City of Fear proves less of a revelation than director Irving Lerner’s earlier Murder By Contract, which featured in Indicator’s previous Columbia Noir set. That film blew me away and I’m sure will be one of my favourites of this year. While City of Fear proves more melodramatic and ‘ordinary’ than the extraordinarily ‘cool’ and hip Murder By Contract, it does benefit from some unfortunate timing- its tale of a city under threat of an unseen, insidious and deadly menace resonates strongly with our contemporary experience of living in the time of a pandemic. Indeed, what we are living through now can only intensify the experience of this film and leaves one with a question- is this film really very good or is it just proving a mirror for our current fears and tensions?
Vince Edwards again proves himself a very good performer, albeit a bad guy more routine than the cold enigmatic assassin he played in the earlier film. He does a lot with very little, frankly, but then again that’s true for most everyone in the film. Shot with a very low budget and over the space of, allegedly seven days, this is b-movie film-making that clearly struggles to even make do, desperately padding the already slim running time of 75 minutes with repeated shots of cars in traffic, city exteriors and characters repeatedly scrutinising charts and maps; the film could easily lose fifteen-twenty minutes and you wouldn’t miss it. This is something of a shame as, on the strength of Murder By Contract alone, the creative talent deserved and would have benefited from more time and money. There are moments when it seems they have gone with the first take and moved on, with little evidence of any rehearsal.
That said, the film does have, of all things considering its meagre budget etc, a score by none other than Jerry Goldsmith (his second film score after working in radio and television during the 1950s, which is evidently how they got him). Its a nice, jazzy score that serves the film well, albeit obviously not even hinting at Goldsmith’s later epic soundtracks.
Like Murder By Contract, City of Fear is clearly a late-period noir on the cusp of the 1960s, and unsurprisingly, perhaps, feels very ‘modern’ and seperate from conventional ‘classic’ noir of the 1940s and early-1950s. It also has a curious television feel, in how its shot, how it ‘looks’- to me its more serviceable, obviously constrained by budget and schedule in just the same way as television shows were, lacking the time for the visual sophistication typical of superior noir with its visual styling. Maybe this actually works to the films benefit, with a distinctly hand-held, gritty, you-are-there feel to its location shooting. This latter element is possibly what I found most engaging- its like a glimpse of a lost world, the film almost an historical document with its late-1950s Californian streets, traffic and décor, images from a 1950s-set Philip K Dick novel like Voices From the Street or In Milton Lumky Territory.