Columbia Noir #1 – Blu-Ray Review

This is the first of two sets coming out from Indicator with noir titles owned by Columbia Pictures. As always with this type of set, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s an interesting collection of various types of noirs. This one includes films from Robert Aldrich (uncredited), Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel and Joseph H. Lewis. Boetticher is better known for his Westerns, which are collected in a previous Indicator box set.

Boetticher’s Escape in the Fog is not one of the better films in the set, although he did some notable noirs, like The Killer is Loose. Escape in the Fog is pretty routine—even the director has said it was kind of a ‘nothing’ picture. It was made during the last gasp of World War 2, and it’s similar to the films Fritz Lang was making at the time—a mishmash of noir and spy thriller with an anti-Nazi message thrown in. Here a young woman is having psychic dreams about spies, giving it a supernatural aspect, and although it’s nothing to write home about it has a string shoot-out at the climax.

The Undercover Man is from Joseph H. Lewis, best known for two of the greatest noirs—Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. He did loads of others, working from the 1930s through 1958, with normally at least one film every year, until he moved into episodic television, mostly westerns like Branded, The Riflemen, Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Some of Lewis’s work is really offbeat, like his final feature, Terror in a Texas Town, which inspired a revival of his films in the early 80s.

The Undercover Man is not half as good as those: it’s a pretty straightforward procedural that is clearly based on the IRS’s investigation of Al Capone. Glenn Ford plays Treasury agent Frank Warren. He’s playing against type since typically he portrayed villains. It’s a perfectly decent film, and comes in tight at just over an hour.

Drive a Crooked Road is one of the better films. Directed by Richard Quine, it stars Mickey Rooney. It was one of the few noirs that Rooney did once he outgrew his pair-ups with Judy Garland and did a tour in the military. This film was one of a small group of movies, including Baby Face Nelson, that saved his career in the early 50s. He’s not necessarily the actor you expect in a noir, but he’s really good in it as a short mechanic and wannabe racecar driver who is swindled by Barbara Foster into driving the getaway car in a heist. A pair of great character actors, Kevin McCarthy and Jack Kelly, play the two thieves. Rooney was always known for being ridiculously energetic, but here he turns in an understated performance with an undercurrent of anger and loneliness—a really strong performance.

The odd one out is 5 Against the House, a heist film that’s a sort of proto-Ocean’s 11. Some “college students” (the oldest college kids you’ve ever seen) decide to rob a casino in Reno. It starts off really strong, sags a bit in the middle, and ends well. It’s a decent film for its genre—not amazing, but Kim Novak does a great turn as a nightclub singer who is one of their girlfriends. She’s very glamourous for someone working in what’s portrayed as a down-and-out club. The film is based on a novel by Jack Finney, who also wrote The Bodysnatchers, which was the basis for Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and its various remakes.

Next up is The Garment Jungle, which is basically an On the Waterfront knock-off. It’s about gangsters in unions and unionbusting, all set in the garment district of New York. Lee J. Cobb appears as the father of Alan Mitchell, a Korean War vet who comes back to work in the family garment business. They’ve been paying gangsters to keep the union out, and that’s where the conflict begins.

It’s a pro-union movie, which was slightly dicey at the time,and that may be why co-director Robert Aldrich left or was fired. You get the feeling that there was disagreement about the movie, and that’s correct. From all accounts the original script was very good, at some point Columbia wanted a simpler movie, and the head of the studio, Harry Cohn, pushed Aldrich out. Aldrich was a very idiosyncratic filmmaker—he made Kiss Me Deadly after all. He was replaced by Vincent Sherman, who forced in a love story, ending up with a perfectly decent film that’s still a bit of a mess. It does include a very good early performance by character actor Robert Loggia as a union organiser.

Finally, The Lineup is the best of the bunch. It was an early feature from Don Siegel who would go on to do Dirty Harry, Escape From Alcatraz, Charley Varrick and many more. It is technically based on the television show The Lineup, which ran from 1954 to 1960 and was sometimes called San Francisco Beat in syndication. It actually doesn’t have much to do with the show other than two of the cops from the show appearing in it—and the cops are the least interesting thing about this movie, because it’s all about the villains. As always with Siegal’s stuff, it’s really compact, well-made, no-bullshit filmmaking. It stars Eli Wallach, who is fantastic in it, in his second film after his debut in Baby Doll. He plays a complete and utter psychopath. The plot is about international drug smuggling in San Francisco, and there is brilliant use of SF as the backdrop for the action. For the most part it was actually shot on location, which was rare at the time, making it one of the great San Francisco noirs. It’s well-paced with a good plot, and really nasty when it needs to be. There’s a particularly memorable death involving a wheelchair.

Of course the set is packed with extras, the transfer are all great. Each film is packaged with an audio commentary from notable experts, ranging from Pamela Hutchinson to author James Ellroy. Extra shorts, image galleries, publicity and promotional material liven up the collection: the shorts include several Three Stooges numbers chosen for alignment with the plot of each feature, including wartime comedy, You Naztsy Spy! The richest offers are with The Lineup, which comes with three episodes from the radio show, a trailer commentary from A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson, an appreciation by Christopher Nolan, a video essay on the film locations, and not one but two audio commentaries; The Garment Jungle also comes with an archival interview with Robert Loggia and a 15-minute discussion of the film writer/film programmer Tony Rayns.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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