Perversely, to get the maximum possible enjoyment out of Columbia Pictures’ Film Noir Classics: Volume One, you have to first temper your expectations so that you’re not expecting an entire volume of inarguable masterpieces. It’s not a sub-standard selection as such — far from it — just one whose caliber has been shamelessly over-egged by that hyperbolic title. The set brings together the following films from the ’50s: The Big Heat, Murder by Contract, 5 Against the House, The Sniper and The Lineup. They represent a fair cross section of film noir, which was less a genre and more — as many have argued — a stylistic movement, and cover a reasonably diverse selection of criminality; giving us heists, psychos, doomed romance and gangsters as well as lighter and darker shades of noir.
The behemoth-like presence of The Big Heat is, paradoxically, the collection’s greatest weakness as it sets an impossibly high standard, being recognisably and demonstrably a classic. Wonderful as it is to revisit this particular pleasure, the other lesser known, micro-budget or B-films shrink in its colossal shadow. It might have been advisable to remove it entirely thus allowing the more minor movies their day in the sun, so to speak.
Murder by Contract (1958) is an ingenious and unusual picture directed by Irving Lerner with something of a spare, arthouse feel. It follows a fledging contract killer, Claude, as he ‘blossoms’ and takes on a major-league, seemingly impossible, hit which will save the skin of his unseen employer. Vince Edwards as Claude is a little leaden yet light on charisma for the starring role but his limitations as an actor are not entirely at odds with the emotionless role of a hitman. He is also flanked by two light-relief ‘minders’. Claude’s philosophical, almost gnomic manner is in stark contrast to the straight-talking smart-arses who trail him with a view to ensuring that he fulfils this most important of contracts, which has both a comic and, on occasion, disquieting effect. Its trash and art personas don’t always sit well together but it’s a consistently intriguing and visually distinctive work.
The most diluted of the noirs is arguably the weakest film of the set, 5 Against the House (1955). For the most part it is an upbeat, witty precursor of Ocean’s Eleven (1960), however, it culminates in recognisably murky noirish territory when a psychologically traumatised ex-soldier descends into madness after a heist gone wrong. Guy Madison is the bland but attractive leading man, Al Mercer, bizarrely tricked into partaking in the robbery of a casino by his college friends. Kim Novak, as his chanteuse girlfriend Kay, adds some much needed femininity and star quality to a collection which — The Big Heat apart — is disappointingly light on substantial female characters. Brian Keith attacks the role of tormented turncoat Brick with aplomb and there’s some snappy dialogue; however, pivotal moments are undermined by unintentional humour and its central premise is somewhat preposterous.
The Sniper (1952) is the chilling tale of a loner turned serial killer, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), who targets women. Directed by Edward Dmytryk and seen from the perspective of the tortured terroriser, it’s surprisingly polemical in that it urges for recognition, compassion and treatment. Though this is an impressively humane approach, it occasionally jars as the dialogue in parts sounds like it’s straight out of a public information film and the opening message from the studio which provides statistics on “sex criminals” doesn’t help matters. Still, Arthur Franz is adept at visually conveying the internal conflict of a character whose taciturn nature means he betrays little verbally, and in general the film is polished, engrossing and genuinely unsettling. Moreover, its aesthetic influence on subsequent serial killer movies should not be underestimated.
The Lineup (1958) is the big screen version of the television series of the same name. In contrast to the TV show, director Don Siegel draws attention away from the police investigation to explore the criminals’ characters — as is his preference — and thus the picture crackles whenever the villains are onscreen. Eli Wallach and Robert Keith play crooks Dancer and Julian, tasked with retrieving packages of heroin by force from the tourists who have unwittingly acted as mules. Wallach and Keith are excellent, both charming and deeply sinister and, although it takes a while to spring to life, there are some rollicking sequences.
And so to that marvellous muscular monster, The Big Heat (1953) which viewed in or out of this context remains a masterpiece and one of many pictures which are testament to the genius of Fritz Lang. The first five minutes give a flavour of the economy and dynamism with which this brutal and thrilling story will be told. Within the first few moments a dirty cop has taken his own life and we have been introduced to his ruthless wife, the gangster and his heavies who held her husband in thrall, the beautiful and rebellious moll Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame) and the indomitable earnest detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford).
One of the delights of The Big Heat is its foregrounding of female characters, who, to a dame, are thoroughly modern, complex women; be they glamorous, devious or homely. For example, despite the appearance and associations of the classic femme fatale — or spider woman — Debbie’s is a redemptive story and it is her action which ultimately breaks mob boss Lagana’s grip on the town. Disfigured a little over halfway into the tale and wearing bandages across half her face which will be pulled back to reveal the horrific burns, Grahame evolves from facile glamourpuss into a potent filmic force for good. Stripping the beauty of its female star savagely away to unmask her true character is just one of the many subversive delights in this remarkable, transgressive picture.
Disappointingly, not all the films receive the same treatment when it comes to extras. The Lineup and The Sniper are presented with commentaries whereas The Big Heat inexplicably is not, although Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese testify as to its enduring appeal and legacy in short opinion pieces. Scorsese also provides a few minutes of praise on The Sniper and Murder by Contract and Christopher Nolan explains his own love of film noir in the short feature ‘The Influence of Noir’. The presence of such prestigious, eloquent contributors — whose own fine work has been shaped by the influence of noir — is very welcome indeed, however brief these inclusions may be. Yet 5 Against the House conspicuously appears with nowt but a trailer – begging the question: if they couldn’t find any advocates then why include it at all?
The commentaries on The Lineup and The Sniper are provided by Eddie Muller, the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, and on The Lineup he is joined by hard-boiled crime novelist, James Ellroy. Those with even a fleeting experience of Ellroy will hardly be flabbergasted to hear that he makes for an incessantly profane, rambunctious addition; though his personal affiliation with and expertise on the subject matter means he is an entirely appropriate choice. Muller himself is a highly knowledgeable and more professional narrator, an undoubted expert on both movies’ location (San Francisco) and he piles on the anecdotes with admirable enthusiasm and authority.
Fans of noir will not be disappointed by the quality of the films in this set. Though for those expecting the best the film noir movement has to offer, be advised that this collection does not deliver a plethora of perfection just one classic, three minor gems and one entertainingly daft caper movie.