The Killing 4K UHD

Kill4kI’ve come back to The Killing by way of its recent 4K upgrade from the folks at Kino over the pond. I last watched the film back in 2016. I have to confess, watching it again my memory of it was pretty fuzzy- I remembered the overall plot and some of the cast, but specifics, and indeed the ending, escaped me completely. To some extent it was rather like watching the film for the first time.

Which was nice, but worrying- I used to have such an excellent memory for films; I’d usually remember most everything. Maybe its just me getting older – hope this isn’t how dementia starts- but I rather suspect its a case of just watching too many films over the past few years. In some ways we’re living in a film buff’s paradise, the access we have to films these days, whether it be films we have collected on disc, or stream on the various platforms. Back in the 1970s we were at the whim of terrestrial schedulers on three networks so only watched films when we could, which increased the rarity and sense of occasion (I still recall the Jaws network premiere, and that of Star Wars and Alien, quite vividly, and movie seasons over Christmas holidays just made the festive seasons more special). Those were the bad old days, certainly, but nonetheless films seemed to have much more of a value back then. I suppose watching fewer films, they stuck in your memory more too.

But now, they almost seem to blur into each other- certainly some film noir, of which I have watched an awful lot of over the past few years. I suppose it inevitable when they share so many narrative and visual tropes and character archetypes. Alarming though, that I’d forgotten so much of this film. Maybe this blog should revert to its original purpose back from its Film Journal days, serving as a diary of viewing- not that this blog really ever diverted away from too much (though I have stopped compiling monthly/annual lists of the films). But whatever next? Index cards next to each disc on the shelf?

Because to be sure, someone who professes to be a film buff shouldn’t be forgetting details of films as exquisite as The Killing, one of the definitive heist movies and one of the best examples of a perfect film noir. Its a taut, gripping story about flawed characters, depicted by brilliant actors in memorable performances. Did I say memorable? Hmmm. Well, to be fair, while I’d forgotten so much of the film, I’d not forgotten the likes of Sterling Hayden here- what a gritty, convincing turn.

Kubrick’s third directorial effort and widely considered his first ‘proper’ film, The Killing is absolutely amazing and, dare I suggest, one of his best. Its certainly a film for people who don’t profess to like Kubrick’s filmography- it lacks his full ‘auteur’ stamp, as he didn’t have the complete control he would soon have following Paths of Glory and SpartacusThe Killing is more routine, more accessible compared to how inscrutable some of his films can seem.

That being said, its tricky to describe The Killing as routine- it certainly makes demands upon its audience, with a chronology-shifting narrative in which it moves forwards and backwards in time depending upon each characters involvement in the heist. It’s helped somewhat by a voice-over which is pretty wonderful but was, I suspect, possibly a studio-mandated element to help steer viewers along.

When I last watched The Killing in 2016, I hadn’t been aware even of the existence of Vince Edwards’ later noir, Murder by Contract, which I watched last year as part of Indicator’s Columbia Noir line of boxsets and which proved to be one of the best films I watched last year (so good was it, indeed, that I watched it twice). So anyway, back in 2016, Edwards was just another face- this time around, I immediately recognised him and enjoyed, again, another of his performances. Naturally Edwards will always be more remembered for his massively popular Ben Casey tv show of the 1960s but I think he’s brilliant in The Killing, Murder by Contract and City of Fear in which he has this weird charisma with the camera (and inevitably the on-screen ladies) that only certain actors destined to be stars have. So if my memory really does go south there will be index cards for Vince Edwards dotted around my shelves of Blu-rays.

killb4kRegards this 4K release of The Killing, it looks absolutely amazing. Lots of grain, detail and contrast- 4K with its HDR really suits these black and white films. Can’t believe I haven’t bought Citizen Kane on 4K yet (must be all those copies on DVD and Blu-ray making me already feel like a double/triple-dipping idiot). There is a lovely tactile quality to this film, in its detail evident in sets and clothing, and the HDR really improves the lighting which can be so intrinsic to the noir experience. The scene in which the guys sit around a small table lit by a lone bulb above them, their faces both brightly lit and masked in shadow, the cigarette smoke drifting about them- its like each frame is a painting and is one of the best film noir shots I’ve seen: in 4K its really something. While Kino doesn’t include booklets or anything at all like that, it does use original poster artwork which make its releases great collector pieces, in a similar way to the art direction on Indicator’s releases (this disc also has a reversible sleeve). Devoid of extras other than some trailers, the disc features a commentary track by Alan K. Rode which, from the twenty-thirty minutes I’ve heard, is absolutely terrific and which I look forward to listening to in its entirety. More on that in another post maybe.

