DVD Review: Dangerous Dames, Killer Kids, and the Chumps Who Love Them

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II is one sequel that couldn’t be more welcome this summer. Hot weather goes well with hothouse tales of lust, greed, and the five other deadly sins (recall how Body Heat got temperatures rising in 1981) and this new set serves up a quintet of hardboiled hits.

I wrote a short review of the first volume for the print edition of Cineaste magazine. It’s worth reprising here, given links between the two. “Hail Columbia for freeing from its vaults a mother lode of material that now includes these dark and glittering gems. Joining Fritz Lang’s previously released The Big Heat are four films that pick at the scabs of postwar malaise, exposing insanity (The Sniper), shell shock (5 Against the House), godless misanthropy (Murder by Contract), and perverse impulses (The Lineup). Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese (who says Murder directly influenced Taxi Driver, and employed its director, Irving Lerner, as New York, New York’s supervising editor) provide supplementary introductions, but auteurists can throw away these crutches and revel in their favorite moments, transferred with knife-edged clarity: Phil Karlson’s confident handling of 5 Against’s casino robbery, Lerner’s scoring of Murder’s barbershop hit with a nervous electric guitar, and Don Siegel’s virtuoso staging of the San Francisco car chase that ends The Lineup. Noir expert Eddie Muller, who comments solo on The Sniper, is joined by live wire L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy for The Lineup. Of flatfoot Emile Meyer, Ellroy beams, “That motherfucker would take you in the back room, plant a throwdown gun on you, then beat the shit out of you with a phone book.”

Don’t look for that level of close analysis here—in the way of all sequels, the original concept has been diminished, and there are no commentaries this time. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio transfers, too, aren’t quite as gleaming, despite anamorphic enhancement. What there is (outside of a trio of new introductions and the original, sensationalizing trailers) is a fistful of worthwhile-to-excellent films making their DVD debut in Region 1, and that’s enough to go down easy with a fifth of gin and a carton of smokes.

Lang’s corrosive The Big Heat (1953) is one of the best-known noirs. His follow-up, 1954’s Human Desire, has two of its stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, and may yet earn similar recognition based on its appearance in this set. Émile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine had been filmed in 1920 and 1938 (by Jean Renoir, with Jean Gabin) but Lang’s expressive economy makes the material his atmospheric own. Stylistically, this film and Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957) are the two most venturesome, leaving L.A. and the Columbia backlot for stretches (you see the same streets, from different angles, in every movie) but staying on dangerous ground.

Ford, a studio journeyman, tangled with every dame on the lot, and his railroad engineer here gets a hard time from Grahame, who, before their rendezvous, had basically been pimped out by her stationmaster husband (Broderick Crawford) to get his job back. The Production Code obliges you to read between the lines in these films, which is part of their appeal, but there’s no mistaking the sweaty fury in the bulky Crawford’s eyes when he whittles a toothpick with a knife in a train, as a prelude to the murder of the railroad executive when he thinks he’s gone too far with his wife. (It’s arguably the most chilling image in the entire set.) Implicated in the crime by her husband, Grahame hatches a scheme of her own, manipulating the suspicious but smitten Ford, whose Korean War veteran resists the prospects and hometown girl that could be his.

One of noir’s chief cinematographers, two-time Oscar winner Burnett Guffey, gets tremendous mileage out of the trains and railyards, accentuating the storyline’s criss-crossing of fates. The choice of actress Emily Mortimer to say a few words about the film in an introductory segment is a curious one until you recall that she starred in the recent, superior train-set neo-noir Transsiberian; she makes some interesting remarks about the tormenting allure of Grahame, an Oscar winner for 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful and a scandal magnet herself.

Columbia star-to-be Kim Novak, who had a part in 5 Against the House, officially debuted in 1954’s Pushover, the first of four films she made with director (and sometime boyfriend) Richard Quine. Ushering her into the spotlight is Fred MacMurray, recycling his Double Indemnity persona to good effect. Here he’s a police detective tracking a bank robber and his ill-gotten $200,000, seduced by the crook’s girlfriend (Novak) into bumping him off and stealing the loot as he and his partner (future One Life to Live lifer Phil Carey) stake out her apartment. MacMurray’s seamy relationship with the tantalizingly passive-aggressive Novak is contrasted with Carey’s romance with her unsuspecting neighbor, Dorothy Malone—but that, too, is steeped in voyeurism, in a tight and exciting thriller that’s also an inadvertent social document of its leering time. Pushover’s release is also a nice warm-up to a Novak box set Sony is releasing Aug. 3.

