It quickly becomes apparent while spending a few hours watching old movies how much cinema has changed. During the golden age of Hollywood, the action was more set-bound, the lighting softer and the close-ups more flattering. Even more tellingly, the stories were more literary, the dialogue more eloquent and the performances less natural. Yet, the main difference is one of tone, as the 1934 Production Code prevented film-makers from tackling even vaguely contentious topics in an adult manner. Consequently, romances were chaste, ne'er-do-wells came to bad ends and divisive social or political issues were avoided to keep the audience from thinking, to convey a sense of patriotic unity and to fulfil the conservative agenda of the Wall Street bigwigs bankrolling the studios.

Yet it's clear from pictures like George Stevens's adaptation of JM Barrie's Quality Street (1937) that old-time film-makers trusted the audience's intelligence much more than they do today. Moreover, they relied on wit and intrigue to entertain rather than effects and spectacle and they knew how to tell a story, develop a character and reach a definitive conclusion without leaving the door open for a sequel. One thing hasn't changed in the intervening 75 years, however, as Hollywood still can't resist a remake - although RKO did have an excuse, as the 1927 version with Marion Davies and Conrad Nagel had been a silent.

In a refined neighbourhood populated exclusively by curtain-twitching matrons and spinsters, 20 year-old beauty Katharine Hepburn confides in older sister Fay Bainter her high hopes that handsome doctor Franchot Tone is going to propose. However, this being 1805, Britain is at war and Tone merely wishes to inform Hepburn that he has answered the call of recruiting sergeant Eric Blore and is off to fight Napoleon. Choking back her disappointment, Hepburn wishes him a safe return and throws herself into running a school to prevent gloating gossips Estelle Winwood, Helena Grant and Florence Lake from discovering the true extent of her heartache.

A decade passes and Hepburn loses her looks in trying to keep control of her unruly charges. Thus, when Tone returns and fails to disguise his distress at her decline, the humiliated Hepburn decides to pass herself off as her coquettish young niece to keep him out of the clutches of flibbertigibbet Joan Fontaine. However, Tone has competition in the form of younger officers Roland Varno and William Bakewell and Bainter and maid Cora Witherspoon are soon exhausted from trying to sustain the deception as Hepburn alternately plays sickly aunt refusing visitors and vivacious niece attending balls, boating parties and croquet matches.

As one would expect of such a drawing-room farce, the action becomes increasingly convoluted until Tone rumbles the ruse in time to protect Hepburn's reputation from the prying tattletales. Yet, while its slickness and discernment are now readily evident, Quality Street failed to find favour with contemporary audiences and confirmed the popular contention that Hepburn was `box-office poison'. Given the fact she had learned from a radio broadcast during the shoot that her agent and long-time lover Leland Hayward had married the actress Margaret Sullavan, Hepburn gives a fine performance and is splendidly supported by Bainter, Witherspoon and Winwood. Furthermore, she hit upon the skittishness that would characterise her work in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), which shares some of this storyline's mischievous duplicity.

Joan Fontaine's cameo was unbilled and she later claimed that Walter Plunkett's costumes were the film's sole saving grace. However, she often frequented Hepburn's picnic lunches and the star's intercession with the RKO front office led to Fontaine landing bigger roles until she was finally selected to play Fred Astaire's leading lady in A Damsel in Distress (1937) - his first venture apart from Ginger Rogers, which was also directed by George Stevens and boasted the last score by the great George Gershwin before he died following surgery on a brain tumour.

It was Gershwin who first brought PG Wodehouse's novel to the attention of producer Pandro S. Berman, who proposed it as a vehicle for Astaire after he decided to take a sabbatical from Ginger when the receipts for Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937) suggested that the public was beginning to tire of the peerless pair. It made sense, therefore, to cast Astaire opposite a non-dancer and allow him to showcase his skills in non-romantic routines. Thus, while the film's failure has invariably been attributed to Fontaine's stiff shuffling through `Things Are Looking Up', it was actually her demureness that proved more deleterious, as the reticent Astaire needed a co-star with Rogers's brashness to turn him from merely dapper into dashing. Katharine Hepburn had it right when commenting on the Astaire-Rogers chemistry: `He gives her class. She gives him sex.'

In London for a show, Astaire's Broadway star is wearying of the cockamamie schemes being devised by publicist George Burns and his daffy secretary Gracie Allen. So, when he bumps into Fontaine's runaway heiress in a cab, he readily accepts a written invitation to come to Totleigh Castle. However, the note didn't come from Fontaine but rascally footman Harry Watson, who is out to win a servants' hall sweepstake by ensuring she marries a mysterious stranger and not musician Ray Noble, who was drawn by Machiavellian butler Reginald Gardiner.

