Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I Review
With Sony finally starting to open up the Columbia Pictures vault, a handful of film noir titles are making their way to R1 DVD and it's enough to make those who crave the dark stuff temporarily forget about how every other studio has abandoned noir releases. Three key films in the cycle (The Sniper, The Lineup, and Murder by Contract) make their DVD debuts in the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I set, which also includes the essential but previously available Fritz Lang noir The Big Heat and an iffy choice in Phil Karlson's 5 Against the House. All five pictures are from the 1950s, a time when noir expanded beyond the heavily shadowed and Chandler-influenced tales of burdened men existentially victimized by, for example, women's anklets to also include a tinge of daylight. These five pictures also happen to take place away from the more concentrated big cities of the East. The Big Heat is set in a generic suburban locale while the other four all largely use cities in the American West - San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Reno. Noir made at Columbia also is somewhat distinctive when compared against other studios in that the light-deprived aesthetic heavy on dark alleys and mood-setting shadows was rarely used.
You know you’re in for a bit of “social enlightenment” when a prologue comes up even before the studio logo. In the case of The Sniper, Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 return from the Hollywood blacklist, the viewer is promised a “man whose enemy was womankind.” In several ways, this is a novel approach. Here we have a movie about a man who was sent away to prison for violently going after a woman with a baseball bat, placed in the psych ward, and paroled despite still being under psychological care. The film’s point of view could easily have been that Edward Miller (a study in discomfort from Arthur Franz) was a product of either his own insanity or, alternatively, society’s. Even the idea that an unstable criminal might have a reason for his madness is unusual for movies of this era, when the bad guys are often portrayed as shadowy black hats without the need for analysis. We accept villains simply because they do unseemly things the same way we recognize cops because they carry a badge and retain a serious demeanor at all times.
The much more humanistic path taken by Dmytryk’s film, trying to understand what causes men like Miller to inflict pain on others, is a tricky one, especially when dealing with someone who’s shown killing pretty brunettes in cold blood. Though not elaborated on, the culprit of Miller’s irrational violence towards women is implied to be his mother. A handful of years before the screen’s most famous mother complex, in Psycho, a man is shown indiscriminately shooting women from afar because he’s trying to repeatedly murder the one who gave birth to him. The audience witnesses a test run when Wilson aims his rifle from above, steadies a female neighbor in his sight, and pulls the trigger, resulting in an empty, impotent click. In the first of many hints of sympathy, the man copes with his psychosis by struggling for help. His prison shrink isn’t available so he intentionally burns his hand on the apartment stove.
By the time Miller actually does claim someone’s life, his reaction veers significantly from remorse. A friendly customer of the killer’s dry cleaning delivery job, played by the always welcome Marie Windsor, is coldly shot outside the club where she plays piano, her head breaking the glass that encloses an advertisement with her own picture on it. The images are bold, abrupt, and startling. The killer’s answer is to have a drink at a bar. He’s happier now than at any other point in the film, acting as though some pressurized force has finally been unleashed. The second killing is even more fierce and follows soon after. A woman at the same bar writes her address on a coaster, but soon rebuffs him upon sensing his instability. She then goes home, fixes herself a drink and stands behind an uncovered window. She too is shot in the head. An efficient bullet leaves behind a small hole in the glass. As we’ve seen and read about serial killers in the decades since, Wilson is the type who begs to be caught, and even writes a letter to the police anonymously seeking capture.
At this point, about midway in, the film shifts from a character study about a mentally ill serial killer to a rather conventional, sometimes preachy police procedural. Most surprising is that the headlining actor playing the main detective is none other than political wingnut Adolphe Menjou, one of the loudest voices of the HUAC-supporting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Showing his preferred color was green rather than faux red, white, and blue, Menjou here takes top billing in a movie directed by a man who was an admitted Communist for a brief period of time, and who had just recently been released from serving four and a half months of prison time for refusing to cooperate with the Congressional witch hunt. Principles, who needs 'em. Of course, Dmytryk by this time had groveled away his reputation and helped legitimize the whole sordid mess, so he was apparently “cured.” The involvement of message man Stanley Kramer as producer adds even more to the intrigue.
