Behold a trio of lesser-known titles that may have eluded your classic film radar, but they’re definitely worth a look:
The Set-Up (1949)
Clocking in at a lean 72 minutes and unfolding in real time, this film has a pulse-pounding urgency to it. This ain’t no Rocky, kids. These aren’t underdogs duking their way to a world championship. The Set-Up tells the gritty story of two-bit hustlers exploiting chumps in trunks. Vivid ringside characters surround Robert Ryan as an aging heavyweight who dreams of one last knockout bout, unaware he’s supposed to throw the fight. Audrey Totter, who virtually patented scenery-chewing floozies and bad girl roles in the ‘40s, is terrific as Ryan’s loving, world-weary wife. Director Robert Wise (who later won Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music) nails the barely-scraping-by lives of tank town human punching bags. Plus: It’s one of Martin (Raging Bull) Scorsese’s favorites, so you know it’s gotta be good.
Availability: Rent it on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play and Amazon.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Humphrey Bogart isn’t just unlikable in this one. He’s terrifying. Gone is cool cat Rick from Casablanca or lovable skipper Charlie Allnutt from The African Queen. This Bogie is like a roadside IED that’s a hair-trigger breath away from exploding. He plays Dixon Steele, a troubled screenwriter accused of a murder he may (or may not) have committed. Underrated Oscar winner Gloria Grahame is fabulous as Laurel Gray, the neighbor who provides Dix’s alibi, falls for him, helps him reboot his writing career, yet fears his violent temper. In a Lonely Place serves up a cocktail of suspense that leaves you shaken and stirred. It’s directed by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), whose rocky marriage to Gloria went south during production. Ten years later, Gloria married Ray’s son from a previous union...but that’s a whole ‘nother Hollywood drama.
Availability: Same sources as The Set-Up.
The Killers (1946)
In the post-war years, film noir captured the dark shadow that descended on both the country and the movie business. Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner channel that mood in a crime caper torn from the pages of a Hemingway short story. Lancaster is The Swede, an ex-con on a deadly date with destiny when two hit men come to town. Ava sizzles as Kitty, the raven-haired beauty Burt can’t quit, even though she may be double-crossing him with the mobster who wants him dead. (Swede, you’re not alone. Frank Sinatra carried the Ava torch for decades.) Throw in a daring payroll heist, and a tenacious insurance investigator who unravels the twisted tale, and you’ve got a picture that grips you from the start and never lets go.