With his rat-tat-tat delivery Martin Scorsese packs ten minutes of information into his three-minute introduction to Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (1957). The explanation he offers for the shorn look of these 50s noirs, made without the lighting effects and shadow play of, say, Mildred Pierce (1945) a decade earlier, makes sense to me—their flatness was designed to match TV, their eventual home. Unfortunately the flatness extends to this particular film, which is based on a novel French crime master Georges Simenon wrote while living in Connecticut. It’s one of the first movies to root out the mob as it retreated behind corporate facades, with accountant (and noir stalwart) Richard Conte pulled right back in again when an avuncular boss (Larry Gates), fearful of snitches, goes after his hitman brothers (James Darren and Paul Picerni). The pursuit takes in several cities without ever seeming to leave the lot, and Karlson (the director of 5 Against the House and other notable noirs, plus, in the early Seventies, the rat sequel Ben and the kick-ass revenge picture Walking Tall) directs with admirably terse frugality—not enough to squeeze much pulp, however, out of rote romantic subplots and a phonily reassuring law-and-order epilogue no doubt dictated by the front office mob.

Freed of any real-world constraints in the plotting, Nightfall is likely to be everyone’s favorite in this set, a hard crime picture offset by a warm-and-wry relationship between tough guy Aldo Ray (the Bruce Willis of his generation, and a model for Brad Pitt’s basterd “Aldo Raine”) and Anne Bancroft, who’s just terrific in one of her earlier starlet parts. The mode didn’t suit her but she brings a commonsensical humor to the film as a model who unwittingly draws Ray into the open for bad guys Brian Keith and Rudy Bond to torment. The “why” is revealed through flashbacks (the only one of these films to use them) to Ray’s none-to-restful Wyoming vacation the year before, when he and a friend tangled with the crooks and wound up in possession with their stolen money, which Ray buried in the snow. The Al Hibbler tune that begins the film cues the gentler side of the story, acted so well by Ray and Bancroft; but there’s the menacing Keith to contend with, and a hair-raising finale in wintry Jackson Hole. Tourneur directed the great, complex noir Out of the Past (1947) and, the same year as Nightfall, the memorable horror film Night of the Demon, all touched by his poetic sensibility.

“You’re the most wanted man I know,” says Bancroft to Ray. The most wanted man in this set, however, is Vince Edwards in 1959’s City of Fear, as a fleeing criminal who thinks he’s made off with a canister of heroin, unaware that it actually contains fissionable material. Part of the “nuke noir” subgenre that includes 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and I would argue 1985’s Edge of Darkness miniseries and its recent theatrical remake, Irving Lerner’s vaguely beat-ish/New Wave-ish no-budgeter is the odd man out in this set, much as Lerner’s Edwards-starring Murder by Contract was in the last one. Shot by veteran DP Lucien Ballard (of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing) and scored in an early gig by Jerry Goldsmith, the film is has the nervous energy of a caffeine jag, as Edwards, in the manner if not the style of so many noir anti-heroes, drives to nowhere.

“A cultural attempt to make sense of negative things,” says Inception director Christopher Nolan of the recurrence of film noir in introducing City of Fear. With the release of this superior set, plus Warner Bros.’ fifth noir box (its eight films include The Phenix City Story, Karlson at the top of his game), a fistful of Paramount noirs coming out on July 27 (among them Charlton Heston’s 1950 debut Dark City), and a newly revised and updated edition of the essential Film Noir: The Encyclopedia in bookstores now we’re in for a long and sweaty summer.

There’s plenty of intrigue before you watch a single movie in The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films. The mystery is this: How do you pry any of the discs loose without fingerprints, cracks, or scratches? While the noir DVDs are all individually packaged, the three DVDs here, each containing two films apiece, are cheaply mounted on one hub, like last year’s Toho set. The only answer I can give is, very carefully.

Once free, the films, cleanly presented in their original aspect ratios and with their trailers as extras, reward the effort. Hammer was known for its revivals of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the whole Universal menagerie starting in the late 50s, which are the ones I paid attention to growing up. Half of these Columbia-distributed titles were unknown to me, and the best of the bunch, 1963’s These Are the Damned, was only available in cut form. I’d go straight to the third and most satisfying disc, which houses Damned and Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960), for a bracing killer kids/killer of kids combo.