Whether a result of intentionally ambiguous filmmaking or simply a sloppy narrative, The Sniper leaves quite a few blanks unfilled. Instead of seeming bothersome, it gives the film a tautness commonly found in such low-budget, quickly-shot films of the time. Proponents of the movie could easily argue that it urges the viewer to look deeper inside the killer’s mind and not be content to expect an explanatory flashback of the character’s various traumas. A criminal psychologist played by Richard Kiley preaches about the mentality of men like Miller, sketching out the makings of what we now know as profiling, and, though it can’t help but be slightly tedious, the scene is also fascinating because the methodology has proven true time and again. The Sniper was a decade or more ahead of its time, but it nevertheless resembles an early, truncated version of some of the finer serial killer films of the past two decades (and as commentator Eddie Muller notes, Dirty Harry ripped off the movie's basic plot years later, even using the same city, while changing the message dramatically). The main difference, and the reason the film is still interesting, comes from the decision to spend well over half the running time with the killer in a mostly non-judgmental tone, including a consistent, but still unexpected final scene that emphasizes him as a man more than a monster.
Even more shocking moments of violence occur in The Big Heat, dotted by a final hail of bullets exchanged between Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin. Ford’s character, Dave Bannion, is a respected police sergeant with a loving wife (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister) and young daughter. He seems to have a happy marriage and a blossoming career, stunted only by corruption in the upper ranks. There’s no hint of a dark or sadistic side and Bannion appears to be the rare noir cop protagonist without an obvious fatal flaw (the violent tendencies of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground and Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends are two examples that immediately spring to mind). Then he perceives his family being threatened and Bannion becomes possessed by the struggle to protect them.
The wallop he gives George, a goon of the syndicate boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), is unexpectedly vicious and forceful. Ford transforms from stand-up police officer to live wire in an instant. After tragedy strikes home and he’s forced to go on leave, Bannion’s hair-trigger violence begins to parallel the sadistic Vince Stone (Marvin), never more so than when he throws a conniving police widow against the wall and begins choking her. His savagery, interrupted by a couple of uniformed officers barging in, had progressed from an earlier altercation with Larry Gordon, the man who planted dynamite in his car. Bannion had just set up Gordon for a certain death at the hands of his mobster buddies, grinning almost uncontrollably as he tells the thug his plan. There’s never any indication that Bannion feels a twinge of conflict that (certain parts of) this guy will be in the river in a few hours.
It's not that Bannion’s actions are necessarily disagreeable, but the lack of emotion from Ford (who’s really superb throughout), that he’s giving Gordon a fate much worse than if Bannion just shot him at that moment, is downright startling for a film from 1953. This is Death Wish territory in the decade of Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie & Harriet. Lang was able to defy the more conservative audience’s expectations by peeling away at what was generally considered acceptable at the time. By showing such unexpectedly violent behavior from the good guy of the story, with whom we empathize, The Big Heat provokes the viewer to take notice at what’s being shown. This type of audience stimulant is an exhilarating and effective use of violence in film. If a character did the same thing in a movie or television show today though, it would barely register at all.
The more famous scene of violence from The Big Heat, and one that actually might still prompt quite a reaction if it were done today, is when Lee Marvin’s character Stone scalds his girlfriend Debby’s face with a pot of steaming hot coffee. The act is not shown on camera, but we see the aftermath in the form of the scarred left side of her face just before Debby gets her own revenge against Stone. The scene is reminiscent of Cagney shoving a grapefruit into his lady friend Mae Clarke’s face at the breakfast table in The Public Enemy, 22 years earlier but prior to the implementation of the production code. A big difference between the two is that Cagney’s fit seems more humiliating and degrading than the sadistic rage that comes from Marvin.
The java-burned victim is played by Gloria Grahame, who, despite popping up in classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and In a Lonely Place and winning an Academy Award for The Bad and the Beautiful, probably deserved a better film career. Grahame’s character in The Big Heat knows the type of guy she’s involved with in Stone, but accepts his volatility as part of the price of living a financially charmed existence. She hints at a sadness from a poverty-filled past she never wants to revisit, even if it means being with crooks like Stone. Unlike so many gangster molls and femmes fatale, Debby is refreshingly honest with Bannion, never hiding her motives or betraying his loyalty. Her initial seductive interest in him, probably as a result of seeing Stone cower away from the suspended cop like a retreating puppy, changes when Debby takes refuge with Bannion following the coffee scalding. The sensitive, almost domestic kindness she shows Bannion seems to help him find redemption from his spiraling violent streak. Grahame is memorable and compelling in her performance, showing us a woman much brighter than she initially seems.
Likewise, Glenn Ford embodies Bannion with an everyman quality that separates him from so many main characters associated with film noir. He’s neither a ticking time bomb when introduced nor an emotionally wounded shell unable to function in society. Bannion is the seemingly reasonable man, an ordinary citizen who could be any one of us. What makes The Big Heat fascinating is its exploration of the depths to which someone can plummet to avenge wrongs committed against his family. Beyond the more common view of this being a film primarily about one man against a city of corruption, I see the focus instead to be on the riveting internal transformation of Bannion as his family life disintegrates and he becomes bent on exacting revenge. His primary motivating factor is the vengeance he craves, not a noble fight against corruption.
