After writing the onerous article on "Boston Noir" and attending
the "Boston Noir" book launch/reading at the Boston Book Festival (Dennis
Lehane should host a talk show; he's hilarious) I thought I'd fill in the gaps
in my noir knowledge by checking out the Columbia Film Noir Classics I
box set of five 50s B-ish films from that
genre, to be released by Sony and the
Film Foundation. And indeed, it was an eye-opener. Who knew these movies were
Like kinky Fritz Lang's "The
Big Heat" (1953), the best known of the bunch. Why is Lee Marvin's psycho Vince
Stone so pissed off at women? The hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face scene still packs a wallop, but while watching
it this time in the context of some of the other films in the collection it
occurred to me that perhaps one motive for such viciousness is repressed
homosexuality. In a society (the 50s) where gayness is brutally repressed, no
wonder sexually tormented guys like Vince take it out on dames and just about
everyone else. I haven't had a chance to tune in to the commentaries by Martin
Scorsese and Michael Mann. Maybe they shed light on the matter.
On the other hand, nobody bothered to comment on the DVD of Phil Karlson's "5 Against the House." Understandably so, because it's kind of
a bland (surprising since it's based on a novel by Jack Finney of "Invasion of
the Body Snatchers" fame) and confused item somewhere between "The Blue Dahlia"
(1946) and "Oceans Eleven" (1960). So I'll
put in my two cents worth. In it four
veterans from the Korean War, now attending "Northwest" University, get caught
up in a scheme to rob a Reno
casino. Unfortunately, one of them, sweaty, baby-faced "Brick" played by Brian
Keith, is a bit of a psycho, ostensibly from battlefield trauma.
But I think there might be something else to it. First of all,
the four pals are maybe a little too tightly knit, their banter at times
weirdly double entendre-ish (and mostly annoying), plus their enslaving/hazing
of a freshman named Speedy seems a little unwholesome. Then there's the tension
when the best looking guy in the bunch, Al, played by Guy Madison, starts two-timing the
group by getting cozy with a nightclub singer played by Kim Novak. That's when
old Brick starts getting the homicidal heebie-jeebies. I see it as psychopathic
jealousy and homosexual panic. I mean, just look at Madison in the cowboy suit.
Speaking of Brian Keith, his wizened father Robert plays one of a
pair of mob hit men in Don Siegel's "The Lineup" (1958) .
He's Julian, the older, wiser, but no less sociopathic member of the team and
he has his hands full with Dancer, played by a brilliant Eli Wallach who must
have been an inspiration for Joe Pesci in "GoodFellas" and "Casino." A key
scene occurs in a steam room with a sailor. As one of the DVD commentators, Eddie
Muller of the Film Noir Foundation observes, at this point the subtext is no
longer just suggested. The other commentator is the great crime novelist James
Ellroy, and let's just say he seriously competes with the
characters on screen for down-the-road-wacko-ness. Sheesh! No wonder the studio
put up a disclaimer.
As for the two others, in Edward Dmytryk's "The Sniper" (1952)
the title psycho can't control a compulsion to pop errant women who resemble
his mother with his military issue M-1. It stars Adolphe Menjou as "Lt. Frank
Kafka." One of the more striking images involves an extreme long shot of a tiny
man dangling from a huge smokestack. Phallic symbol, anyone?
Finally, Irving Lerner's "Murder by Contract" (1958) has
Vince Edwards (remember "Ben Casey?" there's even a sequence here with him
dressed up like a doctor) as a hit man whose single-minded dedication to his
craft (in his commentary Scorsese explains how the film influenced "Taxi
Driver") works fine until he's given a contract on a woman. Unlike the other
guys, he doesn't like it at all.