Crime dramas may come and go, but film noir is forever. At least, that’s what I say. Perhaps you will, too, after you’ve taken a look at Sony’s spectacular COLUMBIA PICTURES FILM NOIR CLASSICS, VOL. 1, a five-disc set that wraps up five flawless examples of 1950s noir cinema, many of which have remained elusive to the home video and late-night television market for decades. Included in this set is Edward Dmytryk’s THE SNIPER, Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT, Phil Karlson’s 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, Don Siegel’s THE LINEUP, and Irving Lerner’s MURDER BY CONTRACT.
Many latter-day dramas prefer to dive deep into the psychological nature of serial killers and murderers, showing us (via flashbacks) how they came to develop the “symptoms” that later set their deadly skills into motion. Sure, a little back-story is usually nice from time to time, but in the case of serial killers and murderers, it really only paints said horrors as heroes. Edward Dmytryk’s THE SNIPER (1952) on the other hand, shows our protagonist as he really is: a tortured, pitiful being whose only release is the act of assassination.
Ex-con Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) does not come with an unnecessary back-story or woeful tale to tell. We simply know that Eddie is a man ruled by pain -- a pain extending from his outright hatred against women. Unable to get hold of his old prison shrink, Eddie discovers a way to relieve his suffering with a stolen military-issued sniper rifle. As the bodies begin to pile up down at the morgue, the police (Adolphe Menjou and Gerald Mohr) start to put the pieces together -- but will they figure out who’s terrorizing the city of San Francisco before THE SNIPER claims another victim? Marie Windsor plays one of Eddie’s doomed ladies, and both Charles Lane and Byron Foulger have bit parts in this superb drama that comes as required viewing.
THE BIG HEAT (1953) is the only film in this set that has actually been released on DVD before, and it still remains a highly iconic and influential masterpiece to this day. Directed by the one and only Fritz Lang (M), THE BIG HEAT stars nice guy Glenn Ford as Sgt. Bannion. Following the suicide of a fellow police officer, loving family man Bannion is assigned the seemingly simplistic task of putting the deceased officer’s affairs in order.
From the get-go, Bannion senses that something isn’t quite right about the suicide and feels that the city’s “retired” gangster, Mike Lagana, (Alexander Scourby) is behind it all. A “reformed” mobster, Lagana has been living it up in his palatial mansion while secretly ruling the local government. As Bannion begins to stick his nose in where it doesn’t belong, he is delivered an irrecoverable blow by Lagana’s thugs -- which sends him on a personal mission of vengeance against the mobster. Lee Marvin turns in a chilling performance as Lagana’s sadistic henchman and Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s big sister) and Gloria Grahame co-star as two of the film’s very independent female characters. Carolyn Jones also has a small part.
Several years before Frank Sinatra pulled off OCEAN’S ELEVEN, Sinbad and Wild Bill were doing it in 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955). Kerwin Mathews (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) and Guy Madison (TV’s “Wild Bill Hickok”) were both up-and-comers at the time this one was made, as were co-stars Alvy Moore, Brian Keith and second-billed Kim Novak. Based on a story by Jack Finney (“The Body Snatchers”), the film opens with four Midwestern University law students (Madison, Moore, Keith, and Mathews) stopping to gamble for an hour at Harold’s Club Casino in Reno, NV. A would-be hold-up man (played by Frank Gerstile of THE ATOMIC BRAIN fame) is promptly arrested by the police, one of whom states that it’s impossible to rob the casino.
The remark leaves an impression on the students, particularly whiz kid Ronnie (Mathews) who slowly begins to devise a scheme that would successfully swindle the casino out of their money. Of course, Ronnie isn’t a malicious or greedy kind of fellow: he only plans to pull the heist in order to show that it can be done -- and has no plans to keep the money whatsoever. The larger (read: dumber) member of the group, Korean vet Brick (Keith), sees the plan as his one and only chance to finally be somebody -- and has no intention of returning anything to anyone. It’s up to Brick’s ol’ Army buddy Al (Williams) to pound some sense into his aptly-named colleague before somebody gets hurt…but can he afford to tear himself away from his gorgeous nightclub singer girlfriend (Novak) before it’s too late? The great William Conrad co-stars as the poor Harold’s Club cash cart man in this caper which offers an historic peek into how truly different casinos used to be (I particularly love the retro car parking system in this film -- wow!).
