Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II (DVD Review)5 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark
$59.95 five-DVD set
Stars Glenn Ford, Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Gloria Grahame.
Male blood flow and other vital signs get a boost from quintessential Kim Novak and Gloria Grahame appearances in this welcome set — a follow-up to last November’s Vol. 1 (which featured The Big Heat, 5 Against the House, The Lineup, Murder by Contract and The Sniper). Like its predecessor, the box is a labor of love with involvement from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which among many other things, knows what’s what and what’s not when it comes to overlooked genre films of the 1950s.
Scorsese even introduces one of the selections, and there are further bonus cameos from Shutter Island colleague Emily Mortimer (talking about noir women and situations), plus Memento/The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan on “Pulp Paranoia” and the fact that noir is as much a state of mind as it is a means of shadowy photographic expression. All five inclusions are correctly presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which hasn’t always been the case when they’ve been shown on cable movie stations. Here’s the breakdown, in rough order of personal preference:
Human Desire (1954): In the seductively sleazy Glenn Ford toughie that Fritz Lang directed right after their classic noir collaboration on 1953’s The Big Heat, the two took a crack at Emile Zola’s (on-DVD) La Bete Humaine, which had been terrifically filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938. Ford for Gabin is like a bad baseball trade (think Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson), but the movie is better than I remembered, if inevitably watered down from the original by the era’s standard censorship meddling.
Of all the actresses who could be termed “silky,” Gloria Grahame possibly ranked No. 1. And two years after her rather unmerited supporting Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, she is thoroughly tops here as the bored wife of a railroad exec who is not only the anti-hunk (Broderick Crawford) but a belligerent type unable to hold a job. So her character sets her sights on a just returned Korean War vet (not exactly a Zola touch there), but the murder of a third party has already gotten in the way.
In the original film, Gabin gets more emotionally entangled with the wife (Simone Simon) than Ford does here — and putting aside the script differentials, more deeply than Ford is capable of showing. But you can tell that Grahame at least represents something exciting to Ford, particularly in how he off-handedly rejects his friend/landlord’s comely daughter — who is what used to be called “full-figured” and transparently anxious-and-a-half to sneak into his room down the hall.
The last hour has some strong moments, though as always in movies about laughably mismatched mates, I wonder about the original Grahame-Crawford courtship process. Did they split a White Castle, hold hands at a high school basketball game or make love on the beach? We’ll never know, but this is a somewhat underrated movie, if not a match for the Renoir.
Pushover (1954): Fred MacMurray’s career began to wane a little in the late 1940s before he had the great fortune to pull off a “triple” a decade later: the lead in Disney’s hugely popular The Shaggy Dog, a consummate heel role in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment; and playing the father in TV’s popular “My Three Sons.” Until hooking up with Disney, his biggest 1950s release was 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, which is actually alluded to (in a shoehorned kind of way) in the Pushover coming attraction that’s included on this set.
Either a shaky ‘A’ picture or a muscular ‘B,’ this noir nugget shared co-equal status in my hometown as the top half of a double bill with the Jennifer Jones-Montgomery Clift prestige flop Indiscretion of an American Wife — a twofer I’d certainly pay a lot to see today. Worth at least a bold footnote as Kim Novak’s screen debut at a time when Columbia Pictures was giving her its biggest push since Rita Hayworth’s in the 1940s, Pushover (like Human Desire) also has a taken-for-granted looker in the supporting cast (Dorothy Malone). But there’s no doubt about who’s the stunner here – one who tempts cop MacMurray to lift the loot from a case he’s supposed to be sleuthing. Novak was such a presence in her heyday that I have read – and obviously hope it’s true — that Mickey Mantle once came very close to convincing Yogi Berra that the actress’s hair was naturally lavender.
Unfortunately for Fred, she’s up to noir no-good. And we all know from Double Indemnity, of which this movie is a kind of cop-themed knock-off, that there’s something about the actor’s looks and demeanor that made him ideal to play chumps. He should remember what accented Bela Lugosi kept warning and shouting in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?, released the previous year: “Bevare! Bevare!”
City of Fear (1959): Vince Edwards, pre-Ben Casey, escapes from prison with a large canister of what he thinks is medical heroin, assuming the contents will set him up on Easy Street for the duration. Instead, he’s carrying around experimental radioactive material, which means an alternate title for this raw toughie could be Night Sweats.
Edwards is now a walking time bomb, as is anyone who makes sustained contact with him. As the cops desperately try to find him without turning L.A. into a panic zone, director Irving Lerner ratchets up the tension with some evocative location work and brief 1¼-hour running time. There’s also a good unheralded performance by Patricia Blair as Edwards’ girlfriend — so hot and so aware of it that she’s all too pleased with herself being belligerently uncooperative with the police. She gets away with it until the final scene, when we can see that she has probably hugged Edwards once too often. All but setting off Geiger Counters, we sense that that she stands a good chance to look (before too long) like something out of 28 Days Later.
Nightfall (1957): Released to very little fanfare early in its year, Jacques Tourneur’s innocents-attacked quickie has picked up a small cult over the years — though nothing to rival the one for the director’s Robert Mitchum-Kirk Douglas-Jane Greer Out of the Past (which has a plot even more convoluted).
Nonetheless, I would not enjoy being charged with writing a linear plot synopsis, thanks to a whiplashing back-and-forth flashback structure that’s employed once a freelance artist (Aldo Ray) chance-meets a model (Anne Bancroft, back before Broadway super-charged her career). Both are endangered, thanks to Ray’s previous involvement on a camping trip with a couple of creeps he’s saved from car trouble, only to find out they’ve just robbed a bank. If you’re a mental collector of novel ways in which baddies meet their maker in climactic payoff scenes, this has one of the best.
The Brothers Rico (1957): Richard Conte is a former mob accountant nicely set up in an honest Florida dry-cleaning concern. But his brothers (Paul Picerni, James Darren) are implicated in a too-noisy “hit,” and the mob is fretting that one or both may squawk. Hoping with his wife (Dianne Foster) to adopt a child, Conte isn’t wild about being leaned on by the big boys to intercede, but brothers are brothers.
Martin Scorsese so appreciates the familial subtext in this adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that he introduces what critic Andrew Sarris said, in his landmark book The American Cinema, was probably the best movie directed by noir-royalty Phil Karlson’s. (Of the many alternatives I myself prefer, first and foremost is 1955’s memorably brutal The Phenix City Story, which will be out next week in another noir box from Warner Home Video).
Speaking of which: Don’t run to the refrigerator in the final five minutes because Rico has one of the most jarringly fast wrap-ups since they heyday of Warner Bros. in the early ’30s. But I do like the at-home interplay here between the principals, who demonstrate that this is one ’50s movie where a married couple likes to get it on. In one early scene Conte spends what must be half-a-minute trying to get Foster to join him in the shower. We never saw anything like this on “The Donna Reed Show.”