Nearly every DVD company with access to a classic Hollywood catalog has released a film-noir collection over the past decade, but while Sony is arriving late to the party with its five-disc Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, the set is hardly an afterthought. The Columbia library holds some of the most distinctive noirs in the history of the genre, and Film Noir Classics features five of them—four by well-known directors, and one by a wild card. There’s even a theme of sorts uniting these films, in that each explores the criminal mind (either from the inside, or from the perspective of the law), and each is unusually interested in what men of action talk about during their downtime.
Phil Karlson’s 1955 heist pic 5 Against The House (based on a Jack Finney novel) is the most conventional of this lot, though it’s still just as interested in the psychology of crackpots as it is in the crimes they commit. Brian Keith and Guy Madison play Korean War buddies finishing up law school alongside their younger, less-serious chums Alvy Moore and Kerwin Mathews. After being humiliated on a trip to Reno, Mathews comes up with an idea for a foolproof plan to rob a casino, though he conceptualizes the holdup only as a hoax. The battle-scarred, unstable Keith, worried about flunking out of college, commandeers Mathews’ plan, and forces his friends at gunpoint to play along. 5 Against The House bogs down whenever Karlson changes gears and covers the romance between Madison and nightclub singer Kim Novak, but mostly, this is an effective suspense movie, playing out against spectacular Nevada locations. It becomes a surprisingly insightful study of how men often subtly—and disastrously—compete with each other to be “the first one to tear down the goalposts, or any other red-blooded college prank.”
Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper aims for even more penetrating psychological depth and social commentary, and connects remarkably well for a movie from 1952. Arthur Franz plays a lovelorn psychopath who expresses his affection for women by gunning them down from rooftops when he sees them with other guys. When Franz starts sending the police letters asking them to make him stop, the force’s resident bleeding-heart shrink Richard Kiley pleads for mercy on the killer’s behalf, but as paranoia grips the citizens of San Francisco—as shown in several tense sequences shot on location—the city’s sniper problem grows beyond the case of one sad screw-up. Copycats come out of the woodwork, while politicians worry about what paying for rehabilitation will do to taxes. Although The Sniper is a little too on-point at times, it’s notable for how it treats crime as something more than a mere matter of good vs. evil.
Morality is more cut-and-dried in Fritz Lang’s 1953 classic The Big Heat (adapted by screenwriter Sydney Boehm from a William P. McGivern story), yet Lang toys with the audience cleverly throughout, making us fully aware of the real stakes played for by violent types. Glenn Ford stars as a cop who ditches his badge in order to take down a mob boss who hits him too close to home. The action in The Big Heat is relentless, and uncompromisingly brutal—from thug Lee Marvin throwing a pot of boiling coffee at moll Gloria Grahame to Ford exacting bloody revenge on the crooks who ruined his life. Lang and company show they mean business from the moment they shatter a placid suburban domestic scene with a wall-rattling car-bomb explosion. The Big Heat doesn’t spare the blood, scars, or bruises.
Don Siegel’s 1958 procedural The Lineup has its origins in a radio and TV series, and for roughly its first third, it feels stolid and TV-ish, not too far removed from the average episode of Dragnet. But then Stirling Silliphant’s punchy script (about cops tracking heroin smugglers to San Francisco) largely abandons the legwork side of the story in favor of hanging out with two offbeat goons played by Eli Wallach and Robert Keith. Like a proto-Reservoir Dogs, The Lineup becomes about the buddy-buddy relationship between criminals on an assignment. Wallach plays a rough-hewn smart-aleck, while Keith is more dapper and refined, taking pains to correct Wallach’s grammar and to instruct their kidnap victims on “why women have no place in society.” The two keep a running patter going right up until they end up in one of the most original chase scenes in cinema history, set on a still-under-construction interstate, suspended above the city and dangerously incomplete.
But the ace in this Columbia noir deck is Murder By Contract, a low-budget 1958 gangster picture that feels about 40 years ahead of its time. Little-known director Irving Lerner gives the film an atmosphere unlike any other noir of its era (outside of maybe the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and 1961’s Blast Of Silence), following idiosyncratic hitman Vince Edwards first as he builds his reputation in the business, then as he has his confidence shaken when a gig in Los Angeles goes awry. Ben Simcoe’s script is very process-oriented, showing how Edwards cleverly uses whatever’s at hand to kill with minimal mess. But when Edwards lands in L.A.—accompanied by his handlers, Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi—the character opens up, revealing his disdain for murdering women and his preference for spending a few days before a job just touring around a city, seeing the sights and clearing his head. Murder By Contract’s spare Perry Botkin guitar score and dreamy fades work in conjunction with a wry, realistic story to create something truly unique. And for a genre movie, there’s no higher compliment.
Key features: Informative commentary tracks by genre expert Eddie Muller on The Big Heat and The Lineup (the latter with the aid of James Ellroy), plus explanatory interviews with noir fans Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, and Christopher Nolan.
Grades: The Big Heat: A-; 5 Against The House: B+; The Lineup: B+; Murder By Contract: A; The Sniper: B+