Naturally, this being a Wodehouse scenario (albeit one co-adapted by Ernest Pagano and SK Lauren), Astaire convinces himself that Fontaine is besotted with him (when her heart really belongs to an American skier she met while holidaying in Switzerland) and promptly mistakes her ennobled father (Montagu Love) for a gardener and falls foul of her formidable aunt, Constance Collier. However, things become even more complicated when Fontaine develops a crush on Astaire on thinking he has followed a famous ancestor by leaping from a high tower for love and Gardiner and Watson exchange tickets and begin trying to undo their previous machinations.

It all makes for jolly amusement, with Burns and Allen providing wisecracking distractions and George and Ira Gershwin contributing such catchy tunes as `I Can't Be Bothered Now', `A Foggy Day (In London Town)' and `Nice Work If You Can Get It', which concludes with Astaire executing a sensational duet with a drum kit. Fred, George and Gracie also do a neat bit with some whisk brooms for `Put Me to the Test', but the musical highlight is `Stiff Upper Lip', which inspired choreographer Hermes Pan to create an Oscar-winning routine involving such fairground attractions as moving floors, tunnels, slides and a hall of mirrors.

Director George Stevens overplays the Anglo clichés and caricatures and his comic touch lacks the trademark Wodehousian insouciance. But, while it may have been Astaire's first commercial misfire, this is nowhere near the calamity that indolent critics have subsequently insisted. Indeed, it more than holds its own against Vivacious Lady (1938), which Stevens made with Ginger Rogers prior to her unexceptional reunion with Astaire in Carefree (1938). Also numbering Ernest Pagano among its screenwriters, this would have been little more than a genial time-passer had Rogers not been teamed with James Stewart, who was clearly patenting the kind of boyish, tongue-tied infatuation to which Hugh Grant added a liberal dash of foppishness in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999).

Botany professor Stewart is dispatched to New York by college principal father Charles Coburn to retrieve wayward cousin James Ellison. However, in tracking him down to a swanky nightclub, Stewart falls head over heels with Rogers's feisty chanteuse and they marry after an idyllic tour of the city. Despite being forced to spend their wedding night in the observation car of the train back to Old Sharon (after bickering couple Spencer Charters and Maude Eburne refuse to give up a double-booked sleeping compartment), the pair hook up with Ellison, who sportingly accepts losing the object of his affections and agrees to help Stewart break the news of his nuptials to Coburn and his highly strung wife, Beulah Bondi.

However, when Coburn shows up at the station with his son's possessive fiancée Frances Mercer, Stewart loses his nerve and decides it would be better if everyone believed that Rogers was Ellison's latest floozy. So, while Rogers moves into a female hostel managed by Franklin Pangborn, Stewart enrols her in one of his classes so she can attend the prom, where she befriends an unknowing Bondi in the washroom. However, she also gets into a cat-fight with Mercer and a distinctly unimpressed Coburn orders Stewart to devote himself to impressing Lloyd Ingraham so he will make a donation to the new library.

Determined to get Stewart back, Mercer tells Bondi that Rogers has duped him into marriage and she rises from her sickbed to storm down to the hostel. However, she remembers Rogers from the prom and is dancing around the apartment with her and Ellison when Coburn struts in after a heated encounter with Stewart to demand that Rogers agrees to a divorce. The bluster backfires, however, as Bondi announces she is tired of Coburn's pomposity and leaves town on the same train as Rogers, where they share tissues and sandwiches (to the consternation of steward Willie Best) until Stewart and Coburn scramble aboard to make their amends.

Amusing without ever being hilarious, this mild screwball is enlivened by the brawl between Rogers and Mercer and by Stewart getting sloshed with assistant Grady Sutton on hooch mixed in his laboratory. Yet, even though they had once dated in real life, the leads struggle to generate much romantic spark, with Rogers toning down the brassiness that made her blonde bombshells so hard for Astaire to handle and Stewart lacking the quiet confidence that always ensured she melted into Fred's arms during the clinching dance. Nonetheless, they were sufficiently deft comedians to keep the action light and found admirable foils in Coburn, Pangborn and the excellent Bondi, who steals the picture as the wife who feigns heart trouble at the first sign of domestic discord.

On this form, Bondi may also have enlivened Gregory La Cava's 5th Ave Girl (1939), a mediocre satire that essentially rehashes the ideas on the American class system that the director and uncredited scribe Morrie Ryskind had already explored in the Depression parable My Man Godfrey (1936). This saw socialite Carole Lombard become acquainted with the harsher aspects of existence by hobo-turned-butler William Powell, while the later variation had self-made tycoon Walter Connolly reconnecting with his simpler self after hiring sassy Ginger Rogers to teach his ungrateful family some manners. The former is by far the sharper in terms of wit and wisdom and Rogers is a far inferior actress to the inimitable Lombard. But the political ideas being bandied around are fascinating and it's amusing seeing the rabidly right-wing Rogers having to deliver dialogue in favour of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Returning home from a potentially ruinous meeting with the union officials at his factory, ageing businessman Walter Connolly learns from butler Franklin Pangborn that he will have to spend his birthday alone, as wife Verree Teasdale has gone clubbing with a young admirer and offspring Tim Holt and Kathryn Adams are out with friends. Wandering into Central Park, Connolly gets chatting with unemployed Ginger Rogers and invites her to supper. They go to the club where Teasdale has her assignation and she is furious when Connolly comes down to breakfast sporting a black eye and blithely introduces Rogers as their new house guest.

