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Columbia Noir #2

by Glenn Erickson Feb 06, 2021

 

The UK disc purveyors Powerhouse Indicator are back with a second installment of Region B Film Noir goodies from the darker end of the Columbia Torch Lady’s film vault. This time around we have a couple of Femme Fatale thrillers (does she or doesn’t she?), a trio of organized crime mellers, and a hit man saga so minimalist, it’s almost avant-garde. The icing on the noir cake is the curated selection of extras, plus the absurd counter-programming of Three Stooges short subjects. Why did nobody think to cast Moe, Larry and Shemp as cold-blooded Noir hit men?


Columbia Noir #2
Region B Blu-ray
Framed, 711 Ocean Drive, The Mob, Affair in Trinidad, Tight Spot, Murder by Contract
Powerhouse Indicator
1947-1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen & 1:37 Academy / Street Date February 15, 2021 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £49.99
Starring: Glenn Ford, Janis Carter, Edmond O’Brien, Joanne Dru, Broderick Crawford, Richard Kiley, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Vince Edwards, Caprice Toriel.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey (2), Franz Planer, Joseph Walker (2), Lucien Ballard
Written by Ben Maddow, John Patrick; Richard English, Francis Swann; William Bowers, Ferguson Findley; Oscar Saul, James Gunn, Virginia Van Upp, Berne Giler; William Bowers, Leonard Kantor; Ben Simcoe & Ben Maddow
Directed by
Richard Wallace, Joseph M. Newman, Robert Parrish, Vincent Sherman, Phil Karlson, Irving Lerner

This second deluxe set Columbia Noir #2 presents another lineup of thrillers with a fine selection of stars, and directed by some of the better directors of noir. The six titles on view also contain several that are new to Blu-ray.

If anything Powerhouse Indicator has upped its game in finding relevant, informative extras. The short subjects connect with each title in ways that aren’t always obvious, and the prime-source interview material brings us the actual words of the directors and stars. A nice break from noir intrigues and murders are the Three Stooges shorts, one per title, that are cleverly chosen to harmonize with each film’s intrigues and murders — with vulgar slapstick intrigues and murders.

 


 

Framed
1947 / 1:37 Academy / 82 min.
Starring: Glenn Ford, Janis Carter, Barry Sullivan, Edgar Buchanan, Karen Morley, Jim Bannon.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editor: Richard Fanti
Music: Martin Skiles
Written by Ben Maddow, John Patrick
Produced by Jules Schermer
Directed by
Richard Wallace

Framed gives us the newly-minted star Glenn Ford (courtesy of Gilda) opposite a genuine hot number of a newcomer, Janis Carter. The story is a mechanical murder scheme a la Double Indemnity. A cold-blooded femme fatale has difficulty deciding which lover to conspire with and which to double cross.

The beautiful, dangerous waitress Paula (Janis Carter) chooses unemployed mining engineer Mike (Glenn Ford) as the perfect patsy for a murder and embezzlement scheme with her lover, a bank executive (Barry Sullivan). She has a change of heart at the wrong time, just as our patsy comes to the realization he’s been had. An unforeseen consequence sees Mike’s best pal (Edgar Buchanan) taking the rap, by accident.

Framed is a good mid-range programmer with excellent cinematography (Burnett Guffey) and crisp direction. Easy-going Glenn Ford is a good fit for the showcase star role, his first billing over the title. Janis Carter had already stood out in Columbia’s lower-tier thriller Night Editor; her small-town Lucretia Borgia has a murderous gleam in her eye but her can’t make herself do the smart thing — murder again. Since Ford’s good guy hero remains incorruptible, the noir stain in this one is easily washed out. Paula shows inklings of a conscience but in the end all the blame goes to Mame.

We remain involved in Framed, a good story well told. The saddest thing is that Janis Carter’s stock didn’t rise — she’d not receive another worthy starring role. Barry Sullivan plays everything low-key sinister; his big mistake was trusting the dame. Karen Morley was near the end of her feature film career — she and screenwriter Ben Maddow soon became victims of the blacklist.

Indicator discs routinely tap excellent commentators beginning with the velvet- voiced Imogen Sara Smith for this early femme fatale noir. The label is also partial to finding other work by the filmmakers. On this disc we’re given screenwriter Ben Maddow’s short instructional film The Steps of Age (1951), an investigation of the problems of old age. It’s a fine piece of work by a talent scalded out of Hollywood jobs. Indicator has also been seasoning its Columbia Noir offerings with remastered Three Stooges shorts. The Stooges get their own fix of deadly dames in Up in Daisy’s Penthouse (1958), a full-blown noir takeoff with a scheming blonde (Connie Cezon) who wants to get her hands on a windfall of oil money.

