Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (The Big Heat / 5 Against the House / The Lineup / Murder by Contract / The Sniper)
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The Big Heat (1953) is second only to Scarlet Street as the most corrosive among Fritz Lang's films: honest cop Glenn Ford, in the process of fighting an entrenched Mob and deep-seated corruption, risks becoming a vengeful monster. The source was a novel by William P. McGivern, turned into a steel-trap script by Sydney Boehm. Still, it's director Lang's implacable vision, in terms of both camera and awesome moral symmetry, that makes this American crime story kin to Die Nibelungen. And yes, this is the movie with Lee Marvin as a mobster, Gloria Grahame as his sassy moll, and a legendary interaction involving scalding-hot coffee. As James Ellroy exults in his hilariously profane commentary, Don Siegel's The Lineup (1958) "grabs your gonads in the first five minutes"--actually, a whirlwind first minute-and-three-seconds involving the theft of something from a ship just docked in San Francisco harbor and two abrupt deaths. The pressure eases for a while as The Lineup fulfills its obligation to deliver, in effect, an episode of the police-procedural TV series of the same name. The real Siegel movie resumes as a team of hit men arrive in town to do a day's work. Eli Wallach, in his second big-screen role, is brilliant as Dancer the trigger man, described by his handler Julian (the excellent Robert Keith) as "a wonderfully pure pathological study, a psychopath with no inhibitions." One goose flesh-raising scene follows another until the action peaks at Sutro's museum-cum-skating gallery, a multitiered setting Siegel exploits for maximum tension. The end, right? No, just the launch pad for the finale, the most kinetic car chase the movies have ever done (Bullitt and The French Connection notwithstanding). Shooting on locations all over the City by the Bay, veteran cameraman Hal Mohr rises to every challenge, no sweat. Phil Karlson's 5 Against the House (1955) was the first screenwriting credit for Stirling Silliphant (who also worked on The Lineup), and the aggressively quippy dialogue gets on one's nerves. The premise is a good one, though. Four overage college students--two of them Korean War veterans--elect to spend their holiday break robbing Harold's casino in Reno. The idea is simply to "be first at something"; no one will get hurt and the money will be returned. Except that one member of the team has other plans: good old lovable but volatile Brick (Brian Keith), with that old head wound and a psycho-ward history only his buddy Al (Guy Madison) knows about. As was so often the case, Keith (son of The Lineup's Robert Keith) is the best thing in the movie… unless you hold out for the pre-stellar Kim Novak in frosty black-and-white. As Al's singer girlfriend, she completes the titular five--albeit at the expense of having to smooch with Guy Madison, who kisses like an angry robot. There's no kissing for The Sniper (1952), one of the strongest of independent producer Stanley Kramer's early efforts. A foreword explains that this is the "story of a man whose enemy was womankind," and the title character, a pleasant-looking but effectively anonymous nebbish (Arthur Franz), is soon expressing that enmity through his high-powered rifle. The script by Harry Brown lays on the hostile gender dynamics with a trowel, and a psychiatrist (Richard Kiley) files an indictment of society for having failed to provide proper treatment for the killer before it was too late ("It's our fault"). Director Edward Dmytryk makes dynamic use of steep, drop-away perspectives in San Francisco to suggest a world seriously out of joint.
Murder by Contract (1958) features another sort of murderer entirely, a young man named Claude (Vince Edwards) who makes a very good living as a killer for hire. Trained not to feel anything, and assured that a stranger killing a stranger is unlikely to get caught, he goes about his business dispassionately. He could almost be in a Robert Bresson film, moving through a world of Antonioni-like bleakness; deaths occur offscreen. The production resources don't even reach B-movie levels, and that's fine: a dime more might have jeopardized this picture's eerie spell. Irving Lerner directed, and Perry Botkin's electric-guitar score sounds like something that, a year or two later, would have adorned a film by Louis Malle. Only two films are accorded running commentary, well worth the listen in each case. Native San Franciscan and noir empire builder Eddie Muller provides the inside dope on The Sniper, then brings in hard-guy novelist James Ellroy to savor The Lineup; that one's a party. Directors who've patrolled neo-noir territory--Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, and Christopher Nolan--supply intros. Scorsese's are the best, but as usual, there are spoilers galore and viewers are well advised to watch the movie, then the intro. --Richard T. Jameson
Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat
Martin Scorsese on Murder by Contract
The Influence of Noir with Christopher Nolan
Martin Scorsese on The Sniper
Commentary with Critic Eddie Muller
Commentary with Critic Eddie Muller and Author James Ellroy
Top Customer Reviews
"Martin Scorsese Presents The Sniper" features the legendary filmmaker talking about the documentary feel of the film thanks to the use of authentic locations.
