Columbia Noir: City of Fear (1959)

cn3cCity 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.

Columbia Noir: The Sniper (1952)

cn3dI was surprised to discover just how much of a precursor Edward Dmytryk’s serial-killer-with-a-rifle flick is to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, the latter film’s Scorpio killer even terrorising the same city (poor San Francisco) with both films featuring sequences of the rooftops as a place of danger and ‘death from above’. Most surprising of all, in some ways, is how The Sniper is intellectually perhaps more sophisticated than the 1971 film- the villain of the 1952 noir is handsome, all-American guy Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) who knows he’s mentally disturbed and keeps trying to stop what he’s doing, actually trying get caught and returned to hospital. Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio killer looks shady, acts crazy and is just plain evil, enjoying what he’s doing- a frankly one-dimensional villain, fitting the Siegel film’s simplistic black and white narrative. Film noir of course, for all it being actually filmed in black and white, is thankfully often more nuanced than might be expected, and The Sniper is indeed more complex than the later exploitation flick. 

Its impossible to over-estimate the impact this film likely had back in 1952, considering its subject matter and quite graphic murders. Its rather progressive social commentary, calling for better mental health services and understanding of those who are a possible danger to society, curiously echoes sentiments delivered in The Dark Past, another film in this Indicator set. What likely made The Sniper so radical at the time is how it gets us ‘into’ the mind of the conflicted Eddie, marking him a victim himself – not excusing his actions but possibly explaining them. The way the film portrays him repeatedly as an ‘outsider’, as someone who doesn’t fit in or really understands how to be accepted in society, also reminded me greatly of Taxi Driver. No-one has any compassion for Eddie, not even children in the street who turn upon him when he attempts to join in their ball game, and even a customer who is friendly towards him casts him away as soon as her boyfriend turns up (this rejection actually triggering him to enact his first murder).

The one thing in this film that didn’t ring true -and actually annoyed the hell out of me- was Gerald Mohr as detective Joe Ferri, younger sidekick of elder-statesman/case leader Lt. Frank Kraft (Adolphe Menjou). Mohr seems to think he’s in some boys-own adventure film or that he’s somehow the actual lead hero- he grins like an idiot throughout and poses all the time (he holds his gun like its a toy). I suppose he reckoned he was a matinee heartthrob, and can imagine him asking his agent “do I look good?” in every scene and its a horrible performance that grates throughout, he’s just terrible and watching him run, gun in hand, towards Eddie’s building near the films climax was cringe-inducing (“hey, look ma, its me!” kind of thing). One of those cases where an acting performance is clearly NOT trying to serve the movie, I’ve discovered that Mohr features in the noir classic Gilda that I bought on disc a few weeks back that I shall be watching for the first time soon. A cautionary discovery!

Arthur Franz is thankfully very good as the conflicted Eddie. He’s quite sympathetic in a role that could usually be a one-note crazy bastard (again, see Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio killer) and he succeeds in earning our empathy even after killing women in cold blood. I thought it was clever, possibly even daring, casting a handsome actor who looks like your typical Hollywood ‘wholesome good-guy’ as such a dangerous unhinged individual. It certainly gets our attention and curiosity regards what makes him tick and the source of his mad rages- not the usual consideration when watching a Hollywood villain.

Columbia Noir: Johnny O’Clock (1947)

cn3aOne of the pleasures of this series of Columbia film noir being released in these Indicator boxsets is the recurring talent in front and behind the screen, thanks to the studio system prevalent at the time (the talent tied to studio contracts). Hence here again we get Nina Foch of Escape in the Fog and The Undercover Man, and Lee J.Cobb of The Garment Jungle, both of whom will also appear in the next film in this third Columbia Noir set, The Dark Past. And we get another George Dunning score (5 Against The House, Tight Spot, The Mob, The Undercover Man etc) too. There’s all these connections between the films.

Anyway, Johnny O’Clock was great, a really good noir. I think it was the cast that made it so special; this film is another example of just good Lee J Cobb was; a fantastic character actor, he’s great here as Detective Inspector Koch, who floats around Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell) convinced Johnny is the likeliest culprit for a murder that just seems to get murkier. In the event, Johnny is quite innocent, but suffers from association: his business partner is a crook under pressure from a bent cop who wants a part of the business. Meanwhile Johnny finds himself ‘suffering’ the attentions of three beautiful women which, as this is a noir, can only mean trouble. While some of us men can only dream of that kind of ‘trouble’ it does prove to be Johnny’s undoing.

