It seems as though we’d scarcely completed enjoying the first nine films from Vol. 1 (reviewed HERE) and we’re back again with nine additional films noir from the Columbia vaults (with a third volume scheduled for September), each making its Blu-ray debut. Lucky us! As with the first set, top-rank, well-known noir like The Asphalt Jungle and Touch of Evil are eschewed for the type of low-budget crime suspenstories that drifted into the neighborhood theatres for a Wednesday-Thursday showing and then were quickly forgotten until a couple of years later when they’d became routine time-fillers over the teevee. As with the first set, it’s a mixed bag, presented chronologically, and that’s how we watched ‘em.
Bait (1954) Prod. & Dir. Hugo Haas (79 min. / B&W / 1.37:1) There should be a statue to Mr. Haas somewhere in Hollywood, if only in a seamy back alley somewhere off the strip. A Czech expatriate, he scraped up the cash and moxie for a low-budget string of hits – including Pickup and One Girl’s Confession – that invariably featured a sexy blonde mistreated by men who ultimately gives him what he’s got coming to him (and Haas, as here, is generally one of the stars of the picture). Bait offers Haas’ most popular leading lady, Cleo Moore, as his sexy young wife and the pawn in his scheme to coerce her into an affair with his business partner, John Agar, so that he can kill John and keep the loot from a gold mine they’ve discovered and yes, by the way, in addition to starring, producing, and directing this film Haas was the co-writer. No wonder his films aren’t better, he couldn’t fire anybody when something went wrong.
Agar, musing about the passions and pitfalls of material wealth: “I DREAM about it! PILES of GOLD ROCKS! MOUNTAINS of GLITTERING GOLD!”
Bait is introduced by Satan (in the guise of Sir Cedric Hardwicke) who pops in and quickly pops out again, probably to add a bit of running time to the short film (or maybe the guy just really, really liked Hugo Haas pictures and BEGGED to be in one). All I can tell you is that if anybody offers a boxed set of Haas movies, I’ll be first in the pre-order line.
The Crooked Web (1955) Dir. Nathan Hertz Juran (77 min. / B&W / 1.85:1) This film falls into the category I like to refer to as “movies way, way, WAY too complicated for their own good.” Frank Lovejoy owns a drive-in (the kind with car hops serving root beer, not the kind that show Hugo Haas movies on Wednesday nights) and woos pretty Mari Blanchard but she’s not having any because he doesn’t have the dough-re-mi, if you get me. Mari’s brother, Richard Denning, shows up with a scheme, however, to recover some lost Nazi gold, and Lovejoy buys in, little realizing that Mari and Richard are cooking up something in that drive-in besides all-beef wieners.
Denning, denying it when he’s identified as somebody other than whom he’s supposed to be: “This happens to me all the time. I’ve been taken for everybody from Cary Grant to Gandhi!”
There are 13 or 14 subplots I’m skipping because we have seven more films to review here, but you get the gist of it. Director Juran would go on in the next couple of years to make the unforgettable Brain from Planet Arous and Attack of the 50-Ft. Woman, two movies with better character development and more cohesive plots than this one.
Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) Dir. Fred F. Sears (77 min. / B&W / 1.85:1) The true story of Caryl Chessman, based on the best-selling book he wrote from death row. Better known then than now, Chessman and his extensive legal battle to stay alive made him the longest-lived person in the shadow of the gas chamber at that time, nearly 12 years before his last appeal ran out. (He was convicted of rape and kidnapping, which were capital offenses in those days.) The film is told in flashback as Chessman’s character (the names have been changed to protect the guilty) reminisces of his broken childhood and the path that lead him to cell 2455.
“I wasn’t born a criminal. I didn’t spring full grown from hell!”
William Campbell stars; his younger brother plays Chessman as a kid. Familiar faces include Kathryn Grant and Vince Edwards, but despite what appears to be an earnest attempt to adapt a best-seller into a serious look at capital punishment, the film is dull and soggy and the weakest of the 18 films featured on the first two volumes of the Noir Archives. (In case the story seems vaguely familiar, note that no less than Alan Alda portrayed Chessman in a TV movie which I remember as being better than this one.)
5 Against the House (1955) Dir. Phil Karlson (84 min. / B&W / 1.85:1) In a film that’s way better than it has any right to be, five bored college students in their mid-30s (no wonder they were bored) decide to perk up study time by planning to heist the loot from a Reno casino.
Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of the book (by Jack “The Body Snatchers” Finney) or maybe it’s because the script is by Stirling Silliphant or maybe it’s because director Karlson (99 River Street, The Phenix City Story) knew what he was doing, but 5 Against the House is a minor gem, providing a lot of laughs in the wrong places and with, in one of her first roles, Miss Kim Novak as a quite delicious femme fatale. Guy Madison (an actor whose alleged charm escapes us here in the Balcony), Brian Keith as the Korean War vet who is, well, a bit of a loose cannon, and Kerwin Mathews are our college students, as is Alvy Moore, who is excellent in this film. Well, he’s not EXCELLENT. Still, he’s not bad, either. Well, he’s not GOOD. Um, anyway, William Conrad adds quite a bit of weight to the proceedings (we thought of that joke ourselves) as a casino employee. Miss Novak is the singer in a nightclub, leading to this breathless exchange:
Miss Novak, heading out on a date after work: “I’ll be right back, I want to get out of this singing dress.”
Mr. Moore: “And you know she’s right, that dress actually DOES sing.”
The only painful part of the proceedings are our long-in-the-tooth “college students” hazing a freshman who looks young enough to be their son, if not the youngest of their seven sons. Still, we DID mention there were laughs in the wrong places.
The Night Holds Terror (1955) Dir. Andrew L. Stone (86 min. / B&W / 1.85:1) Nice guy (pronounced “sap”) Jack Kelly picks up a hitchhiker and was THAT an error in judgment: by the end of the evening, Kelly and his family are at the mercies of ruthless gunmen, including John Cassavetes and Vince Edwards.
My favorite film in the set; I’m sure Columbia was looking for A bookings with this one, despite the no-name cast (most of whom would be famous via TV shows over the next few years) and hoped to (and did) beat Paramount to the screen, as the latter studio was working on an adaptation of The Desperate Hours, which – like The Night Holds Terror – was based on a true story. The thugs are ruthless, the family is hapless, the narrator is William “The Invaders” Woodson, real-life TV newsman Roy Neal plays a TV newsman, and the usual trappings of a low-budget film – small sets, minor cast – are on delightful display, but that only heightens the tension.
Thug: “Is your wife smart?”
The Other Maverick Brother: “Yeah, why?”
Thug: “Because if she’s not, we’ll be reading about you in the papers tomorrow. The OBITUARY column!”
Not a great film (none of these are, frankly) but a wonderful example of tough, lean 1950s filmmaking.
New Orleans Uncensored (1955) Dir. William Castle (76 min. / B&W / 1.85:1) A documentary-style glimpse at life on the docks of The Big Easy, where – we’re told – gangsters of the Chicago or New York type are only now trying to infiltrate the territory of the longshoremen. Arthur Franz is trying to set up his own shipping company, he runs afoul of tough guy Michael Ansara, but with the help of lovely Beverly Garland, widow of the LAST guy what tried to set up his own shipping company, Artie just might be able to break the mob’s stranglehold on the docks.
No movie with the delightful Miss Garland is ever going to get a bad review from us, but that’s a moot point here, because New Orleans Uncensored delivers the promised goods, with drama, action, suspense, and realism (we love the 1950s “let’s get out on location” look and feel of film noir). Many of the racketbusters, police officers, and city officials are portrayed by real racketbusters, police officers, and city officials, and apparently no one in public life in New Orleans in 1955 had any acting skills whatsoever. The puppet cast of Supercar was less wooden.
(And to get the full feel of this motion picture, recite the line aloud in a nasal monotone): “Police Superintendent Scheuring said if rackets took over the 42 mile waterfront, he’d need not a police force, but an army.”
Inasmuch as the film was directed by William Castle, I’m disappointed to learn that Fats Domino wasn’t suspended on wires and hoisted over the theatre audience during the climax of the picture.
Footsteps in the Fog (1955) Dir. Arthur Lubin (90 min. / Technicolor / 1.85:1) A British production that was originally co-featured with The Night Holds Terror, so you may want to watch it that way. It’s the first color film in either Noir Archive set, which means it isn’t a TRUE noir (only Leave Her to Heaven qualifies as a color noir, or ever will), but it’s a lot better than we’d heard: early 20th century London, and cockney (and uppity) maid Jean Simmons has uncovered the truth behind the long illness and early death of the mistress of the house, giving her, shall we say, leverage over the master of the house, Stewart Granger. Miss Simmons moves in on the dresses, jewelry, and boudoir of the dead woman, but there’s an unwritten movie law (and it’s probably a real-life law, too, somewhere on the books) that you’re taking a real chance blackmailing a homicidal maniac.
