Columbia Film Noir Classics I, 5 DVD Set (2009)

by | Oct 27, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Columbia Film Noir Classics I, 5 DVD Set (2009)

1- The Sniper
2- The Big Heat
3- Five Against The House
4- The Lineup
5- Murder By Contract
Starring: Arthur Franz, Adolphe Menjou (1); Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame (2); Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Kim Novak (3); Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Warren Anderson (4); Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Hershel Bernardi
Directors: Edward Dmytryk (1); Fritz Lang (2); Phil Karlson (3); Don Siegel (4); Irving Lerner (5)
Studio: Columbia 30601 [Release Date: 11/3/09]
Video: 1.33:1 (1 & 2); 1.85:1 (3, 4 & 5)
Audio: English DTS mono
Subtitles: English
Extras 1: Commentary with author Eddie Muller,  “Martin Scorcese on The Sniper”, Theatrical Trailer
Extras 2: “Martin Scorcese On The Big Heat”, HeaHH “Michael Mann on The Big Heat”, Theatrical trailer
Extras 3: Theatrical trailer
Extras 4: “The Influence of Noir with Christopher Nolan”, Commentary with authors Eddie Muller and James Ellroy, Theatrical trailer
Extras 5: “Martin Scorcese On Murder By Contract”, Theatrical Trailer
Lengths: The Sniper = 1 hr. 28 mins.; The Big Heat = 1hr. 31 mins.; Five Against The House = 1 hr. 23 mins.; The Lineup = 1 hr. 26 mins.; Murder By Contract = 1 hr. 20 mins.
Rating: ****

Pleasant Surprises

Film Noir is cinema’s most abused genre. Anyone running a repertory theatre looking to hook unknowing moviegoers will describe a movie as “classic film noir”, often stretching the term “classic” as much as they stretch the definitions of the genre. That’s why Columbia’s five-disc DVD release of classic film noir is such a pleasant surprise, combining one famous film, two solid pictures and two hidden gems.

The most famous picture in the set is Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, a celebrated part of the film noir canon. In it, Glen Ford plays an honest police officer in a city riddled with crime and corruption. After he becomes the target of the mobsters he is investigating, played by Lee Marvin and Alexander Scourby, he leaves the force to pursue revenge on his own. For those who have seen the picture before, the DVD remaster looks fantastic and the disc is loaded with special features including comments by Martin Scorcese and Michael Mann. For those who haven’t seen the movie, this is one of those “classics” that lives up to the hype.
Edward Dymytrk’s The Sniper, the weakest picture in the set, is still intriguing and well worth watching. Arthur Franz plays a crazed woman-hater who terrorizes San Francisco by shooting random women from rooftops. Adolphe Menjou plays the detective assigned to end his killing spree. The police procedural aspects of the film are plodding and uninteresting, and Franz’s performance is the only standout. The murder scenes, especially those daytime sequences shot on location in San Francisco, have an amazing, stark quality, close to Italian neo-realism.

Five Against the House,
directed by Phil Karlson, is one of the two hidden gems in the collection. It begins as a surprisingly funny buddy heist movie, with four college friends, two of whom are Korean war vets, getting involved in robbing the biggest casino in Reno. The movie takes a darker turn, however, as one of the four takes control of the job from the others. Brian Keith gives a tremendous performance as a traumatized war veteran, and the writing is exemplary throughout the entire picture.

The collection returns to San Francisco for The Lineup, directed by Don Siegel. Eli Wallach plays emotionally unstable hitman Dancer, and Robert Keith plays his intelligent and urbane handler Julian. They’ve been hired to get the drugs hidden within the luggage of three unsuspecting tourists returning from Asia. Again, the film drags when following the police trying to catch Dancer and Julian, but Siegel, always a sure hand with action scenes, keeps the pacing up with a number of exhilarating moments. Wallach and Keith largely carry the picture, with the best performances in the set.

Murder By Contract, the last movie in the set, is the biggest surprise of the five. This low-budget thriller directed by Irving Lerner may be the best movie in the collection. Vince Edward plays Claude, one of the most fascinating fictional hitmen ever created. Claude has no particular love of killing, and in fact no real need for money. He simply wants to be able to buy a bigger house, and he happens to be good at killing people. He is hired to travel across the country to Los Angeles to kill a woman about to testify against the mob, but the task may be outside even his considerable ability. Irving Lerner’s direction is minimalistic in approach but not minimal in effect, and Perry Botkin Jr.’s simple guitar soundtrack is one of the most effective I’ve ever heard.

This collection of five stylish, exciting, occasionally frustrating but always rewarding movies is well worth getting and does much to reinvigorate even a jaded viewer’s interest in film noir.

– Ethan Krow

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