Recent Additions

P1110328 (2)My first package of 2022 from Indicator Films arrived late last week- the latest in their excellent Columbia Noir collections, this time devoted to Humphrey Bogart, and The Pemini Organisation, a set that was released in May which caught my interest but had to wait until I could bundle it with something else to qualify for the free postage (and use the reward points I’d accumulated last year). These releases are, as usual, limited editions, and if the numbers I received are anything to go by, the noir is as successful as ever (1150 of 6000, and only officially out today) but the Pemini set (719 of 6000) seems to be a sign Indicator could be finding it a struggle shifting them- expect it to be around for the Autumn sale.

I suppose the latter is predictable- who remembered Pemini these days, or had even heard of the three films it produced, let alone seen them? Pemini was a  film production company set up by three freinds (Peter Crane, Michael Sloan and Nigel Hodgson, the company name constructed from their first names) who wanted to work in film, so decided to be devilishly proactive: Pemini only operated between 1972 and 1974, producing just three films that pretty much disappeared when the company disbanded. All those points, of course, are why I found it so intriguing, and as ever for Indicator, its a remarkable set, the films restored and lavishly presented with an in-depth book and a bounty of on-disc extras- there’s plenty more prestigious and famous films that would be envious of such treatment. Its like a little film school in box.

I’m not familiar with the contents of the Bogart set, as I haven’t seen any of them before (I was never much of a fan of Bogart), and I understand some of them are a bit of a stretch regards defining them as noir. As usual though its a beauty of a package and a welcome companion to sets 1 to 4. The next noir box is the first of a new series, leaving Columbia behind in favour of noir from Universal Pictures, which looks fantastic but isn’t out until mid-September.

Alas, I could be awhile getting around to watching these new arrivals. After a weekend with the television hijacked for Glastonbury, its now restricted to two weeks of Wimbledon tennis: regular readers will know that during this fortnight I become a Wimbledon Widower every year, and getting to watch anything that isn’t tennis is pretty tricky. We’ll see how that goes, but its important to keep the wife happy, obviously.

Columbia Noir: Walk A Crooked Mile (1948)

walk1Not, as the title might suggest to our more sequel/prequel/reboot-cynical eyes, a prequel to Columbia’s 1954 noir Drive A Crooked Road, this is a pretty mundane espionage thriller that’s shot in a semi-documentary style, as if its a dramatic re-enactment of contemporary events. Unfortunately that documentary style, peppering the film with a distracting, incessant narration, dilutes the film of any actual drama – it simply doesn’t work properly as a dramatic film. Indeed when watching the film I wondered how this would work on its original theatrical release, regards whether audiences back then more readily accepted being preached at and warned/informed of a horrible Red Menace. I guess its just a case of a film being of its time.

Russian spies have somehow infiltrated atomic research facility Lakeview Labs, the FBI stumbling upon a nefarious scheme stealing crucial atomic formulas out of the country, shipping them to London (and then onwards to Eastern Bloc locations unknown) hidden inside oil paintings. Thanks to the London link, Scotland Yard ‘exchange agent’ Scotty Grayson (Louis Hayward) has come to America to assist his colleagues in the F.B.I. in bringing down their common Red enemy. Partnered with F.B.I. agent Dan O’Hara (Dennis O’Keefe), Grayson works to uncover and bring down the spy network before it can steal all Lakeview Labs research and possibly use its formulas against the Free World. 

As you can possibly imagine, there is a lot of preaching in this film- its practically a propaganda piece and full of paranoia; audiences likely lapped it all up back then but it feels very forced and more than a little unpalatable now. That said, though, one has to remember here in the UK we recently had the situation of the Salisbury poisonings so maybe films like this are a timely reminder of how little has actually changed for the better. I can only imagine how the high-tensions of this films era would have reacted to such events back then (American citizens actually poisoned by chemical warfare? Yikes!).

