Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III Review
Continuing on from the excellent first two volumes in the series (reviewed here and here), the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set has collected a quintet of fine crime dramas from the '40s and '50s, none of which were previously available on R1 DVD. The only hitch, and it's a doozy, is that this digipak release can exclusively be attained from the Turner Classic Movies online store (link) and its partner Movies Unlimited. The TCM Vault Collection entry includes the films My Name Is Julia Ross, The Mob, Drive a Crooked Road, Tight Spot and The Burglar, with each contained on a separate disc.
The 1945 B-picture My Name Is Julia Ross was a key turning point for director Joseph H. Lewis. Sniff around film noir long enough and you’ll soon find reference to him. Lewis is often written about with reverence and admiration for elevating the material he was given into something far more interesting, more cinematic. Behind the camera, which he tended to place in such unique locations as to earn the nickname “Wagon-Wheel Joe,” Lewis had the gift of making his less than modest budgets seem like no hindrance to stylish filmmaking. His cinematographers probably helped, with John Alton’s work on The Big Combo deserving of some kind of beautifully dark and shadowed trophy ceremony all on its own, but perhaps it was Lewis who equally inspired talented men like Burnett Guffey and Russell Harlan to match his own flair for composition. Certainly the merits of the much-loved Gun Crazy, with its extended, point of view sequence from a getaway car and overall Nouvelle Vague feel (about a decade before the fact), are deservedly associated with Lewis first and foremost.
He learned how to make pictures on the cheap from the very beginning of his directing career, including a series of westerns for Universal which one feels generous even in declaring them as B-movies. They remain almost entirely unknown even today. The odd Bela Lugosi horror picture, Bowery Boys flick or entry in the Falcon series followed. In short, though, Lewis was toiling away in near-obscurity. It was My Name Is Julia Ross, made for Columbia and deemed impressive by no less than studio boss Harry Cohn, that finally got the director recognized. Lewis had only been given ten days and less than $150,000 to make the picture. He went over on both, but Cohn was apparently so taken with his work that Lewis was given even more freedom on subsequent Columbia projects. My Name Is Julia Ross was also a hit at the box office, surely helping the director’s cause.
Based on a novel (entitled The Woman in Red and written by Anthony Gilbert, a pen name for Lucy Malleson), the film concerns the highly unusual circumstances in which a woman looking for work in London finds herself. Julia Ross has lived in London for two months and, as we see, thinks she’s finally found a job as secretary to a fussy older woman. She’d answered a newspaper posting, gone to the employment agency and, after confirming that she had no familial or other ties which might distract from her duties, met with her potential employer. It all went well enough until she suddenly found herself no longer at the London residence where she was supposedly to work and instead at a large estate in Cornwall, with Friday having completely vanished in favor of Saturday. And why does everyone insist on calling her Marian Hughes?
As the title character, Nina Foch is impressive in the strength she gives Julia. What’s essentially happening, and not to give away too much for those who’ve not yet seen the movie, is that she’s been kidnapped and made to seem like the mentally unstable wife/daughter-in-law of her captors, played by George Macready and Dame May Whitty. Their intentions are revealed gradually but we know right away that they most likely are not honorable. A pair of other accomplices complete the conspiracy against Julia. Only potential beau Dennis (Roland Varno) provides hope of somehow alerting officials as to Julia’s disappearance or whereabouts. The frequent, dangling near-misses for escape, even in the film’s brisk 64 minutes of running time, are utilized skillfully in both giving the viewer hope that she might get away and then upping the suspense when she does not.
The thrill of My Name Is Julia Ross might hinge as much on its keen awareness as a taut Gothic thriller as it does the directorial flourishes from Lewis. Both are essential. Lewis had, finally, a strong plot to work with but he also made it better through his formal gifts. Seeing Julia literally behind bars of this massive country estate overlooking the water is an indelible image which perfectly shows her dilemma. The viewer can get a feel for her state of mind through Foch’s performance and the circumstances, but having that shot of her looking out while encaged makes for a striking and essential summation.
