Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II

Ok so the five films included in this recent set don’t warrant masterpiece stasis, and for me they were more gray than noir but here are still lots of small medium and yes even big pleasures to be found in this collection.

HUMAN DESIRE-1954. Fritz Lang decided to do a remake of the Renoir’s 1938 deadly romantic nightmare La Bête Humaine and cast his two leads from his 1953 masterpiece The Big Heat. Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame as the illicit couple are both pretty good here, especially Grahame who really is glistering and radioactive (we first see her lying on her back on her bed with her legs in the air), as the unhappy wife married to the drunk and abusive Broadrick Crawford who can’t keep his job on the railroad where he works along side Ford, and is angry and jealous to boot. Ford who has returned to his old job after a stint in the army and serving in Korea moves into the house that his close friend and co-worker Edgar Buchanan lives in with his wife and pretty grown daughter. Before long Ford starts falling into the Gloria trap of deceit and murder and loses all sense of right and wrong. One of problems here is that Ford is no Jean Gabin who originated the role in the Renoir film, and the film has some very cheap production values. I swear that the exterior of the train looks like it was made of cardboard, and the interior of it looks like a corridor in a cheap hotel or apartment house, and moves or rather doesn’t move like a train ought to move. That said Grahame is very attractive and sexy in her Jean Louis outfits, and her and Ford certainly have a hot sexy stew cooking on the back burner. There is nice crisp and atmospheric cinematography by the great Burnett Guffey who was no stranger to this kind of film, and in fact did the cinematography on Nightfall and The Brothers Rico both of which are also included in this set.

PUSHOVER. 1954. Also from 1954, this is the film that introduced the beautiful 21-year-old Kim Novak to the world, so just for that we should get up on our chairs, be grateful for this and clap our hands together in a nice round of applause. Unfortunately the makers of the film cast the aging and unsexy Fred MacMurray with his bad hairpiece opposite her, and the fireworks that should have happened don’t. The role of the undercover cop who goes bad and ga ga over Novak should have been played by Robert Mitchum who could always be counted on to deliver the goods in the sex dept. and would have been much more believable than MacMurray as the rogue and ambiguous cop. Kim plays the tootsie of bank robber Paul Richards who at the beginning of the film pulls off a heist and kills a cop. He goes into hiding and the police think that by keeping his girlfriend under surveillance she will lead them to him and the loot. In comes MacMurray who in an undercover set up picks up Novak as she comes out of a movie theatre (a nice touch) and pretends to help fix her on the blink car which unknowing to her, he tampered with in order to get close to her. The cops set up house across the courtyard from her apartment and start peeping and rear windowing not only Kim but also her next door neighbor a nurse played by a still brunette Dorothy Malone who unwittingly gets involved with the case because she runs out of ice. She also starts getting all wet and dewy eyed for MacMurray’s straight laced fellow officer Philip Carey who by the way would have been much better than MacMurray in the lead role. Of course Fred falls hard and fast for Kim, and decides to turn bad and figures out a scheme to get the loot for them so they can run off and live happily ever after. Yeah right. Filmed mostly at night, and using real long lost Los Angeles locations that are busy and fun. Unfortunately the direction is by the so so Richard Quine who went on to direct Novak in three other features. Still I did enjoy the film if for no other reason than seeing the 21-year-old beauty at the beginning of her uneven but lovely film career.

THE BROTHERS RICO. 1957. This is a decent B mob movie which shows us how the 1950’s mobs evolved as modern day “corporations” but that still took care of business the old fashioned way. The mob as a corporation was a new idea back then and was used in several other gangster films of the 1950’s and 60’s most memorably in Sam Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. Swiftly directed by Phil Karlson the movie was based on a story by Georges Simenon and had an unaccredited contribution for the screenplay by the still blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. The oldest of the Rico brothers is played by the always good and always sexy Richard Conte who has left the mob where he was their accountant to set up a legit laundry business in Florida and has a happy life with his wife played by the beautiful 50’s actress Diane Foster. Foster and Conte who are childless are waiting and worrying about an adoption that may be put at risk because of Conte’s former life. The film opens with him getting a phone call late one night that draws him back into the mob because of a hit that his two younger brothers took part in. Conte is sent on a wild goose chase by his old mentor, family friend and mob kingpin Sid Kubik played by the fine character actor Larry Gates ostensibly to get his youngest brother played by James Darren, the teen heartthrob out of the country and into a safe location. This is of course a ruse that Conte should have seen coming a mile away, but he doesn’t and he pays a dear price for his misguided trust. The film has a few embarrassing bits, especially the scenes where Mama Rico play by an over the top and steotypical Argentina Brunetti starts praying on her knees to a statue of the Madonna begging her to save her boys, and an excessively improbable happy ending that eats into the dread and revenge that preceded it. Still there is some good work by durable character actors Harry Bellaver and Rudy Bond as mob henchman, and Lamont Johnson who before becoming an award-winning director of many television shows was a competent actor. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey.

NIGHTFALL. 1957. This is a hypnotic dreamlike noir tale directed by Jacques Tourneur about a hapless lug hiding out in Los Angles, played to perfection by the hapless but sweet actor Aldo Ray. The plot line at first is secretive and mysterious, like why is James Gregory lurking on street corners keeping an eye on Aldo and we really don’t know what’s going on until the flashbacks start a little into the film. One night Aldo picks up a young model played by Anne Bancroft in a bar. Anne whose first movie this was doesn’t have money to pay for her drink, and asks Aldo to slip her a five. He does and soon they are having dinner and start to get to know and like each other. Aldo is licking his lips over this dark haired beauty who it seems has fallen out of the sky and onto his lap. However upon leaving the bar, they are set on by two nasty guys played by a very good Brian Keith and a very scary Rudy Bond. They shoo Anne away, and of course Aldo thinks that Anne has played into their trap but this can‘t be so, no way would Anne play Aldo for cheap. We soon learn why these two goons are after Aldo, and here’s where things start to get dicey and the flashbacks begin. From the dark black night of L.A. we are suddenly in the cold white bright snowy mountains of the Tetons where Aldo and a doctor friend of his are camping out, and doing butch guy things, when they spot a car veering wildly off the road and comes to a dead stop. Stolen money, murder and attempted murder follow with the bag of money being confused with the doctor’s bag as the two thugs take off in Aldo’s car. Realizing that they picked up the wrong bag they return to the campsite to find Aldo taking off with the bag containing the money. Based on a story by David Goodis with cinematography by Burnett Guffey.

CITY OF FEAR. 1959. This is probably the cheapest film of the series, but it’s still a compelling little B film featuring the oddly attractive Vince Edwards who is reunited with director Irving Lerner. Learner directed Edwards the year before in the taunt Murder by Contract, and this time around Edwards is once again cast as a somewhat off the wall criminal. The film opens with Edwards who with another convict has just escaped from prison carrying a canister that he has stolen from the big house’s hospital that he thinks contains uncut heroin, but the thing is really full of the deadly isotope cobalt 60. Never mind how he came to find this stuff in a prison, but the two cons are on the run hoping to make a big kill by selling what they think is H to a drug dealer Edwards knows. The cops are horrified to learn about the deadly cargo that Edwards is carrying and if he opens the canister, he can level the city of Los Angeles. The film is loaded with good quirky characters and has a good noir feeling and a deep case of 50’s cold war paranoia with wonderful cinematography by Lucien Ballard that highlights the real L.A. in all its late 50’s run down glory.


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