Combustible Celluloid
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With: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando, Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed, Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel, Arthur Franz, Adolphe Menjou, Marie Windsor, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Guy Madison, Kerwin Mathews
Written by: Stirling Silliphant, Sydney Boehm, John Barnwell, William Bowers, Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt, Harry Brown, Ben Simcoe
Directed by: Fritz Lang, Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, Edward Dmytryk, Irving Lerner
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 428
Date: 18/03/2013

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Noir Trek

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 on DVD

With their new Samuel Fuller set and this amazing collection of rare film noir, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment scores big points this month. A few months back, Columbia Pictures toured art houses with a collection of more than 20 newly restored film noirs from their vaults. Not all of them are notable, but a large handful of them are classics that have been too long out of regular circulation. This first box set contains four of those rare films, as well as a remastered transfer of Fritz Lang's masterpiece The Big Heat (1953), which was previously released on DVD in 2001. Directors Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan appear on little featurettes to discuss their favorites.

I started with a film I had seen years ago, Don Siegel's early masterpiece The Lineup (1958). Filmed on location in San Francisco, it starts out with a punch as a porter throws a suitcase into the back of a cab at one of the Embarcadero piers; the cab speeds off, smashes into a truck and careens into a cop. The cop squeezes off a shot and the cab driver dies, smashing the cab into a barrier. The suitcase belongs to a reputable citizen, a man who worked at the San Francisco Opera, but it contains an Asian statue filled with heroin. Was the man smuggling drugs, or was he a dupe? It's up to two tired-looking police detectives (Emile Meyer and Marshall Reed) to find out what's going on. Meanwhile, an expert crook called Dancer (Eli Wallach) turns up, along with his dignified sidekick Julian (Robert Keith); it's their job to collect all the drugs that came over on the ship. But Dancer soon discovers that there are unforeseen problems in using innocent people as drug mules. Siegel shoots this almost like a documentary, using lots of real location footage (including shots of the 1950s-era Cliff House and the now defunct Sutro Museum). He also emphasizes ordinary-looking Joes with funny ears and wrinkly faces (no movie stars on this case -- no glamour allowed). A great, naturalistic-looking car chase finishes things off. The future Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) wrote the tense script. It was based on a TV show. Noir expert Eddie Muller and author James Ellroy provide a great commentary track.

Next up was a film that I had read about but had never been able to see: Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (1958). This B-film takes a shockingly low-key, detailed approach to the job of contract killer. The hero, Claude (Vince Edwards), is educated and has a regular job but has coldly decided he needs more money to buy a house that he wants. Calculating and emotionless, he decides that he'll make a good killer, and he's right. He's even hired to kill the man who got him started. The bulk of the movie takes place in Los Angeles, after Claude has proved himself with a few jobs. He's hired to kill a potential witness before a high-profile criminal trial can take place. He waits several days to make sure that his two contacts, Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Bernardi), are on the level, and then balks when he finds out that his target is a woman, Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel). No, he's not soft. It's just that "women are unpredictable" and it takes extra planning. ("I should have asked for double," he says regarding his pay.) Claude is so cool and careful -- and so without a conscience -- that it's fascinating watching his plans come unraveled, even as he tries to hang onto his control. The Marc and George characters are an inspired touch as well, reacting with fear and fascination to their new co-worker, and reflecting what the audience is feeling. Lerner, who directed relatively few films, gives Murder by Contract a harsh, clipped look with everything as deliberate as its hero. When Claude waits for days and days in his apartment for a phone call about his first job, he never once cracks; he exercises and sets up little routines to pass the time. A bizarre guitar score by Perry Botkin helps move things along. This is an amazing film, and one that has developed a deserved cult following over the years. On a little featurette, Martin Scorsese talks about the film and its influence on his career (he saw it on a double-bill with Anatole Litvak's The Journey).

The Sniper (1952) is another portrait of a killer and another film set in San Francisco, but it lacks just about everything that made the previous two films great. It was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk, and it's absolutely terrified that its messages will pass by unnoticed; Dmytryk hammers them home, scene after scene. It's overwrought, overcooked and overacted. Arthur Franz stars as Eddie Miller, a psychopath who hates women. Dmytryk demonstrates this over and over and over again, just in case we missed it. He also has a carbine rifle and likes to climb on top of buildings and shoot the women that bug him. Lieutenant police detective Frank Kafka (no symbolism there) -- played by Adolphe Menjou -- is on the case. (The old veteran Menjou provides the only hint of subtlety in the film.) Rather than the amoral cipher of Murder by Contract, this killer is psychoanalyzed left and right, and he becomes nothing more than a lesson that the filmmakers are trying to teach us. He's not interesting as a character. And unlike The Lineup, Dmytryk doesn't really give the city much of a personality. The wonderful Marie Windsor co-stars as one of Eddie's victims, but she's not onscreen long enough to save the picture. Martin Scorsese provides a little analysis of the film. Eddie Muller provides a solo commentary track.

The name Phil Karlson almost guarantees a sturdy little film noir, and that is the case with 5 Against the House (1955). The film' strongest suit is the friendship between its four college buddies, and their comical banter that serves as kind of shorthand to their bond. Roy (Alvy Moore) is the short, nerdy one, the one with the quickest quips. Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) has great ambitions. Brick (Brian Keith) is the big, sturdy meathead, who served in Korea and occasionally suffers from violent episodes. Al (Guy Madison) is the sensible one, and Brick's closest friend (they served together). Al has fallen for the gorgeous singer Kay (Kim Novak), and wants to get married, which will break up the group. But Ronnie has a great idea, a foolproof plan to knock over a Reno casino and get away with it. It's foolproof except for the fact that Al has to be tricked into going along, and except for the fact that Brick can no longer be counted on for sanity. Karlson saves the actual heist until the end, and it's a bit of a letdown next to the excellent character byplay. Even Novak gets an actual character; she's hesitant to settle down with this one joker since she has been dating college boys for years. It's a bit hard to believe that Brick's insanity could lead to an act so coldly calculated, but the picture holds together on the basis of its strong characters and Karlson's tight direction. It was based on a novel by Jack Finney, who also wrote "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

All of which brings me back to The Big Heat. It's generally recognized as one of Fritz Lang's strongest pictures from his American period. Glenn Ford plays a detective whose wife (Jocelyn Brando) is killed after he pokes his nose too far into a local gangster's business. Lee Marvin co-stars as a nasty thug in charge of funny business and Gloria Grahame all but steals the picture as his smart-aleck girlfriend. The most famous scene has Marvin pitching a pot of hot coffee into Grahame's face, but the most powerful scene shows Ford at home enjoying his family life for a good five minutes before an explosion ends his wife's life -- Lang at his cruelest.

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