Columbia Noir #3 – Blu-Ray Review

This third volume in Indicator’s ongoing collection series of neglected Columbia films noir includes six features: Johnny O’Clock, The Dark Past, Convicted, Between Midnight and Dawn, The Sniper and City of Fear. As always with these sets, it’s a mixed bag—but every single one of them has at least one or two films that are fantastic.

The knockout here is The Sniper, an Edward Dmytryk feature that’s basically a film about an incel before such a concept existed. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten, and The Sniper was his second film after giving testimony to HUAC, where he did name names. It’s a nasty little noir shot in San Francisco, probably the most under-appreciated city for the genre. Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a delivery guy who hates women and goes around shooting them at random. The city is in panic, and a police detective is trying to solve the case. It’s an impressive movie, produced by Stanley Kramer. Kramer was a director/producer who is sometimes ridiculed now for his “message movies,” like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones and On the Beach, some of which have aged badly. Dmytryk’s films had a bit of a left slant, and he’s best known for his noirs today—including Murder My Sweet and Crossfire.

The Sniper is surprisingly up-front about this misogynist killer. he is completely a proto-incel. It also features lots of location footage in San Francisco, which at the time was pretty unheard of. Franz gives a very chilling performance. Interestingly, the cop’s name is Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), which must be a reference to the author slipped in by screenwriter Harry Brown (Brown also wrote A Place in the Sun). Columbia assigned Menjou to the film, although he was an avid anti-Communist whilst Dmytryk was a former Party member. Menjou was strictly in it for the money.

Johnny O’Clock was directed by Robert Rosen, who was a pretty decent filmmaker—as well as a blacklisted communist. Rosen directed The Hustler, Lilith, Body and Soul and All the Kings Men. This film is a fairly average noir with Dick Powell, who was also the first to portray Philip Marlowe (in Murder My Sweet). Powell plays the junior partner in a casino, where a detective is investigating a crime plot. You can see the influence of this well-made but unremarkable film in later movies like Hard Eight. The casino set is particularly impressive.

The Dark Past is the more starry version of Blind Alley (that earlier version was directed by Charles Vidor), which was in turn based on a play by James Warwick. They two films are probably about as good as each other. Made nine years later, there’s a bit more Freudian psychology stuff in the plot of The Dark Past. The main character in both is a criminal psychologist (Lee J. Cobb) whose home is invaded by a convicted murderer (William Holden), followed by the two playing mind games. It predates a run of that type of film, the best of which was Desperate Hours with Humphry Bogart. It’s always weird to see Holden in a youthful role, as even just two years later when he did Sunset Boulevard, he looked pretty haggard. Rudolph Maté directed—his next film was D.O.A., one of the best Poverty Row noirs.

Convicted features Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford and Dorothy Malone, plus a raft of good character actors. it’s a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code, which starred Boris Karloff. It’s a prison film where the DA who convicted Ford of manslaughter becomes a warden in the prison where he is being held. He tries to help him out, because he thinks the sentence given was excessive, but Ford lands in additional trouble. It was directed by Henry Levin, not an especially notable director as his other well-known credit was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Next up is a Gordon Douglas film, Between Midnight and Dawn. Douglas was a workman-for-hire director best known for Them!, one of the best science-fiction films of the ‘50s and one whose slightly noirish vibe enhances its believability. Douglas did a lot of noirs and westerns, such as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with James Cagney and I Was a Communist for the FBI; some of the earliest neo-noirs; and even directed a Liberace movie! Douglas became friendly with Frank Sinatra in the ‘50s, and did a throwaway Sinatra-Doris Day film, Young At Heart. In the 60s, Sinatra wanted to try for more serious films, like The Manchurian Candidate. He did three notable films with Douglas: Tony Rome, The Detective (which is kind of a prequel to Die Hard…as that film is a based on the sequel to the novel that formed the basis for The Detective) and The Lady in Cement. In any case, Between Midnight and Dawn is a serviceable buddy-cop B-noir, pretty formulaic, but with a decent director at the helm it moves at a good pace for its 90 minutes. There’s a muted romantic sub-plot, and a nice mix of on-location and set photography.

Finally, City of Fear is one of those films in the vein of D.O.A. or Panic in the Streets, where there’s a race against time. Made late in the classic noir era in 1959, it was directed by Irving Lerner, who also did Murder By Contract. That film was the highlight of the second Columbia Noir set. Lerner became a mentor to Martin Scorsese and worked on a few of his 1970s films, and was also a friend of Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes. While he’s known for these films, he also did quite a bit of TV work. It doesn’t have the minimalism of Murder By Contract, which is what makes that such a fascinating little movie, but both star Vince Edwards. Edwards had a slightly creepy vibe to him, but was later the lead in the TV show Ben Casey MD. He’s good here in a role as a convict who makes off with what he thinks is some heroin that he can sell, but actually it’s a radioactive substance, so the police have to catch him before he exposes everyone to it. It’s one of the better films in this set, with a quirky vibe given the plot.

All of the films have been remastered. Like the other Columbia Noir sets, this one includes several Three Stooges shorts that are send-ups of film noir, plus theatrical trailers and stills galleries for most of the movies. In addition, there’s a hefty selection of shorts, audio commentaries, radio adaptations, documentaries and appreciations, topped off with a massive 160-page booklet featuring new and archival writing about the films, interviews and film credits.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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