Don't Let Noir Change You!
I have to limit my intake of Film Noir. Maybe it’s weakness of character that makes me particularly susceptible to its dangerous allure. I’m becoming more of a mind that Noir can change a person. When Farewell, My Lovely came out in 1975, I went at least four times. Being twenty-one, it seemed a good idea to try Robert Mitchum’s personality on for size, so I went straight from the theatre to buy a pack of filterless Camels. The trenchcoat was already squared away, my having found a Bogartian corduroy number a few months prior. I must have looked the utter fool swallowed up by that wrap (at least several sizes too large, but why would they carry trenchcoats for the shrimp I was?), and the cigarettes were as ill advised for the fact I’d never inhaled smoke without gagging. Still, my thoughts were hard-boiled, at least for remaining hours on those days I watched Noir. I’ve since realized how easy it is to be seduced. These things can darken one’s view of the world. Treating professionals might prescribe a Jane Powell musical as chaser to excess of Noir. The most persuasive of it will turn one from dulled spectator to Hipster Sage. A good memory for dialogue helps. The other day Ann remarked that money isn’t everything. Yeah, but it comes the closest was my reflexive comeback. She knew right off that the line was too good to be mine. Questioned as to origin, I confessed getting it from Bob, probably when he played Jeff Bailey, or was it Jeff Markham? Wait a minute, they’re the same guy! What we need is capacity to catalogue every line Mitchum spoke in Out Of The Past. Imagine social situations we’d master, arguments we could win. All of the best of noir is like that. Filled with guideposts for a cooler and more knowing life, but a narcotic powerful and one best used in strict moderation.
I risked overdoing it this week with all five of Columbia’s (let others call them Sony --- I won’t) recent Noir Collection. How many pictures fifty years old toss such bracing ice water across decades into our faces? So much in these just took my breath away. Violence shocks best when there’s less of it. A lot of what happens in the five comes unexpected. I speak of them as if all were one movie running over multiple discs. In a sense, they are but a continuing tour past places largely gone now. Most everywhere you see is real location. The Line-Up visits aquariums and ice rinks that are surely parking lots today. I wish I could have lived amidst such environment and at a time when society enabled them, never mind risk of sharing space with hit-man Eli Wallach or psycho shooter Arthur Franz. A part of us would like knowing folks who dressed so nattily as Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, even if that meant flirting with disaster he comes to. If only life could run those 50's ways now, minus the getting shot at parts. Said parking lots and condos we've inherited are ugly as characters Lee and Eli played. Something else wonderful about these films are people real and vivid in ways impossible for weekend seminar trained writers to capture today. Syd Field and Robert McKee can’t equip students to think at pavement levels. Experts are all over Columbia’s set to background what we’re seeing (Eddie Muller, James Ellroy, some known directors). They have drunk the potion and are now truly one with noir. Yes, there is attitude you develop from watching these. For my own healthier peace of mind, I’ll opt for Jane Powell this weekend to rinse the grime off (Holiday In Mexico, anyone?).
Columbia’s offering is called Film Noir Classics 1, which suggests there will be a 2. They have, in fact, already indicated titles for a follow-up box, so I hope this one sells in order to cinch the deal. Each of the following represent as good a way to invest ninety minutes as you’re likely to find:
The Big Heat --- Once provoked, family man police detective Glenn Ford goes looking for trouble and propels 89 minutes of non-stop confrontation and violence. Noir leads sometimes mope. Never Ford. He walks right into snake dens with holster unsnapped and fists at the ready. Show this to beginners at Noir and they’ll be enraptured. The Big Heat is most recognized of the set and one that Columbia put out years back when they cared a lot less about library stuff on DVD.
The Sniper --- Loser at life Arthur Franz gets fed up with everyone else pairing off and begins splitting them up with a rifle. Not always fun going into the skull of deranged characters, but few are better done than this. Adolphe Menjou plays far removed from his Paris playboy image and is believably dogged as investigating detective. Pictures like this ran mostly to drive-in corn-dog munchers and bargain hunters intent on getting a second feature’s worth, so it’s all the more tribute to filmmakers still wanting to deliver something worthwhile. The Sniper earned $597,000 in domestic rentals. Had rewards been greater, these little films might have become as pretentious as neo-imitators are today. Columbia made buckets like them and successor Sony could release annual volumes for as long as I’ll be around to collect them.
Five Against The House --- Columbia Stars Of Tomorrow (watch the trailer) plan a casino heist for mostly kicks, and I could believe that better if this group were college-age as opposed to just being in college. GI bills must have paid out for a lot longer than we realized. I kept wondering which war these guys were veterans of. Guy Madison is sold like a newcomer even though he’d top-lined Warner’s The Command just a year before. A happy end strikes us as unsatisfactory, but noir rules weren’t necessarily observed when object was to showcase attractive casts in what I’d call suspense lite. There’s impression of Five Against The House serving wants of youthful patronage, so why upend them with noir’s customary dose of fate served hopeless?
Murder By Contract --- From what I’ve read, Vince Edwards got full of himself doing Ben Casey and proved misery to work with. Was it so as well with this beginner part? Considering such possibility makes Vince more credible as outwardly easygoing, but lethal withal hit man. Different from other Noirs thanks to fact that largely unsupervised writers and directors could experiment more freely with so minimal at stake. Columbia probably cared as little about these as monster movies they distributed. I wonder how many viewers looked back on cheap thrillers to wonder if they’d intersected on TV or in theatres (I remember Vince Edwards in an episode of that series "Murder By Contract" …). Something like this had to play second feature because it would have seemed a cheat otherwise for people wanting color and wide screens for their admission. Martin Scorsese remembered seeing it with The Journey in 1958, which was both those expensive things. How many other customers hung on with him to watch Murder by Contract?
The Line-Up --- Hired assassins go about afternoon killings like housewives finishing up errands before supper, the process of systematic murder being just as rote and perfunctory. This is so much better than you’d imagine it could be, even knowing Don Siegel was director. How did pictures like this slip everyone’s attention in 1958? Siegel must have wondered why he didn’t get more claps on the back for a job so well done. Few crime stories received meaningful attention, unless there was something like The Killers or The Asphalt Jungle where you knew Hollywood was going all out exploring the underworld. Cheaper ones took more liberties, made clearer statements, and so startle us decades on. You begin The Line-Up figuring you’ve seen everything and wind up jolted out of complacence, but quick. I ran several scenes back just to make sure I’d seen what I thought I saw.