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Case Number 17631

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Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I

The Sniper
1952 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
The Big Heat
1953 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
5 Against The House
1955 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
The Lineup
1958 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Murder By Contract
1958 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Sony
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // November 4th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart always has room for more noir.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The Big Heat (published January 16th, 2002) and The Big Heat (Blu-ray) (published May 30th, 2012) are also available.

The Charge

"I'm stupid because I want some answers about a murder. Is that it?"—Glenn Ford, in The Big Heat

Opening Statement

My interest as a DVD reviewer is always piqued by what I call "big boxes of noir." Hundreds of tightly made little crime films were churned out by studios through the '40s and '50s. While a few, like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, have grown into legendary status, most have vanished into obscurity. The latest "big box of noir" to turn up in my mailbox is Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, a set of five black-and-white crime movies from the studio's catalogue. While the movies don't sound as familiar as The Maltese Falcon, this set boasts stars like Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, and Kim Novak. It also includes introductions by Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, and Christopher Nolan on four of the selections.

Facts of the Case

Each of the five movies is on its own disc:

The Sniper
"Most killers are caught because of motive. There's no motive here."
Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz, That Championship Season), a veteran with a criminal record, delivers dry cleaning, including that of nightclub pianist Jean Darr (Marie Windsor, The Narrow Margin). She offers Eddie a beer, but hustles him out the back way when her boyfriend turns up. Soon, Eddie's waiting outside her club with a rifle, starting a shooting spree that will terrorize San Francisco.

The Big Heat
"No man's an island, Dave. You can't set yourself against the world and get away with it."
Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford, Plunder of the Sun) is going to try, though. He's trying to figure out the link between a cop's suicide and the death of a nightclub B-girl. After his wife is killed by a car bomb meant for him, he's out for revenge. Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) plays one of the baddies in the story based on William P. McGivern's serial in The Saturday Evening Post. Fritz Lang directs.

5 Against the House
"It'd be easier to knock off Fort Knox."
That isn't going to stop Ronnie (Kerwin Matthews, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver) from coming up with the perfect plan for robbing a Reno casino. His college buddies think it's a prank that could be the perfect cure for the midterm blues—all except Al (Guy Madison, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok), that is. Al's planning on marrying a nightclub singer (Kim Novak, Vertigo), and the heist could make for a rough honeymoon. Based on a Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) story in Good Housekeeping, it features Brian Keith (Family Affair) and William Conrad (Cannon).

The Lineup
"It makes no sense. No sense at all."
Police are baffled by a strange incident at the pier in San Francisco: after a porter tossed a traveler's bag into a cab, the cab took off, running down a cop before crashing. Heroin is found in a statue in the bag, leading police to a ring that uses unwitting tourists for smuggling.

Murder By Contract
"I don't do rush contracts. I may be on this an hour, a day, or a week."
Claude (Vince Edwards), a "contractor" from out East, comes to L.A. to rub out a witness. His leisurely attitude about the job drives two mob messenger boys crazy, but there's a method to his madness. Even so, a couple of mistakes could lead to a dead end in Claude's promising career.

The Evidence

While not specific, The Sniper attempts to get in the mind of its killer, hinting that rejection and a mother's abuse might be motives through Eddie's reactions. The character might be a psychological profile instead of a full-fledged human, but Franz as Eddie makes the sniper believable, with chilling results. His eyes and expressions, not to mention his shifts between soft-spoken meekness and rage, convey Eddie's thoughts, even when the script doesn't fully form them. I'll second Martin Scorcese's opinion in the introduction that location filming in San Francisco adds to the "disturbing" nature of The Sniper. Its hills and peninsula location create a landscape made for cinematic noir, and The Sniper uses them to create a claustrophobic tension. The worst part of the movie is the obvious clue that Eddie leaves at a murder scene, leading to a dramatic standoff finale, but a trailer calling it "SUSPENSE entertainment" and sensationalizing it could come close.