Fritz Lang just didn't make movies about white knights. Lang's world on film was nervous, uncertain and riddled with cynical distrust of authority. He was a master at transferring guilt among his characters and the audience. Whereas Bannion begins The Big Heat as a good cop and family man, his soul is gradually corrupted. People he encounters also have a strange tendency to suffer untimely deaths in the film. The character is the movie's hero but he's more accurately a Lang hero - someone tempted by a primal urge to act how he thinks he wants to and not necessarily how he should. Moreover, the breakdown of society's protective forces via mob-influenced corruption furthers the paranoia Lang often emphasized in his films. Despite Bannion's eventual takedown of Lagana and return to some degree of stability, the pessimism of inherent vulnerability in the system and the likely retention of officers who had been agents of corruption, not to mention all of those dead bodies, still lingers.
Far and away the weakest film in this set, and not really a noir by any reasonable definition, 5 Against the House is far too inhibited to be an enjoyable crime picture. The four male leads - played by Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Kerwin Matthews, and Alvy Moore - never invest their characters with any gravity in a film that almost incredibly tries to be a wisecrack-laden college buddies movie and a serious exploration of the desire to commit the perfect crime at the same time. But nothing sticks, and a plot development where Keith's Korean War vet character succumbs to a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome feels forced. Kim Novak, as Madison's college girlfriend turned nightclub chanteuse, has little to do and her presence seems more like an attempt by Columbia to showcase its pretty blonde contract star than something necessitated by the plot. The direction by Phil Karlson, whose best work like Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, and The Phenix City Story deserves to be seen by any fan of noir, is efficient but he's dealing with a semi-interesting yet extremely limited heist plot and a screenplay that always emphasizes the wrong things. The scene I found most fascinating in the film was a slow, methodical look at equipment in a parking garage, a seeming digression that didn't require any actors.
In contrast, a dose of adrenaline greets viewers of The Lineup. Opening with a car crash that kills a traffic cop and soon moving into what appears to be a documentary-like procedural, the film takes an unexpected turn about twenty minutes in by focusing on the characters of Dancer (Eli Wallach) and Julian (Robert Keith, father of Brian), a pair of unapologetic criminals who work for, literally, The Man. Dancer is the one to worry about while the older Julian acts as unlikely mentor and semi-chaperone for his "associate." Their relationship is a strange blurring of the lines where the viewer doesn't quite know whether Dancer is being honed as a protege or tamed like a wild animal. At one point in the film the young wheel man played by Richard Jaeckel says to Julian about Dancer, "I knew a guy like him once." Julian responds: "No you didn't. There's never been a guy like Dancer. He's a wonderful, pure pathological study. He's a psychopath with no inhibitions." And you could easily determine he's our protagonist in The Lineup.
Though the film is ostensibly an expansion of a television program of the same name, beyond those first twenty-plus minutes (roughly equal to an episode of a half hour installment for the small screen) the focus is clearly on the far more interesting criminals rather than the stiff cops (TV holdover Warner Anderson and, subbing for Tom Tully, Emile Meyer). A contrived plot about unsuspecting tourists smuggling heroin into the U.S. via the souvenirs they purchased while visiting Hong Kong is just an excuse for director Don Siegel, who'd return to San Francisco 13 years later for Dirty Harry, and screenwriter Sterling Silliphant to introduce us to Wallach and Keith. The Lineup is an excellent film, both as a noir and in the larger crime genre, but everything hinges on how intriguingly different these bad guys are. In one scene where Dancer is trying to be a normal and charming citizen at the aquarium, Wallach is remarkable as he makes clear the character's slight falseness while pretending, basically, to not be a psychopath.
Over and over again, it's Dancer and Wallach's performance elevating The Lineup into the more sacred section of late noir. It would have been shocking enough to just position him as a psychotic, gleeful murderer in 1958, but also showing Wallach struggle as a sort of uncaged animal who absolutely cannot fully hide his stripes lets Dancer echo through literally years of similar characters in film. We've seen these same types of killers since, and the point of resonance is almost always that they don't operate by the usual laws of society but a dimension still exists beyond being obviously insane. If a character is simply crazy then his actions can be chalked up to psychosis and there's little to worry about because such symptoms are not difficult to recognize. But if he's a functioning psychopath, like Dancer, the curiosity skyrockets into needing to know what makes him tick. Julian is hardly any better. A wolf in sheep's clothing, he's very protective of Dancer and satisfies his own perverse needs by taking note of the deceased's last words.
