Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II Review

What a treat - more film noir from the Columbia vaults only about eight months since the first volume. And instead of throwing in a previously available title (In a Lonely Place) as first rumored, all five pictures are new to R1 DVD. We have Fritz Lang's Human Desire, the Fred MacMurray-Kim Novak starrer Pushover, a Phil Karlson-directed crime drama called The Brothers Rico, Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, and a reunion of Murder by Contract's director and star in City of Fear. All films even get their own pressed disc. Combine this with the pair of Bad Girls of Film Noir sets released earlier this year and it's easy to almost feel spoiled. Of course, eternal pessimists can always fall back on the heavy uncertainty surrounding future noir releases and the stripping away of commentaries on this set and the Warner Bros. one that followed a week later. Take what you can get, and maybe cross your fingers for the sweet smell of successful Criterion Collection offerings.

Enough tangential interest swirls around Human Desire to make it immediately the most intriguing of the films in this collection. It re-teamed director Fritz Lang with stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame just a year after The Big Heat. You could make a pretty good argument that the latter has the more dominant role here. She certainly makes the biggest impression. Also hanging over the picture is its source material. Though credited as an adaptation of Emile Zola's novel, the real basis seems to have been Jean Renoir's film La bête humaine, which selectively used the Zola book as its inspiration. Major changes greet Lang's version, and any inclinations to seriously compare and contrast the two films are perhaps unfair. They seem designed with different audiences in mind and separate rules by which to adhere. Worth noting, though, is that it's actually the Renoir film that most closely resembles what we expect from film noir. As a prime example of poetic realism, it's an obvious precursor to the American-made style that became noir.

That doesn't mean Human Desire necessarily comes up short. It's a fine film, maybe second-tier Lang if we're being honest but that merely positions it as a victim of its director's success. Glenn Ford, as a railroad conductor returning to the job following a three-year absence spent in the military, doesn't seem quite as effective here as in the other Lang collaboration. He has a more complex role, to be sure, and one that can feel a little underwritten. He comes in contact with Gloria Grahame once again, this time after her jealous husband, a fellow rail worker played by Broderick Crawford, has murdered a powerful man with whom Grahame had once had an affair. The crime occurs on a train where all three characters are passengers. The disturbing psychological implications run free and wild in the film. These are unstable people faced with unbelievably messy situations of their own doing. Grahame's portrayal takes the cake. She's cold to Crawford but in heat to Ford. Grahame was very good at playing floozy types, but here especially the characterization crosses a line into ambiguity and tragic conflict. This well of emotion results in a brutally cold ending, one which, on the surface, is a clear violation of the Production Code. It's almost like the purgatory of existence was considered punishment enough.

Pushover asks us to believe a veteran cop would risk everything for a pretty girl and a sack of cash. Isn't that the epitome of film noir? Either sex or money or a combination of the two seems to inform the downfall of many a noir protagonist. These could even be considered man's two most primal urges (and fatal flaws) in society. What's great about Pushover is that it not only establishes this combination as lead Fred MacMurray's sole incentive, revealing hardly anything about him otherwise, but that the ante is upped considerably by having the girl as a young, blooming Kim Novak and throwing in half a million 1954 dollars as the prize. The hurdle is making the audience believe MacMurray would suddenly abandon everything for greed and lust. It's hardly an impossible proposition. There are minor similarities to Double Indemnity but this is a different MacMurray. He's older, maybe more desperate, thinking with a different outlook in mind. He's still strung along by the femme fatale but not nearly as reluctant or passive. This guy should know better. He's not in love; he just wants to wake up beside Kim Novak with the ocean breeze blowing through the window.

Director Richard Quine, who'd go on to make a number of pictures - often comedies - at the Columbia studio that rest nicely in the "good, not great" category, must have put the wettest version of Los Angeles ever committed to film here. Every exterior is brimming with rain drops. That adds a good bit of atmosphere to a film that can sometimes feel lacking in psychological density. Though Pushover doesn't try to expand much beyond its rather simple story, adapted by The Fugitive creator Roy Huggins from a novel, what it lacks in depth it tries to make up for in degree. The material is sufficiently dark and filled with nocturnal settings. MacMurray's acting can feel like he's holding back, a nod to constant uncertainty and a defense against self-doubt. This was Novak's first significant role and I don't think her part requires much beyond serving as vital set dressing, which she does just fine. Her acting would improve with time. Also notable is Dorothy Malone, as she usually was, playing a neighbor of Novak's who ultimately finds herself unexpectedly involved in the case at hand.

Taking the inevitable spot as the film in the set most questionably considered a noir, The Brothers Rico nonetheless provides solid entertainment and makes good use of Richard Conte. There's a strong sense of the same borderline sadistic approach taken by director Phil Karlson that had previously been on display in films like Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, and The Phenix City Story. Karlson was at home with a modest budget but didn't have the style of his fellow genre filmmaker Joseph H. Lewis. What he did have was a keen eye for the sordid side of the American Dream. The director made no attempt to hide just how violent criminal life could be while still being disguised as sunny and idyllic. It wasn't always explicit depictions of blood and death that created such an impact, and indeed The Brothers Rico tends to withhold such visualizations. More often than not, though, it's all there on the actors' faces. Conte, equally at home playing good and bad, emotionally unravels as best as he can in some downright harrowing situations. The film misses a few beats overall but its treatment of disloyalty and loss at the hands of the underworld is top notch.

