Indicator have been releasing some of my favourite box sets over the past couple of years. There are two William Castle sets, five four-feature collections from Hammer (with a sixth on the way), and stand-alones of Sam Fuller, John Ford, Norman J. Warren’s horrors, Budd Boetticher’s westerns, Harry Alan Towers’s Fu Manchu movies. Now they’ve embarked on what seems to be a high-speed schedule to put out collections of Columbia noir B-movies – the first set of six movies came out in November, the second in February, with the third scheduled for May. If anything I enjoyed volume two even more than the first set.
The set opens with a bang: Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford) is driving a truck down a steep hill towards a small town. The brakes fail and he can barely maintain control on the winding road, roaring into town and finally smashing into an old truck driven by prospector Jeff Cunningham (Edgar Buchanan). Told by the truck company manager that he’s solely responsible, Mike forces the man to fork over his $15 fee, which he immediately gives to Jeff for the damage. Although down on his luck, Mike is quickly established as a decent guy.
And we know what happens to decent guys in film noir. In a local cafe, he’s immediately attracted to waitress Paula Craig (Janis Carter), who looks out of place in the dump. When the local cops show up to arrest him for dangerous driving, she follows and since he can’t afford the fine and is being taken to jail she pays his penalty. If all this seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Paula’s attraction rests on Mike’s physical resemblance to her boyfriend, banker Steve Price (Barry Sullivan) – she’s been working at the cafe looking for someone just like him because Steve has been robbing his own bank and needs a body to burn in a car crash which will cover his escape.
Framed (1947) is an exemplary noir, tightly constructed by scriptwriter Ben Maddow, without a wasted moment or extraneous scene. As in other noirs in which he starred, Ford is caught in a relationship which keeps shifting from attraction to suspicion, from passion to betrayal and back again, underlining the common streak of masochism seen in many noir protagonists. Carter matches him well as a woman whose motives are never certain, even when she seems decisively to choose Mike over Steve. If the film ends on a ruefully upbeat note with Mike having survived the complicated plot which threatened to doom him, he’s no better off at the end than he was at the beginning.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Framed (for me at least) is that it was directed by Richard Wallace, a prolific director whose career spanned a quarter century from the silent period to 1950, but whose only film I’ve previously seen is the absurdist comedy It’s in the Bag (1945), which is about as far from noir as you can get.
Joseph M. Newman’s 711 Ocean Drive (1950) is one of two films in the set dealing explicitly with organized crime (two others are tangentially connected). Although it’s framed with a police investigation, complete with voice over, its focus is on the rise (and fall) of an ordinary guy whose particular skills make him useful to a gambling syndicate. Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) works for the phone company, a secure job with a steady salary – but not enough to get him what he wants in life. His bookie Chippie Evans (Sammy White) recognizes that his technical know-how could be valuable to Vince Walters (Barry Kelley), who runs an illegal off-track betting operation in California.
Mal quickly sets up a much more efficient system using phones, telegraph and radio, which boosts Walters’s profits and gives Mal leverage to become a partner in the business. The increased activity attracts the attention of the Eastern mob and they send Larry Mason (Don Porter) west to make a deal. Mal is now running the operation since Walters was murdered, and he sees no reason to give any part of his business to the mob. But he’s distracted by Mason’s wife Gail (Joanne Dru) and eventually agrees to a 50-50 split.
Not surprisingly, the mob double-crosses him and he starts fighting back, using his technical skills to cheat Las Vegas bookies out of huge sums of money. With the mob and the police closing in, Mal and Gail make a run for it, heading for a visually impressive climax at the Hoover Dam where Newman makes the most of the location to finish the film on an epic scale.
Based on actual situations, 711 Ocean Drive is a well-balanced mix of noir romance and a documentary-like account of the illegal gambling business, efficiently directed by Newman, who five years later would make the very different This Island Earth (1955). Mal doesn’t start out with criminal intent, but rather is seduced by the opportunity to show off his knowledge of up-to-date telecommunications technology; then once he starts making real money, he keeps getting in deeper. O’Brien is very good showing how an initially easy-going guy can slip almost imperceptibly into calculated viciousness, corrupted by his own success.
Former actor and Oscar-winning editor (Body and Soul ) Robert Parrish began a not particularly distinguished directing career with a pair of noirs in 1951. On the heels of his debut Cry Danger, he made this taut thriller about organized crime and unions three years before Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). The Mob begins with a terrific crane shot looking down across a rainy street at night towards a lit store window. A figure walks out of the dark and into the store and as he crosses to the counter, the camera moves in and down towards the window. The atmosphere is palpable. Inside, the man asks the store owner about rings – he wants one that looks expensive, but doesn’t want to pay the price. They haggle. The man finally gets what he wants, a flashy ring at less than half price, by paying cash.