Though the film feels believably British (at least from this non-Brit), it’s intriguing to realize that none of it was shot outside of the United States. (This could be chalked up to Lewis’ impressive ability to spin straw into gold since nothing on screen really indicates just how cheaply it was made.) Furthermore, Foch, of course, was Dutch-born and grew up in New York while Macready was an American. The presence of a Dame, in this instance May Whitty, perhaps goes quite a long way toward establishing an overall British feel. Though it can sometimes feel like a merging between Gothic thriller, because of the setting, and film noir, owing mostly to the heightened atmosphere of suspense present nearly throughout, My Name Is Julia Ross also resists strict categorization. Credit Lewis for this, as he tended to make his best pictures very much his own and largely unlike what expectations might suggest.
Following up his strong debut feature Cry Danger, director Robert Parrish next made the deeply satisfying noir drama The Mob, starring Broderick Crawford in a fine lead performance. The picture features a nifty cast of familiar faces, including Richard Kiley, Ernest Borgnine, and, in a bit role with one line, Charles Bronson. There are ample twists and developments which manage to generally establish a heightened, suspenseful atmosphere befitting what we expect from noir. Parrish offers little stylistic flourish but he and cinematographer Joseph Walker each do their part in creating the right mood, despite the obvious lack of shooting on location and other budgetary restrictions.
The film opens in that most noir of climates - dark and rainy. Crawford is an off-duty cop in a pawn shop, trying to buy his girl a nice ring at a discount. He exits and comes upon a fresh shooting in the street. The man with the gun identifies himself as a police lieutenant who’s just brought down a cop killer. Crawford’s character Damico gets a look at his badge and sends him into a diner to call for a squad car. Trouble is, the man goes in the front door and out the back because he’s not really a cop. Instead, he’s Blackie Clegg, the guy who killed both the man in the street and the dead police officer, and Damico has just let him go free. The punishment, officially, is a suspension. The reality is that Damico is assigned to work undercover at the docks in order to get closer to Clegg, who’s known to run things from afar. Hardly anyone, including Damico’s girlfriend, can know about the assignment.
Officer John Damico becomes Tim Flynn, a dock worker from New Orleans who’s had to come up north while some details from his past cool down. He meets all sorts of characters in his new locale. A fellow laborer named Clancy (Richard Kiley) befriends Flynn, but it’s the higher-ups like Castro (Ernest Borgnine), and his lackey Gunner (played by Neville Brand), who end up coloring his experience the most. The twists this film takes are entirely effective and compelling, so much so that plot descriptions become increasingly less valuable than usual. The whole thing churns along so very nicely, and it’s great to see Crawford essentially playing both his usual gruff exterior in the form of Flynn and a more subdued and quick cat in Damico. The role would have been a reward of sorts from Columbia for his Oscar-winning turn in the studio’s All the King’s Men a couple of years earlier. Crawford was always more versatile than he was allowed to show on screen, and this is a shining example of his ability to carry, forcefully so, a film pretty much on his own.
Parrish, an Oscar-winning editor for his work on Body and Soul, might not have achieved great distinction for the dozen and a half or so films he was credited with making, but both this feature and his only previous one Cry Danger are deserving of favorable recognition. Oddly enough, both films find a singular protagonist who is an outsider trying to coalesce in an ostensibly foreign environment. The set-up is a noir staple but the pictures, both with screenplays credited to William Bowers, make good use of being on the fringe. Dick Powell in Cry Danger and Crawford here are both guys made to be on the outside looking in, with a task of sorts to accomplish in order to find some kind of normal existence in their lives. Indeed, the two films are surprisingly similar when considered in tandem and both are in need of some fair re-evaluation.
The title of The Mob may be somewhat misleading. I’d resisted the movie for a little while, assuming (wrongly) that it was more heavily built around organized crime, like so many middling pictures with a docudrama intensity were during this decade. These films tend to get bogged down in the gangsterism element, to the detriment of the overall narrative. To my pleasant surprise, The Mob is a genuinely focused effort that uses Crawford’s undercover cop routine as a bridge between exposing the unfair corruption facing the dock workers, later to be part of On the Waterfront, and the more general dangers that befall the guys on the police force who are clean. Had The Mob been made twenty or thirty years later you could easily picture Sidney Lumet behind the camera. That version might not have been half bad either, but it seems doubtful that any latter incarnation would have been quite this tight and to the point.