Holt is equally unimpressed and tries to bribe Rogers into leaving. But all attempts to coerce lawyer Theodore von Eltz and psychiatrist Louis Calhern into having Connolly pronounced insane founder and he cheerfully hands Holt the reins of his pump plant and announces that he intends dedicating himself to decadence. Ironically, the previously indolent Holt proves to have a shrewd business brain and suggests boosting orders by creating a farm credit scheme. However, he is still under Teasdale's orders to come between Rogers and his father and he makes a clumsy attempt to seduce her in the park.

By now, the lovesick Adams is also angry with Rogers because she had advised her that the best way to impress left-leaning chauffeur James Ellison was to get herself a job. But he reacts angrily to a parasite taking work from the needy and the ensuing row culminates in Rogers slapping him for his bolshie views. Now thoroughly cheesed off with the charade, Rogers tells Connolly she wants to quit. As he is also bored with having to pretend he spends every night on the tiles, Connolly reluctantly agrees. But, as he slinks into the kitchen for some of Teasdale's home-cooked stew and Adams and Ellison return from a quickie wedding ceremony, Holt catches the departing Rogers and carries her back over the threshold.

Although she excelled at playing wisecracking everygirls who were quite capable of looking after themselves, Rogers rarely made a convincing victim. Thus, while it's easy to believe in the tough cookie sharing her supper with a complete stranger, it's harder to buy her sob story when the callous rich folks she has been gleefully deceiving decide to fight back. She's not helped by Allan Scott's script, however, which is full of sketchily outlined secondary characters and half-digested ideology. But La Cava's leaden direction is equally culpable, especially as he fails to establish the meeting of minds that persuades Connolly and Rogers to enter into their mischievous alliance.

Despite its shortcomings, the picture proved a solid box-office hit and sufficiently bolstered Ginger's confidence and reputation for her to split permanently from Astaire the following year. They would ill-advisedly reunite a decade later for their sole outing in colour, by which time the 38 year-old's star had already begun to wane in the face of competition from a new breed of voluptuous brunettes like Linda Darnell, who demonstrated in Douglas Sirk's Summer Storm (1944) that femmes fatales could entice gullible men to their doom in costume dramas as well as films noirs.

In adapting Anton Chekhov's only novel, The Shooting Party, Sirk (using the name Michael O'Hara) moved the action from the 1840s to the 1910s and bookended it with scenes set in post-revolutionary Kharkov. Whether this was to show solidarity with a wartime ally is uncertain, although it seems unlikely as Sirk (then still known as Detlaf Sierck) had planned to film the story while still working in Nazi Germany. However, in having impoverished count Edward Everett Horton offer aristocrat-turned-comrade Anna Lee the memoirs of disgraced judge George Sanders for publication, Sirk sets up an intrigue that he explains in the lengthy central flashback and resolves in a tragic coda.

In Tsarist times, Lee and her family used to summer in the country and she had become engaged to Sanders. However, she terminated the relationship after seeing him kiss woodcutter Sig Ruman's illiterate, but socially ambitious daughter Linda Darnell on the day of her wedding to Horton's overseer, Hugo Haas. Ashamed of his weakness, Sanders tries to avoid Darnell. But she uses her wiles to tempt him and, on succumbing, is furious to discover that she has also been flirting with Horton in return for expensive gifts and the prospect of becoming a countess.

Eventually, Darnell is murdered during a woodland picnic and the cuckolded Haas is charged with the crime by public prosecutor John Abbott. However, Sanders uses his position to intimidate the chief witness, Austrian maid Laurie Lane, and Haas is sentenced to penal servitude, leaving Sanders to wrestle with his increasingly tortured conscience. But the dual need for money after the Bolsheviks came to power and for Lee to know the truth about a man she has never stopped loving prompts him to produce his confession.

Sirk has become something of an icon among critics and academics, with the `woman's pictures' he made at Universal in the 1950s with producer Ross Hunter being hailed as masterclasses in screen melodrama. However, his second Hollywood outing - after the scathing Hitler's Madman (1943) - often feels emotionally overwrought, as though neither Sirk nor his cosmopolitan cast was entirely comfortable with the nuances of Chekhov's prose. Indeed, an air of awkward theatricality pervades proceedings, with even the usually urbane Sanders and Horton struggling to sound like provincial patricians and Darnell seeming much more like a Texan vixen than a peasant tease.

