Appellate Judge James A. Stewart always has room for more noir.
"I'm stupid because I want some answers about a murder. Is that it?"—Glenn Ford, in The Big Heat
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 Big Heat
5 Against the House
Murder By Contract
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.
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.
Not guilty. These really are killer Bs.
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Scales of Justice, The Sniper
Perp Profile, The Sniper
Distinguishing Marks, The Sniper
Scales of Justice, The Big Heat
Perp Profile, The Big Heat
Distinguishing Marks, The Big Heat
Scales of Justice, 5 Against The House
Perp Profile, 5 Against The House
Distinguishing Marks, 5 Against The House
Scales of Justice, The Lineup
Perp Profile, The Lineup
Distinguishing Marks, The Lineup
Scales of Justice, Murder By Contract
Perp Profile, Murder By Contract
Distinguishing Marks, Murder By Contract
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.