Boxing Day

Terrific collections of film noir and camp classics on DVD

One of the great gifts of the digital age has been the DVD box set. With the ability to cram tons of material into sensibly sized (and priced) packages, these small but mighty items have proven ideally suited for a public increasingly interested in "more than just the movie." With their bountiful supplements and creative curating of material both classic and obscure, the best box sets make sense of our pop culture even as they recycle it for maximum entertainment.

Warner Home Video has been at the forefront of the box set revolution since the beginning, and Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 is the latest installment in one of their most exciting ongoing projects. Possibly the most consistently engaging entry yet in this stellar series, Vol. 4 gathers together 10 pitch-black gems on five discs and still finds room to accompany each beautifully restored film with a short featurette and a commentary track from top experts on the genre.

The masterpiece of the collection is They Live By Night, director Nicholas Ray's brilliant tragedy of young lovers on the wrong side of the law (a film without which Badlands or Thieves Like Us wouldn't exist), but that's only the beginning of the pleasures this set affords. They Live By Night stars Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell return in Side Street as struggling newlyweds sucked into a proverbial web of crime; while Tension features a decidedly less simpatico couple double and triple crossing one another in what becomes an altogether perverse look at the underbelly of domestic bliss — a current running through several of these films.

Love is never less than strange here, as in the previously unknown Decoy, where one resourceful femme fatale actually resorts to resuscitating her lover after his death-row execution — but only so he'll reveal where he's stashed his loot!

The set abounds with appearances from our favorite noir icons. Robert Mitchum is on the lam from a murder rap in Where Danger Lives, and then (accompanied by his Out of the Past co-star, Jane Greer) chases a suitcase full of cash in the oddly jaunty The Big Steal. Disgraced former D.A. Edward G. Robinson winds up aiding the very crooks he once indicted in Illegal, and larger-than-life tough guys Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden tear up the screen in the brain-twisters Act of Violence and Crime Wave, respectively. Even Ricardo Montalban shows up here, costarring with a pesky skeleton that's washed up on a beach in Mystery Street, the great granddaddy of all things CSI.

Warner's vast library includes a lot more than just noir, though, and one of their most wildly entertaining projects collects mind-boggling B-movies from all sorts of genres under the rubris Cult Camp Classics. Other volumes in the series are devoted to overblown historical epics (such as Howard Hawks' oddly compelling Land of the Pharaohs) and women-in-peril flicks (like the women's prison opus Caged), but the big crowd pleaser of the batch is Volume One, otherwise known as Sci-Fi Thrillers.

The three science-fiction extravaganzas presented here all hail from the late '50s (often thought of as the golden age of camp) and represent something very close to the acme of B (or possibly C) moviemaking. In Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, boozy, bitchy heiress Alison Hayes grows ultra-plus-sized after a close encounter with some weird aliens, all the better to exact massively proportioned revenge on a no-good hubby and his mistress (ex-Playboy playmate Yvette Vickers, who chimes in with a commentary track here). Incredibly inept special effects aside, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is a one-of-a-kind id-fest, glorious trash before which modern female revenge fantasies like Kill Bill and The Brave One positively pale.

If 50-Foot Woman is proto-feminism, if only by accident, then Queen of Outer Space is its evil twin. Set in the far-flung future of 1985 (!), this retina-searing Technicolor production features a crew of he-men astronauts who land on Venus and find the planet populated by love-starved babes in very short skirts and high heels. Ruling the roost of this estrogen hive is a man-hating queen in a glittery mask (probably designed by Kenneth Anger), while Zsa Zsa Gabor turns up as a Venusian scientist (!!) who just can't help betraying her comrades for the hunky earth guys. The colors are pure candy, the girls are curvy and big-haired and the costumes ripped off en masse from Forbidden Planet. It's literally Esquivel in outer space, and bachelor pad sci-fi doesn't get much better than this.

The Giant Behemoth doesn't quite fit in with the overheated gender madness that dominates this set, but it's a solid little offering nonetheless. Typical B-movie monster mayhem about a radioactive dinosaur terrorizing London, it might be argued that Behemoth is barely "camp" at all, with its relatively sober tone and high-quality stop motion effects from King Kong's Willis O'Brien. That very point is addressed in a commentary by two guys who should know — Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, f/x wizards behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park — while pop culture guru Tom Weaver provides additional, amiably irreverent observations in keeping with the spirit of these movies.

Incidentally, all of the films in the box set have been restored to pristine condition. This may strike some MST3K fans as contrary to the spirit of "bad movies," but it sure looks great to eyes that don't mind a little quality control.

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