How much this film qualifies as noir is debatable. It has some visual noir references and naturally all the subversive menace it accounts is a typical noir staple. What I always get from films like this is a great appreciation from seeing what is essentially a Lost World, especially with this films semi-documentary style allowing us here a pretty candid, realistic look at San Francisco’s 1940s streets, decor and fashion. I just have an endless fascination with the Time Machine aspects of films like this- the mood and tensions of the era, the ‘look’ of the world back then. Walk A Crooked Mile may not work as a film as films should, but its does give me a glimpse of another world that is quite enthralling and seductive. Also, spotting locations from other films is always a bit thrilling- I believe I glimpsed the apartment building from which Scottie tails Madeleine Elster in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Brocklebank Apartments, 1000 Mason Street on Nob Hill) through a car window in one fleeting shot.

Even better then, is that Indicator’s new release (this film first up in its latest Columbia Noir boxset) features an intriguing documentary short Routine Job: A Story of Scotland Yard (1946) portraying the routine work of detectives in the London of its day, a world as much science fiction now as anything in a James Cameron Avatar movie.  Filmed in real London locations and featuring what does seem to be real people its a more rewarding watch, to me, than the main feature, and one of those cases of special features outweighing what should have been the main draw. And hey, you can even watch it here for free on good old YouTube if you have no interest in the noir box. I’m dubious that I’ll be rewatching Walk A Crooked Mile very often, but this short feature will likely pull me back with its hypnotic window to the past and its own long-gone city and people. 

Another Murder By Contract

murder2Its becoming clear to me that August has been a largely a month of re-watching movies, whether it be because of new 4K editions (True Romance), revisiting films that perplexed me first time around (Tenet), or just revisiting old favourites, as in the case of this film, the noir classic Murder By Contract, which came out as part of the second of Indicator’s Columbia Noir boxsets and which I first watched back in March. The fact that I have returned to it within the space of six months hopefully indicates the high regard in which I hold this film. Its really quite extraordinary. There probably isn’t anything more I can say about the film that I didn’t when I first reviewed it, but it is a remarkably cool film, from the catchy guitar score by Perry Botkin (which so good its unfathomable that Tarantino hasn’t used it in one of his films somewhere), to the deadpan performances of its cast, particularly that of Vince Edwards as psychopath assassin/amateur philosopher Claude, a character who will haunt me for years. Part genius, part idiot, a handsome dude who is horribly detached and casual in his violence until he finally, incredibly comes undone by his final target. It’d be a bit akin to casting a young Harrison Ford as Jack the Ripper or Scorpio; you want to be with Claude as he seems so cool but you know you’d be much safer in another country.

Released in 1958 (with such a low budget it was allegedly shot in just eight days), Murder By Contract was made at the tail end of the ‘classic’ American noir period, nodding towards the stylistic changes that the 1960s would bring (and the eventual advent of neo-noir). As much as it is a richly bleak noir it is a very, very black comedy. In some moments, its a little like the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner cartoon hijinks transported into a noir movie and really quite unlike any other film I have seen, other than Kiss Me Deadly and Taxi Driver, two examples which hopefully indicate just how odd a film this really is. Its a work of some crazy genius, one of the best films I will have watched this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I give it another watch before the end of the year. Some films really make a connection and this one did with me.

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. 

 

The 2021 List: January

I’m back. Well, I’ve not really been away, just side-lined by work and life. I’m sure anyone reading this appreciates just how strange life is getting, and how we’re getting worn down. Its really quite relentless, and most nights now I’m so tired in the evenings I don’t have energy to concentrate enough to even watch a film, let alone write about it. Maybe I just need a holiday (ha, ha) – ain’t that the truth/sick joke (delete as appropriate). Its been  more than two years since my last holiday anywhere, and my booked holiday in May (which was deferred from May last year, for reasons obvious to everyone) is looking as unlikely as Vangelis releasing an anthology of his unreleased soundtracks headlined by a complete Blade Runner. Or him ever releasing that Juno to Jupiter album.

