“In the 1940’s, a new genre – film noir – emerged from the world of hard boiled pulp magazines, paperback thrillers and sensational crime movies. These films, tough and unsentimental, depicted a black and white universe at once brutal, erotic, and morally ambiguous.”
And so Sony collects 5 of these films as part of what looks like is going to be an ongoing series. But what exactly is film noir? You hear the word used from time to time, but what does it mean?
Film Noir officially started in the 40’s, but the movement was well underway by the early 30’s. You can trace its roots to the Great Depression and the arrival of the dime pulp magazines. These were highly stylized, mostly mystery, stories that provided cheap escapism for the masses who were not having a good time of it. Writers like Raymond Chandler crafted the mold that was easily transferred to the silver screen. These were low budget films that were intended to be second billing with the more mainstream releases. They were shot quickly. Many have a very flat look created intentionally. The lighting was often minimal, crafting odd shadows and unusual textures. The dialog wasn’t intended to be natural or realistic. These characters usually spoke in clichés and had names like Mac, Griff, or Dollface. There was often a shade of gray to these characters. Good and evil were not always so clear cut. Gangsters became common themes of the genre. And while the dialog might have been cheesy, the cinematography was often gritty and almost ultra-realistic. At times the films played out like documentaries, often including narration. The narrator would always be a voice of authority; often film reel stars were used. The films were heavily influenced by German Expressionism, perfected by the likes of Fritz Lang in the silent era and carried over to more modern themes. The films always contained a steady supply of stock characters and actors. It was smoky rooms and neon lights. It was a reflection on the times. It was Film Noir.
Here are the films collected here:
The Sniper (1952)
“High among police problems is that of the sex criminal, responsible last year alone for offenses which victimized 31,175 women. Adequate and understanding laws do not exist. Law enforcement is helpless. Here, in terms of one case, is the story of a man whose enemy was womankind.”
Eddie Miller (Franz) has just been released from a prison psych ward for committing violent crimes against women. He tries to supress his anger, at first, but he is beginning to feel the urges once again. He tries to contact his psychologist, but the man can’t be reached. Even a local hospital turns him away when he exhibits obvious psychological problems. When the desires become too overwhelming, he takes to the rooftops and begins to shoot women, particularly those who offer him a less than pleasant encounter. All the while he is begging the police to find him, to stop him.
This film was actually quite ahead of its time. Miller is not the typical Hollywood psychopath up to this point. He doesn’t exhibit the maniacal behavior films even leading up to today often do. He is struggling with his feelings, and actor Arthur Franz does a remarkable job of expressing this incredible inner conflict. The film also breaks ground in the way the police handle the case. Richard Kiley plays Dr. Kent, a police psychologist who attempts to profile the killer. He pleads with the department to change their tactics, tailored to what he believes is necessary to catch this particular killer. There is some startling imagery in this film. One of the more stunning scenes arrives near the end when Miller shoots at a worker climbing a tall smokestack, because he called out to the police. This is by far the strongest film in the collection.
The Big Heat (1953)
“You can’t set yourself against the world and get away with it.”
It all begins with the abrupt suicide of Tommy Duncan, a policeman with the records department, at his desk at home. In his hands he clutches an envelope addressed to the District Attorney. His newly widowed wife Bertha (Nolan) hears the shot and discovers his body. She takes the envelope away before calling the police, making a call first to gangster Mike Lagana (Scourby) to inform him of what she’s discovered. That envelope contains evidence that isn’t good for Lagana, and Bertha figures it’s worth a good deal in blackmail. Leading the death investigation is Detective Dave Bannion (Ford). He gets suspicious when the widow claims he killed himself over a health concern that Bannion can find no other evidence to support. The more questions he asks, the deeper into the case he gets, the more people turn up dead. As Bannion closes in on Lagana, the hoods go after his family. Now, with nothing left to lose, Bannion will stop at nothing to bring the hood and his gang down.
Glenn Ford was no stranger to the hero role. He was particularly good as the tough hero in Westerns as well as other genres of films. He was a pretty big name even then, but the real stardom hadn’t quite come by this time. In many ways this film is very much like a Western, and Ford’s portrayal goes a long way to completing the effect. You have the showdown type of relationship. The addition of Lee Marvin, also a perennial Western star, completes the picture. Marvin plays Vince Stone, Lagana’s number one gun. He’s a brutal character, particularly toward women. He has a tendency to burn them with either cigarettes or a hot pot of coffee. Ford also looks every bit the Western lawman when you see him enter a room and take charge. While his fight is with Lagana, the best moments are when he’s pitted against Marvin’s Stone. Alexander Scourby as Lagana isn’t a bad actor at all, but he lacks the presence to hold his own against Ford. And thus reveals the movie’s single greatest flaw. It all falls a bit flat when neither Ford nor Marvin are on the screen. It should also be noted that the movie manages to work without the clichéd Tommy gun battles that had become a staple in the gangster film noir genre.
5 Against The House (1955)
“If you have a system you might as well get it out of your system.”
