It seems like it was just last April—come to think of it…it was last April—when I borrowed some bandwidth on the blog to talk about a collaborative Blu-ray effort between Mill Creek Entertainment and Kit Parker Films/The Sprocket Vault featuring nine movies previously released to MOD DVD as part of Sony’s Choice Collection. That compendium was titled Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954, and at the close of the essay I hinted that there were further entries in this Blu-ray series to come.
Thanks to Clint Weiler at MVD Entertainment, Noir Archive Volume 2: 1954-1956 dropped in unannounced last week at Rancho Yesteryear. (The street date for this release is July 16.) Like its predecessor, Volume 2 spotlights nine films (again, previously released to MOD DVD) with thematic elements of crime and the soft white underbelly of the nation whose independence we’re celebrating today. Interestingly, I wasn’t as familiar with the titles on Volume 2 as I was Volume 1; Part the Second does include The Crooked Web (1955), which I originally reviewed as a “Where’s That Been?” column for ClassicFlix in December of 2013. Web stars OTR veteran Frank Lovejoy as a drive-in entrepreneur lured into a crooked deal by Mari Blanchard and her brother Richard Denning. Web was later bundled with four other films (Criminal Lawyer , Escape from San Quentin , The Shadow on the Window , The Case Against Brooklyn ) as Columbia Film Noir Collection, Volume 1 in 2012; both Shadow and Brooklyn will get the Blu-ray treatment when Noir Archive Volume 3: 1957-1960 is released in September.
The other familiar title on Volume 2 was 5 Against the House (1955), a caper film directed by TDOY fave Phil Karlson. A quartet of the world’s oldest college students (Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Matthews) spend some leisure time at a Reno casino while venturing back to the Midwestern university they attend. Moore and Matthews are briefly mistaken as confederates of a hood attempting to rob the casino, and while they are eventually cleared a casual comment from one of the cops (John Larch) about how it’s impossible to hold the place up starts the wheels inside Matthews’ head a-turnin‘…and pretty soon he’s concocted a foolproof scheme for a casino heist. These wacky college shenanigans are all supposed to be for shits and giggles (the men even intend to return the money) but Keith, a Korean War veteran who’s suffering from PTSD, starts to take everything too seriously and sets out to rob the joint for real, dragging Madison’s chanteuse girlfriend (Kim Novak) along for the ride.
5 Against the House is a fun little flick provided you don’t examine it too closely (it’s got a rather gossamer premise) and it benefits from a well-written script (based on Jack Finney’s serialized story/novel, and co-written by Sterling Silliphant) and good performances from all the principals. Novak is at her most luscious here (spoiler alert: her singing was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer) and as an added bonus for old-time radio fans, William Conrad (“The Man of a Thousand Voice”) plays the casino employee who Keith and Company hold at gunpoint. (You’ll also spot George “Cyrus Tankersley” Cisar, Kathryn “The second Mrs. Bing Crosby” Grant, Jean Willes, and Robert F. Simon in small roles as well.) 5 Against the House was previously featured on the DVD set Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I: The Collector’s Choice in 2009; I found a copy on sale a few Christmases back and was pleased as (Hawaiian) punch because it not only had The Sniper (1952) but TDOY favorite The Lineup (1958) as well. (Lineup will also make its Blu-ray debut on the Noir Archive: Volume 3 release.)