Nina Foch actually has only a minor role in the film, as Harriet Hobson, although its her death that sets the domino’s falling in on Johnny. Eveleyn Keyes, as Nina’s sister Nancy, set’s Johnny’s pulse racing as she arrives in town questioning what happened to her sister. Keyes is pretty fine indeed, but the femme fatale of the piece is actually Johnny’s ex, Nelle (Ellen Drew) who still holds a torch for Johnny while now being married to Johnny’s business partner/mobster Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez). Its quite a tangled web, especially when the crooked cop trying to muscle Johnny out of Marchettis’ casino business is found dead too.

Ellen Drew stole the show for me as temptress Nelle, usually drunk but draping herself sensuously around lounge furniture and men, teasing and laughing. I’m not certain why exactly, but there was just something irresistible about Drew; she quite fascinated me, and absolutely convinced as a beauty that consumes Marchittis with jealous rage and insecurity, while her drunken state is perhaps triggered by feelings that her move upwards from Johnny to Guido was a mistake. Is it just me, or is part of the appeal of these movies of this period that women look like women, are dressed and wearing make-up that heightens their sexuality in what I dare say could be described as traditional/old-fashioned (or possibly sexist)? I continue to be horrified, mind, by just how frequently the women persist in lighting-up and smoking: another indication of the times and social practices of the day of course.

Its quite possible that the least interesting character in the film is Johnny O’Clock; Dick Powell is fine but he isn’t helped by a character that, by his nature, has to remain aloof and confident, its unfortunate that it leaves him a less emphatic ‘doomed’ character than some noir protagonists. Likewise he suffers by comparison to Cobb, who quietly steals every scene he is in, in just that way Cobb did in his every role. His performance is a masterclass in using props and the set around him, he was really such a gifted actor, so charismatic: one of the greats. 

There is a subtle charge/suggestion of homosexuality between Johnny and his personal assistant/man-friend Charlie (John Kellogg): its naturally unspoken as you’d expect in a film of the time but Charlie spends an awful long time in Johnny’s apartment, waking Johnny in his bedroom and preparing his breakfast, and I wondered if the reason why he suddenly turns on Johnny is because he doesn’t approve of Johnny’s interest in Nancy. I’m actually surprised by how much homoerotic subtext filters in so many of these noir, but its an element, deliberate or not, that proves a further example of just how subversive and complex this genre can be. 

Recent Additions

P1100368 (2)While the crazy disc-buying days of old are over, I’m still prone to buying discs (I just try to be a bit more selective). Here’s my most recent additions to the shelf. Some still in the shrink-wrap, but others actually watched already (!).

Planetes is a brilliant Japanese anime which seems increasingly prescient over the years, concerning a team of astronauts tasked with cleaning up all the debris cluttering Earth-orbit before it causes a calamity (Gravity owes a lot to it). I used to have it on DVD back from the days when we used to have to buy anime shows over time in multi-volume releases (five or six discs released over several months, as I recall) which puts into comparison even the premium costs of these boxsets from All The Anime. Fortunately for my wallet I was able to pre-order this set in an early deal; its a lovely set with a 80+ page book of artwork accompanying the digipack in a sturdy hard slip-box, and on the Blu-ray the show really shines; it looks gorgeous. I only watched the first episode, as I’m biding my time to watch the series throughout properly, but this will be a definite pleasure.

Of course every boxset that Indicator release truly delivers- and Columbia Noir #3 is as beautiful a package as the first two sets. A series of posts reviewing this set’s six noir films will follow over the next few weeks, and hopefully the films, none of which I have seen before, will be equal to the films that preceded in the first two volumes. These are possibly my favourite sets from the last few years. I used to complain about there being so few film noir releases over here in the UK and then we hit the motherload with these. I hope there is another two or three volumes of Columbia Noir to come (no-one seems to be sure how many we’re getting).

I bought Irreversible with Columbia Noir #3 and Someone To Watch Over Me direct from Indicator, justifying it by saving on postage and getting my credit points high enough to get a discount on my next order. Its a notorious film; I have it (somewhere) on DVD and only managed to stomach it for one viewing (probably why the DVD is long-since AWOL) so its hard to fathom exactly why I bought this Blu-ray. The package is enticing, with fine artwork, definitive-looking extras and an 80-page book… its almost as if I bought this intending to learn more ABOUT the film rather than actually get around to watch it. We’ll see. 