Introducing The Big Heat, Michael Mann points out how original it was at the time of release, although its tale of a cop without a badge seeking revenge is the stuff of cliché by now. Even so, the performances make it a strong one. Glenn Ford balances the vengeance with humanity through fistfights and silent mourning. Gloria Grahame gives the strongest supporting performance as a gangster's moll who hilariously mocks her boyfriend and his boss, and then turns serious when things get dangerous. Fritz Lang creates set pieces—most notably the scene in which Ford's Bannion hears his wife's car explode as he's telling his daughter a bedtime story—that pack the maximum dramatic effect. Surprise twists at the end are satisfying, and, for once, the trailer helps keep them surprises.

The trailer for 5 Against the House calls it "the year's most unusual picture." Although I can't recall every picture released in 1955, I don't think this was just studio hyperbole. The offbeat plot hook—a college student planning the perfect heist as a prank—sounds like a big joke at first, but the story takes a dramatic turn, thanks to the performance of Brian Keith as a shellshocked Korean War vet. A fight early in the story shows Keith's volatile character, and how hard he's working to keep in control. The movie mostly revolves around Keith and Guy Madison as the straightlaced war buddy who's watching out for him, although there are good moments with Kim Novak as the romantic interest and William Conrad as a frightened casino worker who throws a monkey wrench into their perfect scheme. It starts out slowly, but if you stick with it, there's a payoff.

The trailer for The Lineup suggests that it's a souped-up version of a then-popular TV show. That would explain the title, because the lineup sequence in the movie doesn't yield any leads. It's a police procedural in Jack Webb's Dragnet style, with a car chase full of obvious process shots at the end. Robert Keith's turn as a cold villain and the San Francisco scenery are the best elements in an otherwise routine movie. It's not bad, although it feels weak next to the other movies in the set. Christopher Nolan's comments are more generally about the genre than about the movie itself.

I don't think Martin Scorcese used the word "stylish" in his introduction to Murder By Contract, and I'm not sure how he avoided it (He does use the word "unique," though). Vince Edwards in his shades plots his murders with a laidback attitude, and there's a jazzy electric guitar score that you won't forget. The murders and attempts aren't graphic, but have an offbeat quality to them; when Claude shows up at a barbershop, you just know the guy's gonna get it with a razor blade, even if you don't see the actual crime. Director Irving Lerner isn't playing things for laughs, but he's obviously having fun with the story. Since it's one of Scorcese's influences, it spawns a talk about some of the director's other influences.

I didn't see any noticeable visual flaws; it looks like Columbia was serious when they said they took the time to clean the movies up as much as possible.

In addition to original movie trailers, most of which tell you too much about the movies, two of the films have commentary tracks. Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, goes solo on The Sniper. It's got locations shot in his native San Francisco, and he provides lots of insights into the movie and the city. For The Lineup, he teams with author James Ellroy. This commentary didn't work very well. I didn't care for Ellroy's crude, profane tough guy persona; somehow F-bombs didn't fit with a '50s B-movie.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

With movies like The Sniper, The Big Heat, and Murder by Contract, you could get that odd déjà vu feeling you get when you watch an original movie that has influenced a lot of directors over the years.

Closing Statement

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I is one of the best box sets I've seen in a while. The movies all fit the theme nicely, four out of five are not only excellent but memorable examples of the genre, and there's enough material to put the movies in context, even though James Ellroy's commentary didn't work. Each of the movies could have been the main picture in a set and made for a worthwhile purchase for noir fans.

The Verdict

Not guilty. These really are killer Bs.

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Genres

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Scales of Justice, The Sniper

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 88
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, The Sniper

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Sniper

• Introduction
• Commentary
• Trailer

Scales of Justice, The Big Heat

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 88
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile, The Big Heat

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Big Heat

• Introductions
• Trailer

Scales of Justice, 5 Against The House

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 75
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 92

Perp Profile, 5 Against The House

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, 5 Against The House

• Trailer

Scales of Justice, The Lineup

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 65
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 78

Perp Profile, The Lineup

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Lineup

• Introduction
• Commentary
• Trailer

Scales of Justice, Murder By Contract

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 85
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 86

Perp Profile, Murder By Contract

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Murder By Contract

• Introduction
• Trailer








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