Mark Harris
September 09, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

EW reviews three ’40s film noirs — or are they?

As the film noir boom on DVD continues and Fox and Warner ransack their vaults for anything shadowy and suspenseful, the genre’s definition grows more elastic. On the latest trio of releases from Fox — part of a planned 24-film noir series — the experts on two of the three commentary tracks bluntly declare that what you’re watching isn’t true noir at all. They’re right about The House on 92nd Street, a stentorian and hilariously propagandistic ode to the ability of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to spy on anyone, anywhere, at any time. Hugely influential (though the result of its influence was mostly bad TV) for its semidocumentary style and attention to investigative procedure, it’s also crashingly undramatic.

Otto Preminger and his Laura star Gene Tierney are reunited in Whirlpool, an outlandish thriller about a kleptomaniacal socialite who comes under the sway of an evil hypnotist (José Ferrer). It’s got elegant, suggestive cinematography and a pleasingly idiosyncratic cast, and, like many noirs of the period, it relies on both a fascination with psychiatry and a complete lack of understanding of it.

The gem (in a zircon kind of way) is Somewhere in the Night, one of the first films Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed, and the only one Lee Strasberg ever helped write. Springing off what was to become a favorite noir premise — amnesia — the film has B-lister John Hodiak as a returning WWII veteran who, using only a couple of letters as clues, returns to a grim urban home front in which an entire city seems populated by suspicious loners and a supporting cast of classic character actors. It becomes more conventional, but it’s a loony, enjoyably overwrought ride while it lasts.

House:C Whirlpool: B Somewhere: B+

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