Even Rudi Feld's sets look stagebound, despite the laudable efforts of cinematographers Archie Stout and Eugen Schüfftan to bathe them in brooding shadows. Thus, this lacks the `the heavenly electricity' that so haunts Darnell, although Sirk's eye for telling detail remains sharp, most notably in the sequences emphasising the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots on either side of the 1917 divide. The sense of time and place is established with equal economy and backlot conviction by Albert S. D'Agostino in Robert Stevenson's take on Polan Banks's novel My Forbidden Past (1951). Atmospherically scored by Friedrich Hollaender, this Southern soap takes place in 1890s New Orleans. However, the unmistakably modern acting styles of Ava Gardner and Robert Mitchum (who was returning to the screen after his 1949 marijuana bust) seem defiantly anachronistic and, thus, while this makes for steamy entertainment, it never comes to suggesting life as it was actually lived.

Sworn never to mention her notorious grandmother, Gardner lives in shabby gentility with aunt Lucile Watson and scheming cousin Melvyn Douglas. They wish her to marry wealthy suitor Gordon Oliver, but she defies them daily to rendezvous with university scientist Mitchum. However, she is too scared of Douglas divulging a dreadful family secret to accompany him on a two-month research trip to South America and, so, even though she learns from lawyer Will Wright that she has inherited a fortune from her great uncle, she is left heartbroken when she meets Mitchum's boat at the docks and discovers he has married comely blonde, Janis Carter.

Frustrated in her bid to win Mitchum back during a Day of the Dead encounter in the local graveyard, Gardner promises Douglas a handsome reward if he can prove that Carter is a gold-digger by seducing her. However, their boathouse tryst culminates in Carter's accidental death after Douglas responds to her entreaty to marry him by contemptuously throwing her to the floor. Gardner watches helplessly as Mitchum becomes coroner Walter Kingsford's prime suspect. But when she finds out that Douglas had failed to deliver the note she had written to Mitchum explaining why she couldn't accompany him on his expedition, Gardner decides to liberate herself from his tyranny once and for all.

Inheriting a role originally intended for Ann Sheridan, Gardner gives a typically intense performance as the put-upon poor relation. But while there is real venom in her exchanges with Douglas, she creates surprisingly few sparks with Mitchum. Perhaps the pair were trying not to betray the tempestuous passion that had consumed them off screen. But Mitchum's wife Dorothy eventually put a stop to that when Gardner asked her to step aside and they never worked together again.

Mitchum forged a more enduring partnership with his co-star in Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1952), going on to appear with Jean Simmons in the features Beautiful But Dangerous (1954) and The Grass Is Greener (1960) and the Civil War mini-series North and South (1985). However, they would never better this Freudian noir, which was completed in the final 18 days of Simmons's contract with RKO chief Howard Hughes, who was so determined to make her pay for defying him by cutting her hair short that he gave the martinet Preminger free rein to do whatever he wanted with a scenario he had already rejected. Few classics have emerged from such unpromising beginnings and while this may not be on a par with Laura (1944) or Fallen Angel (1945) it still simmers noxiously before unleashing its shocking surprise.

Mitchum's ambulance driver is summoned to the Beverly Hills mansion of novelist Herbert Marshall when he suspects that second wife Barbara O'Neil has attempted to kill herself with the bedroom gas pipe. As he leaves, Mitchum notices Simmons casually playing the piano and seeming only vaguely relieved that her stepmother has survived. Yet he postpones a date with nurse Mona Freeman when Simmons follows him to a late-night eaterie and she persuades him to quit his job and become her chauffeur, with the promise that O'Neil will bankroll the sports car garage he has always dreamed of opening.

With Freeman finding solace in dully dependable Kenneth Tobey, Mitchum moves into the servants' quarters. But, soon after O'Neil agrees to finance his project, he begins to question Simmons's devotion to her father, especially as his literary light seems to be dimming and he primarily remarried to keep himself and his daughter in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Mitchum's suspicions are confirmed when O'Neil is killed when her car inexplicably reverses over the steep incline beneath her drive. But Simmons slumps into a depression on discovering that Marshall was in the passenger seat and only recovers her composure when lawyer Leon Ames informs her that she has to marry Mitchum in order to convince the jury that they were lovers planning to elope against her father's wishes rather than calculating killers who had deliberately sabotaged the vehicle.

Despite some acerbic asides on American attitudes to class, this is less an insight into social disparity than a seething study of chauvinist opportunism and sexual dysfunction. Mitchum knows Simmons is trouble from the moment he meets her. Yet she promises to be more physically accommodating than Freeman and the lure of a return to the fast life he enjoyed as a racing driver before the war clouds his judgement. Thus, rather than being the typical noir patsy who is suckered into doing the femme fatale's bidding, Mitchum is every bit as reprehensible as Simmons, as he is prepared to exploit her foibles for his own ends and is caddishly ready to abandon her when she proves less malleable than he had anticipated.