Spawned from the TV series of the same name, THE LINEUP (1958) is an early piece from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS director Don Siegel (who also worked as a director on THE LINEUP TV series). Eli Wallach is at his absolute non-Spaghetti Western best as Dancer, the psychopath sent to San Francisco to retrieve a few “packages” for “The Man.” “The Man’s” MO is to sell vacationing Americans exotic souvenirs full of drugs while they’re abroad. Upon returning to SFO, Dancer and his well-read collaborator Julian (Robert Keith) stake out their “mules,” and reclaim the goods. Often, the pick-ups leave a dead body in Dancer’s wake, to which he reports the dying person’s last words to Julian -- who promptly writes them down in his little black book!
Far too “adult” for your average television audiences, THE LINEUP is a thrilling and well-made crime flick with two positively spine-chilling performances by Wallach and Keith. Richard Jaeckel plays the killers’ alcoholic driver, and an all-but-silent Vaughn Taylor appears in the finale as “The Man.” Appearing from the TV series are Marshall Reed and Warner Anderson as Inspectors Asher and Guthrie (respectively), with Emile Meyer filling in for the absent Tom Tully. 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE screenwriter Stirling Silliphant also wrote the script for this one.
Lastly in the set is a stalwart entry directed by the late Irving Lerner. While it is most definitely a B-Picture, MURDER BY CONTRACT (1958) is a stunning example of how the entire crime film genre took a turn, introducing a new type of lead character in the process: the antagonist. Vince Edwards (TV’s “Ben Casey”) is superb as Claude -- a cunning and emotionless youth, who “applies” for a job as a contract killer on the East Coast and is soon sent out to sunny Los Angeles for the “big hit.” Upon arriving on the West Coast, Claude refuses to learn anything about his target, preferring to take in the sights and sun instead. Meanwhile, Claude’s jittery L.A. cohorts (TV character actors Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi), slowly start to see things from different perspectives: Marc (Pine) is convinced the hitman has lost his marbles, while George (Bernardi, who voiced both Charley the Tuna and The Jolly Green Giant in TV commercials) sees Claude as an ingenious and collected fellow. Kathie Brown has a small role as a call girl in this captivating and almost womanless gem.
In addition to being an early look at anti-heroism in film, MURDER BY CONTRACT earns itself a great many more points for its look and feel alone. Shot in only seven days, the film boasts a beautifully “New Wave Noir” look to it -- from the title credits to the editing -- and is very much akin to the dozens upon dozens of Indie 1960s NYC-made bohemian flicks that followed (natural lighting, unconventional camera angles, etc.). Lerner’s minimalistic soundtrack consists of little more than guitar music, plunging the viewer that much further into the seedy onscreen world. Definitely worth seeing.
Having never seen Columbia’s previous issue of THE BIG HEAT, I cannot make any comparisons here. However, I am proud to announce that every single film included in the COLUMBIA PICTURES FILM NOIR CLASSICS, VOL. 1 has been remastered and looks incredible. Both THE SNIPER and THE BIG HEAT are preserved in their original Academy Standard ratios, while the latter three entries are shown in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. The original English mono soundtracks accompany each film, which come through adequately. Nice big yellow optional English subtitles are available on all five films.
The COLUMBIA PICTURES FILM NOIR CLASSICS, VOL. 1 set carries an array of special features that include two audio commentaries, several featurettes, and the original theatrical trailers of each title. Author Eddie Muller is on-hand for a feature-length audio commentary for THE SNIPER, and returns to comment on THE LINEUP along with fellow writer James Ellroy. Featurette-wise, modern crime drama filmmakers such as Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese appear to praise some of the individual films, and explain how many of these masterpieces inspired them (especially Scorsese).
You need only put one disc in from this set to become addicted. My ten-year-old son grinned all the way through THE BIG HEAT with me, and promptly strutted around the house with my fedora on (who knows…maybe there’s hope for our future filmgoers yet). Hopefully, Sony won’t drop the ball on this one, and I sincerely hope that VOL. 2 is just around the corner. Highly recommended. (Adam Becvar aka Luigi Bastardo - firstname.lastname@example.org)
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