This guy turns out to be a cop, Johnny Damico (Broderick Crawford), and immediately after closing the deal he makes a serious error in judgment. Out in the street, a shot is fired. Johnny sees a man crouched beside a body; he pulls his gun and the other man identifies himself as a cop, showing a badge. Johnny tells the guy to call for backup and checks the body. The shooter disappears and Johnny soon discovers that he was actually a mob hit man, the victim a cop. Held responsible for the killer’s escape, Johnny is suspended … but given a chance to redeem himself by going undercover to find the head of the organization which has infiltrated the dock workers’ union.
The gang is vicious, casually killing anyone who gets in their way, but Johnny is just as tough. He faces down thugs like Gunner (Neville Brand) and his boss Joe Castro (Ernest Borgnine), and takes some savage beatings as he works his way up the ladder to the big boss. Like Johnny himself, the narrative is full of false identities, people who are not who they appear to be, including Tom Clancy (Richard Kiley), the guy who shows Johnny the ropes on the docks, and Smoothie (Matt Crowley), who turns out to be more than he seems.
The Mob is dark and very hard-boiled. Cops and gangsters alike are violent and compromised (Johnny is introduced using his position as a cop to pressure that store owner into taking a loss on the ring for Johnny’s fiancee); full of shadows and unclear motives (making it a more interesting treatment of unions and the mob than Kazan’s higher-profile feature), it also provides an almost documentary account of post-war corruption permeating society, while the fast-talking characters deliver snappy dialogue with the panache of classic ’30s gangsters.
You couldn’t get much further from The Mob’s grit and violence than Vincent Sherman’s Affair in Trinidad (1952), crafted specifically as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen after her 1949 marriage to Prince Aly Khan. The script by James Gunn and Oscar Saul, from a story by producer Virginia Van Upp and Berne Giler, drew on the ’40s genre of romantic thrillers rather than hard-boiled crime movies. In fact, it plays as something of a remake of Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), the movie that cemented Hayworth’s status as a star. It also added into the mix echoes of Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).
Hayworth fills the screen with sultry sexuality as Chris Emery, a nightclub singer-dancer in Port of Spain. Following her Code-challenging dance number, local police inspector Smythe (Torin Thatcher) and U.S. Embassy official Anderson (Howard Wendell) inform her that her husband, failed artist Neal Emery, is dead, an apparent suicide. They actually suspect murder, but have no proof, and persuade Chris to exploit her connection with wealthy Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby) to try to uncover what happened.
Things get complicated when Neal’s brother Steve (Glenn Ford) arrives in response to a letter from Neal telling him about a possible job, a letter written on the day of the supposed suicide. The ensuing mix of romance and antagonism echoes the fraught relationship between Hayworth and Ford in Gilda (not to mention the one between Ford and Janice Carter in Framed); they fall in love, but Steve is tormented by her apparent complicity in covering up the truth about Neal’s death and her closeness to Max. This tension also echoes the complicated relationship between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, a similarity further emphasized by Max’s involvement with international espionage and what seem to be Nazi plans for a Fascist resurgence.
As derivative as Affair in Trinidad is, I actually liked it more than Gilda, perhaps because the earlier film strove too hard for big studio glamour. Slightly pared down, the later movie makes it easier to engage with the characters; it may also have something to do with the vulnerability of Hayworth’s character, unwillingly trapped in a dangerous situation and forced to play a role which alienates the man she’s falling in love with.
Phil Karlson’s Tight Spot (1955), which seems atypical of the director’s work, is the odd one out in the set. Based on a play by Leonard Kantor, William Bowers’ script keeps the action largely contained in a single set – a luxury hotel suite – and blends elements of screwball romantic comedy with something much darker. Based on recent events exposing the operations of organized crime, it takes place over a weekend before the start of a mob trial. With crucial witnesses murdered, prosecutor Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson) has only one long shot to go ahead with his prosecution of mob boss Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene): Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers), in the final year of a five-year sentence, could offer testimony which undermines the legitimacy of Costain’s immigration, proving that he had lied to the authorities and paving the way for his deportation.
But Sherry is bitter and cynical, having been convicted on purely circumstantial evidence, and she’s not inclined to stick her neck out – especially in light of what happened to the other witnesses. She’s collected from prison by a tough, equally cynical cop named Vince Striker (Brian Keith), who freely displays his contempt for her. But as the hours of their shared confinement in the hotel pass and they gradually reveal themselves to each other, a mutual attraction grows – complete with snappy repartee. Despite attempts being made on Sherry’s life, the tone remains quite light, leaning towards comedy, until things take a darker turn and violence erupts, convincing Sherry that Hallett is right and she does indeed have a social responsibility to stick her neck out for a larger cause.
