Film noir was the term that the French gave to a particular strain of American crime movies in the forties and fifties, defined by its shadowy style, largely urban settings and mood of doom and corruption. But another strain of film noir also flourished in the fifties, films shot on location with an almost documentary quality, where psychopathic gangsters walked the city streets in broad daylight like a virus. These styles intermingled as more films embraced the expressionistic qualities of locations, but Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (Sony), the fourth collaboration between Sony and Martin Scorsese’s non-profit film preservation organization, The Film Foundation, spotlights three films that embraced the docu-noir style of daylight thrillers with darkly psychotic characters.
The Sniper (1952), produced by Stanley Kramer and directed on location in San Francisco by Edward Dmytryk, has a much edgier atmosphere and modern feel. Adolphe Menjou’s police detective has seen everything, but the spree of a woman-hating psychopath troubles him because (police psychiatrist aside) he can’t understand the motivation. The direction straddles the studio model of storytelling and the immediacy of low-budget location shooting and Dmytryk punctuates the violence with vivid explosions of brutal force without showing a drop of blood. Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958), also shot on location in San Francisco, stars Eli Wallach as a killer on the trail of smuggled heroine shipments ready to kill anyone in his way. It’s low budget theatrical version of a TV series, but Siegel makes it all about the killers and gives the film a matter-of-fact violence that gives the film a life of its own. Murder by Contract (1958), by contrast, is almost laconic it its story of a self-made assassin-for-hire (Vince Edwards), an almost existential figure who is happy to share his philosophy while on a job to silence an inconvenient witness. Irving Lerner’s direction is almost hypnotic as he matches the deliberation of his killer with meticulous direction: every murder is so carefully set up that we never need to see the follow through. All three of these films take place mostly in the daylight and all have a crispness to them that the shadowy studio noirs don’t.
Headlining the set is one of the masterpieces of film noir and one of the classics of American cinema: The Big Heat (1953), a low-budget picture from Columbia Pictures directed by Fritz Lang, who created his urban world almost completely within the confines of the studio. Glenn Ford is the bland family man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a car bomb meant for him. The scene is both shocking and moving: the brutal violence of American crime exploding into the suburban family home. Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality (all the more effective in that it takes place offscreen, sketched with suggestions and gestures and searing, vivid sound) and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak. Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, directs with a stripped down style and a lean narrative drive, turning the anonymous apartments and hotel rooms and generic city streets into a shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals. He builds a real head of steam as Ford’s private vendetta turns the usually stiff actor into a real bastard, brought back to Earth only by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil. It’s the only film on the set that has been previously released, but it has been newly mastered for this edition. Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House (1955) completes the set. Like The Big Heat, it’s a shadowy studio film but it leaves the urban corruption for the crowded energy of a Reno casino and an impulsive heist scheme led by an unstable Brian Keith. There are introductions to four of the films (three of them by Martin Scorsese) and commentary on two of them. Film noir historian Eddie Muller is more focused on The Sniper but is more lively as he tries to keep James Ellroy in check on The Line-up. Ellroy tends to wander and his colorful language is not censored as it was on his previous commentary track with Muller.