ESCAPE IN THE FOG (Budd Boetticher, 1945)
THE UNDERCOVER MAN (Joseph H Lewis, 1949)
DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (Richard Quine, 1954)
5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (Phil Karlson, 1955)
THE GARMENT JUNGLE (Vincent Sherman and Robert Aldrich, 1957)
THE LINEUP (Don Siegel, 1958)
Indicator’s characteristically lush inaugural trawl through Columbia’s Noir and Noirish output makes for an eclectic and immersive box set experience.
Escape In The Fog (directed by Budd Boetticher before he carved out a comfortable niche for himself in Western territory) is a “B” movie in the truest sense of the term, a second feature clocking in at scarcely more than an hour and consequently rattling along at a fair old lick so that Boetticher and writer Aubrey Wisberg can pack their tale of WWII espionage with nasty Nazis, snappy guys, sexy dames tied up in cellars, dirty double crosses and a surprise supernatural element…. all this plus a “blink and you’ll miss her” appearance by the young Shelley Winters.
The MacGuffin that drives this one along is an unspecified “special plan” to end hostilities early (and just four months after Boetticher’s film hit American cinemas, the Enola Gay released its payload over Hiroshima) but the plot turns on the ineffable moment in which recuperating army nurse Eileen Carr (Nina Foch), out for an insomniac stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, witnesses Barry Malcolm (Willian Wright) being duffed up by some German agents, which turns out to be a (very fortuitous) premonition of something which hasn’t happened yet. As an inquisitive cop tells her: “You never can tell what will walk out of the fog”. What never emerges from that nebulous bridge, however, is any attempt at an explanation for this rum turn of events, which all the participants just seem to take in their stride. Perhaps we’re meant to infer that Divine Providence really was rooting for the Allies or maybe Boetticher was just copping himself a bit of the then-voguish “inner sanctum” action (a mystery series that has continued to exert its influence as recently and controversially as in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, 2002). EITF’s moody meditation on death and destiny, played out in San Francisco, might even have been on Hitchcock’s mind when he shot Vertigo in that city, 13 years later…
Nina Foch fanciers are further served in this box by the Dutch actress’s appearance in The Undercover Man. Here she’s Judith, devoted wife of dedicated IRS agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford), who’s aiming to bring down Chicago’s “Big Fellow”, after all else has failed, by establishing tax evasion. Although the film never makes this explicit (beyond its vague prologue paean to the unsung heroes of crime cracking), the allusion to the real life and crime story of a certain Alphonse Capone is unmistakable. The principle obstacle to Warren and his tenacious team (below) getting at the truth, of course, is the understandable reluctance of those involved in the numbers, protection and various other rackets to break their silence but ultimately it’s a plucky little granny from the old country who speaks up to settle the crime lord’s hash.
The characterisations in Lewis’s morality play are perhaps more cut and dried, black and white, than is customary in this genre, but the art direction of Walter Holscher, Burnett Guffey’s compositions and low angle photography, plus the slick montages of editor Al Clark, are all out of the Classic Noir playbook. Just who is that “undercover man”, though? Warren whips his warrant card out and starts waving it around at the drop of a hat. Maybe the title character is actually “The Big Fellow”, who conducts his nefarious activities so clandestinely that we never get to see him or even hear his real name.
Glenn Ford played Frank Warren-type roles more times than Posh Spice has had hot dinners but in Drive A Crooked Road (co-written with director Quine by Blake Edwards) we find Mickey Rooney trying to bust out of his goofy nice guy straightjacket and succeeding admirably in the role of Eddie Shannon, a short arsed nobody of a car mechanic who just happens to drive like the clappers. Identifying him as the guy they need to beat police roadblocks after the bank heist they’re planning, cynical hipsters Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold Baker (Jack Kelly) lure the hapless schmuck into their scheme, using sexy Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster) as the bait in their honey trap. When Babs’ conscience starts troubling her, murderous complications arise. Owing much to the plot of Robert Siodmak’s seminal The Killers (1946), DACR emerges as a strong slice of Noir in its own right and gets an enthusiastic introduction here from Martin Scorsese…
… presumably the director of Casino (1995) is also well aware of 5 Against The House. Phil Karlson’s heist movie features the oldest college students seen on cinema screens until Grease (hang on, they’re Korean War veterans studying on the G.I. Bill… still looking a bit to old to fit even that chronology though, if you ask me) including hunky Al Mercer (Guy Madison), his post traumatic stress-disordered former comrade in arms Brick (Brian Keith) and smart alec Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), who comes up with the whimsical student wheeze of robbing a casino, just for the fun of it and returning the money. What could possibly go wrong? Enough, potentially, for Al to pull out but he tags along anyway so he can marry his girl Kay (Kim Novak, on the verge of the big time) in Reno. Unfortunately the increasingly deranged Brick won’t stand for anybody punking out and he has no intention of returning any money. Bang bang goes Al and Kay’s honeymoon…
The ensemble acting in this one is pretty strong, though the constant would-be wise cracks from debutant screen-writer Stirling Silliphant quickly wear out their welcome. Never mind (as we’ll shortly see), Silliphant went on to pen some sterling stuff. Kerwin Mathews also gets his first big screen credit, after an anonymous earlier 1955 appearance in Fred Sears’ Cell 2455, Death Row, a thinly veiled dramatisation of the notorious Caryl Chessman / “Red Light Bandit” case. Watch out for a pre-“Cannon” William Conrad too, handling the money in that casino.