Despite direction by the usually hard-as-nails Karlson and photography by experienced noir cinematographer Burnett Guffey, Tight Spot feels stage-bound, relying on engaging performances by Rogers, Robinson and Keith in the absence of any particular atmosphere. Comedy undercuts the darkness, while the darkness simultaneously mutes the comedy. It’s an odd tonal mix, entertaining in individual moments but never quite forming a satisfactory whole.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but this second set of Columbia films noirs ends like the first with a movie from 1958, and like Don Siegel’s The Lineup, Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract consciously breaks with tradition and points in new directions. Not least, both films focus on idiosyncratic professional killers, relegating the police to the sidelines as barely relevant to their narrative worlds. And in both, a great deal of time is given to quirky banter between the killer and his handler(s). These studio B-movies indicate that even in Hollywood the currents of change were flowing towards something new – not as stylistically radical as the nouvelle vague, perhaps, but definitely a move away from settled formulas.
Lerner’s third feature has more in common with the pared-down, laconic thrillers Jean-Pierre Melville was just beginning to make at that time, and its influence would be felt into the ’70s, most notably in the work of Martin Scorsese, who paid direct homage in Taxi Driver (1976), basing Travis Bickle’s obsessive home workout routine on the one performed by Claude (Vince Edwards) as he holds up in his seedy room waiting for word of a job. Claude is as enigmatic as any Melville protagonist, a man who has decided that he can never get what he wants through regular work, so he sets out to recreate himself as a contract killer. He has no experience, but is determined to make a career of it, deliberately suppressing all his emotions along the way.
Having made contact with Mr. Moon (Michael Granger), a mob go-between, Claude waits patiently for the call, and when it comes he performs the job with cold-blooded efficiency … though not with a gun, which he abhors. Having proved himself, he’s eventually sent to dispose of Mr. Moon, which he does just as dispassionately. And then he’s sent to the West Coast to eliminate a witness scheduled to testify at an upcoming trial.
In Los Angeles, Claude is chaperoned by a pair of low-level gangsters: Marc (Phillip Pine) finds the killer unnerving, but George (Herschel Bernardi) is fascinated as Claude explains his philosophy of murder-as-business. There are two weeks before the trial starts and Claude shows no interest in the job – he wants to cruise around, to see the sights, to look at the ocean and take a swim. Marc grows more stressed, losing any confidence he might have had that Claude can do the job. Eventually George too becomes less certain. Then, with only a few days left, Claude finally asks who the target is … and discovers that it’s a woman. This all but unhinges him; women are unpredictable, more difficult targets, he should be paid double…
As we’ve been given no background on the character, his reaction remains opaque. It seems unlikely that he has any moral compunctions about killing a woman, but he loses focus, becomes uncertain. All his precision, his sharp focus on business, begins to unravel. He fails in two separate attempts to fulfill the contract and learns that his employers, intolerant of failure, have decided to eliminate him. George and Marc take him to an abandoned movie studio to carry out their orders, but faced with two men, his skills are as good as ever. Yet despite no longer being on the payroll, he’s determined to overcome whatever psychological block he’s suffering from, to prove to himself that he’s still in control … completing the contract which has already been voided becomes an existential imperative, no longer just a hit but rather a deadly confrontation with Fate itself.
It’s hard to believe that Murder by Contract was the product of a Hollywood studio in the ’50s; in style and content it seems more like something from the ’70s – cool, cynical, completely unconcerned with the moral dictates of the Production Code. It’s a remarkable piece of work by a director who didn’t get a lot of respect, even from the people he worked with – writer Ben Maddow, who probably contributed to the script (without credit because of the blacklist), was quoted as saying Lerner was “a very wonderful editor but a terrible director. He just didn’t know where to put the camera.” And yet seen now, this movie seems strikingly accomplished and ahead of its time.
As with the first set, Indicator’s Columbia Noir #2 gives each film an excellent transfer and packs the disks with extras, each movie with a commentary, two lengthy archival interviews with Ernest Borgnine, an interview with Glenn Ford’s son, an introduction to Murder by Contract by Martin Scorsese, short documentaries by Lerner, Newman and Maddow, a Central Office of Information documentary about the West Indies (from a colonial perspective), and six Three Stooges shorts. The big disappointment is an hour of excerpts from the Kefauver Commission’s hearings into organized crime; these appear to be a fascinating glimpse of the reality behind films like 711 Ocean Drive, The Mob and Tight Spot, but the audio quality is so bad that they’re essentially unwatchable.
Of course, there’s also a substantial booklet of essays, press materials, memoirs and contemporary reviews.