Someone To Watch Over Me and Extrablatt (The Front Page) I’ve already mentioned, having watched them together on Saturday

Two Criterions follow, thanks to an offer on Amazon (my previous Criterions were bought last summer in the previous Criterion sale). The Ascent is the most recent release, as it came out on my birthday earlier this year, funnily enough, which felt something of an omen since the film seems to have been given universally positive reviews: a ‘masterpiece’ of Russian cinema released on my birthday? Well, patience has saved me some dosh. Gilda is the Criterion that slipped through the net last year, as I couldn’t pick a film to accompany it, which has been doubly annoying as I kept on seeing/hearing references to it on the Columbia Noir sets from Indicator. I’m really curious about it, as I’ve never seen it, and it will certainly fill a gap in my noir collection.

Lastly, this week has seen the 4K UHD release of The Sting. Here again I have to confess that, despite my affection for 1970s American Cinema, and plenty of opportunities over the years with television screenings, particularly over Christmas’ past, I have somehow never seen this film. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw? I’m reminded how odd it can be, the films we don’t see, over the years. I think it proves something of a lesson, particularly for a film lover like me who’s seen so many films- so whenever I read a blog and someone hasn’t seen Citizen Kane or some other ‘classic’ I have to cool down my dismay and appreciate I’m guilty of some bad misses too. Its all relative, after all- I mean, I’ve seen less Russian films than I can count with the fingers of my two hands and my experience of European Cinema is pretty slight, so we can all be guilty of being a little myopic in our choice of films. 

 

Secret Behind the Door (1947)

secretdoorAfter what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points. 

Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.

Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest. 

Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend,  Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.

Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?

Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.

 

 

Columbia Noir: Murder by Contract (1958)

murder1Wow. We conclude Indicator’s Columbia Noir #2 boxset with certainly the most surprising, and possibly best, entry in the set. Irving Lerner’s lean, mean and endlessly inventive crime thriller Murder by Contract is astonishingly good. I have to wonder if I’ll see anything quite so enjoyable, exciting and surprising as this film all year.

Vince Edwards stars as hit man Claude, a young, handsome, charming psychopath (well, it IS a noir…) who is as cool as ice in his new ‘job’ of contract killer for some faceless mobster. After a strangely arresting main title sequence in which he dresses for his job interview to become a contract killer, he calmly passes the interview and takes out his first few contracts with supreme ease: this is a young man born for this particularly harrowing career. His success with his early jobs (eventually including his own boss who hired him) gets him awarded a tough witness-removal job over on the West Coast. He is met by two hoods who serve as assistants/watchdogs: the nervous Marc (Phillip Pine) and the laid-back George (Herschel Bernard) who are quite bemused by Claude’s unnaturally calm behaviour, who insists that he is able to spend the first few days swimming in the ocean, fishing and playing golf, as if he’s on holiday. Claude’s calm can’t last however- and he strangely starts to lose his cool when he discovers his target is a woman…

I can’t praise this film enough. I really do enjoy the studio-controlled noir films that dominate these sets but this one is such a breath of fresh air -allegedly shot in just seven days, its extremely low-budget seems to have freed up all sorts of possibilities for director Lerner to get this film made under the radar. In some ways its like Edgar G.Ulmer’s Detour, another rather radical noir entry, or perhaps Kiss Me Deadly, but this one is superior to both- in a league of its own, its a 1958 b-movie noir that seems to prefigure European arthouse cinema films of the 1960s, or even (and more tellingly) Tarantino’s pulp crime thrillers- it feels so cool, so fresh, so modern. The music score -a guitar-based score by Perry Botkin- is hypnotic; variations of one theme that mirrors the zen-like calm of Claude that becomes somewhat dissonant as Claude’s failures to assassinate his last target breaks down his cool. Its absolutely nothing like any noir soundtrack that I have ever heard but fits it perfectly: but then again, in many ways this film is so unlike any other noir I have yet seen and yet it is, unmistakably, utterly noir. The finale is quite sublime.

As soon as the film finished (it runs a paltry 82 minutes) I had to fight the urge to play it again immediately, it was THAT good. I suspect this is one of those films that you can just wallow in, soak in and experience time and again with the same pleasure of watching a damn fine movie. It really is quite marvellous and has leaped into my list of favourite films, its THAT good. 

Columbia Noir: Tight Spot (1955)

tight1This was such a strange film, carrying an unlikely tension throughout, between comedy and noir- and I have the suspicion that it was possibly even unintentional, that the film was somehow out of control. But then again, if it was intended to be a gritty, tense noir about the long reach of the mob to intimidate and silence witnesses via corrupt administration and police, then how come director Phil Karlson didn’t pull up star Ginger Rogers on the first day of shooting and inquire “Ginger honey, what the hell are you doing?”

