A Month of Noir

November Noir... It has a nice postman-always-rings-twice to it. As we put two interminable months of horror posts behind us, I'm tempted to suggest that November remain a sort of free for all, open to anything (except horror) that catches someone's attention. I think I'll concentrate on Noirs, but would rather not force the issue on the likes of the recently muted Tiny Tom or any others (like Graham, for example) who are uninterested in the greatest film style movement in cinematic history.

Two recently released collections might include all you need to get a healthy dose of the Noir-style blues during your post-Halloween letdown phase.

Columbia's 1st Film Noir Collection is a gem containing 5 excellent examples of the cycle, 4 of which have never been on video before. The Big Heat, Five Against the House, Murder by Contract, The Lineup, The Sniper...... Wow. Talk about making a splash their first time out. After an impromptu Noir Nerd convention held yesterday afternoon at the FBE, I lent the Columbia set to charter member Charles Bruce-Thompson III for a week, so you can't watch any of these until he brings them back, a sort of get out of jail free card that will allow Joe to watch his new Night of the Creeps DVD when it arrives from Amazon on Monday morning.

But I digress.....

Arguably, the best film in the set, Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, shouldn't be. It was an A picture and I'm guessing Columbia stuck this one in to give the set a bit of name recognition. A far better choice would have been Lang's lessor known Human Desire (1954) or something like Jacques Tourneur's excellent, but nearly forgotten Nightfall (1957), both Columbia catalog titles from around the same time. A minor complaint on a great package.

I'm going to skip The Big Heat and concentrate instead on the 4 other films contained in Columbia's box set over the next several posts. They all come from later in the cycle than most of the Noirs released to DVD in past Warner and Fox collections. Lessor Film Noir from the 1950's happens to be a personal favourite and both Murder by Contract and The Lineup have been longtime cult hits in my book.

From Columbia's Film Noir Collection, Volume 1: The Sniper (1952)

The Sniper directed by Edward Dymtryk, no stranger to the Noir style himself, offers up one of the first definitive modern examples of the serial killer film. It's level-headed and non-sensational, centering on a dry-cleaning deliverman's deep-seated resentment and murderous intent towards women. Though the origins of his psychosis remain somewhat uncertain, we're led to believe that he's the byproduct of an abusive childhood. While variations on this story have been done countless times since, The Sniper was one of the first to extend the thematic tone of earlier films like Fritz Lang's M and put a definitively modern spin on it. The Sniper has one of the cycle's most disturbing murder scenes involving a glass display case and, even 50 years later, remains an engrossing and frightening look at the tortured mind of a serial killer. It's perhaps a tad dry by today's standards and in my book the least interesting of the films contained in this set but The Sniper influenced so many subsequent films (including Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver, to name a couple) that it's inclusion here is both necessary and worthwhile from an historical perspective.

The second recent DVD box set worthy of note is Sony's excellent Sam Fuller collection. 4 early Fuller Noir classics are included in the 7 movie set including Shockproof, Underworld U.S.A., The Crimson Kimono and another favourite of mine, Scandal Sheet. Fuller, for those that aren't familiar with him started as a newspaper crime beat reporter before moving into screenplays and then to directing. His earliest films often centre around the press and while his output grew incrementally more bizarre with each passing decade (until by the '70s, only the French considered him a major talent), these earlier examples of Fullers work are all topnotch crime drama's in the Noir tradition.

From Sony's Samuel Fuller Collection: Scandal Sheet (1952).

The film rights for the story that ultimately became Scandal Sheet (The Dark Page, a novel written by Fuller in 1944) was originally bought by none other than Howard Hawks and was slated to be an A-picture with names like Bogart and Cary Grant bandied about as possible leads. The project never got off the ground and years later, Columbia brought the script from Hawks (for 6 times the $15G's he paid for it originally) and gave it to one of their best B-Noir directors, Phil Karlson to have a go at. Karlson made a strange casting choice with Broderick Crawford in the lead role but it turned out to be gold. Crawford is stellar and it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part now. John Derek, a vastly underrated actor and the always dependable Harry Morgan round out a very good cast. The Donna Reed character is admittedly annoying and her role over-written but the producers obviously felt the film needed a moral compass character and stuffed Reed with a bit of a dud role with not much to work with. The story involves a newspaper editor's past catching up with him and an accident death that he tries to hide from the authorities. Saying much more would spoil the plot suffice it to say that what unfolds is a sort of inverse Double Indemnity if you could imagine Walter Nuff trying to investigate Edward G.'s character.

There are some interesting parallels between the films in these two box sets too. Hollywood was a much smaller place back in the '50s than we might imagine it to be. Phil Karlson directs both Scandal Sheet and Five Against the House from the Columbia set. Oscar-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey lensed one from each set, The Sniper and Scandal Sheet (along with Nightfall, Night Editor, The Reckless Moment and In a Lonely Place among many others). He's amongst the best and least-celebrated of the Noir cinematographers, right up there with James Wong Howe and John Alton). Don Siegel, the director of Dirty Harry obviously drew some ideas from Dymtryk's The Sniper, directed The Lineup from the Columbia set. The overlap and connections between these two collections makes for some fascinating comparatives and anecdotes.

Next Post...... Murder by Contract and Shockproof and a real surprise unrelated to these two collections Black Widow (1954) from a 2008 Fox release that I just got around to watching last night. Joe – order a copy for the FBE if you don't have it. It's great.



the coelacanth said...

the sniper sounds fascinating - i'll certainly check it out. a possible influence for bogdanovich's targets (as well as the others you mentioned)? scandal sheet interests me less, but i love edward g. so will have to give this a look as well. oh, i ordered black widow and the warner noir set vol. 4 (with act of violence in it for cb-t3), so don't worry about bringing that over...

looking forward to more of your informative and engaging posts on a genre i know very little about beyond its surface aesthetic and major calling cards...

La Sporgenza said...

I think I misled you there Joe. I was referencing Eddie G.'s charcter in Double Indemnity. He's not in Scandal Sheet. I think you might be surprised by this one though. It's kinda' up your alley.