Blacklisted in America and exiled to Britain, Joseph Losey was a rock thrower throughout his contentious career, and These Are the Damned hits several targets. It’s a “nuke noir,” arguably the most despairing. But it’s also a teens-in-trouble flick (with a James Bernard theme, “Black Leather,” that will burrow into your brain), a pair of fatalistic love stories, and a philosophical inquiry into the end of the world, which the film sees as inevitable. On the cusp of his three-decade stint on Days of Our Lives, fifty-year-old Macdonald Carey is a world-weary American adrift in a seaside town in Britain, whose flirtation with a hottie half his age (Shirley Anne Field) is brutally interrupted by her Teddy Boy brother (Oliver Reed, in one of his best Hammer assignments). The assault brings him into contact with a doomy sculptor (Viveca Lindfors) and her secretive scientist lover (Alexander Knox). In time it brings all of them into the fold of the scientist’s work—a race of irradiated children, cold, and lethal, to the touch, bred to survive the coming nuclear apocalypse.

The title suggests the popular Village of the Damned (1960) but the kids here, shut up in a cave and controlled via surveillance, are the victims and not the aggressors. Everyone else is tainted by his or her own choices, and the astonishing helicopter shot that ends the film unites their fates. Losey didn’t much care for Hammer, but it’s hard to imagine another studio bankrolling such a unique and unclassifiable film—strangely poetic, beautiful, and terribly sad, a masterpiece.

Stranger took me by surprise. A British couple who have moved to a Canadian village press charges against an elderly pervert who has toyed with their daughter and her friend. An absorbing and depressingly timeless story becomes throat tightening at the climax, as the creep (played all but wordlessly by veteran character actor Felix Aylmer, one of Hammer’s spookiest apparitions) moves against the children—but the real villain is his nouveau-riche son, who dispenses and withholds jobs and favors to keep the townspeople quiet. I’d like to see more of director Cyril Frankel’s films if this understated thriller is any indication of their quality.

If these discs had titles, the second could be called “Guys Who Kill Wearing Things on Their Heads.” Blowtorch murders give Michael Carreras’ contrivance-thick Maniac (1963) its chief distinction, as another visiting American (former Sinbad Kerwin Matthews) rattles family skeletons in an eye-for-an-eye community in picturesque rural France. (Envy and suspicion of other Europeans and Commonwealth members is a recurrent theme in these movies.) Prolific Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster titled his autobiography Do You Want it Good or Tuesday?—this was a Tuesday.

Much better is The Snorkel (1958), co-written by Sangster and stealthily directed by Guy Green, better known for melodramas like The Angry Silence (1960) and A Patch of Blue (1965). Here a killer (the smoothly treacherous Peter Van Eyck) uses a breathing apparatus to murder his wife undetected with asphyxiating gas in their Italian villa; everyone thinks the crime was a suicide except his stepdaughter (14-year-old Mandy Miller), who becomes his next target. Miller, whose last feature this was, makes a resourceful heroine and the cat-and-mouse games are quite entertaining. Not that there’s anything wrong with the climax but if it had ended a minute or two earlier it might have been a real scream.

The first disc has two con man movies. Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960) has a neat opening sequence then trails off, like the cars driven by its sour racer hero (Ronald Lewis). A crash injury leaves him with a compulsion to kill his wife (Diane Cilento), which a conniving shrink (Claude Dauphin) seizes upon. Director Val Guest made his Hammer bones with the sci-fi hits The Creeping Unknown (1955) and Enemy from Space (1957) so I looked forward to this one, presented at a full-length 108 minutes for the first time since its unremembered release here. It makes a strong case for cutting, though, as it plods along, with a bad guy whose punishment doesn’t fit his crimes. The sun must have got in everyone’s eyes along the Cote D’Azur locations.

London at Christmas is the setting of 1961’s Cash on Demand, with Hammer great Peter Cushing reteamed with André Morell, the Watson to his Holmes in the studio’s fine The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Morell is the mastermind this time, as a cunning thief who manipulates Cushing’s Scrooge-like bank manager into robbing his branch’s safe, a scheme executed in something close to real time in this short and snappy caper directed by Quentin Lawrence, of the creepy sci-fi chiller The Crawling Eye (1958).

I’ll sign off with “Black Leather.” The Electric Eels do a punk version but it’s not the same thing. It looks and sounds a whole lot better on the DVD. “Black leather, black leather, kill kill kill…”