Because to be clear, Ginger Rogers, playing prison inmate Sherry Conley and last-hope witness for a desperate  prosecution of a mobster who has hitherto escaped the law, is all wrong for this picture. I suspect the role was just too much of a stretch for her, resulting in her streetwise, bad-luck criminal being too loud, too over the top, bordering on farce and almost breaking the fourth wall as she delivers sharp one-liners directly at the audience. Its specially jarring as the rest of the cast are so restrained and subtle – the great Edward G Robinson is marvellous as the tough, dedicated prosecuting attorney Lloyd Hallett and Brian Keith surprisingly endearing as police detective/minder Vince Stalker. Indeed, the film is almost stolen from all of them by Katherine Anderson’s Mrs Willoughby, a prison warden who is Conley’s escort when she is removed from prison, who steals scenes with her calmness. I’m really not at all familiar with Ginger Rogers but it seems patently clear that in a drama such as this she was out of her comfort zone  and perhaps as a result, she over-acts as if in a panic and attempts to steal every scene she’s in by just drawing attention to herself, practically crying out to the audience “look at me! Look at me!”

I cannot understand why she wasn’t asked to dial it down somewhat. Maybe you didn’t do that with stars of her calibre back then: at this point in his career Robinson was out of favour, almost backlisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and relegated to b-movies rather beneath him, and Brian Keith was on his way up after a career in television and hardly one to rock the boat. I can imagine Robinson walking of set shaking his head with a wry grimace that such was his lot and Keith wary of speaking out. The alternative of course is that it was all intentional, and Rogers’ broad strokes welcomed, and yet it doesn’t work-  I can only imagine jittery producers watching the Dailies with a rising panic.

Tight Spot is not a bad movie: based on a stage play and basically a one-set movie (mostly taking in place in a hotel room in which Hallett endeavours to convince Conley to testify against mobster Costain (Lorne Green)) the original source was obviously a character study and so ideal subject matter for a tense dramatic film (like 12 Angry Men maybe) but it keeps on swerving into romantic comedy. Rogers chews up scenery and rattles off witty one-liners like bullets from a machine gun, and scenes are occasionally broken up rather jarringly by sequences from a television broadcast of a charity marathon with a singing cowboy that is given surprising screen time. Its quite a bizarre experience that’s difficult to really explain. The film is partly saved by a surprise twist that I won’t share here (even if the film is over sixty years old) and I feel the need to point out that Lorne Green makes a memorable bad guy even if he has little more than two scenes.  Indeed its the performances from the rest of the cast that saves the picture almost in spite of Rogers; I much preferred Brian Keith here over his role in 5 Against the House and the film proved a very welcome reminder of just how good Edward G Robinson was. It has some tense moments (mostly a gritty beginning and finale, leaving the film feeling like a madcap comedy bookended by noir) and really is very enjoyable once one can dial-out or ignore Rogers’ ill-judged performance. Or maybe I’m missing something unique to 1955.

Columbia Noir: Affair in Trinidad (1952)

affairSo after a bit of an hiatus we return to Indicator’s excellent Columbia Noir #2 boxset with a rather curious entry. Affair in Trinidad is clearly a bit of a mess: its a noir severely hampered by it being primarily a somewhat cynical vehicle for its star, Rita Hayworth, who had returned to Hollywood following a failing marriage. Hayworth at this point was a genuine superstar (tagged ‘the Love Goddess’ in the 1940s) having worked with the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Orson Welles and had a hit with Trinidad co-star Glenn Ford with noir classic Gilda in 1946- I mention the latter because Trinidad was practically a remake of that film, apparently.  And here I’m at a disadvantage, mainly because I don’t believe I have seen any of Hayworth’s films (other than The Lady From Shanghai, which I really must watch again) so I am neither familiar with Hayworth’s charms nor her reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest and most popular actresses of her era. Likewise, references in Affair in Trinidad to Gilda are wholly lost on me as I’ve not seen it, although it seems clear two song/dance-numbers that awkwardly bookend the film are a large part of that. 

