More noir: the Columbia Noir Classics on DVD (vol. 1)


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 ($59.95)  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 so gay?

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.

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