Kerwin Mathews is back as Alan Mitchell (above left), another Korean War vet, in The Garment Jungle, returning to take his place in the family fashion business but finding it scarcely less of a battlefield. His father Walter (Lee J. Cobb) has become embroiled with the mob (personified by Richard Boone’s aptly named Artie Ravidge) in an attempt to keep the union out of his shop and takes an eternity to figure out that this attempted cure is actually way more harmful than the perceived illness. He doesn’t seem unduly concerned about union supporting employees being roughed up, organiser Tulio Renata (Robert Loggia) being murdered, nor even his partner / best mate dying in an elevator “accident” but Alan eventually… finally… opens his eyes and takes on the hoods while simultaneously romancing Renata’s widow Theresa (the silver screen’s sexist scouser Sicilian, Gia Scala). This is another forceful effort, with exactly the level of performances you’d expect from such a standout cast. The script was adapted by Harry Kleiner from newspaper articles in which Lester Velie documented the real life struggles of sweatshop workers. As detailed by Tony Rayns in a bonus featurette, Robert Aldrich shot much of the picture but left it to be completed by Vincent Sherman when his desire to emphasise the Jewish experience in Manhattan’s rag trade was thwarted… by producer Harry Cohn (go figure!) As evidenced by the poster below, Columbia would ultimately take a very different tack in the marketing of the film…
Indicator save the best till last on this set, with the great Don Siegel’s The Lineup, on which the aforementioned Stirling Silliphant proved that he had developed into a film writing force to be reckoned with. The action kicks off at San Francisco International Airport, where an apparently bog standard luggage theft escalates into a shootout that leaves a cop and a taxi driver dead. The police discover that a statuette in the purloined case contains heroin, but recognising that its owner is an unwitting dupe, release it back to him, with an innocuous powder substituted for the skag, while they wait to see who tries to pick it up. Enter the intense Dancer (Eli Wallach), his cynical handler Julian (Robert Keith) and their alcoholic driver, collecting from their unwitting mules until they discover that a cute little girl has used all the dope secreted in her dolly as face powder for it, at which point the brown stuff really hits the fan…
As amply demonstrated here (and Anthony Hopkins, please take note) it’s not necessary to chew on the scenery when playing a psychopath. Wallach’s portrayal of the madness simmering away just below his character’s stone cold surface is masterly stuff and when he finally does blow… oh boy!
As underlined in a short accompanying video essay, Siegel’s film makes exemplary use of its locations (many still standing, some of them long gone). But again, why is it called The Lineup? There is a police lineup in it (more than one, actually) but also plenty more noteworthy stuff, including a climactic car chase that (even without the participation of Mickey Rooney) makes for truly thrilling stuff and predates the more celebrated one in Bullitt by a full decade.
All six films are handsomely presented here, for the first time on UK Blu-ray (with The Undercover Man and Drive a Crooked Road making their world Blu-ray premieres). This set also boasts a 120-page book, and is strictly limited to 6,000 numbered units. There are audio commentaries from the likes of Pamela Hutchinson, Tony Rayns, Nick Pinkerton and David Jenkins. On The Lineup you get a choice of two commentary tracks (or why not spoil yourself and listen to both), one courtesy of legendary crime writer James Ellroy with the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller and a more recent one featuring film historian David Del Valle and author / screenwriter C Courtney Joyner. Supporting the main feature on each disc you’ll find apposite bonus materials such as Boetticher’s The Fleet That Came To Stay, compiled from original combat footage captured during the Battle of Okinawa and released shortly after Escape in the Fog; Joseph H Lewis’s 1945 short Man on a Bus, a PR job for the fledgling state of Israel starring Walter Brennan, Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman and yes, Lassie. There are also archival interviews of various vintage with Kim Novak, Robert Loggia and Mickey Rooney (also a brief bit of publicity puff in which Rooney watches an earlier bit of publicity puff, featuring his childhood self, with a couple of his Columbia pals!) Director and Noir buff Christopher Nolan delivers a quickfire appreciation of the genre. You also get three half hour episodes of the early fifties radio series The Lineup: The Case Of Frankie And Joyce, The Candy Store Murder (written by Blake Edwards) and The Harrowing Haggada Handball Case (co-written by Edwards and Richard Quine).
The expected Image galleries and trailers are present and correct but what really puts the cherry on this cake is that Indicator have taken it as the pretext to trot out a bunch of their Three Stooges acquisitions from the Columbia vault, each amusingly reflecting the subject matter of the main feature whose disc they share. Titles are You Nazty Spy (1940), Higher Than A Kite (1943), Rip, Sew And Stitch and Tricky Dicks (both 1953), Income Tax Sappy (1954) and the decidedly odd (atypically so) Sweet And Hot (1958). Plenty there for fans of Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp and, er, Joe.