All The Colours Of Chiaroscuro… Indicator’s COLUMBIA NOIR #2 Box Set Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. PG.
Limited Edition (6,000 units)

FRAMED (Richard Wallace, 1947) UK BD Premiere
711 OCEAN DRIVE (Joseph M Newman, 1950) UK BD Premiere
THE MOB (Robert Parrish, 1951) World BD Premiere
AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (Vincent Sherman, 1952) UK BD Premiere
TIGHT SPOT (Phil Karlson, 1955) World BD Premiere
MURDER BY CONTRACT (Irving Lerner, 1958) World BD Premiere

Following hard on the shit heels (*) of Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 set, what we have here (predictably enough but no less welcome for that) is another six disc sampling of deadpan dicks, duplicitous dames, deadly frames, double crosses, crime bosses, relative morality and all the rest of it. So don your trench coat, light up a Lucky Strike, set your venetian blinds to maximum Expressionist effect and let’s check out the lineup…

(* “Shit heel”: pulp fictional variant on the term “gum shoe”, denoting a private investigator… but you knew that, right?)

Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford) makes one hell of an entrance in Richard Wallace’s Framed (aka Paula, 1947), the brakes on a crappy lorry supplied to him by his stop gap employers having failed. If he looks more like a mining engineer than a truck driver that’s because he is a mining engineer, looking for an opportunity to ply his trade. As luck would have it, old prospector Jeff Cunningham (Edgar Buchanan) is looking for a mining engineer to help him work a new seam of silver he’s just discovered. Just to make it unanimous, blonde bombshell Paula Craig (Janis Carter) is looking for a sap whose charred remains will pass for those of her smoothy boyfriend Steve Price (Barry Sullivan) after they’ve cleaned out the Savings & Loans where Steve works. Lambert’s exactly what she’s been looking for and although he wonders what such a swell broad is doing behind the bar in a shabby drinking dive (Jeez, this burg could do with a decent careers office!) he’s too dazzled by her alleged beauty to join up the dots. But can Paula follow through with the plan when she starts falling for Mike? And could he stand to see an innocent man take the fall for her ? It’s taken as read that Ford is irresistible to the opposite sex but there are plenty of other plot contrivances (courtesy of Ben Maddow, who adapted John Patrick’s original story to the screen) that will require you to spend your disbelief from a great height… if you can manage that, you’ll enjoy Framed just fine.

Gorgeous Glenn’s back (as Steve Emery) in Vincent Sherman’s Affair In Trinidad (1952) but he’s barely off the plane before he’s walked into another frame-up. The brother he came to visit has “committed suicide” and Chris, the sister-in-law he never knew he had (Rita Hayworth, previously romantically teamed with Ford in Charles Vidor’s The Lady In Question, 1940, Gilda, 1946 and The Loves of Carmen, 1948) hasn’t allowed so much as a respectful interlude to pass before she’s cozying up to smarmy socialite Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby). Steve’s a much brusquer fella than Mike Lambert was and responds to this breach of etiquette by handing Chris a slap.

What she’s not allowed to tell him, unfortunately, is that she’s been working undercover for the cops to dig up dirt on Fabian and his connections with sinister foreign agents (though every so often she takes time out of from this important mission to perform a sexy song and dance routine). Nor does Chris feel at liberty to convey to Steve (you guessed) her growing feelings for him. No prizes for guessing that all these romantic complications are ultimately resolved along with that sinister foreign agents’ fiendish plot… which turns out to be an alarming anticipation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a full decade before it actually unfolded!

Edmond O’Brien’s Noir star eclipses even that of Ford, given his appearances in the likes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. and (alongside Jimmy Cagney) Raoul Walsh’s astonishing White Heat (both 1949). In Joseph M Newman’s gripping 711 Ocean Drive (1950) his character Mal Granger makes the transition, via his telecommunication skills, from a working stiff who enjoys placing an illegal bet here and there to a big wheel in a horse racing racket. His story, told in flashback by a member of Uncle Sam’s “Gangster Squad”, demonstrates in no uncertain terms the slippery slope that inexorably led him from minor peccadilloes to brutal amorality and begins with a caption claiming that the actors and crew needed police protection from gangland elements intent on disrupting this film’s shoot. That must have taken some doing during the dramatic Boulder Dam finale (a sequence worthy of Hitchcock) where Mal finally succumbs to his fatal character flaw, a fondness for a rival mobster’s woman. Femmes fatales inevitably spell doom for would be wise guys, a motif we see again and again in annals of Noir and elsewhere on this box set.

There’s crime film Royalty (Ford, O’Brien et al) and then there’s Edward G. Robinson… from chewing the scenery as Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) to pursuing a dodgy insurance claim with proto-Columbo doggedness in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Robinson’s impact on this genre has probably only ever been surpassed by that of Cagney himself. In Phil Karlson’s Tight Spot (1955) he’s District Attorney Lloyd Hallett, trying to convince flibbertigibbet jailbird Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) to take the stand against Benjamin Costaine (Lorne Greene) her Mr Big former boyfriend… all this based, by some accounts, on Senator Estes Kefauver’s efforts to secure Virginia Hill’s testimony against her mob associates. Sherry’s going to take a lot of convincing, given the recent heavy lead intake of other prospective witnesses. Maybe the romantic attentions of her protection detail Vince Striker (Brian Keith, living up to that hunky handle) will prevail where the DA’s civic duty lectures failed? But Vince is concealing a thing or two himself… Proving (as if their wasn’t abundant other proof on her resume) that she wasn’t “just” Hollywood’s greatest female Hoofer, Rogers steals the show here with a sassy, spirited screwball performance.