As in My Forbidden Past, Mitchum's laconic style allows him to appear the victim, especially as Simmons invests so much intensity in her cherubic derangement. But few will feel much sympathy for him when he accepts her offer of a lift to the bus stop so he can start a new life in Mexico.

As in My Forbidden Past, Mitchum's laconic style allows him to appear the victim, especially as Simmons invests so much intensity in her cherubic derangement. But few will feel much sympathy for him when he accepts her offer of a lift to the bus stop so he can start a new life in Mexico. Indeed, most will be bemused why George Sanders is so irresistibly drawn to another daughter with a father fixation, as he strives to prove that Wendy Barrie doesn't deserve the adverse headlines in John Farrow's brisk series entry, The Saint Strikes Back (1939).

Inheriting the role from Louis Hayward, Sanders is perfectly cast as Leslie Charteris's troubleshooter Simon Templar and his dry delivery of the quips in John Twist's script adds a slick sophistication to a hard-boiled tale of police corruption, misguided vigilantism and abuse of power. However, he is splendidly supported by an accomplished cast of character players who ensure this variation on Charteris's Angels of Doom fizzes along to its satisfying conclusion.

Desperate to clear the name of the NYPD father who committed suicide after being accused of collaborating with a criminal mastermind, Barrie has fallen in with the shady types she hopes can help her acquire the $80,000 in marked banknotes that can prove her case. Unfortunately, a New Year's Eve shooting at the Colony Club in San Francisco lands her deeper in trouble and it's only the quick thinking of Sanders who whisks her away from the scene before the police arrive.

Naturally, Sanders is spotted in the vicinity and commissioner Robert Strange summons inspector Jonathan Hale from New York because he is familiar with Sanders's methods. However, Sanders pays Hale a visit to assure him that he had nothing to do with the murder and that Barrie is more misguided than malignant. Moreover, he tricks him off the plane during a stopover on the flight west and is back in Frisco in time to lay his traps.

On finally arriving, Hale is informed by criminologist Jerome Cowan that The Saint is suspected of being the elusive head of a ruthless crime ring. But Barrie and devoted adviser Neil Hamilton are convinced that the identity of this mystery man can be found in the safe of millionaire Gilbert Emery and hire cracksman Barry Fitzgerald to break in. The robbery is bungled, but Emery is sufficiently spooked to contact his cohorts and Sanders swoops to snare them and make a romantic impression on the grateful Barrie, who now regrets her earlier attempt to poison him.

Rattling along through all manner of contrivances, this is an involving thriller that atones for its deficiencies as a whodunit with amusing set-pieces like the seafood supper that leaves the hapless Hale with indigestion. Sanders's playful banter with Fitzgerald and fellow henchmen Russell Hopton and William Gargan is also relishable, although he never establishes the same rapport with Barrie, who later achieved infamy as the mistress of mobster Bugsy Siegel.

The gambit of the hero who becomes the hunted had long been a pulp staple by the time that RKO recycled it here and screenwriter John Twist (in conjunction with Robert Hardy Andrews) later recast it in a Western setting for William D. Russell's Best of the Badmen (1951). The only non-monochrome picture under discussion this week, this lively revision of frontier mythology was evocatively photographed in Technicolor by Edward Cronjager and scored with rousing energy by Paul Sawtell.

With the war between the states finally over, army major Jefferson Clanton (Robert Young) is dispatched to Missouri to urge the outlaws known as Quantrill's Raiders to swear allegiance to the Union and receive a pardon on the proviso they acted solely in accordance to Confederacy orders. Despite the misgivings of Curley Ringo (John Archer), horse doctor Ephraim Butcher (Walter Brennan), Jesse (Lawrence Tierney) and Frank James (Tom Tyler) and Cole Younger (Bruce Cabot) and his brothers Bob (Jack Buetel), Jim (Bob Wilke) and John (John Cliff) are keen to surrender. But the townsfolk of Breckenridge refuse to believe they have turned over a new leaf and respond to the rabblerousing of bounty hunter Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), who wants them tried and hanged.

Ignoring the clamour, Clanton administers the oath and urges his prisoners to head for the hills after Bob Younger is winged by a sniping deputy. However, in the melee, Clanton shoots one of the locals and Fowler persuades crooked sheriff Joad (Barton MacLane) to charge him with murder, as he had already been discharged from his regiment. This technicality also means that the Quantrill gang are still enemies of the state and Fowler vows to round them up, even though he is more interested in the reward money than doing his civic duty.

On the eve of his execution, Clanton is helped to escape by Fowler's estranged wife, Lily (Claire Trevor), who loathes him for his hypocrisy. Despite a leg wound, Clanton rides into the wilderness, where he reunites with Doc and Bob, who take him to the town of Quinto in the lawless region known as Badman's Territory. Clanton is pleasantly surprised to discover that Lily is the chanteuse at the local saloon, but she worries when he acquiesces in the Quantrill plan to ruin Fowler by robbing all the banks and businesses protected by his Pinkerton-like detective agency.