 


 

711 Ocean Drive
1950 / 1:37 Academy / 102 min.
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Joanne Dru, Otto Kruger, Barry Kelley, Dorothy Patrick, Sammy White, Don Porter, Howard St. John, Robert Osterloh, Bert Freed.
Cinematography: Frank F. Planer (Franz Planer)
Original Music: Sol Kaplan
Written by Richard English, Francis Swann
Produced by Frank N. Seltzer
Directed by
Joseph M. Newman

One of the best ‘introductions to organized crime’ is this smart noir about a crooked Horatio Alger let loose in the racketeering game. 711 Ocean Drive shows the rise and fall of an ambitious mobster who makes profitable use of his electronic skills. Despite the law and order message he comes off as a take-charge guy… at least until the violent finish.

Telephone technician Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) services the phone banks for a low-level bookie (Barry Kelly) and is soon using his electronics expertise to transmit race results directly from the tracks to the illegal betting pools. Mal eventually takes over the wire service, which comes with perks like a beach house in Malibu. Once in the big time, the egotistical Mal pretends to kowtow to the Syndicate honchos (Otto Kruger, Don Porter & Bert Freed), moving in on mob wife Gail (Joanne Dru) while planning his own coup to gain power and security within the organization. Since the hoods consider him expendable, Mal dreams up one more piece of electronic subterfuge to cheat the Syndicate’s betting pools out of $250,000. Can he pull it off?

711 Ocean Drive could have been inspired by the previous year’s White Heat, in which Edmond O’Brien’s treasury agent rigs a ‘bedside radio’ to serve as a homing device. Mal is an early bird genius for the coming Information age: a man that can handle accurate racetrack information is far more valuable than a thug with a gun. For his biggest electronic swindle Mal delays racetrack results just as do Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting — and without the huge staff of con artists.

O’Brien and Joanne Dru are great. Not blessed with matinee idol looks, O’Brien succeeds as a romantic lead by will alone. He delivers a great dirty dialogue line that surely sailed over the noggins of the clueless censors — when he’s certain that he’s ready to demand a partnership with his boss, Mal shouts, “It will work — now I got him by the short hairs!  That particular anatomical reference wouldn’t be heard in a movie again for twenty years.

711 Ocean Drive teaches a lesson in corporate ethics when Mal discovers that his bosses have no intention of coughing up his negotiated 50% cut of the profits. The veiled message is that every American business is a racket where fatter cats cheat the leaner cats below them, all the way down the line.

This may be director Joseph M. Newman’s best movie; it’s an exciting script and everybody contributes top work. Besides excellent locations around Los Angeles, the exciting finish takes place at the impressive Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Mal may think he’s smarter than the traditional gangster but he suffers the classic fate doled out to Cagney and Robinson in times gone by. Meanwhile, the Syndicate leaders remain untouchable. This subversive quality is what places 711 squarely in the noir canon.

The capable critic Glenn Kenny handles the Ocean Drive audio commentary. Director Joseph H. Newman’s early work is seen in a 1945 documentary about Harold Russell, the WW2 casualty who lost his hands (and subsequently starred in The Best Years of Our Lives. The Stooges short Three Sappy People (1939) picks up on the telephone repairman theme. Instead of becoming gangsters, they pretend to be psychiatrists.

 


 

The Mob
1951 / 1:37 Academy / 87 min.
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Richard Kiley, Neville Brand, Ernest Borgnine, Lynn Baggett, Jean Alexander, Ralph Dumke, John Marley, Charles Bronson, Harry Lauter, Don Megowan.
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editor: Charles Nelson
Original Music: George Duning
Written by William Bowers from a novel by Ferguson Findley
Produced by Jerry Bresler
Directed by
Robert Parrish

The entertaining organized crime thriller The Mob is noir only by the implication that rampant corruption lurks beneath many large industries. Undercover cops Broderick Crawford and Richard Kiley join a gang running the docks, and the story charts their efforts to avoid exposure and to learn the identity of the unknown Mr. Big in charge. Although filmed partly on location by the often sublime director Robert Parrish (The Purple Plain, The Wonderful Country), The Mob can boast some very atmospheric studio scenes, especially an opening murder in the rain.