The idea of Mickey Rooney as a noir hero just seems preposterous. Andy Hardy dark and brooding? Not possible, you might think. I’m as anti-Rooney as the next shadowy guy in the trench coat and I’d never seen him in anything that was even decent. Until Drive a Crooked Road, that is. The 1954 Richard Quine picture, with a screenplay by Blake Edwards years before he ruined Breakfast at Tiffany’s by having Rooney play a highly offensive Asian caricature, finds just the right tone and allows Quine’s natural strengths to mesh effectively with a very uncharacteristically subdued performance by Rooney. The result is striking, if not visually then at least thematically and from the perspective of narrative economy. It’s noir generally absent the dark and shadowed visuals but still confidently retaining the wounded themes so necessary in capturing the essence of the style.
Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic who loves to race cars as time and money allow. He’s a loner who isn’t quite the social butterfly appreciated in southern California. (If the character sounds not unlike another driver, someone from a 2011 film, then you can at least be assured there are no vicious beatings or other acts of extreme, visceral bloodshed found here.) Eddie is also quite short and has a large scar that runs down the center of his forehead and extends to the side of his face. There are no women in his life. Indeed, there seems to be hardly anyone in his life outside of the other mechanics at the shop where he works. His modest apartment is adorned with racing photos and trophies, including a large one awarded to him for finishing in second place. Unfortunately for Eddie, he’s the perfect chump.
The enabler for a chump in film noir is most often a pretty woman. Drive a Crooked Road subscribes to the usual Richard Quine romantic idea of having the female be attractive and more outwardly kind than sinister. The classically nasty femme fatale just wouldn’t appear in a Quine picture. And so it is with Barbara (Dianne Foster), who appears at the large automobile center where Eddie works to have her car fixed. Once she calls the shop the next day to have Eddie come out and take another look at the car, this part of the set-up should be apparent from a mile away. But Eddie is either too dense to realize or too smitten to care that Barbara has plans for him. It’s to the film and Rooney’s credit that his failure to catch on feels far more sad than dumb. Eddie is a highly sympathetic character who takes nothing for granted and is played completely by Barbara. Even the introduction of Steve (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold (Jack Kelly), the two men behind the planned bank robbery for which Eddie is wanted as the getaway driver, becomes the most natural of circumstances - a chance encounter followed later by a casual party.
We believe everything, particularly when using the logic of noir. The portrayals of Steve and Harold are further examples of Quine not really shading things in overt blacks and whites. Even his villains are rather bouncy and light, and never outwardly menacing prior to the robbery. McCarthy is all toothy grins while Kelly, who was soon to be Bart Maverick on the television series Maverick, shoots out sarcastic one-liners in quick succession. These aren’t people you or I might trust but the facade for Eddie is built pretty well. He’s essentially made vulnerable by Barbara taking such interest in him and the friendly association she attaches to these two guys. Even so, Eddie balks strongly when first presented with the idea of being involved with a bank robbery. It’s only because Barbara makes him believe any future they might have together would be dependent on the $15,000 share Eddie would take that causes him to ultimately agree to the job.
The sunny look of the California shown onscreen can’t hide just how downbeat Drive a Crooked Road often feels. From most every angle, Eddie has sucker’s luck. He’s this withdrawn, awkward individual with little going for him aside from a talent for fixing and driving cars, and then it’s that very strength which puts him in an even worse position than the crappy life he was waking up to everyday. It sort of begs the question whether that perception Eddie has of being happy with an attractive woman is, even when basically false, better or worse than the pathetic existence he was previously living. Quine paints such a tragically romantic picture of Eddie’s time with Barbara that it almost does seem better to have experienced those feelings, however fake and temporary. Something to note is that, in Quine’s hands, Drive a Crooked Road strongly eschews cynicism. It’s instead sad, romantic, and ultimately tragic.
The robbery that serves as the film’s linchpin comes and goes somewhat brusquely, shown well enough but hardly the dynamic set piece promised from afar. In an interesting choice, Quine never takes us inside the bank. We instead stay, appropriately enough, in the car with Eddie. The dusty drive through miles of backroads that follows is tense and shot well enough, yet never quite as suspenseful as had been assumed. In a way, this entire act which Drive a Crooked Road is sort of built around fades away in favor of the implications involved. The major impact we’re expecting actually comes with the film’s ending. It probably handles the situation as well as it possibly could given the limitations still in place from the Production Code. Without wanting to delve any further into spoiler territory, I’ll only comment that the hint of ambiguity feels appropriate. Although some things seem inevitable and we must be aware throughout that this cannot end well, the eventual finish is a nocturnal heartbreak. For once, the movie, finally, looks like its mood.