But their troubles really begin when Ringo becomes jealous of Clanton's relationship with Lily and betrays their whereabouts to Fowler. Moreover, he kidnaps her and returns her to her husband in Breckenridge. However, Clanton, Bob and Doc have a plan involving a stolen stagecoach and three sticks of dynamite.

While hardly in the same league as anything by John Ford or Anthony Mann, this is a solid Western that ably sustains the mistrustful postwar atmosphere that existed between the vanquished Southerners and the Northern carpetbaggers who sought to profit from their misery. Ryan makes a doughty hero, but he is upstaged by Preston's hissably despicable villain, who could easily be compared to the right-wing politicians who were then exploiting the House UnAmerican Activities investigation into Hollywood Communism to raise their profile and feather their own nests.

Ryan had already headlined a film about sticking to one's principles in the face of thuggish intimidation and The Set-Up (1949) remains his finest achievement. Adapted by former sportswriter Art Cohn from a poem by Joseph Moncure March and meticulously researched in low-rent Los Angeles venues by director Robert Wise, this also ranks among the best boxing movies ever made, as not only is the ring action choreographed by ex-pro Johnny Indrisano bruisingly authentic, but Wise also captures the anticipation, consternation and camaraderie of the locker room before a bout, as well as the ghoulish excitement exhibited by the crowd once the bell rings.

As the punters arrive for a full card at the Paradise City Arena, Ryan's manager George Tobias and cornerman Percy Helton meet in a seedy cafe with Edwin Max, a fixer for gambler Alan Baxter, who wants Ryan to take a dive in the fourth round to help ease prodigy Hal Baylor towards a title shot. Tobias accepts the $50 pay off and gives Helton his cut, but decides against informing Ryan of the deal as the ageing pug is bound to lose anyway.

Defeat, however, is the last thing that Ryan is contemplating in his hotel room across the street. Indeed, he is convinced that a single punch could revive his career at the advanced age of 35, even though loyal wife Audrey Totter has her doubts. She declares that she can't bear to watch him take another beating, but Ryan is convinced she is on her way when he sees their room fall dark from the changing-room window.

Buoyed by the knowledge Totter will be there to support him, Ryan tunes in to the chatter between his fellow pugs and trainer Wallace Ford. Debutant Darryl Hickman can barely control his nerves as he awaits his call, but he returns wreathed in the exuberant smiles of relieved victory. By contrast, David Clarke goes out in a blaze of optimism because his idol won the title on the back of a 21-fight losing streak and is rushed to the hospital with the doctor fearing brain damage.

Black fighter James Edwards is more cautiously upbeat, while Phillip Pine places his faith in his bible and Kenny O'Morrison trusts to luck. But, while they enjoy mixed fortunes, Ryan prefers to rely on his certitude that he will be rewarded for the decency and durability that have enabled him to keep going for nearly two decades. Thus, even though he realises that Totter's seat is empty, Ryan squares up to his much younger opponent with no fear and feels his confidence growing after matching Baylor during the two rounds that the challenger had been advised to take easy to make the contest look fair.

As Baxter's girlfriend (Lynn Millan) makes bets with a fellow in the next row, a man listens avidly to the radio commentary, while John Butler gives blind buddy Archie Leonard a blow by blow account of the action. Elsewhere in the bleachers, glutton Dwight Martin stuffs his face with junk food, while programme seller Frank Richards urges Ryan on and supposedly disapproving housewife Constance Worth jumps to her feet to bellow abuse at the rapidly tiring combatants.

Increasingly concerned that Ryan is going to beat the odds, Tobias informs him before the final round that he has to hit the canvas and he stumbles into the centre of the ring with his pride and determination sapped by a shuddering sense of betrayal. However, the realisation that he is on his own spurs Ryan on and he returns to the locker room with a quiet sense of satisfaction. However, a furious Baxter bursts in thinking that Ryan was aware of the deal with the absconded Tobias and orders him to change so he can be punished for welching. Suddenly afraid, Ryan scurries through the deserted arena and finds a side door into an alley. But he is cornered and Baxter shatters his hand with a brick in retaliation for throwing a punch.

Ryan staggers into the main road and collapses. Totter sees him from her window as she heats some soup for his supper and rushes to his side. She has spent a miserable night wandering the streets and realising that it was duty as much as ambition that had kept her husband boxing so long after his peak, as it was the only way he knew of providing for her. But, as she cradles him on the pavement, she reassures him that everything will be okay.

Everything is about this fine film is spot on, right down to the fact that legendary shutterbug Arthur `Weegee' Fellig had an uncredited cameo as the ringside timekeeper. The performances are faultless, with Ryan exuding flinty dignity as the has-been with more heart than ability and Totter touchingly coming to terms with her no-win situation as she resists the unwanted attentions of flashy mashers, laughs at the cries of the sideshows barkers and watches the young lovers milling along the byways around the stadium. But it's the technical mastery underpinning the docudramatic realism that most impresses.

