Concluding our reviews of Columbia Pictures’ Film Noir Classics Volume II collection.
With Warner Brothers’ once-mighty film noir compilations nearing the end of their quality barrel and Fox’s library of single-servings discs seemingly DOA, Columbia Pictures’ recent box set releases have a good claim on sitting atop a genre market that, despite the flood of product available, is nowhere near exhausting itself. It’s been fairly said elsewhere that the studio waited a long while before getting into the back-catalog noir marketplace, yet the second half (or so) of this second volume – we reviewed the first two films a couple of weeks ago – offers some rare and unexpected treats for the noir fan, with only one comparatively weak film in the bunch.
Adapted from Georges Simenon’s bleak novel and arriving pretty close to the end of the classical noir era (and perhaps creaking a bit under the weight of the genre’s advancing years), director Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (1957) nevertheless features one of the genre’s great leading men, Richard Conte, in a storyline that sometimes plays like a coda to both the gangster films of the 1930s as well as the more classical noir cycles of the 40s. It’s overly simplistic and chronologically inaccurate to say it’s a “last call film noir,” but it’s hard not to see it as such while you’re watching.
When his wiseguy brother (Paul Picerni) begs him to find the younger sibling (James Darren) who’s disappeared after driving the getaway vehicle on a contract killing, former mob accountant Eddie Rico (Conte, older than his 1940s heyday but no less commanding as a leading man) gets badgered by his former capo (Larry Gates) to bring the brother back into the fold “for his own good.” Despite a legitimate business and a wife (Dianne Foster) hoping to adopt a child (an odd subplot, especially for the mid-50s) Eddie travels first to New York and then out West on his brother’s trail, uncovering a snarling tangle of duplicity and treachery within the same organization that used to command his loyalty.
Perhaps that sense of changing times fuels the sense of finality to much of the plot – the gangs and fraternal mobs that the Rico brothers grew up within have mutated in the sunshine of 1950s wealth (the film is largely shot in sparkling, sun-drenched Florida towns) into impersonal, ruthless “organizations” with little sense of personal worth or individual dignity. The screenplay’s ‘s sharp contrast between the amiable malice of the organization’s underlings and the Old World emotionality of the Rico brothers’ mother (Argentina Brunetti) drive such comparisons home, as does Conte’s turn as a man slowly realizing the integrity and honor he believed in for much of his life has come to nothing.
Karlson and screenwriters Lewis Meltzer, Ben Perry and Dalton Trumbo do right by the Simenon’s story until a cluttered third act works too hard to shuffle all the plot threads into a happy, Americana ending. As with set companion film Human Desire, cinematographer Burnett Guffey’s composition work is engaging and flawless, giving the syndicate scenes a flat, sterile look while investing Conte’s boyhood neighborhood and his brother’s hideaway homestead with depth and texture.
Guffey also worked on Nightfall, teaming with director Jacques Tourneur; for the lay audience, Tourneur directed Out of the Past, the 1947 Robert Mitchum thriller that’s become both paragon and poster child for the genre as a whole. The teaming of the two, and with a screenplay from Sterling Silliphant (In The Heat of the Night) adapting George Goodis’ novel, ought to be a better film than it is, even if determining why it’s not seldom proves especially difficult.
Aldo Ray plays James Vanning, a commercial artist from Chicago who stumbles across two stranded bank thieves (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) while camping in Wyoming with a friend. The thieves kill the friend and leave Vanning unconscious, but a simple twist leaves Vanning with their stolen $350,000. Fleeing to Los Angeles because he suspects he’ll be accused of the murder – the friend’s young wife was making a play for him – Vanning tries to lay low but is soon discovered by a curious insurance investigator working for the bank (James Gregory). He also starts reluctantly, irresistibly pursuing a fashion model (Anne Bancroft) with whom he crosses paths.
Keith and Bond are fantastic as the ruthless, persistent thugs dogging Ray’s every step, and an early interrogation scene at a darkened oil derrick provides the kind of shadowy brutality that will leave noir fans drooling. Keith is sharp as the methodical brains of the two, but Bond brings such sadistic glee to his part that his every movement is chilling:
If only the protagonists were so exciting. Ray was seldom accused of grace or fluidity in his acting, and as the straight-arrow Vanning he’s believable but stolid, though the script sometimes gives him enough edge to allow for desperate outbursts of violence and fear. Bancroft is less compelling as the good girl who falls into Vanning’s orbit and never quite comes out. The film stalls whenever their romance revs up, including a mid-film fashion show that’s as prolonged as it is unnecessary. Gregory’s insurance investigator is no Jim Reardon of The Killers, and most of his scenes – except for a dull domestic interlude with his wife – serve merely to move the plot forward.
Ultimately, all those side elements ballast the film from getting either dark enough or violent enough to really work on its own, with the promised retribution and vengeance taking a last-minute back seat to the extraneous plot motions. Nevertheless Guffey excels at framing both the city and the Wyoming countryside (at times matching or even exceeding George E. Diskant’s glorious rural noir photography of On Dangerous Ground), and Tourneur’s agile manipulation of the flashback-heavy narrative keeps the story crisply suspenseful.
If Nightfall‘s greatest sin is a surplus of its story elements, 1959′s City of Fear labors under a paucity of details. Starved for plot despite a head-swimmingly weird – and incredible – premise and padded out to even its 81 minute runtime, it sometimes succeeds when sticking strictly to the noir playbook. Other times it’s not so competent, with too many stalls and doldrums to allow any real momentum to build under its meager machinery.
Vince Edwards, a little while yet before becoming television’s Ben Casey, stars as an escaped convict racing to L.A. with a canister of what he believes is pure-grade heroin. He plans to cut the dope up and sell it, the better to live in luxury with his sexpot girlfriend (Lee Remick lookalike Patricia Blair), with help from his former boss at a ladies’ shoe boutique (Joseph Mell). But the white powder in the canister isn’t heroin, it’s… well, best to let the film explain:
If you can accept that the government allowed San Quentin inmates anywhere near “the most deadly thing in existence,” you’ll enjoy the film so much more.
The manhunt for Edward’s crazed, ailing Vince Ryker forms the film’s second and third acts, which too often include long, establishing takes that allow suspense or tension to fizzle. Director Irving Lerner often seems at a loss for where to point the camera, and given the obvious small-scale budget that’s somewhat understandable. But given the outrageous premise, the building of desperation – 84 hours to save every man, woman, and child! – seems to deserve more ratcheting.
Regarding the performances, Edwards and Blair are comely in that uniquely 50s American sort of way, sexy without every really becoming carnal, and Mell is ferret-like in his turn as the scheming Crown. And though most of the film’s law enforcement types seem sent directly from central casting, trash film cinemaphiles will recognize Lyle Talbot, co-star of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?, as Police Chief Thorsen. City of Fear isn’t quite on those film’s humble level, and it’s obviously not meant to be great cinema, either. But when matched with the other films in the compilation, its great sin lies in showing its poverty among such proud company.
- Michael Kabel