Judge Clark Douglas lost his fedora in a fire. He forgot to put out his cigarette.
"You're the most wanted man I've ever known."
Five '50s noir flicks are gathered together in one collection. Is it worth checking out? Let's dig in…
Facts of the Case
In Pushover, Police Detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray, Double Indemnity) is engaged in an undercover operation attempting to take down a villainous thug. To do this, he tries to get cozy with the thug's young girlfriend Lona (Kim Novak, Vertigo) for a few nights in order to learn more about the whereabouts of her lover. The plan takes a left turn when he finds himself actually falling for Lona. Soon enough, the unlikely pair is scheming to take down the bad guy, steal his money and run off together.
In Human Desire, Glenn Ford (3:10 to Yuma) plays Jeff Warren, a man who's just come back home after spending three years fighting in the Korean War. Jeff returns to his old job working for the railroad company. His supervisor is Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford, All the King's Men), who is married to the beautiful Vicki (Gloria Grahame, Melvin and Howard). After Carl loses his job, he asks Vicki to do whatever she can to convince the company owner to give Carl his job back. Vicki does what she needs to do to accomplish this, which causes Carl to start treating Vicki very badly. Vicki then turns to Jeff, asking him to consider helping her get rid of her monstrous husband.
Nightfall introduces us to James Vanning (Aldo Ray, The Green Berets), a nice guy who happens to come across a valuable piece of information. Vanning knows the location of $350,000 in stolen cash, which plenty of people are eager to get their hands on. Now James is being interrogated by an insurance investigator, threatened by some bad guys and sweet-talked by a girl named Marie (Anne Bancroft, The Graduate). Eventually, fate draws these characters together and sends them spinning on a crash-course towards disaster.
The Brothers Rico tells the story of Eddie Rico (Richard Conte, The Godfather), a man who was once involved with the mob but has now settled down and is married to a nice girl named Alice (Dianne Foster, The Kentuckian). Alas, Eddie's old bosses come calling and want Eddie to do them one last favor. Eddie agrees, which ends up causing problems for Eddie, his brothers (James Darren and Paul Picerni) and his wife. Soon, our protagonist is forced to decide whether to keep letting the mob control his life or fight back.
Finally, in City of Fear we follow Vince Ryker (Vince Edwards, Murder by Contract), an escaped convict with a violent history. Upon his escape, Ryker stole what he thought was a large canister of cocaine from the prison. Alas, the white powder is actually a deadly radioactive substance known as Cobalt-60, which can quietly kill anyone who comes in contact with it. As Ryker starts to spread his new product around, people start dying and the city comes in danger of mass contamination.
The set kicks off with Pushover, a solid installment in the "cop gone bad" genre. Fred MacMurray's turn as the police officer who slowly convinces himself that compromising his principles for the sake of getting the girl isn't such a bad idea is an effective one that nicely spotlights MacMurray's gift for subtlety and understatement. It's certainly reminiscent of the actor's Double Indemnity turn, though in this instance he seems less a clueless sap and more directly responsible for his own (inevitable) demise (this is a '50s noir flick, so there's no way that's a spoiler). Kim Novak could technically be called the film's "femme fatale," but she's a little too innocent to comfortably fit that bill. She genuinely likes MacMurray; it's surprising to find genuine romance at the core of a film like this. The film has its share of bland moments (the stakeout scenes in particular tend to drag a bit), but overall it's got enough strengths and refreshing twists on convention to make it well worth a look.
Shades of Double Indemnity can also be found in Human Desire, which was something of a last-minute addition to this collection. When the box set was announced, the brilliant In a Lonely Place was to be included. Alas, In a Lonely Place disappeared at the last minute and was replaced by Human Desire. While this will undoubtedly disappoint many folks, at least one can take comfort in the fact that Human Desire is a pretty great film in its own right (arguably the best of this collection). Fritz Lang's grimy noir is an examination of human beings at their ugliest, as we see one character after another succumbing to their worst instincts. Everyone has their own particular desire…some are interested in power, others in money, others in sex, others in revenge…but everybody has a weak spot that ultimately proves their doom. Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford are all superb in the three leading roles, particularly Grahame's sultry, seductive, wounded turn as Carl's vindictive wife.
Jacque Tournier's Nightfall certainly pales in contrast to the director's great noir Out of the Past, but then most movies pale in comparison to that film. Nightfall is a tight, short little film that benefits from a surprisingly effective central relationship between Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft, an entertaining collection of twists and turns and Tournier's engagingly jittery direction. Ray heads down the familiar path of inevitable doom, but what separates him from many noir protagonists is his sense of innocence. He's a nice guy who just gets sucked into unfortunate situations; his fate isn't sealed by the usual series of foolish decisions. His scenes with Bancroft feel genuine; the two manage to generate a certain chemistry that fuels the movie nicely. It all leads up to scene of death by snowplow, which seems about right for this slightly off-key flick. If you can swallow the silly plotting, it's decent fun.
Richard Conte's sterling performance is the key reason to check out The Brothers Rico, a somewhat unconvincing and underwhelming thriller that I feel is the weakest installment of the collection. Conte brings a strong presence to the proceedings and seems thoroughly persuasive throughout, but the melodramatic plotting (particularly the third act) seems more like convenient fantasy. It doesn't fit as comfortably within the confines of noir as the other films either, as the brighter palette and sunnier conclusion prevents it from ever really feeling like anything other than a basic B-grade mob-themed thriller. Despite a handful of strong scenes here and there (I particularly loved the early moments between Conte and Dianne Foster), the movie ultimately falls flat.
The set concludes on a strong note with City of Fear, a cool bit of paranoia that packs a strong punch in its quick 75-minute running time. Star Vince Edwards and director Irving Lerner made the film immediately after producing another excellent noir (the overlooked Murder by Contract) and delivered even better results. There's such an effective sense of tension; the direction moves at a brisk, nervous clip and never lets up. Edwards is coldly effective in the lead role, and Lerner does a fine job of depicting the growing sense of despair in the police department as the polished professionals start to lose their cool. Though it also veers out of noir territory from time to time, it's an excellent film and a fine addition to this collection.
All of the films receive reasonably satisfactory transfers, though The Brothers Rico and Human Desire probably look the strongest and Pushover looks the weakest. Still, the level of quality between the best and the worst this collection has to offer isn't that dramatic, and all of the transfers qualify as above-average for films of the era. The mono audio is consistently strong throughout the set, as the moody scores and dialogue come through with considerable clarity.
Supplements on the set are pretty limited, but intriguing nonetheless. Human Desire is accompanied by the featurette "Terror and Desire" (10 minutes), an intelligent appreciation of the film from actress Emily Mortimer. We also get "Martin Scorsese on The Brothers Rico" (3 minutes), in which the famed director discusses what makes the film unique. In "Pulp Paranoia with Christopher Nolan" (6 minutes), the director of The Dark Knight mediates on his fondness of the noir genre and City of Fear in particular. Finally, all five films are accompanied by their original theatrical trailers.
With only one somewhat unsatisfying film in the bunch (and it's the one Scorsese digs, so obviously some will disagree with me), Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II is a set worth checking out. While some more extensive special features would have been nice, I have no complaints with the selections made for this set.
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Scales of Justice, Pushover
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Scales of Justice, The Brothers Rico
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Scales of Justice, City Of Fear
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