It also wasn't a bad idea to begin the film showcasing what appears to be a sexually healthy marriage between Conte and wife Dianne Foster. He has a lucrative laundry business in Florida but a phone call underlines the fact that you can never really escape the mob. Conte had been an accountant and nothing more but his two brothers, Gino and Johnny Rico, have gotten themselves involved with a hit and one might even be flirting with turning state's witness. The boss (Larry Gates) calls in Conte to track him down, leading our protagonist from one coast to the other on a doomed mission. Most telling is his hotel room encounter with the character Mike Lamotta (Harry Bellaver). Lamotta chastises his attempts to play the innocent. "You knew it was going on," he says. "Don't play holy." Otherwise, the film tends to pale against the stark and doom-filled entries elsewhere in this set, meaning it belongs the least. Still, it's far better than Karlson's 5 Against the House which padded the last box, and I do think something resonates in how Conte's character values family so much yet becomes not only helpless but an unwitting accessory to boot.

Jacques Tourneur's 1947 picture Out of the Past has become such an archetypal film noir that the director might be thought of as one of the key figures of the style. But, discounting the shadowy horror movies like Cat People and The Leopard Man that he made for producer Val Lewton, Tourneur directed only one other true noir. Released by Columbia in 1957, Nightfall is a lean, proficient, borderline existential study of a man (Aldo Ray) literally being hunted by a pair of killers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) who seem to materialize at will. Ray's character has assumed different identities in multiple cities over the span of a few months and, still, they've caught up to him, wanting their 350 grand. Adding to the stress is an insurance investigator (James Gregory) who's also interested in our protagonist and willing to travel. The cops too would like to speak with Ray in conjunction with the mysterious death of his friend amid the Wyoming snow. Just when Aldo lets his guard down a little while talking to Anne Bancroft at a bar and the dinner that follows, she betrays him. Not only is this noir, land of monochrome angst and men undone by their vices, but it's David Goodis territory.

Goodis' literary vision matched film noir to a tee. His novels, particularly popular in France, inspired Humphrey Bogart to keep his face covered in bandages for most of Dark Passage, gave François Truffaut a follow-up to The 400 Blows with Shoot the Piano Player, served as a basis for Jean-Jacques Beineix's The Moon in the Gutter, and was the starting point for Nightfall. Book and movie are different, as is expected, but Tourneur's film, and the adaptation by Sterling Silliphant, captured something mysterious and poetic. Film noir seems to go in two different though sometimes intersecting directions in terms of its protagonists. There are the whipped chumps who basically have whatever femme fatale has infected their otherwise stagnant lives to blame for getting them into such a predicament and then there are the fate-challenged loners who become mixed up in something much bigger than they initially expected. Both cases require an act of volitional interference in their daily lives, but the latter sort, like Ray here, tend to be more sympathetic.

He may be planning his future life around the bag of stolen cash waiting in the snow but the film deftly positions Ray's predicament as one without many other viable solutions. This holding pattern his character is thrust into dominates his entire life. Yet, we see little of this, as the film is narratively interested in the twin reveals of unveiling Ray's current problem and providing various flashbacks to show how he got there. Devotees of noir shouldn't have a problem with this approach since filling in the psychological blanks can be, if left in capable hands, one of the more rewarding aspects of the style. The somewhat varied reactions to Nightfall that persist even to this very release suggest that the film's spareness is a problem to some. With due respect, those assessments are flat out wrong.

Maybe it takes a second watch or a strong knowledge of film noir, but it seems hard to miss the lyricism that elevates Nightfall beyond any concerns of plot substance. Watch how Tourneur handles the sequence with Ray looking out his apartment window and commenting on his experience with the daily cycle of light. If you're not affected by that then watch more movies and come back later or abandon noir altogether because the essence of it all is right there. Those preferring visual style to thematic relevance are well served by Nightfall, as well. The uniqueness of the snowy exteriors, shared only, to my knowledge, in film noir by On Dangerous Ground, allow director of photography Burnett Guffey to brilliantly marry dark silhouettes against the slushy whiteness for an ideal contrast of mood and brightness. What's peaceful to the eye couldn't be more tense beneath these characters' surfaces.

Watching the exceptional hit man drama Murder by Contract in the previous Columbia Film Noir set was enough to make me curious about its director Irving Lerner. Now being able to see the follow-up City of Fear, also starring Vince Edwards, I'm downright puzzled as to how this guy couldn't have had a longer, more interesting career behind the camera. These are incredibly stylish, sharp little pictures with a clear filmmaking vision. Both were shot by the great Lucien Ballard, who later worked with Sam Peckinpah on his best movies and had previously lensed Berlin Express and The Killing, so maybe the visuals aren't entirely to Lerner's credit. (That point made, noted cameraman Burnett Guffey somehow did, in addition to Nightfall, both Human Desire and The Brothers Rico and the latter looks dull even by television standards while the Lang picture at least has suspenseful framing and noirish lighting and Nightfall is top notch in every conceivable way.) It's not even just the amount of shadows and darkness in the Lerner-directed entries. The angles are frequently interesting and there's a favoring of claustrophobic close-ups that signal foreboding and danger even beyond Edwards' understanding in these movies.