A group of college students return to school after a break in Reno, where they were trying out a gambling system which didn’t really work out that well. Back with their studies they find that they are getting incredibly bored with school and their average lives. They recall that while in Reno they witnessed a guy try and fail to rob the casino they were playing at. A police officer had remarked that it was impossible to get away with robbing the place. What started as a joke, an intellectual exercise, gets serious when one of the guys, Brick (Keith) decides they should really do it. He’s able to convince two of the guys Roy (Moore) and Ronnie (Matthews) to go along with the plan. Al (Madison) is too involved with his girl Kay (Novak) to be likely interested in the scheme. The problem is that it takes four guys to pull off the plan. When Al and Kay decide to go to Reno and elope, Brick sees the perfect chance to trick Al into going along with the job. They set of to Reno in an RV, and the engaged couple have no idea about the heist until it’s too late. Brick is determined to pull it off even if he has to kill any of his friends to do it.
A very young Brian Keith does a pretty good job as the psychotic Brick in this film. It’s hard to imagine Keith would later build his career in family friendly roles. The entire cast is solid, but the film is incredibly slow going. The action doesn’t even get started until the final 20 minutes or so. There’s so much talking, often about being bored, that the audience is beginning to understand the concept, perhaps better than the filmmakers intended. Look for a young and thin William Conrad as the guy getting jacked in the casino.
The Lineup (1958)
“I don’t want to see any of the boys get killed, especially from someone else’s carelessness.”
A cab driver grabs a professor’s bag and makes a run for it. He runs down and kills a patrol officer in the process. He ends up dead, but the cop’s death means bringing in the detectives to find out what’s going on. The mystery leads to a heroin smuggling operation that plants the drugs in innocent objects carried unwittingly by normal tourists. Now the bad guys are out to collect the drugs before the cops can get to them, and they’re leaving a wake of bodies behind them. The last stop on their list is a mother and her young daughter. But the little girl has accidentally found the drugs and used them to powder her doll’s face.
This is a solid suspense film all the way. How about a killer who travels with a man who collects last words for a book he hopes to write. It’s just the right amount of creepy detail that makes this standard procedural a bit more compelling.
Murder By Contract (1958)
“I got one thing in my favor. The human female is descended from the monkey. Now, the monkey’s about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on they just can’t stand it not to know about it. It’s the same thing with a woman.”
Claude (Edwards) wants a nice house. The kind he’s never going to be able to afford on an honest pay. So he decides to work for the local mob kingpin as a hit man. He works his way up in the rackets until he’s one of the best in the business. When he’s sent to the Coast to eliminate a witness before she can testify, his overconfidence gets the best of him.
I know Martin Scorsese considers this to be one of the best films he’s seen, but I just don’t get it. It’s a character study of an uninteresting character. The pace is entirely too slow. Vince Edwards is uneven at best as the hit man who gets too full of himself. The film doesn’t really strike me as film noir at all. It reminds me of the 50’s and 60’s beatnik films. Edwards fills that role far better than the one he’s given. Most of the entire second half of the film meanders endlessly with Claude having a good time before he decides to take the job seriously, driving his handlers crazy. I admire Scorsese, but I wish he could explain to me what it is he sees here. He likens it to Taxi Driver, but the films couldn’t be further apart. Easily the weakest in the collection.
All of the films are presented in their original widescreen or full frame aspect ratios. The studio used relatively clean prints. The films are mostly alone on the discs, so you won’t find any compression artifact to distract from the prints.
All are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The films are mostly dialog driven, so that’s really all that is serviced here.
Some of the discs come with short features:
Audio Commentary by Author Eddie Muller: There’s a bit of irony here as the commentator’s name is very similar to the titular sniper in the film. He offers plenty of historical background and even a small crash course on the film noir genre.
Martin Scorsese Presents The Sniper: (3:18) The accomplished filmmaker talks about a lot of the style points from the common Noir San Francisco locations and the effective use of shadow and lighting. He recounts seeing the film for the first time as a kid.
The Big Heat:
Michael Mann On The Big Heat: (10:57) The Miami Vice filmmaker talks like he’s an expert on everything from German Expressionism to GNP analysis in a global economy.
Martin Scorsese On The Big Heat: (5:48) Lots of film clips fill this already short running time. Again the filmmaker recounts his first experience as a boy with the film.
The Influence Of Noir On Christopher Nolan: (6:30) The Batman filmmaker talks about the film noir genre and the obvious influence it has had on his style. There are plenty of clips, and they include an error. A clip from The Sniper is misidentified as being from The Lineup. The mistake is understandable, as it depicts a lineup and uses the very same set in both pictures.
Murder By Contract:
Martin Scorsese On The Contract: (5:41) Scorsese says this is one of his favorite films. He talks about its influence on his own style, particularly Taxi Driver.
With the exception of the final film, these movies offer some historically significant insights into a filmmaking style that is all but lost today. Certainly, the influences remain, but you have to go to the source if you want the real thing. And why not. Years ago films like this were hard to see. You might catch one by luck and happenstance on a late night show on television. But the prints were always bad, and they were cut up worse than a sex starved teen in a Nightmare On Elm Street flick. This is the only way to go. Sony did their job by bringing these to you in a convenient package with good looking prints.. Now all you have to do is pick this collection up. It’s pretty simple. “So, don’t mess this up.”