Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sony/Columbia's first major Noir collection is a hefty slice of fifties' noir gold, a great sampling of the style in its second phase. The shadow-haunted expressionist 40s faded away as noir moved into the daylight and took on a gritty documentary realism. Most of the pictures below use extensive location shooting, placing authenticity before artifice and practical crime realities ahead of the hardboiled pulp stylization of the past.
The Columbia Pictures Noir Classics 1 disc set collects five very different fifties' noirs. Sony's immaculate transfers of these unheralded gems are augmented with two excellent commentaries and several brief featurettes hosted by film directors.
The subject matter of 1952's The Sniper is a radical departure from melancholy detectives and double-crossing dames. Directed by the newly-recanted Edward Dmytryk (his second film since his blacklist-exile Communist plea Give Us This Day), The Sniper is the most radical of Stanley Kramer's early efforts on his Columbia contract.
According to Eddie Muller's commentary, The Sniper is the socially progressive brainchild of Edna and Edward Anhalt, whose story makes a plea for wider mental health services. For the first time in film history (?) we see a realistically-portrayed serial killer at work, shooting women with a high-powered rifle. When not delivering laundry, the mentally disturbed Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is building a grudge against a world of hostile females and making weak efforts to return to the state hospital. He burns his hands in the hope that the emergency personnel will pick up on the "funny kind of injury". The paramedics realize that it's probably self-inflicted but are too busy to help. Like the psychotic sea captain in Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship, Eddie knows he's out of control but can't seem to do anything about it.
Eddie instead starts blasting women down, starting with Marie Windsor's almost hallucinatory beauty, bar pianist Jean Darr. When Jean casually flirts with Eddie to get some laundry done in a hurry, he channels his rage into his rifle. Adolph Menjou and Gerald Mohr are the detectives assigned to the case. We hear plenty of psychiatric debate and humanist appeals, much it from apologist Dr. Kent (Richard Kiley), who chides the detectives for wasting their time rounding up ordinary criminals.
The filmmakers did extensive prep for The Sniper, as can be seen from the actual storyboards on file at the UCLA Research Library's Special Collections department -- the smokestack-sniper scene looks more or less identical to the comic book-like storyboards. As a first-time drama The Sniper builds up considerable suspense, leading to a thoughtful, non-violent climax. We only regret that Marie Windsor's character is elminated so quickly -- it makes us realize that with only a few exceptions (The Narrow Margin, The Killing), she never got the filmic opportunities she deserved.
The Sniper comes with a trailer and a thoughtful commentary from Eddie Muller, who clearly enjoys talking about the film's location filming in his hometown, San Francisco. Indeed, we're impressed just seeing Arthur Franz driving that manual shift delivery truck up and down those steep hills. Besides noting that his name is one letter away from the psycho Eddie Miller character, Muller gives a terrific background to the production and makes many interesting observations on the film's story logic and character nuances.
1953's The Big Heat is the most famous title in the set and is sometimes considered to be Fritz Lang's best American film. Like all Lang's films it exists slightly apart from usual genres and styles. In this case, a sometimes bland surface is interrupted by frequent bursts of (still) shocking violence, and individual shots with powerful compositions. This generic gangster story takes on the dimensions of an elemental myth.
Screenwriter Sydney Boehm and Fritz Lang turn William McGivern's straight police novel into an expressionist epic. The revenge-seeking cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) might as well be Siegfried, turning his enemies' hell-fire against them. Not unlike Die valküre, Lang's The Big Heat dotes on cruel murders, sadism, mutilation and a fierce female death pact.
Bannion finds himself alone and without a badge (but not his gun) when he refuses to go easy on ganglord Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Lagana's ax men Vince Stone and Larry Gordon (Lee Marvin & Adam Williams) murder one of Bannion's loved ones, in one of the more horrible, but restrained off-screen explosions in film history. From that point forward Bannion puts the pressure on, roughing up widows and challenging hoods in barrooms -- becoming an outlaw in corrupt Kenport, a city big enough to have skyscrapers. Bannion gets nothing but resistance from cops and hoods alike, until help comes from a sympathetic old woman and Vince Stone's main squeeze, saucy playgirl Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles). The breaking of the case involves scalding hot coffee and a showdown between Debby and Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), the avaricious widow of a cop who commits suicide in the film's very first shot.
Fritz Lang admirers had a field day with the very non-fifites formal structure of The Big Heat, from the way Bannion and his loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) share cigarettes to the standoff between Debby and Bertha, "sisters under the mink". The film carries a strong paranoid theme, something that Lang practically invented in the 1920's -- Bannion must rush home when police protection is withdrawn from his family, knowing that both cops and crooks would prefer him dead.