The storyline sometimes feels like a followup to The Undercover Man, with a more coordinated team. A realistic treatment of Undercover Ops was still a novelty. Time and effort is spent hiding identities, but nowadays it seems as if it would be far to easy for the mob to ID the G-Man plants, and to take reprisals against their loved ones. The fearless undercover heroes of T-Men routinely broke off all ties with their families.

The agents are okay but the villains are better. The gallery of rough-tough hoods includes Ernest Borgnine & Neville Brand, with Don Megowan, John Marley and Charles Bronson in smaller parts. That guarantees a wide range of sadistic villainy and the good guys are almost as crude and violent. Star Crawford demonstrates his skill with his bigger-than-life, slightly vulgar character while the cultured Richard Kiley doesn’t quite convince as a bowling night beer-drinking type. But the set-ups, rub-outs and confrontations supply plenty of desired mobster action. Is it noir?  Only because the mob underworld is so nightmarish.

Film writer Gina Telaroli handles the audio commentary for The Mob, while the archival extras are two interviews with actor Ernest Borgnine. An audio track from 2001 was recorded at the National Film Theater, and a video interview from 2009 is from the BFI Southbank TV show. Hot Stuff from 1956 is the Stooges short. The boys go undercover in a spy operation involving rocket fuel and a sinister foreign country called Anemia.

 


 

Affair in Trinidad
1952 / 1:37 Academy / 98 min.
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Alexander Scourby, Valerie Bettis, Torin Thatcher, Howard Wendell, Karel Stepanek, George Voskovec, Steven Geray, Walter Kohler, Juanita Moore, Gregg Martell, Mort Mills.
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editor: Viola Lawrence
Original Music: George Duning
Written by Oscar Saul, James Gunn story by Virginia Van Upp, Berne Giler
Produced and Directed by
Vincent Sherman

In 1949 Rita Hayworth took her second husband Prince Aly Khan and left Hollywood for a few seasons; a possible project for her return to film was said to be From Here to Eternity co-starring her with Glenn Ford. Rita’s actual comeback feature turned out to be a disappointment, but not at the box office: Affair in Trinidad was Columbia’s biggest moneymaker for 1952. The instruction to make another Gilda resulted in a cookie-cutter story that borrowed elements from Hitchcock’s Notorious as well. This time Hayworth is Chris Emery, a performer in tropical Port-of-Spain. Chris must maintain an on again-off again romantic act with Glenn Ford’s Steve because she’s also acting as a highly unlikely police agent, uncovering spy secrets in the home of her fiancé. The big suspense scene substitutes Hitchcock’s ‘key to the wine cellar’ with a lame misplaced scarf.

Compensating mightily are two racy dance numbers that bookend the picture. The second is poorly motivated. Rita’s revealing costumes and terrific hairdo are back, but her Chris Emery is just not the fascinating mystery as was Gilda in Buenos Aires.

Again, a group of espionage conspirators are working through a shady financier (Alexander Scourby), perfecting a weapon to be sold to the enemies of America. Chris also sings (voiced by Jo Ann Greer) before she is recruited by British policeman Torin Thatcher to ransack Scourby’s mansion for evidence. Too many suspicious characters wander through the plotline. Juanita Moore is good as Rita’s maid and caretaker; Steven Geray returns from Gilda but with a less interesting part to play. The other significant female role is Valerie Bettis’ shrill schemer. She’s such a liability, the spies didn’t need Rita’s intervention to be caught.

The recreation of Trinidad in Hollywood is only so-so. Even with a calypso group offering local color we never seem to be anywhere but a sound stage. All would be fine if the storyline had more forward momentum. Why Glenn Ford’s character can’t be told about Rita’s police mission is a source of frustration, as no real conflict rises between the lovers, just a story gimmick. Director Vincent Sherman was already a trusted go-to guy for Harry Cohn. He could handle tough cookies like Joan Crawford and he didn’t mind stepping in to finish films begun by other directors. Everything here is by-the-numbers. Ford and Hayworth are just fine but the only time the screen comes alive is when Rita goes into one of her sexy torso-tossing dances.

Typical of the production is a newspaper photo published of Chris Emery the morning after the murder of her husband. The paper’s file photo for Chris is the same exact glamour image used for the film’s main poster. The moment feels like a Tex Avery cartoon — and Rita could pass for Red Hot Riding Hood.

