Monday, November 23, 2009

Killers, coffee, last dying words: Columbia Pictures Film Noir on DVD

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Volume One collects five fascinating studies—four of them previously unavailable, each on its own separate disc—in how this thing we call noir developed throughout the 1950s, when the style/genre/sensibility was first named and catalogued. It was also the decade that saw the end of the classic noir cycle, partially as an inevitable effect of its newfound self-consciousness.

The Sniper (1952) opens with Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) carefully assembling his rifle and taking aim from his bedroom window at a woman as she climbs the stairs across the lane. No rounds are fired. For now, Eddie’s still satisfied with rehearsal. But how long before Eddie snaps, before he needs to release his charge, before some poor singer had to die, her stricken body shattering the glass that encased the poster announcing her gig? Eddie’s a walking time bomb, and the chilling thing about this picture, among the first to attempt a serious portrayal of a serial killer, is that Eddie’s the protagonist.

Women really piss this guy off. Everywhere he goes they torment him with their mere presence, even little girls. It’s painful to watch Eddie attempt to chat up pretty ladies in bars or in their homes when he delivers their laundry. He’s upset when a strange woman doesn’t believe that he’s an engineer and that he built a bridge between two Hawaiian islands. He’s tormented and lonesome, yet, in one of the film’s little masterstrokes of social critique—this was an early Stanley Kramer production—the ostensibly normal men and women who might offer consolation consistently express this casual misogyny that only confirms the acceptability of Eddie’s vilest compulsions.

Edward Dmytryk directs with ingenious economy throughout, a superb example of his approach being that scene where a hot burner illuminates the ceiling and is overshadowed by Eddie’s hand as he presses his palm against the burning coil—a pretty awkward cry for help. Yet
The Sniper’s most memorable imagery comes from Dmytryk’s dramatic use of San Francisco—unnamed yet unmistakable—whose vertical, maze-like topography feels eerily aligned to Eddie’s agitated psyche. The disc features a commentary from the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller (not Miller), a life-long Franciscano and a fountain of knowledge pertaining to both the film and its location.

Glenn Ford plays a rogue cop trying to annul a marriage between city officials and organized crime in
The Big Heat (53). He has the moral high ground, his single-mindedness is transfixing, yet what of the fact that his crusade results in the torture and killing of three innocent women? It’s a revenge film, but not an unreflexive one. Women are collateral damage, but they’re also the most compelling, most richly detailed, smartest characters in the movie, especially Gloria Grahame, unnervingly sexy and sassy, and finally scarred by lanky Lee Marvin as a marvelously oafish gangster with a child’s feeling for stupid sadism. Grahame gets him back in the end, and I always wonder if he could smell the coffee boiling before she threw it in his face. Fritz Lang orchestrates scenes with restrained menace, the camera hanging back and then pouncing like a cat.

5 Against the House (55) finds college boys planning a prank heist in Reno with Kim Novak, here a lounge singer. This “field experiment in psychology” is strictly caper material, with lots of smart alecky gags, some nifty casino insider bits, Novak as luscious eye candy, and one weird-ass robot valet service that deserves its own documentary. Smartly directed by Phil Karlson, it’s consistently entertaining, if somewhat out of place in this collection. The sole noir element comes from Brian Keith’s Korean vet, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, ready to explode, his eyes bulging and body shaking, the hidden, writhing violence lurking beneath this film’s relatively placid surface.

A ship’s porter tosses some luggage into a cab, the cab zooms away, the cops follow, the cabbie’s shot, the car crashes. A cop’s killed in the chaos. No one understands what just happened. That’s the first 60 seconds of
The Lineup (58), a San Francisco procedural based on a Dragnet-like TV show. It’s prime Don Siegel: clean, taut, lucid, and bracing. Siegel exemplifies the evaporation of the romantic fatalism of 1940s noir and the emergence of something more visceral and nasty. Less than a third of the way through the bad guys arrive from Florida to collect a shipment of heroin and completely take control of the picture. Eli Wallach plays a killer named Dancer, offing a guy in a bathhouse during a sequence baldly driven by latent homoeroticism. Bodies fall from great heights, limbs a-flopping, one of them onto a skating rink—the old Sutro Baths complex is brilliantly used. Robert Keith plays the dapper chief heavy, rather humorously trying to refine Wallach, and revealing himself to be a collector of people’s last dying words, which strikes me as a pretty apt metaphor for noir in all its emotionality, enigma and morbid fascination.

The Lineup also features a commentary track with Eddie Miller, but Miller spends most of his time fending off James Ellroy, who repeatedly goes rabid and indulges some of his most incoherent, far-right, pro-police brutality pet topics. Ellroy has been a welcome contributor to commentary tracks on the Zodiac (07) special edition and the recent Crime Wave (54) DVD, but here he proves far less illuminating and far too easily distracted.

Murder By Contract (58) already neo-noir? It certainly exudes a sly knowingness about noir convention and, being the story of a guy who becomes a hitman so he can buy himself a nice house on the Ohio River, it lends itself to being read as consumerist satire. It is in any case a low-budget wonder, brimming with brilliantly quirky characterizations and scenes in which killer Claude (Vince Edwards) kills time playing mini-golf, deep sea fishing, and going to the fucking zoo when he’s supposed to be killing a woman set to testify in a high profile trial. When he’s informed that his target is female he recoils, not because he’s squeamish about having to murder a woman but because he should have charged double—women, he claims, make undependable marks. At one point Claude embarks on a nihilist rant when a waiter brings him a coffee cup with a lipstick stain. But he’s most of the time Zen-like, obsessed with efficiency, and doesn’t like guns—he’s the evil version of a Jim Jarmusch protagonist.

Elegantly photographed with the barest of resources by Lucien Ballard, who’d later collaborate with Sam Peckinpah, smoothly directed by Irving Lerner, and enveloped in a quiet, insistent, all-guitar score by Perry Botkin Jr.,
Murder By Contract is deeply creepy, darkly funny, and totally engrossing, perhaps the premiere discovery from what’s looking like the best multi-title DVD release of the year.

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