Glenn Ford, who has impressed so much in earlier noir featured in these box sets, is sadly relegated to supporting actor with an underwritten part that gives him sorely little to work with other than immediately fall in love with Hayworth’s widow and rage with jealousy when he thinks she is charming a rival. There is a curious meta-story wherein the two actors had a real-life on/off affair that lasted decades- indeed, the real-life story of a superstar retuning to Hollywood and her on/off relationship with her leading man (and trying to recapture the success of a classic film of just a few years prior) all seems juicy enough to be the subject of a noir of its own, or indeed a film in the vein of Sunset Boulevard.  However Affair in Trinidad is itself largely a misfire: it lacks any real tension, and the sparks between Hayworth and Ford feel sudden and forced (Hayworth’s character is married to Ford’s brother, but when Ford arrives to discover his brother died just a few days prior to his arrival, he grieves for five minutes then falls madly in love with Hayworth- wholly formulaic and unconvincing, ironic considering their purported real-life chemistry). 

Indeed, it struck me that perhaps the most noir thing in the whole film is how, by the films end, that Hayworth’s husband/Ford’s brother has been utterly forgotten and doesn’t even get any mention when the bad guys who apparently killed him are brought to justice. Watching the finale, my wife commented “but what about her husband, why did they kill him?” asking a question the film totally forgets to answer. It suggests the laziness with which the film was made, its plot hastily drawn together from pieces of perhaps Gilda and other dramas of the period.

Its not that I didn’t enjoy the film- it has good, often moody cinematography and an excellent score by George Duning that drives the plot onwards and attempts to intensify any atmosphere/tension – indeed this music score really impressed me, reminded me of 1970s John Williams, oddly enough, which made the film feel rather ‘modern’ to me. Curiously, Duning also wrote the score for The Mob, the previous film in this set and a score that I was also taken by. But these elements aren’t enough to save a film that feels awkward, and which clearly needs a better script. Mind you, Affair in Trinidad would prove to be Columbia’s biggest hit of 1952 so what do I know? I guess the public could forgive the film anything as long as it brought Rita Hayworth back to their cinema screens.

Columbia Noir: The Mob (1951)

mob1Well there’s no uncertainty about this one- The Mob is very much a film noir, right from its rain-drenched, night-time opening and to its thrilling, gutsy conclusion. The lighting, the framing, everything screams ‘noir’ from the very start and while the film goes off into an organised crime caper that echoes that of 711 Ocean Drive, the previous film in this second Columbia Noir set from Indicator, there’s something much darker, edgier and pulpier in this offering.

Its possibly because they were generally b-movies and exploitation thrillers, but sometimes these noir feature the unlikeliest, or perhaps more aptly speaking, the most unspectacular, of protagonists as their leads. Conventional Hollywood leading men would I suppose usually be featured in more wholesome, higher-budget dramas and thrillers, so these noir often, it seems to me, feature actors who seem to have lived in the real world more than, say, your regular Hollywood heartthrob (Glenn Ford may argue with me though on that observation). But certainly, Broderick Crawford, middle-aged and overweight and hardly blessed with a face to set women’s hearts a flutter seems both a refreshingly unlikely lead and paradoxically an oddly convincing one. When  this guy turns up on the docks undercover, he looks like a surly trouble-maker and working-class joe rather than a heroic handsome lead- you can believe the workers and thugs don’t imagine he is really a cop. There’s a sense of reality to it, and Crawford is great in the role.

The noir trope of a trapped hero raises its head early on in the film- Crawford plays Police Detective Johnny Damico who late at night stumbles upon the aftermath of a gun fight whilst off-duty. The shooter, face partly obscured by the rain and shadows, identifies himself as Lt. Henderson, a Detective from another Precinct. Surrendering his badge and gun to Damico, Henderson reveals that the dead man at his feet shot a police officer just a few hours before. Damacio suggests that Henderson goes over to an open shop across the road to call for back up, handing Henderson his gun. But while a police car quickly arrives, Henderson doesn’t return, and the patrolmen exiting the car deny being called-in. Damico rushes over to the shop and is told by the owner that Henderson didn’t go to the phone, but instead went out the back and off into the night. It dawns on Damico that he’s been had, which is confirmed when he calls his boss and learns that a Lt. Meary was murdered a few hours before, and his gun and badge stolen. Whoever ‘Henderson’ was, he wasn’t a cop- and Damacio has unwittingly let a killer caught cold-handed get away free.

Damico is offered a chance to redeem himself by going undercover at the waterfront docks to finish what the dead officer Meary was trying to accomplish- to uncover the identity of a mysterious gangland figure who is in charge of racketeering on the docks, who goes by the name of Blackie Clegg- in the grand tradition of Fu Manchu, this criminal genius is an unknown figure that nobody on the right side of the Law has seen or been able to identify.