Johnny Damico: he uncovers the waterfront…

Robert Parrish’s compelling The Mob (1951) begins with off duty cop Johnny Damico (Broderick Crawford) trying to buy a wedding ring for his girl when he stumbles onto a crime scene and makes a complete hash of it, allowing a murderer posing as another cop to get away scot free. Johnny’s suspended from the force, only to be secretly deployed (under a new alias) on NYC’s docks, to gather info on gangland interests in that crucial economic sector. Mean streets, mean docks… Johnny can’t trust anyone, the existential angst and all pervading paranoia hitting Philip K. Dicklike levels when the Mob hires Johnny to carry out a hit on himself! The ultimate revelation of the big cheese’s identity is kind of “corny” (to quote the character himself) but the suspenseful, hospital based climax concludes things in satisfying style. There’s a great supporting cast in this one, including up-and-comers Ernest Borgnine and Neville Brand… Charles Bronson (who gets a couple of lines but no screen credit)… and Jean Alexander (no, not THAT Jean Alexander!) The Mob and Affair in Trinidad were both shot by multiple Oscar nominee Joseph Walker. Two time Academy Award winner (for From Here To Eternity, 1953 and Bonnie And Clyde (1967) Burnett Guffey served as Cinematographer on Framed, Tight Spot and Joseph H. Lewis’s The Undercover Man (1949) and perusal of their collected work across existing and pending Columbia boxes (which also highlight the OST contributions of George Dunning) provide useful insights into the essence (which had always been more about a vibe than an adherence to any hard and fast rules) of High Noir…

By 1958 the movement was dissolving in waves of cross-genre contamination and few films illustrate this tendency better than Irving Lerner’s Murder By Contract (1958). Vince Edwards plays Claude, an upwardly mobile dude who covets a des res and calmly figures that the quickest way to accumulate the necessary readies is to become a hit man. We follow his monastic preparation and rapid rise through the ranks, until he is flown to LA to rub out a heavily guarded witness on the eve of a major trial. His Zen-like approach to the job winds up Marc (Phillip Pine) and amuses George (Herschel Bernardi) but Claude, who has flipped from taciturnity to rambling expositions of his Nietzschean personal philosophy, completely loses his cool when he learns that his target is a woman. He rationalises his reservations along “deadlier than the male” lines but when obliged to see the job through, he bungles it via apparently Oedipal apprehensions and (spoiler alert!) dies in a drain. Memorable for a nifty jazz guitar accompaniment (courtesy of Bing Crosby’s long time musical director, Perry Botkin) and a firm favourite of Martin Scorsese, Murder By Contract is nicely posed on the cusps of Noir and Nouvelle Vague, anticipating much American “underground” Cinema of the 1960s with its satire on the American business ethic and the blunt black comedic edge to its violence…

… speaking of which, Indicator continue the admirable practice here of beefing up their Columbia boxes with Three Stooges mayhem… and that’s got to be better than a poke in the eye. Each disc contains a Stooges short, selected for some affinity to the film it supports. Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938), for instance, affords an early DP credit to the prolific Lucien Ballard, who later shot Murder by Contract. Nor is it too hard to work out the thematic pertinence of Three Sappy People, Saved by the Belle (both 1939), Idiots Deluxe (1945), Up in Daisy’s Penthouse (1953) and Hot Stuff (1956) to their respective main features. Any chance, I wonder, of a Stooges box (or series of boxes) from Indicator?

While we’re waiting and hoping for that, let’s consider the other extras on this set. Alongside the expected trailers and image galleries, audio commentaries come courtesy of Imogen Sara Smith, Glenn Kenny, Gina Telaroli, Lee Gambin, Nora Fiore and Farran Smith Nehme. The Steps of Age is a short 1951 docudrama written and directed by Framed writer Ben Maddow, depicting the challenges of ageing through of the eyes of a retired widow. Joseph M Newman’s 1945 short Diary of a Sergeant tells the story of Harold Russell, a soldier who lost his hands during World War II and subsequently won an Oscar for his performance in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). You get two interviews with Ernest Borgnine and one in which Peter Ford discusses the life and career of his father Glenn. Caribbean (1951) is a Crown Film Unit short depicting life and culture in the West Indies, British Guiana, and British Honduras. Irving Lerner’s Oscar-nominated Swedes In America (1943), presented by Ingrid Bergman, concerns the life of… well, work it out for yourself. Martin Scorsese contributes an enthusiastic review to Murder By Contract. If you enjoyed the excerpts from Joe Valachi’s Senate subcommittee testimony on Indicator’s recent release of The Valachi Papers, no doubt you’ll appreciate (on the Tight Spot disc) an hour or so’s worth of extracts from unedited telerecordings of another (1951) Senate hearing into organised crime, originally compiled by the British Film Institute and presented in four parts, including footage of the aforementioned Virginia Hill. Limited edition includes a 120 page book.

Like its predecessor, this box showcases many different aspects of the multi-faceted Film Noir phenomenon… and box 3 is in preparation! Bring it on.

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