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Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II
Sony Home Entertainment has done noir fans another favor with this release, a collection of five features that follows last year's release of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I. This new set is missing the snap, crackle and pop of the earlier release; the movies, overall, are a notch or two less impressive here, and this set lacks commentaries and pares back the new video introductions for each film from a total of five to three. Still, I wouldn't go so far as to call the new set a disappointment. Of the five films here, at least three are well worth a look, even if the other two are pretty much paint-by-numbers '50s B pictures.
Human Desire (1954) reunites three of the key players from the previous year's The Big Heat: director Fritz Lang and stars Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford. Though adapted from Emile Zola's classic novel La Bête Humaine, the film's characters are nowhere near as compelling as those in the trio's earlier film.
Ford is bland as railroad engineer Jeff Warren, just back from the Korean War, who crosses paths with colleague Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) and his wife Vicki (Grahame), both of whom are implicated in the murder of Vicki's suspected lover. As always, Graham excels as Vicki, a femme fatale who may or may not be truly "fatale." Carl maintains a hold on Vicki, even as she and Warren engage in a reckless affair, in the form of an incriminating handwritten note. Things heat up a little in the third act, but somehow the stakes never feel high enough. Despite able direction by Lang, the script maintains a slow pace, and despite strong work by Grahame and Crawford, too much is left to the listless Ford, who doesn't convince us that his character is ever in danger of doing the wrong thing.
Pushover (1954) is a short, predictable film that takes forever to reach its predictable conclusion. Notable for another decent noir performance of increasing desperation by the capable Fred MacMurray, and for the debut of Kim Novak (aged 21 here), Pushover is otherwise a slow, one-note story devoid of much suspense.
Undercover detective Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) is assigned to "get close" to gangster's moll Lona McLane (Novak). Their brief romantic relationship flourishes into something beyond the call of duty, however, complicating Sheridan's investigation of her former lover, a bank robber named Wheeler. A stakeout in McLane's building creates numerous opportunities for the revelation of Sheridan and McLane's liaison to Sheridan's colleagues on the police force. Finally, McLane convinces Sheridan to help her kill Wheeler and run away with the money he stole.
Good work by MacMurray as Sheridan, who knows damn well what he's doing and does it anyway, results in at least a modicum of tension, despite the story's lack of credible twists. The film also suffers from MacMurray and Novak's inability to strike sparks. Their scenes together, especially the earlier ones, are laughable in their overheated dynamics and groan-worthy dialogue. At a mere 88 minutes, Pushover is nonetheless far too long, trapping its audience in a cycle of unfulfilling repetition.
The Brothers Rico (1957) is the first solid picture in this set. Starring Richard Conte as a former mob accountant now running a legitimate business in Miami, this crime picture takes both a serious look at guilt and a harsher, more realistic view of organized crime that was typical in the pre-RICO era. Working from a story by Georges Simenon (co-scripted by Dalton Trumbo), director Phil Karlson elicits a fine lead performance from Conte in this portrait of a family torn apart by betrayed loyalties.
Eddie Rico (Conte) is called from the comfort and safety of the straight life in Miami by his former boss, Sid Kubik (Larry Gates) to look for his brother Johnny, who, he is told, is in danger and must flee the country. But Kubik is only using Eddie, and has his own reasons for locating Johnny.
Conte appears in almost every frame in The Brothers Rico, and pulls off an affable likability that later turns to extraordinary anguish. It's a wide-ranging and wholly believable performance that helps explain this underused actor's strong posthumous reputation. Phil Karlson keeps things moving, with Eddie bouncing from city to city and gathering clues as he searches for Johnny. Supporting characters are varied and colorful, particularly the sinister Kubik and his Southwestern enforcer LaMotta (Harry Bellaver). Italo-American stereotypes, so overstated in many films of the era, are less so here, and the screenwriters seem to have had a better-informed understanding of mob operations than usual. In the end, the film is carried by Conte as Eddie; when his loyalty is repaid with betrayal, we feel real rage and empathize with the frustrations encountered in a changing world.