Its quite an intriguing drama involving gun-happy heavies, mysterious waterfront characters, corrupt cops, and Damico threatened on all sides. Crawford is supported by a very fine cast, which features Ernest Borgnine in one of his very first films, as menacing mob leader Joe Castro, and a very young Charles Bronson in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it early role as a dock worker. I really enjoyed The Mob, and its twists and turns were really very well executed .On top of its very good script and fine cast, the film looks absolutely top-notch, with gorgeously atmospheric cinematography. It really works on all levels and I can’t fault it at all, its a solid film and strong addition to this very fine Columbia Noir set.

Columbia Noir: 711 Ocean Drive (1950)

711aThis was a pretty solid crime caper. I’m not so sure its actually film noir, but that really is a whole other conversation, regards what actually qualifies as noir (coincidentally, there’s an essay entitled ‘What Do We Expect When We Watch a Film Noir? written ‘by Ellen Cheshire included in the book that accompanies the films in this Indicator boxset). For my part, I think it would fit better in a ‘Columbia Crime’ boxset but I can accept how ‘fluid’ any definition of film noir can be, so yeah, no real problem having this title in this set: there’s certainly few of the standard atmospheric visual trappings of a dark-edged noir and no femme fatale but certainly the usual sense of moral ambiguity (just who’s the good guy here and who are we rooting for?) and treachery (double-crossing bosses swindling our ‘hero’ out of money, and a cheating wife proving his undoing). Perhaps its biggest nod to noir sensibility is the fact that the biggest bad guy appears to survive unscathed, a typically unsettling refute to the usual ‘crime doesn’t pay’ message of non-noir dramas.

So what’s it about? Well, one has to make allowances for the fact that as this film is 70 years old its centred around technological conceits so obsolete as to render it almost a science fiction artefact from anther world. Telephone technician Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) is smarter than his job deserves and his gambling vice gets him an opportunity to better utilise his talents for crime magnate/bookie Vince Walters (Barry Kelly). Kelly is great here in a surprisingly (spoiler warning?) short-lived role- I thought he was one of the highlights of The Undercover Man (featured in Indicator’s previous Columbia Noir set)  and while I expected his character to stick around longer he’s a convincingly menacing figure leaving quite a mark. In a refreshing change from the usual physical strengths espoused in these thrillers, Mal’s wits are his biggest asset, and his eye for opportunity leads him to replace Vince which brings him under the gaze of a criminal Syndicate that represents the Big League. Leader of this Syndicate is Carl Stephens, played by Otto Kruger (another familiar face, this time from Escape in the Fog, again from Indicator’s previous noir set). There is a very modern feel to Stephens, prefiguring themes of the decades-later Godfather films regards how he seems to believe crime can pretend to be respectable, running his crime syndicate like any typical corporation except that when it sacks staff it seems very permanent (“I think he’s a very sick man – I don’t believe he’ll ever get well,” to which his stooge asserts “I’ll see that he doesn’t”). Mal doesn’t appear too intimidated by the Syndicate moving in on his operation, seeing it as an opportunity as ever- or perhaps distracted by Syndicate rep Larry Mason’s wife Gail (Joanne Mason). Breaking his own code of never getting serious with a dame by starting an affair with Gail, this sets up a chain of events that may prove to be Mal’s downfall. 

One thing I will say is clear from watching so many of these 1940s/1950s films- they are so very brutally efficient, there’s nothing in them that you can imagine cutting out; every scene has some bearing upon the next, every piece of dialogue seems pertinent to the plot and there is no padding evident at all: a lesson that perhaps modern films could heed. 711 Ocean Drive is possibly lengthier than most, running at 102 minutes so teetering towards the unheard-of two hour mark but it feels very brisk, at least until the end when director Joseph M. Newman perhaps becomes too enamoured by the production value of location filming at the Boulder (Hoover) Dam: but that being said, its certainly an impressive setting for a finale. One of the many appeals of these films is that sense of witnessing a lost world, as if they are becoming as much historical documents as they are thrillers and dramas. The fashions, the décor, the cars and trucks: the locations can hold a fascination all their own. 711 Ocean Drive also features a great score from Sol Kaplan, a composer familiar to me from his work for the 1960s Star Trek. Kaplan was not the only person behind 711 Ocean Drive to make an unlikely foray into science fiction- Joseph M.Newman would soon after move on to direct This Island Earth.