So what have I been watching? Not included on the list waiting for your perusal below as its not finished until next Wednesday, is Season Five of The Expanse, which has been quite brilliant. As someone who championed this series way back when I had to import the Blu-rays to watch it, its great to see the show having some critical success before it ends next year. Amazon saving The Expanse from its third-season cancellation is the rescue Farscape deserved but never got. Anyway, more on that next week/month/when I get to write about it.

toastJanuary is a hell of a bleak month, and Lockdown is just making it all the bleaker. I’ve been retreating to sitcoms, mostly Toast of London, a show from a few years back that I vaguely recall noticing but never watching. Finally watching it thanks to the Netflix algorithm bringing it back to my attention,  its quite funny and quirky and I enjoyed it enough to binge all three seasons of it, but not enough to write a post about it. There’s that energy-sapping thing again. I don’t know. There was a feeling of biding time watching it; I knew I should be watching something more worthwhile but it was low-effort, making little demand of me. I’ve just moved on to another feast courtesy of the Netflix algorithm, an American sitcom titled Superstore, currently watching season one. There’s five seasons of this show and I never knew it even existed until I started watching it last week. I think this is what’s called Sitcom Hell. I need to find some escape.

Television

Most ill-conceived reboot of the month:

2. Black Narcissus (BBC Miniseries)

Sitcom ‘comfort food of the month’ (lockdown special):

6) Toast of London Season One

7) Toast of London Season Two

11) Toast of London Season Three

Sexed-up Downton Abbey of the month:

15) Bridgerton Season One

Female Space Messiah Award:

9) Star Trek: Discovery Season Three 

Films:

The Good, and the even Better:

3) Proxima (2019)

4. Hidden Figures (2016)

5) The Garment Jungle

8) The Lineup (1958)

16) The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Distinctly Average:

10) The Gentlemen (2019)

12) Sputnik (2020)

14) The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (1961)

The Utterly Woeful:

1) The Midnight Sky (2020)

13) Outside the Wire (2021)

So that’s sixteen titles, split between six seasons of TV shows and ten films. Regards re-watching stuff, apart from the fantastic Millennium Actress that I did actually post about, I did re-watch The Two Towers, the second film of the LOTR trilogy, part of the 4K UHD boxset that came out late last year and which I seem to be struggling to get to actually watch, never mind actually writing about. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring over the Christmas period, and while its proving a struggle, strangely, to get around to watching all three films (possibly its because they are the extended versions which makes it awkward to schedule, in all honesty, with everything else going on) its been very interesting, returning to what is quite possibly the last genuinely great blockbuster trilogy ever made, and seeing how well they have aged (or not).  I intend to possibly expand upon this in a future post once I’ve managed to watch The Return of the King, which, on my apparently monthly schedule will happen in February. Some people managed marathons of the LOTR in a single day, or over three consecutive days- I haven’t even managed it over three weekends.

It has occurred to me that the sheer bravura of shooting all three films back-to-back might be something we never see again, considering the state of theatrical exhibition in this Covid World. We are in a situation now in which traditional blockbusters are not economically viable and are being delayed one or even two years waiting for some kind of stability regards exhibition. Where this leaves Villenueve’s Dune and its ‘will-they-won’t-they’ second film completing its story is anyone’s guess. At some point if things don’t change, more of these films will end up relegated to streaming premieres such as those Warner have announced for HBO Max in America, and what that means for studios cutting their losses and plans for 2023, 2024 etc is really a concern.

So anyway, that’s January. Looking towards February, well, its anyone’s guess how that month will likely turn out. Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set is due out so I look forward to getting into that, having so enjoyed the first set. And I have a pile of unwatched films on the Tivo etc and waiting on Netflix and Amazon, if I can ever muster the enthusiasm to watch any of it. Or indeed the time, due to working at home proving particularly problematic of late. We’ll just have to see. Oh, and its possibly going to include my biggest non-event of a birthday in all my 55 revolutions of the sun. That should be curious, although as a bonus it sees me jump up a group on the Vaccination schedule. Life. Is. So. Strange. Now.

COVID-Vac-priority-tiers

Columbia Noir: The Garment Jungle (1957)

cnoirgarmIts possibly true as far as actors go: you’re only as good as the movie you’re in. Kerwin Mathews, for instance, featured in the previous film in this Indicator Columbia Noir #1 boxset, 5 Against the House, in which he didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but here in this Vincent Sherman/Robert Aldrich-directed crime/mob racket thriller he really impresses. I thought Mathews was really very good in this, measuring up well against the likes of Lee J.Cobb and a shockingly young Robert Loggia, both of whom are frankly excellent. The more that I think about it, it may be a case of very good casting- Mathews plays fresh-faced Alan Mitchell, son of Walter Mitchell, the owner of  successful garment company Roxton Fashions, who returns to New York after some several years away. Alan is a fish out of water, an outsider looking in, mirroring the audiences point of view as he (and we) learn about the seedy machinations going on in the industry. Alan is a rather thankless character, blank-faced and reactive to everything, so maybe the part worked to his strengths and suited Mathews to a tee. Maybe I’ll adjust my opening line: you’re only as good as the film you are in and the actors you are with. 

