Better Noir

five_against_the_house“Film noir” is a term that movie marketers have pinned to practically every film involving crime or suspense that was shot in black-and-white during the 1950s. While some of the labeling has been downright silly, such as the case with some of the DVD entries from the Fox library (Daisy Kenyon?), it’s great to see the interest for making classic noirs available to fans out there.

Sony has lagged behind Warner, Fox and others in excavating their vast library from Columbia for screen gems, but they’re certainly coming on strong of late. Consider recent sets centered on the works of Budd Boetticher, William Castle and efforts from Ishiro Honda and Toho Studios that have been issued recently.

Sony’s streak continues with the impressive five-disc Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, a nifty compendium of creepy crime movies from the dark side of the screen and human nature.

Columbia, under the supervision of production head Harry Cohn, always operated with stricter financial restraints than the other major studios. This explains why the studio was so prolific in churning out low-budgeted suspensers featuring lesser stars shot

on cheap locations with up-and-coming or contract directors calling the shots. That these productions sparkled from beyond the shadows is what classic film noir is all about. So Columbia’s skimping is noir fans’ gain, as evidenced with this Sony set.

On the surface, 5 Against the House (1955), directed by Phil Karlson (Scandal Sheet, The Phenix City Story), appears to be a typical heist movie, a precursor of sorts to the Rat Pack’s Oceans 11. Adapted from a story penned by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the film centers on a group of young men plotting a swindle of a Reno casino. Kerwin Mathews, who would later play the lead in the studio’s The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, is the leader of a rogue brat pack that includes Korean War vets Brian Keith and Guy Madison, as well as Alvy Moore (Mr. Kimball in Green Acres). Shot on the cheap though impressively in real Nevada locations, the film remains gripping throughout. A 22-year-old Kim Novak is on hand as a singer who gets dolly with Madison. Coincidentally, the little-seen film was released the same year as Jules Dassin‘s heist classic Rififi, and was completely overshadowed by the French-language effort.

German-born auteur and noir specialist Fritz Lang helmed 1953’s The Big Heat, which was previously available on DVD. Still, it fits nicely into this collection. Glenn Ford is the cop who goes on a trek of revenge after his wife is blown up in her car by mobsters. The film is rife with jolting moments of violence—femme fatale Gloria Grahame gets hot coffee flung in her face by gangster Lee Marvin—as well as psychological food for thought dealing with the schizophrenic nature of all the major characters.

It rightfully remains a noir classic.

After his successful career was halted by his blacklisting by the House Un-American Committee and his eventual decision to “name names” of other Communist supporters, Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny) was enlisted by producer Stanley Kramer to helm The Sniper in 1952. Kramer believed that Dmytryk could bring some of the style and intensity he brought to his earlier thrillers as Murder, My Sweet, Cornered and Crossfire. The producer was right: The Sniper is a nail-biter of a suspenser. Here, stalwart character player Arthur Franz portrays a rifle-toting psychopath out to pick off every brunette who comes within range of his weapon. Trying to stop him are detective Adolphe Menjou (a prominent Commie-baiter of the era) and police psychiatrist Richard Kiley. Dmytryk, who grew up in San Francisco, expertly uses Bay Area locales to help tell this story, while delving into the political and social ramifications of Franz’s reign of terror. The Sniper also seems like an obvious inspiration for Peter Bogdanovich’s acclaimed Targets years later.

Two less famous efforts fill out the set. A spin-off of a cop show that ran on CBS at the time, The Lineup (1958) is a surprisingly brutal San Francisco-set thriller helmed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), who also directed the pilot episode of the TV series. The detectives portrayed  by series stars Warner Anderson and Marshall Reed actually cede the spotlight to a trio of thugs—unpredictable Eli Wallach, mellow Robert Keith, and juiced-up wheelman Richard Jaeckel—who are trying to beat both the syndicate and authorities to three misdirected parcels of heroin that are worth half a million.  Wallach’s soft-spoken psychopath also bears a passing resemblance to Richard Widmark’s sinister Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, as he tries a “pushy” way to get rid of a crimelord.


Finally, 1958’s Murder by Contract is probably the least known offering on the set, but that will likely change soon. The film has been compared to the newly discovered 1961 noir Blast of Silence in its low-budget eccentricities, and it’s easy to see why. This effectively spare story centers on quirky, efficient assassin Vince Edwards, who lands in L.A. to complete a job. Once there, he’s met by two protégées (Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi), and takes in the sights of the area before he takes on his assignment. When he discovers his target is a lady nightclub singer, he has second thoughts because he doesn’t like killing women—and never uses a firearm for a job. This sets in motion a series of surprising complications. Directed by Irving Lerner, who worked with Edwards on City of Fear, another late cycle noir, as well as his TV show Ben Casey, vividly photographed in mostly daytime L.A., locations by the great Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch), and aided by an idiosyncratic guitar-only score by Perry Botkin, Murder by Contract is an in-your-face blast of crime that’s perversely enjoyable in its own grimy way.

No wonder Martin Scorsese and James Ellroy love it.

And we have even more good news: Sony has another Columbia noir package slated for some time next year. If it comes close to this one, we’re in good but appropriately slimy hands.