Tight Spot, directed by genre craftsman Phil Karlson, doesn’t do a lot for me beneath the surface but it does manage to skip along nicely in the moment. It was adapted from a stage play, and the general reluctance to move beyond its hotel room setting save for a scene or two is clear evidence of that. The no-nonsense direction, typical of Karlson, goes far in keeping things fresh and moving. If there’s a meaningful complaint to be registered it might be how familiar the whole thing tends to feel. Tight Spot is the kind of picture you vaguely recall having already seen, regardless of whether you actually have. On the other hand, it’s also something you could find yourself enjoying and becoming involved in, no matter if it’s a first watch or a third.
The precarious position of the title likely refers to the delicacy involved in getting a potential government witness to testify against a mob boss. The first planned witness we see is shot down by a sniper rifle, putting district attorney Edward G. Robinson in a mad rush to suddenly fill the vacancy. Though not an ideal replacement, it’s a women’s prison convict played by Ginger Rogers who’s chosen and put up in a hotel on the government’s dime. She’s entirely reluctant to testify, and, considering the risk versus potential reward, who could blame her. Brian Keith rounds out the main trio of characters as a cynical cop acting as chaperone to Rogers. The big shot gangster is played by Lorne Greene, who’s not very Ben Cartwright-like at all here.
Because she’s somewhat fast-talking and wisecracking, Rogers’ role very much resembles the sort she played in the 1930s. Other blondes were fine being plucky while Ginger had a harder, knowing, if still pleasingly bubbly, edge to her. The spin put on her Tight Spot performance is that Rogers is no longer an ingenue but now a woman in her forties with some miles on her. The way she looks, fair or not, gives the character an element of underlying sadness. She’d been a model, someone who had men like Greene invite her on boats and probably hope for something in return. She’d charmed nice dresses and fancy meals out of people without the expectation of turning state’s witness. But now she’s past her prime, with still a year left on a hard luck prison sentence and the one thing most obviously going for her - looks - fading fast. All of that informs the subtext of the film and Rogers’ character, but it also affects how we view a major actress in the twilight of her career, with just five more feature film roles remaining.
That’s not to say that Tight Spot ever becomes simply a dissection of Ginger Rogers vis-à-vis the aging process. It’s a lean enough drama, however stagebound, with a sharp late twist. The viewer grows to care more about Rogers and her safety than if Robinson can make his deportation case against Greene. This is mainly due to the keen performance from Rogers, who massages the role beyond its most basic intentions. Her persistence really stands out, both as a way for the character to manipulate the situation as best she can and as a means of teasing the tragic underpinnings in the story. Rogers fits in some strong moments with Keith where she’s pretty much worn him down over time with her enthusiasm and good nature. Anyone who’s a fan of the actress certainly owes it to himself or herself to watch the film. It’s probably the definitive instance of having Ginger implicitly come to terms with Hollywood passing her by, not because of ability but perception.
Credit Phil Karlson with recognizing the potential in having an older Rogers dominate his supposed film noir. As with the Karlson contributions found in the two previous Columbia noir sets, I’m most skeptical of including this title as something worth classifying as a film noir. Karlson was a good, solid director but he wasn’t one for letting mood dominate. He seemed far more interested in narrative pacing, and, as such, was a fine storyteller. I tend to enjoy Phil Karlson pictures well enough but I think their noir attributes are rather malleable. He was no Joseph H. Lewis or Anthony Mann, filmmakers whose forays into other genres still retained the strong feel of noir. From a noir perspective, I’ll give Karlson the great Kansas City Confidential and maybe 99 River Street but probably nothing else. He made above average crime dramas, like Tight Spot, but they almost always lacked the creative flair and existential angst craved from noir.
If there’s any single entity who best captured the mood of film noir in his words, and I’m adamant that mood is the most importantly pervasive element of noir, it was probably David Goodis. He perfected existential malaise on the page. He made his stories drip with hard depression and deep, stubborn hopelessness. There’s a reason, clearly, that Goodis has inspired about as many screenplay adaptations of his work as novels he produced.
