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Afraid of the noir

Clint Eastwood's heartfelt Million Dollar Baby (Warner Bros.) hit stores last week in a two-disc edition and a three-discer that includes the film's Eastwood-penned soundtrack. The movie has already swung through a couple of praise-backlash cycles now; thinking back on the naysayers' complaints - some find it mawkish, some have issues of class-consciousness - the strangest one is that the movie is too dark. I couldn't disagree more. The inky shadows filling Baby's frames conjure the run-down, low-rent atmosphere of the film's training gym and of the boxing genre in general. Here's to cinematographer Tom Stern for pushing the boundaries, and Eastwood, for getting the studio to pay for it.

Boxing melodramas were a staple back in the heyday of film noir, and Baby follows a string of reissues that lean in that direction. Sometimes the leaning is a little vague - as in the three latest Fox Film Noir entries, whose standard seems merely that a film noir must contain criminals.

But who cares what they call it, when the movies are so welcome? Sam Fuller fans will celebrate the release of another neglected bit of his filmography, House of Bamboo, that again revisits Fuller's fascination with Japanese culture. Noir icon Richard Widmark poses as a crimelord in The Street With No Name, where he is pursued by a dogged FBI agent. And Tyrone Power plays a con-man in Nightmare Alley, which follows him from sideshow grifting to high society ... and down from there. All three Fox titles come with audio commentary and a trailer, while House gets a couple other small bonus features.

Warner Bros. sticks a little closer to the standard definitions of "noir" in their Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 2. (Which is an amazing bargain, by the way, piling solid bonus features onto five good titles for a price that averages just under 10 bucks a piece - seven, if you find it on sale.)

We've already mentioned the set's Dillinger - which stars Reservoir Dogs pug Lawrence Tierney as the famous bank robber - in this column. Tierney popped up again two years later for Born to Kill (directed by Robert Wise, whose career ranged from this to The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story), where he played a gold-digger whose arrogance makes him irresistible to one heiress and then to her sister as well.

Also making two appearances in the collection is Robert Ryan, star of The Wild Bunch. First, he shares the screen with Robert Mitchum in Crossfire, one of Hollywood's first attempts to confront anti-semitism; then he goes to work for the great Fritz Lang in Clash By Night. Based on a Clifford Odets play, Night follows a washed-up, good-time girl (Barbara Stanwyck) who moves back to her home town to start from scratch. An up-and-comer named Marilyn Monroe co-stars.

Finally, The Narrow Margin goes on a long, dangerous train ride with a plot device exploited by buddy movies a few decades later: Charles McGraw must get a valuable witness from Chicago to L.A. so she can testify before a grand jury. She's being tracked by hit men, naturally - the hitch is, they don't know what she looks like.

Modern riffs on the world of noir are also plentiful this month. Even foreign filmmakers are in on the game: Raoul Ruiz offers Catherine Deneuve as a twisted psychoanalyst in the dark comedy Geneologies of a Crime (Strand Releasing); Rokuro Mochizuki tells of a yakuza killer having a hard time adjusting to post-prison realities in Another Lonely Hitman (Artsmagic).

Film buffs who can't stand subtitles (who probably don't read this column regularly) can often just wait a few years for the inevitable American remake. That's the case with Criminal (Warner Independent), an adaptations of the Argentinian Nine Queens. The movie didn't make much of a dent at the box office, but it's a real treat to see John C. Reilly get a film to himself; his character happily double-crosses even those closest to him, but Reilly manages to make him almost sympathetic.

That's a feat not pulled off (not attempted, actually) by Kevin Spacey as the sociopathic movie executive in Swimming With Sharks (Lions Gate). Very self-conscious in its allusions to film history, Sharks opens with echos of the classic noir Sunset Boulevard, then bounces between a revenge plot and the flashback-revealed reasons for it, which could have been an entertaining comedy all on their own.

Lastly, a more straightforward kind of neo-noir is on view in The Big Town (Columbia/TriStar), 1987's lavishly retro gambling film. Stars Matt Dillon and Diane Lane are captured in the transition between their first tastes of fame and their more mature second careers, him as an expert with dice, her as a scantily clad dancer; Tommy Lee Jones, as Lane's homicidal husband, is just warming up for the upward swing his career would take in the early '90s.

By John DeFore

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