Nightfall (1957) was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and it showcases his flair for high-contrast black-and-white photography (here abetted by the accomplished director of photography Burnett Guffey). Aldo Ray, Brian Keith, and Anne Bancroft lead a solid cast in a story of justified paranoia.
Ray plays Jim Vanning, hiding out in Los Angeles while waiting for the Wyoming snow to melt. The previous winter, Vanning and a friend were camping in the Tetons and encountered a pair of fleeing bank robbers led by John (Brian Keith). After killing Vanning's friend, the robbers fled, leaving their loot behind and believing Vanning to be dead. Now, John and Red (Rudy Bond) have tracked Vanning down, believing him to have taken their money. Vanning escapes from the pair, and the finale finds them in a race to recover the money, trapped in the receding Wyoming snowpack.
Although the script occasionally moves the story in odd, lazy directions, the actors work hard to keep things focused. Ray is appealing as the put-upon Vanning; he evinces some interesting instincts as an actor, and a method-like relaxation into the rhythms of a scene. Keith is affably menacing as John, and Bancroft, as a fashion model drawn into the conflict (on Vanning's side), is strikingly vivacious and beautiful. Tourneur, as always, makes the most of his limited budget with moody lighting and photography.
City of Fear (1959) features Vince Edwards as an escaped convict unwittingly carrying a lethal payload. This very effective thriller combines a true noir mood with Cold War-era paranoia, and borrows from Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) and the radioactive noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Vince Ryker (Edwards) has escaped from San Quentin with a steel canister of what he believes is pure uncut heroin; in fact, it contains a dangerous isotope: cobalt-60. Background information as to the origin of the canister is left somewhat vague by screenwriters Robert Dillon and Steven Ritch, but that hardly matters. As the police close in on Ryker and his world begins to shrink, City of Fear morphs into a sweaty portrait of a self-destructive character betrayed by a symbol of his own tendencies. Ryker believes that the canister of "heroin" is going to make him a rich and powerful man; in fact, its real contents will do just the opposite. The film explores a fascinating idea: that something we may believe to be our saving grace may turn out to be our undoing.
The intense lead performance by Edwards is helped by the incredibly economical direction of Irving Lerner and a propulsive musical score by Jerry Goldsmith - his second feature film credit. (Schlock buffs will thrill to see Lyle Talbot as the police chief; that same year, 1959, Talbot also appeared in Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space.) City of Fear is a great example of Cold War noir, ratcheting up the paranoia throughout, until the inevitable existential conclusion.
All five pictures are presented in enhanced 1.78:1 transfers. All are in crisp black-and-white. Each transfer preserves the original film's look; while all hew to a noir-ish darkness in visual style, the various approaches of the different photographers remain distinguishable from one other. Good contrast and shadow control - plus the fact that each film is given its own disc - prevent any apparent digital noise or artifacts. Very solid work here by Sony.
The mono tracks display, like the image transfers, rock-solid clarity. These are not fancy soundtracks, but what is present has been dutifully restored. Dialogue is at the forefront on these tracks, and it is presented with good fidelity. Music and sound effects are well-balanced, avoiding the tendency toward the over-bearing that was standard in the '40s and '50s.
As I indicated at the outset, bonus content is minimal. It's too bad commentaries couldn't have been organized for at least two or three of the features, especially since those included on the last set were so memorable (to wit, James Ellroy on The Lineup). All there is are three video featurettes: Samantha Mathis on Human Desire (10:33), Martin Scorsese on The Brothers Rico (3:30), and Christopher Nolan on City of Fear (6:22). All three have very smart things to say, but these pieces are quite perfunctory; these three intelligent speakers should have been tapped to contribute full-length commentary tracks.
As a group, these five films are not exactly the most essential examples of film noir. However, at least three of them are competent, even unusual, entries in the genre, telling compelling, character-driven stories that creatively manipulate our expectations. Three out of five ain't bad; the set must also be scored on its good transfers and regrettably light extras. Recommended.