Also included is an original theatrical trailer.
The Big Heat starts off with "Michael Mann on The Big Heat." He speaks admiringly about the prominent female characters in the film. The director talks about the ethnic aspect of the film as well as the uncompromising nature of Glenn Ford's character.
"Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat" features the director talking about how Ford's character becomes what he's fighting against. Scorsese draws particular attention to the flat look of the film and how director Fritz Lang directs us to the behaviour of the characters.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer.
The only extra for 5 Against the House is the original theatrical trailer.
The Lineup includes an audio commentary by author Eddie Muller and James Ellroy. Muller says that this film started off as a television show cut from the same cloth as Dragnet. He plays the straight man on this track, rattling off facts, while Ellroy is his usual colourful and profane self offering his bizarro opinions on this film. He sings the praises of Don Siegel's more than capable direction.Read more ›
The Sniper (1952) - directed by Edward Dmytrik and starring Adolphe Menjou, Arthur Franz, and Gerald Mohr. A San Francisco detective traces a series of seemingly random killings to a sharp-eyed loner who uses his rifle as a means to exact deadly revenge on the women who have rejected him.
5 Against the House (1955) - directed by Phil Karlson and starring Brian Keith, Guy Madison, Alvy Moore, and Kim Novak. Four college pals plot to rob a casino in Reno just to prove it can be done, but their plan to return the money is threatened when one of them intends to keep it for himself. Probably the weakest film of the lot.
The Lineup (1958) directed by Don Siegel and starring Eli Wallach and Robert Keith. When a mother and her young daughter unknowingly destroy a stash of heroin, a pair of hit men must keep them alive long enough to explain it to their boss. Eli Wallach makes a great villain and the scenes of San Francisco 50 years ago are interesting too.
Murder by Contract (1958) directed by Irving Lerner and starring Vince Edwards as a well-mannered college-educated young man who just figures that being a hitman is a good way to make a living. Claude is usually philisophical yet mechanical about his hits, but when he is hired to kill a woman who is about to turn in evidence against the seedy mobster he works for everything starts to go wrong for him.Read more ›
Here's another film I use to watch when I despair of cinema's future. Gloria Grahame's performance is unique as well as Lee Marvin's. Masterpiece.
** 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE
Weak crime movie with an interesting Brian Keith performance. That's all.
***** THE LINEUP
An extremely brisk beginning, a pair of villains that will haunt you for days, Richard Jaeckel as the alcoholic wheelman, social etiquette taught by a gay Pygmalion to a psychopathic hit man. 86 minutes of sheer pleasure. Masterpiece.
***** MURDER BY CONTRACT
I understand now why Martin Scorsese admired so much Irving Lerner. With a simple guitar melody playing while Vince Edwards is dressing up, Irving Lerner emerges as a one of a kind director. The rest of Murder by Contract is in accordance with this mythical beginning. Masterpiece.
*** THE SNIPER
Progressive Stanley Kramer production. The murders, in my opinion, are very violent considering it's a 1952 movie. Recommended.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I think you will enjoy all 4 installments of Columbia Pictures film noir classics... There are nice extra's and great quality on the transfer.Published 7 months ago by Rocky
Great films - love film noir! Got all of the series - need to see more added when available.Published 8 months ago by Pen Name
Excellent selection of film noir titles. Don't miss "Murder by Contract" with a score written by Perry Botkin, Jr. Read morePublished 10 months ago by J. Hall
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