Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Ranking the Columbia Noir Collection on Criterion Channel

The Columbia Noir collection was one of the most popular during the early days of the Criterion Channel – so much so, that for it is first anniversary they not only brought it back and expanded the selection. There are now 26 titles in the Columbia Noir collection. Last year, I watched or re-watched six of those titles – this year, I plan on watching the other 20. And below, is a ranking of all 26. Some of these I will do full reviews of – or already (have – others I won’t, simply as a matter of time). It is an excellent collection – with some legitimate masterworks, and some fun B movies as well – only a few aren’t really worth your time.
26. 5 Against the House (Phil Karlson, 1955) – Sometimes cheap B-movies remain so simply because they aren’t very good – and that’s the case with this heist film. Four friends, the old guys at college after returning from Korea, get mistaken for casino robbers in Reno, and hatch a plot to do it for real – and draw in the finance of one of one (Kim Novak). It’s a fairly cheap film, and feels like a programmer and nothing more. At one point, the young Novak breaks into song for some reason. The heist plot is overly complicated, and bizarrely it is all pinned on one guy (Brian Keith), and the rest apparently get off scot-free. Director Phil Karlson can be great – this very same year he directed The Phenix City Story, which is brilliant (as well as two other films in 1955 – including Tight Spot, also part of this collection). This feels like exactly what it was – something cheap tossed off for all involved without much care.
25. Blind Alley (Charles Vidor, 1939) – The earliest one in the collection is not one of the best. It’s fairly lightweight, and almost comical in its Freudian dissection of the criminal mind. The film is about a criminal (Morris) who escapes from jail, and takes a psychologist (Bellamy) and his family hostage – with Bellamy eventually figuring out all of Morris’ problems. The acting isn’t uniform either, with silent star Chester Morris, still mugging for the camera – and Ralph Bellamy having to speak in psycho-babble speeches. Yet, it’s a short movie – just under 70-minutes, and moves quickly. It’s an interesting little film – kind of combining the gangster genre of the 1930s, with what would come with noir, but not quite being either. A curiosity more than a satisfying film in its own right, it at least holds your attention.
24. Tight Spot (Phil Karlson, 1955) – Ginger Rogers stars as a tough female convict, who the cops – lead by Brian Keith, who falls for her, and Edward G. Robinson as the D.A., gets her out of jail in the hopes that she will testify against a mobster who will go free otherwise. It is hardly vintage Rogers or Robinson – both were kind of at the tail end of their movie careers as stars anyway, and they’re basically phoning it in. It’s also not really a noir either. For the most part it’s fun, but it really is a cheapie genre film, not made to last.
23.The Dark Past (Rudolph Mate, 1948) – This is a remake of Blind Alley – and it basically has the same issues with its screenplay as that film did – too many speeches, too much overt Freudian analysis, and adds another one – awkward bookends with the shrink, played by Lee J. Cobb. But it’s also slightly better overall than Blind Alley – mostly due to the fact that I think William Holden and Cobb more than Morris and Bellamy, and Mate’s direction basically apes better noir, which had become a thing by then is better than Vidor’s, who did more of a melodrama thing. Still, I’m not sure you really need to see either of these.
22. The Burglar (Paul Wendkos, 1957) – This film is about three films in one, all mushed together, in ways that don’t entirely satisfy. This sat on the shelf for two years, before Columbia bought it for release – and you can kind of see why. Dan Duryea, usually a great slimy character actor, here as the lead – as a burglar who steals jewels from a fake spiritualist, and then head to Atlantic City to hide out. The heist is a highlight of the movie – it’s not Rififi or anything, but it’s pretty good. Then the film kind of shifts into something else. Duryea is fine, a young Jayne Mansfield not so much. It’s all decent, and moves quickly from one thing to another, but it never quite comes together as a satisfying whole.
21. So Dark the Night (Joseph H. Lewis, 1946) – So Dark the Night is a weird film – a kind of Agatha Christie style mystery, wrapped in the trappings of noir, that both plays itself for laughs, and takes it seriously – and all in just 71 minutes. Does it work? Not entirely – the big twist here, with what happens when a genius level detective on vacation (played by Steven Geray) starts investigating one murder, and finds it spin out to more, is, well, odd to say the least – the type of twist a hack screenwriter thinks is clever. But it certainly is, well, weird.
20. Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) – Any Noir with Humphrey Bogart in its lead cannot be all bad – and while that’s true of Dead Reckoning, it also certainly doesn’t rank among Bogart’s best noir. This film, where Bogart plays a paratrooper, returning to America with his buddy, who disappears, and turns up murdered, when he discovers he’s going to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor is classically structured noir all the way. Bogart starts playing detective – and it doesn’t take him long to get in over his head, and fall for a classic femme fatale (Lizbeth Scott). The movie kind of spins its wheels after a while though – repeating itself. And although 100 minutes is far from a long movie – it’s far too long for this one. Like I said, any noir with Bogart cannot be bad – and Scott helps a lot too – but there’s a reason it doesn’t rank with his more famous noirs.
19. The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959) – Director Samuel Fuller examined the subject of racism throughout his career, and it kind of takes over the 1959 noir The Crimson Kimono. The plot is about two detectives – best friends, one white, one Japanese America (James Shigeta), investigating the murder of a stripper, and both falling for the same woman (Victoria Shaw). To be honest, the murder mystery kind of gets lost along the way – in favor of Shigeta’s questioning his place in America, and the racism he faces. If this were made today, it would be laughed at as far too simplistic – but for 1959, it really was kind of groundbreaking – so there is some importance to the film. It isn’t quite all that interesting to watch however – a film full of good intentions, and an interesting time capsule, but hardly the best of Fuller’s great career.
18. The Mob (Robert Parrish, 1951) – This quick moving, not-really-noir, stars Broderick Crawford as a cop, who lets a murderer slip through his fingers, and then has to go undercover as a longshoreman from New Orleans to try and get to the bottom of corruption on the docks. The movie works best for its first hour – as Crawford gets deeper and deeper into the mob – also enjoyable to see him go toe-to-toe with Ernest Borgnine. The climax probably gets a little too complicated, and isn’t quite as much fun – but overall, this is pretty much exactly what Columbia Noir promises – fast-moving, entertaining B-level genre films.
17.Affair in Trinidad (Vincent Sherman, 1952) – Rita Hayworth’s “comeback” movie to Columbia after 5 years away, the film basically ends up being Gilda-light. Once again, Hayworth stars as a nightclub singer in a tropical locale, and Glenn Ford plays a man who both loves her and hates her, because of her relationship with an effeminate rich man. But this film isn’t as harsh as Gilda was – we know from the start that Hayworth is innocent, she acts the way she does because she’s trying to get information on her husband’s murder, and Ford acts the way he does but her husband was his brother, and he thinks his wife was cheating on him – and that everyone is trying to convince him his brother committed suicide. As a film itself, it’s fine – Hayworth is dances wonderfully, and does the rest of what she does well, as does Ford. It’s mainly interesting as an echo of Gilda though.
16. Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur, 1956) – Jacques Tourneur was one of the great journeymen directors of his era – moving from one genre to the next with ease – sometimes producing masterpieces like Out of the Past, one of the best noirs ever made, and sometimes producing a fleet, entering B-movie like Nightfall. It is a classic wrong man set-up, with Aldo Ray accused of bank robbery and murder, and pursued, and falling for a young Anne Bancroft along the way. The movie is fleet footed and entertaining – and even if it never rises to the level of Tourneur’s best work, it’s certainly an entertaining B-movie.
15. Johnny O’Clock (Robert Rossen, 1947) – Robert Rossen’s breezy noir stars Dick Powell in full movie star mode as the charming title character – a man who runs a casino, and kind of floats on the surface, liked by all. Then, his playboy ways catch up with him, and he’s drawn into a web of murder and revenge. Lighter than a lot of noir – with a hero who is a likable heel that you still root for. Quite a good debut for Rossen – and a movie star vehicle for Powell, with solid character work by Lee J. Cobb. Diminished (slightly) but some unconvincing supporting performances, and the strange name of the title character – making it slightly harder to take seriously – but still a crackerjack entertainment.