Production of The Burglar would have come at an interesting time for Goodis. He’d already settled back in his native Philadelphia (at his parents’ house) after a stint in Hollywood which saw Delmer Daves adapt Dark Passage for Warner Bros. and Goodis write a version of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter (filmed twice already, with Jeanne Eagels and Bette Davis) for the same studio called The Unfaithful. His novel of The Burglar was published in 1953, and it took two more years for Paul Wendkos, a fellow Philadelphian and friend of Goodis, to make the film version as an independent production starring Dan Duryea. Columbia would buy the distribution rights but not release the picture for another couple of years, until cast member Jayne Mansfield developed into a movie star at Fox. Another Goodis adaptation, Nightfall directed by Jacques Tourneur, also came out from Columbia in 1957.
Both pictures retain Goodis’ downbeat voice, but they're well-distanced from one another. For one, they seem to have distinctively different intentions. Nightfall makes strong use of the typical male Tourneur protagonist - laconic, pursued, struggling with the past. Aldo Ray in that film seems cast against type yet generally effective. That said, he shows only situational angst rather than something habitual and tortured. By contrast, Duryea in The Burglar is weathered. He’s supposed to be just 35 years old but the actor was actually about 48 during filming, as evidenced by his watery eyes and each of the lines on his face. The extra years add nuance to what is, like many Goodis stories, a character study rather than simply a plot-driven tale of cops and robbers. Duryea’s Nat is a guy we learn about in a slow, patient fashion. The ties come together with ease, bound not by narrative obligation but through gradual moments of observation.
Though Duryea is sometimes thought of first for his less sympathetic roles, in things like Scarlet Street, Criss Cross, and Winchester ‘73, among many others, he was quite capable of playing the other side too. Black Angel, for example, finds him as a guy who’s neither obviously good nor bad. The beauty of his performance in The Burglar lies in the unexpected restraint Duryea shows. There are ample silences, and gone is the usual jumpiness or friction. Nat is a tortured soul in the Goodis mold who’s sacrificed his life seemingly for two things, both of which involve the man who more or less raised him. That man was a thief who taught Nat how to steal professionally and only asked in return that he look out for his daughter Gladden (Mansfield) if anything ever happened to him. The complications here are mighty. For one, Gladden is, though not outwardly as bombshell sexy as her portrayer might imply, a young, attractive blonde who’s always looked up to Nat. Beyond that, the pair currently work in a group of four, one of which is a brutish, sweaty man who is constantly throwing unwanted stares at Gladden.
Their current haul is an expensive emerald necklace which the fourth member of the group estimates to be worth $150,000 or so, with a fence perhaps giving them $85,000 for it. It was taken from the Philadelphia home of a spiritualist. The tense heist is shown by Wendkos in sweaty detail, with Nat having to work on a safe in two parts after a couple of cops stop to check out his parked car on the street and he temporarily abandons the job to feed them a story about it having broken down. It’s a testament to the film’s brash confidence that Wendkos stages this essential set piece so early in the picture. This also lets us know that The Burglar is less concerned with crime in general than those individuals perpetrating it here.
Shot on location in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the movie earns its mood honestly. The choices Wendkos makes are frequently daring and most often succeed at establishing a dingy, rundown atmosphere. These characters are holed up in sweaty little apartments and shacks. They struggle. Nat broods. Nothing ever seems to be as close to paying off as they try to fool themselves. It’s easy to get behind Nat but it’s unfortunately just as natural to expect an outcome which will be destructive in some way. The noir elements, particularly the more mature and developed themes found in the best efforts from the fifties, are on full display. Interesting compositions marked by an affinity for shadows and inky darkness would seem to have announced Wendkos as a major filmmaker. Indeed, in a time period when noir was coming to a close and far too many crime dramas were settling for an unimaginative television aesthetic, The Burglar is a beautiful alternative. It looks and feels deeply, darkly unsettling. The final sequence through AC’s Steel Pier amusement park is as enormously thrilling to watch as it is painful to digest.