Lee Gambin handles commentary chores for this re-teaming of Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Onstage with host Eddie Muller at a 2012 Noir City gathering, Glenn Ford’s son Peter Ford offers an unexpurgated talk about his womanizing father. The featurette Caribbean from 1951 is a travelogue about British holdings in the tropical latitudes. One interesting detail is learning about the large Hindu population in these colonies, that were imported from India as labor after slavery was abolished. The Three Stooges’ two-reeler Saved by the Belle (1939) sees our three knuckleheads repeatedly rescued from a firing squad by a sultry señorita, played by Carmen LaRoux.

 


 

Tight Spot
1955 / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min.
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Lucy Marlow, Lorne Greene, Katherine Anderson.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editor: Viola Lawrence
Original Music: George Duning
Written by William Bowers from a play by Leonard Kantor
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Directed by
Phil Karlson

If you’re wondering why Ginger Rogers’ career didn’t flourish in the 1950s, Tight Spot will supply the answer. Director Phil Karlson made several excellent ’50s crime noirs for Columbia, and this tense tale of mob power and police corruption should have been one of the best. Based on a stage play, most of Tight Spot takes place in the same hotel room. Sort of a train-challenged reworking of the Fleischer classic The Narrow Margin, it’s about a cop (Brian Keith) trying to keep a witness alive long enough to testify against the mob. Ginger Rogers is the sassy convict sprung to tattle on a top underworld figure. Her floozy with a good heart initially refuses to cooperate and instead gives grief to and the special prosecutor who desperately needs her testimony, Edward G. Robinson. As in the Fleischer film the emphasis is on the long arm of the mob, which can field hit men capable of killing almost anyone, anywhere. Mobster Lorne Greene makes a fine bad guy. He leans on Brian Keith, whose past history is not exactly squeaky clean.

Tight Spot begins with a highly expressive scene: a government witness is shot down on the steps of a courthouse, and the police look helplessly at the large buildings across the street, with a thousand windows where the shot could have originated. Karlson keeps the mobster part of the story hopping — tense meetings take place in dark parking lots, with threats exchanged.

The problem is Ginger Rogers, who seems to think the show is a comedy sequel to Roxie Hart. Although the film has a sense of humor, Rogers plays her sassy felon too broadly and continually reaches for contact with the audience. It’s a clear case of upstaging. Other players like Lucy Marlow and Katherine Anderson (very good in the Marie Windsor role, if you know your Narrow Margin) barely have a chance to make an impact… it’s almost as if Rogers was taking screen-hog lessons from Joan Crawford. The movie’s suspenseful finish is unimpaired, but despite Phil Karlson’s hard-edged direction, the movie feels like a compromise.

Unbilled players include Frank Gerstle, Kathryn Grant, and Robert Nichols. John Larch must have been a Phil Karlson favorite; he’s a government agent here, but a few months later he’d make an indelible impression as a mouth-breathing redneck thug in Karlson’s The Phenix City Story. Karlson was attracted to tough crime pictures — Tight Spot imagines the safeguards that Estes Kefauver took to compel mob witness Virginia Hill to testify. Joan Crawford and Annette Bening also played Virginia Hill substitutes, but her real story still seems like great movie material.

Writer Nora Fiore takes on commentary duties for this noir thriller warped by the gravitational field of star Ginger Rogers. The main extra is a full hour-long document, The Senate Crime Investigations (1951) which consists of unedited senate organized crime hearings. One of those appearing is the notorious Virginia Hill herself. The 1945 Stooges short is Idiots Deluxe (1945, 18 mins), a twisted courtroom comedy with Moe on trial for attacking Curly with an axe. Moe’s alibi is a bear who drives a car. It’s a comedy, see?

 


 

Murder by Contract
1958 / 1:85 widescreen / 81 min.
Starring: Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel, Michael Granger, Kathie Browne.
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editor: Carlo Lodato
Original Music: Perry Botkin
Written by Ben Simcoe, Ben Maddow
Produced by Leon Chooluck
Directed by
Irving Lerner

The truly remarkable final feature was released in 1958 but looks and feels nothing like the other pictures in this collection. Directed in a minimalist style, Murder by Contract has a lean and direct post-studio era look courtesy of camera artist Lucien Ballard. It’s more polished than the crude gem Blast of Silence. Lerner would seem to have been trying to follow in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick; his star for two gangster pictures filmed back-to-back is Vince Edwards, from Kubrick’s The Killing.