14. Pushover (Richard Quine, 1954) – The presence of Fred MacMurray in the film really does make one think of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Double Indemnity (1944). Once again, MacMurray falls for a femme fatale (Kim Novak) he is supposed to be investigating, leading him down a path to murder, and then more murder to cover it up, and try and get a lot of money to run away with the girl. The movie is, of course, no Double Indemnity – Novak’s performance, and her character, have nothing on Barbara Stanwyck. And the whole movie has the feel of a quickie B-movie, which it what it is. But that works amazing well, is fun and movies at a breakneck pace to its inevitable conclusion. A wonderful B-movie.
13. The Harder They Fall (Mark Robson, 1956) – There is an added layer of interest in The Harder They Fall because it was Bogart’s last film – filmed right before his cancer diagnosis, when he was clearly in pain. It’s also one of those late 1950s films where you can watch different kinds of acting – Bogart’s old school movie star charisma vs. Rod Steiger’s method acting – and remarkably they both work well individually, and together. The story, with Steiger’s heavy hiring Bogart’s recently fired boxing reporter to promote his latest prospect – a worthless, but huge, South American boxer to stardom. The whole thing works, in an old school way – and really does kind of feel like an end of an era in many ways.
12. The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson, 1957) – Richard Conte stars as a former mob accountant who has gone straight – but is dragged back in to track down his younger brother, who may or may not have reached out to the D.A. On the surface, the film doesn’t really feel like noir – but it really kind of is, with Conte as the dupe, sucked deeper and deeper into a world. The cross-country narrative works as well, and Karlson’s direction is top notch. I do think the end of the film is a big letdown – you know what has to happen, but it just doesn’t work as well as the terrific rest of the film.
11.Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954) – Out of all the dupes in film noir, I’m not sure I feel more outright sympathy for any of them more than I do for Mickey Rooney’s Eddie in Drive a Crooked Road. A mechanic, and race car driver at local racers, he’s got a scar on his head, and seems a little slow, but is basically happy in his life – until a criminal’s girlfriend (Dianne Foster) seduces him, and gradually convince him to get the getaway driver for a bank robbery. Eddie is such an innocent here, who gets in way over his head, but he really doesn’t want to – he isn’t motivated by greed or lust, but because he genuinely loves her. The movie itself isn’t as good as the character or Rooney’s performance – but they do a lot of heavy lifting to make this one genuinely moving – and exciting.
10. The Lineup (Don Siegel, 1958) – Shot on location in San Francisco, The Lineup is a terrific entertainment – featuring a memorable performance by Eli Wallach as the psychopath gangster Dancer, who travels around the city retrieving packages of heroin, by any means necessary, smuggled in my unsuspecting tourists returning home. The film shifts focus a few times – first looking perhaps it’s going to be a wrong man narrative, then a police procedural, before finally settling on Dancer as its main character. The film makes terrific use of the real locations, and like the best of Siegel’s doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it.
9. The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952) – Watching The Sniper in 2020 is a very odd experience. It’s main character, Eddie Miller played by Arthur Franz, is pretty much a prototypical “angry white man with a gun” – who has just become a larger and larger problem in the nearly 70 years since the film was made. He is basically an incel – who gets angry at women, particularly women with boyfriends, who he feels “rejects” him, when really, they haven’t done anything wrong. The only real difference here is that Eddie takes out the specific women he hates, one-by-one, with a sniper rifle, instead of one mass incident. The film tries to psychoanalyze him a little – and has far more sympathy for Eddie than normal – right down to the final shot. It’s a film to watch and wrestle with.
8. My Name is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis, 1945) – The title character here is played in a terrific performance by Nina Foch in a terrific performance. She plays a down-on-her-luck woman who takes a job from a mysterious stranger – and then wakes up in their house, being told my everyone that she is not who she thinks she is. Terrific supporting work by Dame May Whitty, as an overbearing mother who is willing to do anything to protect her son. Director Lewis keeps things moving at a crackerjack pace for the entire 65-minute runtime. Personally, I think I would have liked it more had we not known the truth from the outset – but this is a terrific film in the vein of Gaslight.
7. Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) – The film that made Rita Hayworth an icon, with one of the most memorable entrances in all of cinema, had previously struck me as kind of lightweight, mainly because the happy ending of the film feels so false. And yet, without that happy ending, this film would actually be incredibly dark and disturbing. Hayworth’s Gilda isn’t really even a femme fatale, or the villain here. It is Glenn Ford who is the dangerous one here – and he is just about perfect in his role, playing perfectly against Hayworth. Personally, I would have preferred a darker ending – that may have marked this a masterpiece – but as it stands, it’s still pretty great.
6. Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954) – A year after they made an acknowledged masterpiece – The Big Heat – director Fritz Lang reteamed with stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to make this remake of Jean Renoir’s La Bette Humaine (1938) based on the novel by Emile Zola. The film doesn’t have the reputation of The Big Heat – and admittedly, it isn’t quite as good – but honestly, I think this film is grossly underrated. In the film, Ford plays a train engineer just returned from the Korean war, who falls for Grahme – who is married to an angry co-worker – Broderick Crawford – who has already killed one man, and may kill more. Made during the period when Grahme was one of the best actresses in Hollywood (seriously, she won a much deserved Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952 – yet I think she’s even better in The Big Heat and In a Lonely Place), she makes a wonderful would-be femme fatale – with Ford a slight twist on the regular dupe, and Crawford excellent as the human beast of the original title – this is an underrated film from one of the great directors of all time.
5. Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 1962) – Blake Edwards is, of course, best known for his comedies (he is one of the great comedic directors of all time) – but here, he directs an excellent Hitchcock-ian thriller about an asthmatic man harassing a bank clerk (Lee Remnick) – forcing her to steal from her employer, with cop Glenn Ford trying to crack the case. My only doubt with this film is if it’ actually noir at all (it doesn’t really feel like it) – but whatever you call it, it is terrific. It’s also the latest film in the collection – and the longest, and yet Edwards never lets the tension flag, and it contains such terrific performances. Edwards isn’t who you’d expect to deliver something this terrific and taut – but he does.
4. The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947) – Like many of Welles’ Hollywood films, he made this for money – and it shows, as the film has a tossed off feel to it, as if Welles couldn’t care less about the narrative. Recut without him, the film almost feels like it’s missing some scenes – and the infamous funhouse climax is as brilliant as anything you will ever, even in its truncated form. Welles seems to want to undermine the whole thing – from his over-the-top accent, to making a farce out of the courtroom climax, to making his then wife, and leading lady, Rita Hayworth chop off and dye her infamous hair. Seriously, the film probably shouldn’t work at all – and yet somehow it does work, and brilliantly so.
3. Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958) – This is probably the oddest title in the collection – the most one-of-a-kind hidden gem that we all look for, and so rarely find. Martin Scorsese is a big fan, and has raised the visibility of the film – and you can see the influence on others – like perhaps Jim Jarmusch. The story, of a young, callous hitman (Vince Edwards) who is able to operate without feeling – that is until his latest client, who for the first time is a woman, and he just doesn’t seem to be able to finish the job. It is an idiosyncratic portrait of this hitman in existential dread. If Jean-Pierre Melville had made a low budget American film in 1958 – it may well have looked like Murder by Contract – a masterwork from little-known Irving Lerner.
2. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) – One of the best films of Fritz Lang’s career – certainly of his Hollywood career – in this film in which are hero is really an asshole, and responsible for almost all the horrible things that happens in the film, particularly the horrible things that befall all the women in the film. Glenn Ford – who, by the by the way, is terrific in a lot of films in this collection maybe gives the best performance of his career, as a cop whose wife and son are killed, and sets out for revenge. A young Lee Marvin is terrific here too as the heavy – and has the most famous scene. It is also one of the best performances of Gloria Grahame – which shows how great she is. Lang has this film fly by – in just 89-minutes - and undercuts the supposed happy ending. Overall, one of the great noirs of all time.
1.In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) – This is one of the best noirs ever made – and as great as any number of other films in this collection – are the easy choice for best in the collection. The film stars Bogart – in one of his 2 or 3 best performances – a screenwriter who may or may not be a murderer, who is cleared by his beautiful neighbor (the great Gloria Grahame) who starts to doubt her own testimony, even as she falls in love with him. This is a deep, dark film – probably the best of the great Nicholas Ray’s career. This is an enigmatic noir – one that has to string the audience along, not telling them all the information they have, but still make it satisfying – and doing a character study. Just because Bogart may not be a murderer – it doesn’t mean he isn’t a violent asshole. An absolute masterpiece.

No comments:

Post a Comment