The immediacy of Milton Krasner's photography was achieved during the fight scenes by shooting with three cameras: one for wide shots, one for mediums focusing on the boxers and a handheld one for close-ups. Yet, despite the excellent coverage, Wise was dissatisfied with Roland Gross's editing and he drew on his experience cutting such pictures as 5th Ave Girl and Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) to produce some of the most intimate and visceral sporting sequences in screen history.

A similar grittiness informs Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery (1950), which comes between Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949) and Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) in a quirky triptych of security truck heists. Based by writers Earl Felton and Gerald Drayson Adams on an actual case, this low-budget noir benefits from inky nocturnal photography by Guy Roe (who spent most of his career in Bs and television) and shabby interiors by Albert S. D'Agostino and Ralph Berger that moodily complement the authentic LA locations.

Hardened criminal William Talman prides himself on the detailed preparation of his blags and the fact he has never attracted so much as a parking ticket. After weeks researching the routine of the armoured car collecting taking from the Wrigley Field baseball stadium and timing police responses to bogus emergency calls, Talman introduces seedy sidekick Douglas Fowley to his new recruits, Steve Brodie and Gene Evans. He outlines the job using a map sketched on the window blind in his cheap boarding-house room before keeping an assignation with burlesque dancer Adele Jergens, who is estranged from the unsuspecting Fowley, who is desperate to win her back.

Despite the precision planning, the robbery doesn't go smoothly and not only is Fowley wounded, but Talman also kills cop James Flavin and his partner, Charles McGraw, has the unpleasant task of breaking the news to his widow, Anne Nagel. Peeved at being saddled with eager newcomer Don McGuire, McGraw vows to catch the gang and stumbles on to a clue when he finds a phone number scribbled on a matchbook. This leads him to the motel where Talman had been hiding and the theatre where Jergens is performing until the time comes to skip the country.

But Talman's schedule has begun to unravel and he is forced to ditch a getaway boat at the docks when the cops find his hideout and Fowley's corpse. With Evans in custody, Talman decides to keep the loot for himself and makes for the airport after Brodie is nabbed at the burlesque intending to threaten Jergens and the abducted McGuire is gunned down while attempting to inform McGraw of his whereabouts via a bug in the stripper's car. However, he gets no further than the runway.

Tautly directed by Richard Fleischer (whose father Max created the cartoon characters Betty Boop and Popeye), this tough, docu-realist thriller has been unjustly overshadowed by John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, which was released around the same time. In addition to the bungled heist, Fleischer also staged a tyre-screeching car chase, a tense roadblock sequence and a pair of narrow escapes at the motel and the waterfront. Moreover, he coaxed rugged performances out of the sneering Talman and the no-nonsense McGraw, while the respective blowsiness and sleaziness of Jergens and Fowley also register.

Talman would go on to become Raymond Burr's bested adversary in the hit TV courtroom series Perry Mason. But McGraw would reunite with Fleischer for the even more accomplished noir, The Narrow Margin (1951), a fiendishly twisting noir that takes place largely within the confines of a train bound from Chicago to Los Angeles. Filmed in just 15 days, this was one of the most profitable B movies ever produced by RKO. Moreover, it's infinitely more exciting than Peter Hyams's 1990 remake, which tinkered with the storyline and lost much of its intensity by opening out the action.

LAPD detectives Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe don't expect an easy ride when they're detailed to escort gangster's widow Marie Windsor to a grand jury hearing so she can reveal her husband's pay-off list. But when Beddoe is picked off at Windsor's hideout, McGraw realises the extent of a task that is only made marginally easier by the fact that hitmen Peter Virgo and David Clarke have no idea what their target looks like. Hiding Windsor in his compartment, McGraw scours the train for his pursuers and, in the process, befriends Jacqueline White and her young son, Gordon Gebert. However, his suspicions are aroused by fellow passengers Paul Maxey and Peter Brocco, especially when the latter attempts to bribe him to surrender Windsor.

With telegram messages and unexpected disclosures further complicating McGraw's mission, this is a gripping thriller that should have earned screenwriter Earl Felton the Oscar nomination that went to Jack Leonard and Martin Goldsmith, who penned the unpublished story on which the scenario was based. Fleischer and cinematographer George E. Diskant also merited recognition for their evocative use of the train's tight spaces and reflective surfaces.

The performances are also first rate, with McGraw making a bullet-headed hero and Windsor typically excelling as the hard-boiled brunette who isn't as tough as she seems. However, this wouldn't be the minor classic it is without the contribution of Clem Portman and Francis Sarver, whose sound mix of clacking wheels, creaking rolling stock and wailing whistles is so atmospheric that Fleischer didn't feel the need to commission a score.