The bleak narrative charts the rise and fall of hit man Claude (Vince Edwards). Methodical and controlled, Claude graduates to front rank hit-mannery by killing his own boss, a mob middle-man. Claude then splits for the coast and a tough witness-removal assignment that must be completed before a looming trial date. His two hood companion-watchdogs Marc and George (Phillip Pine & Herschel Bernardi) don’t understand Claude’s weird behavior. The zen-gangster specialist blows his cool when he discovers that his chosen victim is a woman (Caprice Toriel). With time running out Claude becomes more unstable. Then his first hit attempt fails…

The similiarities between Murder by Contract and Taxi Driver are obvious: Claude follows a rigid routine of exercise, a his self-discipline includes emotional isolation and adherence to a strict code. He carries no guns, writes nothing down, dresses nicely and maintains a low profile. The mob bosses love this perfect Organization Man. But the light and space of Los Angeles seem to Put the Zap on Claude’s Brain: underneath the method is a broad streak of madness, a control freak who can indeed freak out when things don’t go his way.

The refreshingly modern Murder by Contract is a low-budget item created to fill out double bills. All but ignored by the industry, it’s better than most everything it played with. Even the finish and goes against expectations. Director Lerner is a major talent who worked in creative capacities on everything from Spartacus to Robot Monster but only had a few opportunities to flex his directing muscles. Martin Scorsese apparently connected with Lerner on New York, New York, and gave him a special thanks in the credits.

Of special mention is Perry Botkin’s musical score, a minimalist mostly-guitar piece that fits the show like a glove. Remind us a bit of the music for The Third Man, it helps enforce the show’s methodical pacing and Claude’s unnervingly unemotional attitude. We watch eagerly, knowing that at some point Claude is going to blow a fuse.

The Self-Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme lends her capable voice and smarts to the commentary for this trendy, progressive thriller. She reports on the life and times of actress Caprice Toriel, as discovered through TCM’s Noir Alley cablecast with Eddie Muller. An older DVD intro by Martin Scorsese is on tap as well. Director Irving Lerner shines in the 1943 short Swedes in America, a public service film celebrating Scandinavian influence and hosted by Ingrid Bergman. And befitting the ruthless hit man theme is the aptly titled Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938), which mixes idiots, a girl’s college and nitroglycerin in search of laughs. It was directed by Charley Chase and photographed by Lucien Ballard. And we’re also given a Trailers from Hell commentary by Larry Karaszewski.

 


 

Powerhouse Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of Columbia Noir #2 gives each title its own keep case. The transfers are high-quality Sony remasters, all in fine shape with sharp-as-a-tack audio. PI’s deluxe boxed set packaging features color poster art for covers, plus a 61-page book with the program notes for all six features, handsomely illustrated. The essays are entertaining and academically sound, leaning on prime source interviews and essays where possible. When combined with the critical analysis in the audio commentaries, one should be ready to pass a doctorate exam on the material. Powerhouse Indicator’s full list of disc set extras is below.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Columbia Noir #2
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movies:
The Mob, Affair in Trinidad, Tight Spot Good
Framed Very Good
711 Ocean Drive, Murder by Contract Excellent
Video: All Excellent
Sound: All Excellent
Supplements: sic full audio commentaries (see above); The Guardian Interview with Ernest Borgnine (2001), an archival audio recording of the much-loved character actor in conversation with Clyde Jeavons at the National Film Theatre, London; Interview with Peter Ford (2012), an archival recording of the son of Glenn Ford discussing his father’s career with the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller; Swedes in America (1943), an Oscar-nominated short film from Irving Lerner in which Ingrid Bergman explains the influence of Swedish immigrants on the United States; Diary of a Sergeant (1945), a documentary portrait of Harold Russell, the soldier who lost his hands during World War II and would later win an Oscar for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by Joseph M. Newman; The Steps of Age (1951), a dramatized documentary by screenwriter Ben Maddow, demonstrating the challenges of growing old as seen through of the eyes of a retired widow; Caribbean (1951), a documentary by the Crown Film Unit depicting the West Indies, British Guiana, and British Honduras;
Six short films starring the Three Stooges: Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938), Saved by the Belle (1939), Three Sappy People (1939), Idiots Deluxe (1945), Up in Daisy’s Penthouse (1953), and Hot Stuff (1956).
On all features: Original theatrical trailer (Except Framed), Image gallery of publicity and promotional material.
Limited edition illustrated 120-page book with new essays by Melanie Williams, Ellen Cheshire, Simon Abrams, Kulraj Phullar, Tara Judah, and David Thompson; extracts from interviews with director Phil Karlson, screenwriter Ben Maddow, and others; an extract from Vincent Sherman’s autobiography; archival news articles, interviews, and reviews; new writing on the short films; and full film credits.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 1, 2021
(6439noir)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.