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Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II

Sony Pictures // Unrated // July 6, 2010
List Price: $59.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted July 12, 2010 | E-mail the Author

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 BĂȘte 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.




The DVD


Image

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.


Sound


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.


Bonus Content

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.




Final
Thoughts


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.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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