Columbia Noir, Vol. 2 – Blu-Ray Review

These sets of Columbia Pictures Film Noirs rom Indicator has obviously been doing pretty well, as the company has already announced a third volume. The films in the collection are mostly fairly short, with the economical storytelling that is typical of most films noir. None of the films in this set are extremely well known or are from famous directors, but this volume is a bit more consistent in quality than the first. 

The first is Framed with Glenn Ford, one of the great actors in film noir and very good here. As the title suggests, it’s about a guy who gets framed in a very typical film noir situation. There’s a femme fatale, a bank robbery… you’ve seen this before, but it’s really well done. Janice Carter plays an excellent femme fatale—she was often seen as a second-rate Rita Hayworth. It’s a solid film with Ford as an everyman drifter who gets hoodwinked by Carter’s waitress and her male benefactor, with plenty of twists and turns before the end of its tight 82 minutes. 

What makes Framed different is that it’s a small-town noir rather than having an urban setting. It seems like a cheaper cash-in on the success of Hayworth’s Gilda, and has a feel similar to The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Directed by Joseph M. Newman, 711 Ocean Drive is a really simple story about the rise and fall of a gambling empire, with Edmond O’Brian on the lead role. It has a superb climax at Boulder Dam, capping off a tale of greed and paranoia. The film was touted as a big expose on gambling, but it’s not—the claim that they needed police protection to finish the shoot was probably strictly a marketing scam. Newman also directed This Island Earth; one of the writers, Richard English, wrote the notorious pro-HUAC movie Big Jim McLain just a few years later.

The Mob came out before On the Waterfront, but it’s very similar to that film—though more pulpy and snarky. A cop is suspended after accidentally letting a cop-killer go. Then he gets a chance to redeem himself by going undercover to take out an extortion racket on the docks, and has to infiltrate the Mob to do it. It’s a solid noir of that ilk, with some very good dialogue, e.g. “I have to go underground, like gophers and Communists!” Star Broderick Crawford is the actor who really makes the film.

Rita Hayworth sizzles in Affair in Trinidad, directed by Vincent Sherman. Sherman is best known for several films he made with Joan Crawford, such as The Damned Don’t Cry; he also replaced Richard Aldrich as director of The Garment Jungle, which is in the first Columbia Noir set. This film is what you would imagine a Hitchcock film with Hayworth would be like, she was generally a redhead so Hitch must’ve not been interested in her. Her most iconic role was in Gilda with Glenn Ford—and of course Ford and Hayworth had a real-life on-off relationship for years—but here she plays a nightclub singer/dancer whose husband dies. It was thought to be a suicide, but as she and her brother-in-law (Ford) dig deeper, it looks more like murder. It has an exotic locale, and Hayworth does a few numbers on screen as well. She and Ford definitely had chemistry, and the result is a dependably entertaining noir.

Affair in Trinidad was written by James Gunn, who also penned the novel that one of my favourite noirs, Born to Kill, was based on. Gunn followed this film up with the script for Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire.

Tight Spot is probably the weakest of the set. The most unique point about it is that it stars Ginger Rogers in a non-musical role (which she did a lot more of than people remember). Rogers did quite a few noirs, including Black Widow. Rogers is great in it as a wisecracking moll, but the story’s not that interesting. She plays a former model who’s in jail and needs to testify against a mobster. The mob is trying to get to her while she’s under police protection in a hotel. Edward G. Robinson plays the DA, in a bit of a twist on his usual mob roles. It was directed by Phil Karlson, who was probably best known for Kansas City Confidential, Five Against the House (one of the stand-outs from the first Colombia Noir set) and two films with a connection to Tarantino: Walking Tall and The Wrecking Crew, which has had a bit of a second life thanks to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The last film in the set is the best: Murder by Contract. It’s a unique late-period noir that was also a huge influence on Martin Scorsese. An arrogant guy called Claude (Vince Edwards) is always telling everyone how superior he is to everyone else. He’s a hit man who doesn’t carry his own gun. It’s a tight 80 minutes that had a clear influence on Taxi Driver, with an existentialist take on the genre plus some almost Ayn Randish stuff thrown in (though without any 100-page speeches). Edwards plays an arrogant prick who is somehow still quite engaging. 

It’s a film that’s out of place and out of time—it feels like a French New Wave film, even though it predates that genre; it will remind you of John Cassavetes’ later films (and Edwards later went on to star in one of Cassavetes few studio films, Too Late Blues).

Director Irving Lerner was one of the editors on Spartacus, and ended up becoming supervising editor on New York, New York with Scorsese at the end of his career. Weirdly, there are rumours that he may have also been a Soviet spy! If you like Blast of Silence, one of the very last noirs that was made just a few years later, you will definitely dig Murder by Contract.

The collection also includes a bunch of Three Stooges shorts keyed to the film themes, many new introductions, a commentary track on every film from critics and writers, and with most there is a short from a director, writer or actor linked to the film. It’s an impressive set, capped off with a 120-page book.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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