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Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (The Big Heat / 5 Against the House / The Lineup / Murder by Contract / The Sniper)

4.5 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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(Nov 03, 2009)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

In the 1940s, a new genre - film noir - emerged from the world of "hard - boiled"pulp magazines, paperback thrillers and sensational crime movies. These films - tough and unsentimental - depicted a black-and-white universe at once brutal, erotic and morally ambiguous. Now, Sony Pictures and The Film Foundation have brought five noir classics together in one collection, all restored and remastered, and featuring brilliant performances by Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Kim Novak, Eli Wallach and Gloria Grahame, the genre-defining cinematography of Burnett Guffey, Hal Mohr and Lucien Ballard, and focused, taut direction by celebrated directors including Fritz Lang, Don Siegel and Phil Karlson.

Sony/Columbia comes late to the business of boxing classic noirs, but their first foray is a winner. The crisp restorations fairly pop off the screen, and although two titles tower above the other three, every one rates as a must-see. Fritz Lang is represented by perhaps his last great film, and there's a gem from Don Siegel with one of the grabbiest beginnings and most breathtaking action climaxes in thriller history. Phil Karlson, a busy man at Columbia in the '50s, contributes a caper movie set chiefly in Reno, and there's also a creepy, pioneering study of a serial killer, plus a truly offbeat specimen in which minimalist art film and bargain-basement crime movie converge as though the French New Wave were about to roll.

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

Special Features

Michael Mann on The Big Heat
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

Product Details

  • Actors: Arthur Franz, Adolphe Menjou, Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith
  • Directors: Don Siegel, Edward Dmytryk, Fritz Lang, Irving Lerner, Phil Karlson
  • Writers: Ben Maddow, Ben Simcoe, Edna Anhalt
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Black & White, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English
  • Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired: English
  • Region: Region 1 encoding (US and Canada only)
    Some Region 1 DVDs may contain Regional Coding Enhancement (RCE). Some, but not all, of our international customers have had problems playing these enhanced discs on what are called "region-free" DVD players. For more information on RCE, click .
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 5
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Sony Pictures
  • DVD Release Date: November 3, 2009
  • Run Time: 427 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0024FAG80
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #48,202 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (The Big Heat / 5 Against the House / The Lineup / Murder by Contract / The Sniper)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

The Sniper features an audio commentary by author Eddie Muller. He starts off talking about the origins of the film - a husband and wife writing team. He mentions that it was a very controversial film at the time because of its subject matter. Muller provides all kinds of fascinating production details, like how much of the film was shot on location in San Francisco. He explains that The Sniper is a landmark film because it was one of the first to prominently feature a serial killer.

"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.
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This set contains 5 films and no extra features have been announced. The set is due to go on sale November 3 along with a volume 2 of film noir from Sony on the same day. Sony continues to hit it out of the park with classic sets being announced rather regularly this year. The films in volume one are as follows:

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.
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Anyone who's interested in film noir will consider this first volume of Columbia classics a "must". Besides "Big Heat" (arguably Fritz Lang's best film of the fifties), this remarkable package is a very rare opportunity to have a look at "The Sniper" in pristine condition and, above all, to discover the rarest of noir gems : Irving Lerner's "Murder by Contract", one of the coolest thrillers ever made. Highly recommended, although "Five Against the House" should have been replaced by a worthier title.
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Ten years ago I discovered that there was a great but brief period of films released in the late 40's into the early 60's known as Film Noir. The films here are among the best especially the little know "The Sniper".
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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.


Weak crime movie with an interesting Brian Keith performance. That's all.


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.


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.


Progressive Stanley Kramer production. The murders, in my opinion, are very violent considering it's a 1952 movie. Recommended.
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