The postscript for The Burglar, if there was any justice, should be a positive one. Alas, Goodis kept descending into whatever fugue state he was destined for, despite a brief renewed interest after François Truffaut adapted a book by the author for his second film, and died far too young at the age of 49 in early 1967. Wendkos had a weird career. He directed Gidget and a pair of sequels soon after making The Burglar, and then later worked steadily in television. Without having seen every movie and episode of television Wendkos did, it seems unfair to just provide a flat dismissal but I do think one would have difficulty in painting his career as living up to the promise shown by this picture, considering how terrific it is. While Mansfield’s Broadway success with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? immediately followed filming, and that then segued into her screen career, the delay in releasing The Burglar probably did it few favors. Having Mansfield’s sexy image as the focal point of the poster campaign seems both misleading and certain to disappoint filmgoers looking for a bubbly blonde rather than the troubled, more even character seen here.
The film’s reputation, for whatever reason, has never really matched its potential impact. This is one of the darker, more downbeat and adult noirs made in the mid-fifties, and I’m inclined to say it’s also one of the best. Its memorably bold opening and glide through an amusement park, both owing handily to Orson Welles, are knockouts. This DVD release might be too minor to really impact general opinion, I’m afraid, or maybe the picture is mostly just for those already in the cult of Goodis. But at least it’s actually available through official channels (and not stricken with a purple underbelly). It’s a soothing development, particularly if you already love the film.
This review is of a set purchased from the TCM online store, which, along with partner Movies Unlimited and third party sellers, is the only place you can currently find it. My copy is a three-tiered digipak inside a nice, glossy slipcover case, and the discs are all pressed DVDs. Two of the trays in the digipak contain a pair of discs each, though they are not held in with much conviction. Closing the case seems to inevitably lead to a disc or two coming loose and falling out of its spot. The packaging and aesthetics otherwise seem consistent with the earlier volumes of Columbia noir.
The discs are all single-layered, with a paltry amount of disc space used. (The Burglar, a 90-minute film, is given just 2.63 GB.) My Name Is Julia Ross and The Mob use the 1.33:1 aspect ratio while the other three are in 1.85:1. This despite the labels for all discs indicating 1.33:1. The films look exceptionally clean and with generally strong contrast. There's a good consistency across these progressive transfers, which are thankfully missing that ugly greenish tinge sometimes seen in other Sony collections. The Mob looks especially impressive. The major complaint worth making is that an abundance of noise is visible at times. This is most noticeable on Tight Spot and The Burglar, but really occurs throughout the set. Some of the noise is masked by grain, which is there too and easy to spot. But it tends to look thicker and less natural than it ideally should. Some viewers may not notice or care, but, especially in the era of Blu-ray, it's better when films resemble film and grain looks like grain. That noted, these still more than pass the test and make for wonderful viewing
English Dolby Digital mono tracks are the sole audio options for the films. Only My Name Is Julia Ross sports what is still rather light hiss. The other four tracks are all clear-sounding. The Burglar is perhaps the weakest of these, but dialogue still emerges cleanly and without struggle. The lack of any included subtitles is extremely inconsiderate, and an unwelcome change from the other Columbia noir sets.
Extra features are highlighted by the comforting presence of Martin Scorsese, taking time out from his Hugo press tour to provide introductions on the respective discs for Drive a Crooked Road (1:57) and The Burglar (2:13). These are short and spoiler-free. A lengthy written piece on the set by David Kalat is included as text screens on the My Name Is Julia Ross disc. All of the films carry image galleries with Scene Stills, a Lobby Card Set, and Movie Posters. All but The Burglar also have galleries for Publicity Stills and Behind the Scenes Photos. The pressbook for Drive a Crooked Road can be accessed both on the disc and as a PDF file upon inserting it into your computer. Each film, too, has an included trailer.
This is the kind of release that many of us feared would no longer occur - a collection of films previously unavailable on DVD (though a couple can be found from other countries), looking good and providing that warm, fuzzy feeling to the viewer. In terms of the films themselves, I particularly enjoy The Burglar, which carries the ethos of its author David Goodis so well and gives Dan Duryea an opportunity to brood rather than snarl, and the Richard Quine-directed Drive a Crooked Road, the Mickey Rooney film for those who detest Mickey Rooney. It's just highly unfortunate that Sony couldn't have found a way to make this set easier to purchase.