The Big Heat has been remastered from an earlier transfer. It retains the 1:37 aspect ratio even though 1:66 looks fine -- 1:78 for a straight scan is a bit too tight in some scenes. But the movie is too intense to look bad in any screen shape. One can't pick up a book on classic noir, Fritz Lang or crime films without reading plenty about this picture.
With 5 Against the House the collection movies into mainstream Columbia production, for a caper thriller engineered to appeal to more than just crime film junkies. The 1955 movie is about four "Midwestern U." college students that attempt an elaborate heist of a Reno, Nevada casino. The crazy plan starts as a sophomoric prank engineered by wealthy Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), who says he wants to give the money back as soon as he scores. Smart-aleck Roy (Alvy Moore) signs on as a stooge while brooding Brick (Brian Keith) becomes serious about taking the money and keeping it. The group tricks Al (Guy Madison) into joining the scheme, and Al's fiancée Kay (Kim Novak) becomes entangled along the way.
Although Guy Madison had been around for ten years, 5 Against the House is an opportunity for Columbia to showcase its featured contract "newcomer" talent. As such the first two thirds of the script (finessed by John Barnwell, William Bowers and Stirling Silliphant from a novel by Jack Finney of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) sticks with college humor, visual appreciation of the gorgeous Kim Novak and an update of a theme from The Blue Dahlia: Brick and Al are Korean war veterans in school on the G.I. bill, and Brick suffers emotional disturbances from his combat experience. As the group nears Reno, Ronnie's plan to entice Al into the "prank heist" is pre-empted by Brick's insistence on the same thing -- but at the point of a gun.
While never quite convincing us that its superannuated college students would seriously commit a serious felony for fun -- with the possibility of being shot dead -- 5 Against the House glosses over issues of credibility. Director Phil Karlson's no-nonsense approach certainly helps; although it's not one of his more accomplished pictures it's entertaining all the way through. Despite location work in Reno the film plays much of its cross-country journey in a budget-conscious trailer interior set, which gives a completely unconvincing smooth ride. The conclusion makes use of an interesting parking system one would think suited to a much more congested locale than Reno. William Conrad is notable as a nervous casino employee abused by Ronnie's "foolproof" plan while Jean Willes (also of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has a brief flirtation bit with Brian Keith in the early scenes.
All the actors do nice work, even the laid-back Madison and Mathews; Brian Keith gets the showoff part while Alvy Moore guarantees himself a career as a mouthy sidekick. Kim Novak admirers have a lot to enjoy here as she does her best to be an average Midwestern girl who suddenly decides to be a nightclub singer. Only in a few select films would Novak come into her own, somehow compressing all the anxieties of the 1950s inside a porcelain face and desirable body. Novak was bound to be jumpy -- this was the time that Harry Cohn was harassing her with statements like, "You're just a hunk of meat".
5 Against the House is one of those movies where a scene seems to be missing. (Spoiler) The cops let most of the "kids" go, for no discernable reason whatsoever. They entered the casino, terrorized poor William Conrad and left with the cash. More likely is 5-to-10 in the pokey for the whole gang.
The Collection really gets into the swing of things with Don Siegel's powerhouse 1958 thriller The Lineup. The first 25 minutes is a police procedural based on a popular TV show, after which Stirling Silliphant's ruthless screenplay gets down to much more anarchic subject matter -- the murderous spree of a mob hit crew, dashing around San Francisco in an eight-hour race to collect bags of heroin unknowingly smuggled in by tourists returning from China.
Siegel's clean, modern direction zeroes in on the perverse relationship between trigger man "Dancer" (Eli Wallach) and his partner Julian (Robert Keith) as they track down the carriers of the white powder. Dancer is a slick assassin, a human weapon that Julian helps keep under control; Julian asks Dancer to collect the Last Words of his victims. Dancer eliminates a sailor and a businessman before zeroing in on a mother and daughter unaware that they're carrying heroin.
Richard Jaeckel is the "dipso" getaway driver transporting these angels of death back and forth across San Francisco's photogenic streets; the character tension between the three is top-notch. Don Siegel and camera ace Hal Mohr make the city seem so real we can reach out and touch it; Alfred Hitchcock used some of the same locations the same year in Vertigo. The finale is a hair-raising car chase from the city's Western extreme past the Golden Gate Bridge and onto the uncompleted, dead-end Embarcadero Freeway, since torn down (good riddance). Caught in an almost existential dilemma within the mob, Dancer freaks out and the cops give chase. Even though much of the chase is conducted through (excellently coordinated) rear projection, we can see that the cars are really speeding, banking into turns and flying through crowded intersections. A clear forerunner to Philip D'Antoni and Peter Yates's Bullitt, the chase is the opposite of most 50s car stunts, where it's obvious that nobody is willing to risk a dent, or has the resources to pull off such a scene in the first place.
