Row" companies like Monogram and Republic, Club Paradise has no real stars and a lurid story, but it's got ramshackle atmosphere to spare. The smell of smoke and beer practically wafts off the screen.
One of the other major noir generators, 20th Century Fox, was otherwise renowned for staid literary adaptations and stylistic innovation—as seen earlier this year in the first wave of "Fox Noir" DVDs, which ranged from drawing-room mysteries to docu-realism. The second wave includes William Keighley's undercover-cop procedural The Street With No Name and Sam Fuller's brightly colored Japanese-American government-corruption thriller House Of Bamboo, but the prize of the set is Nightmare Alley, a long-unseen carnival noir making its non-bootleg home-video debut. Tyrone Power plays a dusty barker who gets off on scamming small-town rubes. When he learns the secrets of a vaudeville mentalist trick, he leaves the fairgrounds and heads into nightclubs, where he becomes a confidant to the grieving rich. But he quickly finds that deception and double-dealing are just as common in high society as they are among the freaks and geeks. Director Edmund Goulding shines up the underbelly a little, but in keeping with the Fox style, he also gives the story an unsettling feeling of inevitability. The climactic exchange of dialogue could be the "Fox Noir" slogan: "How can a guy get so low?" "He reached too high."