It's generally accepted that British crime cinema in this period was dominated by low-budget programmers that were little better than the quota quickies of the 1930s and the featurettes churned out by the likes of Butchers in the 1950s. But interesting items were being produced, including John Paddy Carstairs's Dancing With Crime (which is long overdue a DVD release), John Boulting's Brighton Rock (both 1947) and St. John Legh Clowes's infamous adaptation of James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948). Also worthy of note is Alfred Roome's My Brother's Keeper (1948), which emulates Alberto Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) in making evocative contrasts between the wide open spaces of the English countryside and the claustrophobic bolt-holes in which the pursued are forced to seek refuge.

Having jumped a prison van travelling through the West Country, old lag Jack Warner finds himself handcuffed to callow kid George Cole, who insists he is innocent of the sexual assault with which he's been charged. They steal a couple of uniforms from a nearby army camp and pass themselves off as a deserter and escort to board a train to Oxford. However, they are recognised and have to disembark in the middle of nowhere and make for the garage run by Warner's onetime mistress Jane Hylton.

As Warner contacts seamstress wife Beatrice Varley in London and asks her to bring him some cash to facilitate his getaway, newspaper editor Raymond Lovell is ordering scribe David Tomlinson to break off his honeymoon and cover the story, much to the annoyance of new bride Yvonne Owen and the amusement of rival hacks Garry Marsh and Wilfrid Hyde-White. However, this subplot proves something of an unnecessary distraction, as the comic relief it provides isn't funny and it dilutes the suspense that begins to mount after Warner hacksaws himself free from Cole and abandons him to fend for himself after they kill a man who strays into their derelict woodland hideaway.

With Varley crossing the country in Bill Owen's cab, Warner attempts to talk Hylton into running away with him. However, his attempt to steal the now-captured Cole's motorcycle from the nearby agricultural college puts Superintendant Maurice Denham and Sergeant John Boxer on his trail and he's left with no option but to take his chances in crossing a military minefield.

Executive produced for Gainsborough by Sydney Box, this is a laudably robust melodrama, which will surprise those who best remember Jack Warner as the kindly copper in Dixon of Dock Green. Whether scarcely suppressing his contempt for Cole or his lust for Hylton, Warner exudes a sense of malevolence that is reinforced by Gordon Lang's lowering imagery. Varley and Hylton also impress, but a little of Cole's whining and Tomlinson's silly ass routine goes a long way.

Although nowhere near as ambitious, Norman Lee's The Case of Charles Peace (1949) is every bit as fascinating. Wholly ignoring the infamous burglar's pre-1870s career, the action flashes back from esteemed barrister Valentine Dyall giving a lecture at the Hendon Police College about the value of studying old cases and centres on the consequences of Peace developing a crush on his married neighbour.

Making his living as a picture framer in the Sheffield suburb of Darnall, Peace (Michael Martin Harvey) poses as a respectable man and insists that wife Hannah (Jean Shepeard) raises their two children to fear both God and the Devil. However, he is quite prepared to sin in order to seduce Katherine Dyson (Chili Bouchier), whom he meets regularly in the local tavern, where Peace was renowned for his fiddle playing and magic tricks. But, following a couple of run-ins with her engineer husband Arthur (Richard Shayne), Peace relocates his family to Hull, where Hannah opens an eating-house and her husband spends an increasing time away from home.

On one of his trips, Peace kills a policeman while escaping from a house he is burgling in the Whalley Range district of Manchester. However, Irishmen John (Robert Cameron) and William Habron (Peter Forbes-Robertson) and are charged with the murder and the latter's sweetheart (Kathleen Rooney) joins forces with prison chaplain Fr O'Brien (John Kelly) to petition the Home Secretary for clemency. Having attended the last two days of the trial in disguise, Peace discovers that the Dysons have moved to Banner Cross and he begins a pestering campaign that culminates in Arthur's shooting on 28 November 1876.

Evading bobbies snooping around Hannah's diner, Peace goes on the run and resurfaces in London as a musical instrument salesman and amateur inventor named Thompson, who is accepted into bourgeois society with his bigamously married wife, Sue (Roberta Huby). However, he continues his life of crime and is eventually apprehended, recognised and charged with the Dyson murder and the film flashes back to past events as witnesses are questioned for the prosecution (Bruce Belfrage) and the defence (Ronald Adam) before Mr Justice Lopes (Peter Gawthorne).

Despite Dyall's linking narrative, this is a structurally cumbersome saga that further complicates an already selective account with the Habron digression. Yet veteran director Norman Lee keeps the action brisk and production designer George Paterson creditably recreates the mid-Victorian milieu on a shoestring budget. The supporting performances are patchy. But Chili Bouchier slips easily from being spiritedly blowsy to affrontedly prudish, while Michael Martin Harvey so excels as the eponymous rogue that it will amaze many that he didn't achieve the same fame as his Edwardian actor-manager father, Sir John Martin-Harvey.