March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

EW reviews the latest in Film Noir

A great film noir is a dark victory, but it has a lot of variables. The milieu in Otto Preminger’s Laura doesn’t feel like the familiarly gritty back rooms and social realism of Panic in the Streets and Call Northside 777, but the whodunit still gleams like a pearl-handled pistol in this trio of films that comprise Fox’s noir series. Hard-drinking detective Dana Andrews falls for the portrait of slain Laura (Gene Tierney) while giving the fish eye to his suspects: Clifton Webb as a prickly columnist (”I write with a goose quill dipped in venom”); Judith Anderson as a well-heeled matron; and Vincent Price as Laura’s slithery fiancé. Panic served as a cinematic calling card for Broadway director Elia Kazan, its New Orleans location prefiguring A Streetcar Named Desire. While Navy doctor Richard Widmark hunts down the source of plague in dens of extras with Italian neorealist faces, petty criminals Jack Palance and Zero Mostel, sweaty and desperate, try to evade capture; it all winds up in a thrilling dockside chase. Least impressive is Northside, a docu-noir that bundles Hollywood ho-hum and good location shots. James Stewart looks stern as a reporter scratching for evidence that may exonerate a cop-killer.

EXTRAS Commentaries (two on Laura) and A&E docs, on Price and Tierney, whose ex-husband, designer Oleg Cassini, describes whacking Howard Hughes with a two-by-four for dating her on the sly.

Laura: A; Panic: B+; Northside: B-

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