Edwards is such a doltish ape in both pictures but absolutely effective nonetheless. City of Fear has him as an escaped convict prone to violence who thinks he's stolen a canister full of uncut heroin. In reality, the granules inside are Cobalt-60, a radioactive substance that, in the film, threatens to infect the entire population of Los Angeles. So, in the tradition of Panic in the Streets and The Killer That Stalked New York, this becomes a manhunt to prevent Edwards from causing a widespread outbreak. Trouble for law enforcement is that he has no idea of the seriousness of the situation. Trouble for the viewer is that the scenes involving cops and the doctor (played by Steven Ritch who was also a writer on the film) are stiff as a corpse. There are round-ups and investigative tactics involving associates of Edwards, but too often the lecturing comes across as borderline cheesy, like something from a science fiction movie of this era. The film is better when it's about an escaped con evading capture, particularly in the first third. The strong sense of paranoia and fear that the public will panic if told of the potentially dire circumstances both come across well but everything turns dry when the guys in suits start talking.

The Discs

The Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II set comes packaged in a digipak with three trays containing five discs. What bothers me about this and the other film noir set is that the studio insists on using single-layered discs. The better the set-up the worse these flims will probably look on your display. As far as I can tell, that's not just unfortunate but also unnecessary. Sony should give the discs stronger bitrates.

We're left with five progressive transfers all presented around the 1.85:1 aspect ratio (most seem at about 1.81:1 or so), and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The amount of grain is at times surprisingly heavy. Human Desire is hazier than I'd have liked, with swirling grain. Pushover too has an abundance of grain and Nightfall is in roughly the same boat. The Brothers Rico meanwhile is kind of soft. That leaves City of Fear as probably the best-looking of the films. It's also the shortest. The positive is that hardly any damage can be found in these transfers. Contrast is most damaging in a very short instance on The Brothers Rico when the dreaded green hue is present. Otherwise, it's all acceptable but hardly exemplary. Sony's digital elves have mostly done an okay job here but, again, why use such low bitrates? I'm thrilled to have anything at all but with the studio asking $60 for five films (versus $50 for WB's 8) then how about bringing out all the stops and, at the very least, using dual-layer discs.

English mono audio is ordinary and fine. The tracks present no problems and little to excite. They are as functional as expected, with good volume and clarity, and free from any insurmountable mistakes. The Brothers Rico seemed to exhibit the most significant hiss, though it doesn't last from start to finish. Other films have minor hiccups from time to time but nothing of any concern. Optional English subtitles have been included and they are disturbingly ugly. Not only are the subtitles in an unpleasant shade of yellow but Sony has also chosen to put the words inside a dark grey box.

Extra features are slim, no way to sugarcoat that. Sony used a significant part of the front cover for this release to brag about the involvement of Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan but the truth is that neither's contribution sets the world on fire. Scorsese provides a short, effective appreciation (3:31) to The Brothers Rico. Nolan expands (6:22) on his comments from the first collection in a separate piece, included on the City of Fear disc. So who provides the most effusive and infectious praise for an included title? Emily Mortimer, of course, who else. Her comments (9:37) on Human Desire are on point and interesting to hear coming from, one, a female, and, two, a modern-day actor not known for any association to noir. And it sounded like she had some thoughts on Pushover too but those haven't been included. A tip of the hat to Sony for including original theatrical trailers for all five films on their respective discs. It's fun to see the bombast and hyperbole the studio used to try to sell the films. Nightfall's is full frame while the other four are widescreen.

Final Thoughts

Despite some technical question marks, let's just declare this the year's best classic film box set put out by a studio. Something could surpass it of course, and the Warner Bros. film noir collection released right on its heels looks exciting too, but having the punch of Human Desire and Nightfall finally available for easy purchase seems to justify the entire release. Both films are achingly noir, excellent examples of what the term really means instead of the marketing opportunity it's become. A little further down we have another authentic example of the dark stuff in Pushover while City of Fear takes a plot not necessarily brimming with noir purity and inches every little possibility in that direction. The Brothers Rico becomes the odd movie out but it's still a good, compelling picture worthy of viewing and finding a spot on DVD. This collection and the first Columbia Film Noir set from Sony don't really feel comparable since both are solid on their own terms. That said, a few more extras (and an honest advertising of such) would have been appreciated. Translation: bring back Eddie Muller. Here's hoping the powers that be find time for a third set. If anyone's looking for recommendations: The Burglar, Framed, The Reckless Moment, So Dark the Night, My Name Is Julia Ross, Drive a Crooked Road, and Johnny O'Clock all persist as fine, hopefully viable choices.

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