A very good gothic thriller; the film’s opening, a rainy funeral sequence, looked so much like the one of the soon-to-come Hammer Technicolor offerings that I was expecting a hand to reach up out of the grave and grab Mr. Granger by the socks. That mood doesn’t let up, and Footsteps in the Fog is a classic of its kind. Director Lubin was taking a break from directing the Francis the Talking Mule pictures over at universal; it’s unknown if he was able to utilize any of his skill working with donkeys to help him deal with his cast here.
An apt description of Miss Simmons: “Look out for this one. She’s got something up her sleeve besides her arm!”
Oddly, or maybe because it is in Technicolor and the film stock hasn’t survived in great shape, this is the worst transfer in the set, with poor color in some sequences and a lack of distinction when characters are shown against a rear-screen backdrop. Disappointing, but the film is still excellent and we enjoyed it greatly.
Spin a Dark Web (1955) Dir. Vernon Sewell (76 min. / B&W / 1.66:1) Another British thriller (it was called Soho Incident in its native country), with Americans Faith Domergue and Lee Patterson (well, technically, Patterson was a Canadian, so he was practically an American, more or less). Patterson is an up-and-coming prizefighter who discovers the only route to the top is playing ball with the mob, and since the Don’s sister is the lovely Miss Domergue, well, he’s game – for a while. That career path doesn’t work out for him so well, as it turns out.
Frankly, nobody in this picture is very nice, and Patterson – who would be expected to have some sterling qualities about him, being our leading man and all – seems quite happy about breaking thumbs and threatening witnesses on his days off from fighting. Miss Domergue may as well be playing Maleficent; she just couldn’t be any more rotten. Martin Benson is the chief mobster; a decade later, he’d end up crushed into a little cube in a car after disagreeing with Goldfinger.
“Sicilians! I’ve heard about them! Swipe your teeth if you leave your mouth open!”
One of the weaker films in the set, mostly because the only one to root for in the film was the guy who got to drive the gorgeous Miss Domergue home from the set after each day’s shooting, whoever that lucky stuff was. Hope she invited him in at least once for a spot o' tea.
Rumble on the Docks (1956) Dir. Fred F. Sears (82 min. / B&W / 1.85:1) Back to America, finally, with - as my buddy Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear pointed out - a non-singing version of West Side Story, more or less. The Diggers (the good guys, sort of) and the Stompers (the bad guys, definitely) fight for turf – and women – on the docks of Brooklyn. The Diggers’ leader is pretty boy James Darren in his film debut; drama is added when Jimmy is forced to choose between his nice-guy pop, who was forced to retire when beaten up by gangsters, leaving the family in poverty, and the rich, flashy gangsters responsible for his father’s ruin. Money or family? Ah, the eternal question.
On the difference between the mobsters the kids admire and the parents working on the docks: “They walk around here nice and clean, smelling like cologne. We don’t smell so good to our kids.”
The only notable (to us) names in the supporting cast are Edgar Barrier, Bobby Blake, and Timothy Carey, and the appearance of Freddy Bell and the Bellboys (performing an hysterical “rock and roll” number) signifies beyond any doubt that this is a Sam Katzman picture, so be forewarned. Didn’t matter, we enjoyed this one a lot.
The Wrap Up
One thing's for sure: Columbia Pictures had their B crime dramas in a niche and wasn't looking for spectacular filmmaking, only making each one on budget and on time (note that nearly all of the films in this set clock in at practically the same running time, with five of the nine at between 77 and 79 minutes and a couple of others only a minute or two longer).
The Blu-ray set offers no bonus material but nine entertaining films, none of which are overly familiar, and a great price make this one (like the first volume) a must-have.
Vol. 3 in September will take up where this one leaves off and finish off the 1950s with The Shadow in the Window, the only film noir we know of with Jerry “The Beaver” Mathers; Diana Dors and Victor Mature in The Long Haul and Mr. Mature and Anita Ekberg in Pickup Alley; James Darren back again in The Tijuana Story; Arlene Dahl in She Played with Fire; Don Siegel’s great The Lineup; Darren McGavin in The Case Against Brooklyn; Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono; and Ernest Borgnine in Man on a String, directed by Andre DeToth.