Siegel utilizes some beautiful San Francisco locations to make just a top notch B-picture. It might actually be the director's best until Dirty Harry, or maybe The Killers in '64. A very long drop by a man in a wheelchair (a brief but perfect appearance by Vaughn Taylor) recalls Tommy Udo's antics in Kiss of Death while actually outdoing the Henry Hathaway film for shock value. The climactic car chase is sometimes cited (for good reason) as a precursor to Bullitt a decade later. Some rear projection mars the chase scene a tad, but you're still unlikely to find a much better one prior to, well, Bullitt, which enjoyed a significantly higher budget and more ambitious sense of what could be accomplished on film. Factor in a steam room encounter which plays both as a pivotal insight into what kind of character Dancer is and a piece of clear subversion of the censors that's laced with homoerotic subtext, and The Lineup reveals itself as a true find of low-budget, late fifties noir.
Indeed, Siegel's film looks like the gem of the set until the even better Murder by Contract fleetingly skips across the screen for 80 minutes of jangly-scored (bringing to mind The Third Man) thematic darkness. Released in 1958, the obviously low-budget film was directed by Irving Lerner and starred Vince Edwards as Claude, a hitman quite unlike any previously seen in the movies. Claude's concerns are purely economic. He longs for a house on the Ohio River and his current paycheck isn't cutting it. We never learn or, more accurately, understand exactly why - beyond the financial benefits - Claude chooses to supplement his income with contract killings, but the implication always seems to be that he's a different sort of breed. Even though many of us might want something that we can't quite afford, it's unlikely that becoming a hitman settles in as the most viable solution. Claude, though, is committed to his new profession, and by about eleven minutes into the film he's already found steady work as a killer and eliminated the man who'd earlier been his initial contact. The pacing and handling of time here are tremendous.
He's soon dispatched out west to Los Angeles to take care of a woman named Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel, in her only film role), a pianist and ex-girlfriend to a mob boss. She's getting ready to testify in her former lover's trial and Claude's employer wants her out of the way. The film builds up the hitman's odd character by contrasting him against two fairly traditional and semi-comedic lackeys, played by Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi, who act more as babysitters than accomplices. Claude first balks upon learning that his target is a female. They're unpredictable, he says. Edwards' character clearly has an aversion or perhaps a fear of women on some level, a quirk that adds a delicious layer of psychological aggression to Claude. His sexuality, like any killer or deviant or unnerving oddball, is fair game for exploration despite allusions to an unseen girlfriend. The best we can figure is that he's distrusting of women and uninterested in sex. An encounter late in the film with party girl Mary certainly implies that our assassin hero doesn't require the physical services of women. It's not out of the question to observe that he helped usher in the asexual criminal psychopath in American cinema.
Edwards' performance almost makes it difficult to even characterize Claude as a psychopath given his nonviolent tendencies, but clearly, business or not, his tendency to kill strangers for large sums of money violates all social obligations. I particularly like that Murder by Contract addresses the flaws of a primarily capitalistic judge, jury and executioner. Beyond necessary plot points, it seems that the film really only cares about Claude's self-imposed rules of the trade. He doesn't use a gun and doesn't kill "innocent" people as defined by his own sensibility. It's only when these tenets get muddled that things become undone. As Claude is expected to, for the first time, kill a woman, everything seems to unravel and his compromises prove disastrous. Credit Lerner's direction for how tightly wound the film is from start to finish. Nothing indicates a happy ending on the way. Indeed, from the opening frames of Melville-like loneliness and alienation to an instance of clear disruption in Claude's hewn path, nothing less than pure disintegration is expected. The film even ends with a level of despair as to be utterly finished with Claude, discarding him as quickly as he was introduced.
Sony's R1 release of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I arrives in a reasonably attractive package (for Sony at least). The glossy finish digipak does continue an unwanted trend of stacking two discs on top of each other, overlapping The Sniper with The Big Heat and 5 Against the House with The Lineup. The Murder by Contract disc occupies its own card in the three-tiered set. A slipcase box, with plot descriptions, credits and running times on the back, houses the digipak. This release also continues Sony's recent line of "The Collector's Choice," which thus far has included DVD sets devoted to Budd Boetticher, Michael Powell, and, most recently, Samuel Fuller. A second set of noir titles has been rumored and listed at online retailers but not yet officially announced. The films hinted at for inclusion are Pushover, Nightfall, The Brothers Rico, City of Fear, and the already available Nicholas Ray masterpiece In a Lonely Place. Let's hope Sony does indeed continue the noir offerings and that time can soon be made for Fritz Lang's Human Desire as well.