So anyway, back to that plot. When Alan arrives it is just after a terrible accident in which his fathers business partner has been killed. While Walter is bitterly saddened by his partners death, he is so distracted by the menace of unions infiltrating his shop that he doesn’t realise that the accident was no accident at all. Walter has for years been paying protection to ruthless mobster Artie Ravidge (Richard Boone) to ensure the unions are kept out of his business. How much of a blind eye he has been keeping regards Ravidge’s methods isn’t at all clear and there is a really nice grey line that suggests Walter accepts a necessary evil and knows more than he lets on, perhaps even to himself. Of course as the film progresses Walter has to come to terms with his own responsibility for Ravidge’s actions, especially when confronted by Alan, who has befriended a union activist, Tulio Renata (Loggia) who is eventually cornered and killed by the mobsters, bringing Alan and Walter to a bitter father/son confrontation.

The Garment Jungle is a very, very good film. Films can surprise, and when they do it can prove so very welcome. Back when I saw the list of films in this set, and knowing nothing of any of them, I reckoned that The Garment Jungle would likely be the weakest of the bunch- I think it was the title and the poster art which had me dismissing it. How wrong I was. This is a film with a superb cast, a genuinely interesting story with real surprises and plenty of opportunity for that cast to display some great performances. Its much more nuanced and complex than the exploitation film that poster suggested it was.

Regards the actors in this film, I can’t think of a bad turn. Cobb is excellent; tough, pressured, worried about losing control of his life’s work building his business into a success and desperate enough to make deals with someone he shouldn’t have, and then having to face the consequences. Cobb is thoroughly convincing and I appreciated the dubiety regards how innocent he is. Robert Loggia of course is as great as ever, a very fine and intense actor, it was something of a shock to see him as young as he is here and clearly displaying the strengths of that intensity at such a young age.

I was quite struck by the leading lady/more-than-slightly-uncomfortable romantic interest in this film, the beautiful Gia Scala playing Theresa Renata. Gia has an intoxicating, quite arresting presence in this, but its not at all a sultry, femme fatale kind of role that might be expected in a noir – I have to wonder what she might have done in a role like that. Here she plays Loggia’s young wife who seems to quickly get the uninvited attention of Alan – there is a certain chemistry between them from the moment they meet that works very well, but it also feels a little uncomfortable that Alan is so attracted to her when she’s married, and the murder of her husband just seems to give Alan even more opportunity to pursue her (this all in spite of her having a baby, I should add). It doesn’t necessarily show Alan in a very gallant light, but like his father, he seems rather in denial regards his methods and motives. How very noir, when even the nominal ‘romance’ of a film has such questionable undercurrents.

I looked up Gia to see what else she had been in, she so impressed me (its a really strong part considering it could have been just a one-dimensional wronged widow/endangered mother) but was horrified to learn that she died at just 38 years old, in 1972. Her career never really took off, film roles drying up to be replaced with television work through the 1960s, a blighted personal life and alcohol problems: it would seem she never recovered from the death of her mother in 1957. As I have noted before, I can often find it so difficult to reconcile the perfection seen on screen with the frailties and human weaknesses of real life. I think it makes such great performances just more incandescent, somehow, and arresting. Maybe its just the sense of promise unrealised.

Its such a shame- on the strength of her role in The Garment Jungle, I have to wonder what she might have achieved had circumstances been different or if she had been given the opportunity. I think she could have chewed up the screen gloriously as a traditional femme fatale role in some searing noir, but that was not to be. Some maintain doubts regards the manner of her death- ruled by the authorities as an accidental overdose of drink and drugs, some thought it a suicide while her sister believed it may even have been murder. Shades of the death of Marilyn Monroe (Gia was discovered nude sprawled on her bed with bruises on her body and blood on her pillow)? It seems to me that Gia’s fate is a grim footnote to The Garment Jungle and another reminder of the dark underbelly of Hollywood- indeed, how Hollywood is so very noir.

 

Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.