The Lineup is given the wildest audio commentary I've yet heard. Eddie Muller spends ninety minutes fending off a bizarre tirade from the completely uncontrollable author James Ellroy, who gets things on a roll by using the phrase "Donkey Dick" in his very first statement. Ellroy's Wikipedia entry lets the uninformed know where the author is coming from, and standup comics are just as extreme, but be forewarned that this an X-rated track. Both commentators give an excellent appreciation of The Lineup but Ellroy regales us with offensive jokes aimed at homos and chinamen. I've seen content omitted from commentaries on the slightest pretext that someone might be offended but the colorful Ellroy is clearly exempted from any such oversight. Eddie Muller should be consulting for Amtrack, as he keeps the commentary on the rails despite Ellroy's verbal I.E.D.'s.
The final disc selection is also from 1958, but points forward to a post-noir art film nihilism. Murder by Contract appears to be an independent production, as producer Leon Chooluck bounced back and forth between several studios during this period. The first thing we notice is its post-studio look, engineered by camera artist Lucien Ballard. The film's has an even grittier surface than what passed for docu realism in the 1950s. It looks like a low-budget 60s independent, yet is still more polished than the crude gem Blast of Silence. In this picture and his follow-up City of Fear, director Irving Lerner may be trying to follow in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick; his gangster star for both pictures is Vince Edwards, from Kubrick's The Killing.
Vince Edwards is Claude, an enterprising hit-man who takes on mob jobs at 5,000 a pop. Methodical and controlled, Claude is eventually contracted to murder his first boss, so he can work for an unseen Mr. Big. He then splits for the coast and a tough witness-removal assignment that must be completed before the trial date. Psyching himself up for the job, Claude spends days relaxing and touring Los Angeles with two hood companion-watchdogs, Marc and George (Phillip Pine & Herschel Bernardi). Claude's zen-gangster cool is blown when he discovers that his victim, Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel), is a woman. With the deadline looming, Claude becomes more unstable. His first hit attempt fails. A clever second attempt seems successful until Claude discovers that he has accidentally killed the wrong target. Marc and George now have orders to execute Claude, but he has another idea ... a daring stealth assault on Billie Williams' heavily guarded house.
Even before Martin Scorsese tips us off we can can see the similiarities between Murder by Contract and Taxi Driver: Claude prepares himself for work by sticking to a rigid routine of exercise, and enforces a self-discipline that includes emotional isolation and adherence to a strict code. He never loses sight of his goals, and keeps an eye on his growing bank account. He carries no guns, writes nothing down, dresses nicely and maintains a low profile. The mob bosses love Claude; he's the perfect Organization Man. Acclimatizing himself to the light and space of Los Angeles, Claude becomes increasingly irritable when his murder plans go awry. He dresses down a delivery man and browbeats a prostitute hired for his last night in town. Underneath the method is a broad streak of madness, the sign of a control freak who can indeed freak out when things don't go his way.
Murder by Contract is a fairly inexpensive film with good location shooting. Ben Simcoe's script works up a morbid sense of humor between Claude's mob companions, who can't figure out what he's up to. As it turns out, Claude's Achilles Heel appears to be an inhibition toward killing women, something he repeatedly denies. He just wants the price doubled, he claims.
Director Lerner is certainly a talent; he had a heck of a varied career helping out on classics by Anthony Mann and others. An editor and second unit director on Spartacus, he produced some big pictures but also worked on Robot Monster. Martin Scorsese apparently connected with him on New York, New York. Lerner's City of Fear, a thriller about the theft of deadly radioactive materials, is penciled in for the next Columbia Pictures Noir Classics Box.
All of the features in Sony's Columbia Pictures Noir Classics 1 have been flawlessly remastered and encoded, making this a terrific box of discoveries for film fans. Most of these shows haven't played much on television for decades, and then more likely than not only on TCM.
In addition to the two top-notch commentaries, several directors weigh in on separate films with brief interview pieces: Martin Scorsese on Murder by Contract, The Sniper and The Lineup; Michael Mann on The Big Heat; and Christopher Nolan on The Lineup. Scorsese's thoughts are the most interesting mainly because he seems to have really lived with the films in question; the other two directors give us generic book lessons and observances with a less personal connection. Curiously, nobody addresses the bind that 50's noirs had to overcome, that the movies were expected to be more adult and raw, yet the Production Code was just as vigilant. This perhaps explains the social message in The Sniper, the "It's all a joke" premise of 5 Against the House and the law 'n' order framework superimposed onto the anarchic The Lineup.
Sony is really giving film fans what they want this fall, and the Columbia Pictures Noir Classics 1 is a can't-lose crime combination.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Columbia Pictures Noir Classics 1 rates:
Supplements: 2 commentaries, various interview featurettes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 23, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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