The late 1940s were one of the great eras for film noir. Consider the lineup for Take-Up Productions' "Universal Noir" series at the Heights Theatre. Culled from the vaults of Universal Studios, each of the seven recently restored titles is an economical little thriller featuring some of the great stars and character actors of the noir universe. These pictures were made quickly and cheaply, but their impact resonates even today.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were paired in numerous thrillers, and "Universal Noir" brings us three of their best. 1942's "This Gun for Hire" (Monday) is the story of hit man Philip Raven, who's seeking murderous revenge. Ladd originally was given fourth billing, but his performance shot him to the top of the marquee, and he emerged as a star. Audiences loved his chemistry with Veronica Lake, though they were far from friendly off-screen. Rumor had it that they were considered a perfect match because Lake was the only actress short enough to work alongside 5-foot-6 Ladd. Paramount threw them together the same year in "The Glass Key" and again in 1946's "The Blue Dahlia" (playing together as a double feature on March 9.)
Feb. 23 brings a double feature of Burt Lancaster's great noirs with director Robert Siodmak: "Criss Cross" (1949) and "The Killers" (1946). The latter is better known, but "Criss Cross" is a more startling film. The edgy tale of a returning veteran who gets tangled in his ex-wife's criminal affairs, "Criss Cross" also stars Dan Duryea at his sleazy best.
"The Big Clock" (March 2) is a thriller with an incredible performance by Charles Laughton as a publishing titan who may have committed a murder. "Phantom Lady" (March 16) could be the weirdest of the lot, another Siodmak picture with a nightmarish atmosphere. It's the story of a man who picks up a mysterious woman in a nightclub. When he returns home, his wife has been strangled with his necktie, and our hero must find the phantom lady to prove his innocence.
None of the titles in "Universal Noir" would be considered the stuff of top 100 lists or Academy Awards. When you consider that Hollywood pumped out both "This Gun for Hire" and "The Glass Key" in 1942 -- two pictures that would make "best of" lists today -- you know it was a different time period. They truly don't make them like they used to anymore.