All five features have relatively short lengths, but it's still a bit surprising, even disappointing that Sony opted for single-layer discs, with low bitrates. The Lineup, for example, looks terrific but it's an 88-minute film with a commentary and a featurette on the disc. The Big Heat runs 89 minutes and has a pair of featurettes that total over 16 minutes. Such stingy encoding has resulted in bothersome digital noise that probably could've been avoided with the stronger bitrates that come with using dual-layered discs.
Both The Sniper and The Big Heat are at the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the other three are presented in enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen. The transfers are all progressive. I see quite a bit of grain save for The Lineup, which has comparatively exceptional detail and is the strongest image overall. Sony has provided very clean transfers here, with hardly any scratches or marks to distract. Contrast varies quite a bit. 5 Against the House has a definite green cast to the black and white which might be more of a concern if the film itself was better (i.e., worth revisiting from time to time). The other instance where contrast has a similar weak green look is, strangely, the first ten minutes of The Big Heat. At approximately ten minutes into that film the contrast shifts into being a far more acceptable grey-scale. Lang's film was previously released as a standalone title several years ago, and while the two images aren't that much different, this new effort is certainly not superior. It's disappointing that Sony couldn't have either improved or, alternatively, retained the earlier transfer. Both The Sniper and Murder by Contract look satisfactory, with no issues to speak of other than perhaps more grain (or is that noise?) than would have been absolutely necessary and some relative softness in the image.
Each of the films contains an English Dolby Digital two-channel mono track. There's little fluctuation in audio quality among the various films. The tracks are clear, unambitious, and perfectly acceptable. I can't say that any hiccups were noticeable across the set. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the volume maintains a nice consistency. English subtitles in an awful, bright yellow color are optional for every picture.
Featurettes on all films except 5 Against the House sound enticing, especially considering the presence of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, and Christopher Nolan is prominently advertised on the front cover, but these are short pieces mostly absent any thorough analysis. Listening to Scorsese discuss The Sniper (3:18), The Big Heat (5:48), and Murder by Contract (4:58) is a great way to spend a few minutes, just don't be confused on the extent of his participation. Likewise, Nolan adds an appreciation (6:30) of film noir to the disc for The Lineup which, considering the obvious link between noir and his films, is definitely of interest. The most lengthy of these pieces is Mann on The Big Heat (10:57), and it might be as intriguing of an insight into the film as it is, tangentially, the director's own work.
A pair of commentaries on the set both feature Eddie Muller, a familiar contributor to film noir special features across the Fox and Warner Bros. releases and someone who's earned a spot in the nonexistent commentator hall of fame as far as I'm concerned. Muller, a San Francisco native, is alone on the track for The Sniper, and he really dives into the geography of the film and its background. It's, per usual from Muller, a knowledgeable and worthwhile track, probably more helpful though less entertaining overall than the one for The Lineup which has Muller joined by crime novelist James Ellroy. The author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia goes into his usual outrageous shtick while Muller tries to keep the commentary on the rails. This is a decidedly rowdy listen, unbleeped by Sony. I like Ellroy, even when he's being a maniac, but he overdoes it at times here.
Trailers accompany all five films. Their lengths are included here: The Sniper (2:15), The Big Heat (1:44), 5 Against the House (1:54), The Lineup (2:11), Murder by Contract (1:57).
A small source of complaint, but I found it unusual that Sony opted not to included the name of the film on any of the disc menus. Seemed strange to me, though the discs themselves do clearly indicate what film is located where. (The recent Samuel Fuller set from Sony shares this quirk.)
Patience has finally paid off for fans of three excellent noir pictures released by Columbia Pictures in the 1950s. It's probably just coincidence that The Sniper, The Lineup, and Murder by Contract all involve men who kill strangers and are set largely in California, but having them together actually highlights their differences more than their similarities. Though each was several years ahead of its time - with Murder by Contract often feeling like a film from the seventies more than the fifties - the handling and focus of the protagonists vary considerably. There may never have been a film more sympathetic to a serial killer than The Sniper while Eli Wallach's Dancer is psychologically poked and prodded at in The Lineup and the hitman played by Vince Edwards in Murder by Contract prefigures some of the most compelling aspects of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime drama protagonists. These are three fascinating films and it's appropriate (intentional or not) that Sony put them together in this set. The only real black mark is that Sony used single-layered discs which brought in the noise on the transfers. Even so, this is one of my favorite releases of the year without question.