As for the remaining movies on Noir Archive Volume 2…well, you can’t hit one out of the park every trip at bat. I think the most disappointing film on this set is Spin a Dark Web (1956; a.k.a. Soho Incident) only because it tells an all-too-familiar story (guy what’s had some book larnin’ agrees to become a member of the mob even if it means forfeiting his soul) without a great deal of pizzazz. Faith Domergue, the actress who appeared in such cult films as This Island Earth (1954) and Cult of the Cobra (1955), plays a sultry Sicilian whose brother (Martin Benson) runs a racket in London. Domergue paves the way for a Canadian boxer (Lee Patterson) to join up with bro because he’s got an engineering background but Patterson’s new vocation creates friction between his would-be girlfriend (Rona Anderson) and her family (her brother [Peter Hammond] is killed by one of Benson’s henchmen—played by Bernard “Dr. Bombay” Fox!). I don’t think I’ve ever watched an episode of Surfside 6, the TV series that made Patterson a familiar name…but I hope his acting improved by that time. Domergue is as sexy as ever, but other than that Dark Web is a bit of a slog. (There’s a choice bit of dialogue in this that’s slightly ahead of the times: “I pay you to look after the bitch…”)
“The homeless man’s Orson Welles,” Hugo Haas, is represented on Volume 2 with Bait (1954), an unquestionably loopy melodrama that casts Hugo as an eccentric who partners with John Agar(!) to locate a lost gold mine Haas previously discovered. Cleo Moore, who appeared in many of Haas’ motion pictures, is along for the ride as an unwed mother who gets hitched to Hugo because Hugo wants Agar out of the way once they’ve found the mine. (It’s kind of a convoluted murder plot: why not just put a bullet in John’s brainpan and be done with it?) Bait is only slightly better from a technical standpoint that any film in the hands of, say, Edward D. Wood, Jr., but Haas never quite perfected Wood’s style of cinematic dementia (nor did he have Bela Lugosi as a star). Sir Cedric Hardwicke takes the money and runs portraying Satan (The Devil is coaching Hugo in the murder department) and there’s also strong character work from Bruno VeSota (of Dementia fame) and Emmett Lynn.
Cliff Weimer, my fellow movie maven who leaves the cleaning of the rest rooms to underlings In the Balcony, thought very highly of The Night Holds Terror (1955)—a suspense thriller based on a real-life incident in 1953 involving one Eugene Courtier. Maverick’s Jack Kelly plays Courtier, an aircraft engineer who runs afoul of three hoodlums (Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross) and is held hostage along with his wife (Hildy Parks) and children, Desperate Hours-style. The juvenile delinquents soon learn that Courtier is the son of a supermarket magnate and they kidnap him for a hefty ransom.
I enjoyed Terror because I always get a kick out of seeing Cassavetes do whatever is necessary to put groceries in the pantry. Edwards is also a little scary (he’s constantly trying to make time with Parks because he’s a real horndog) and director Andrew L. Stone (he helmed a similar picture in 1958, Cry Terror!) keeps the suspense on a high boil throughout. Jack Kruschen and Jonathan Hale (Mr. Dithers from the Blondie movie series) are a pair of cops, Barney Phillips a car salesman, and “The Old Ranger” himself, Stanley Andrews, plays Kelly’s old man. Narrated with the usual air of authority by William “This is Your FBI” Woodson!
Woodson’s familiar tones can also be heard throughout New Orleans Uncensored (1955), directed by cult figure William Castle and produced by “Jungle” Sam Katzman. Mom took a shine to this one because Uncensored features her actress fave Beverly Garland, as the wife (she goes by “Marie Reilly”) of a N’awlins dock manager (played by William Henry). Ex-Navy officer Dan Corbett (Arthur Franz) is in need of work after purchasing a surplus LSM boat (he needs dough to fix ‘er up) and while he makes the right connections in the longshoreman’s world, he soon clashes with racketeer Floyd “Zero” Saxon (Michael Ansara), who rules the piers with an iron fist. You see, this might be hard to believe…but there’s a lot of corruption going on at the docks (quel surprise!), and after Saxon arranges for Marie’s husband to sleep with the fishes, Dan decides he’s just the man The Big Easy needs to clean up the nasty goings-on.
New Orleans Uncensored is one of those movies that will never be mistaken for great art...but it’s so gosh-darn entertaining I never cared for a moment. The exemplary cast (Garland, Franz, Ansara, Helene Stanton) helps out, plus you have some priceless moments from noir icon Mike Mazurski as one of Ansara’s thugs…who no doubt had difficulty with the written portion of his henchman application. (Mazurski and Frankie Ray provide the comic relief: “Shut up, stupid.” “You’re stupid…”) Some real-life individuals play themselves (the president of the union local, the police superintendent, etc.) and they’re easy to pick out because of their limited thespic ability. But hey—Uncensored also features TDOY fave Stacy Harris as Garland’s brother, an ex-boxer nicknamed “Scrappy”…and that’s worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned.
There’s more action on the piers (this time in Noo Yawk) in Rumble on the Docks (1956), which mixes juvenile delinquency with the mob in a movie that’s like West Side Story...only without the singing-and-dancing. Gang member Jimmy Smigelski (James Darren in his motion picture debut) wants very much to suck up to mobster Joe Brindo (Michael Granger) even though Papa Smigelski (Edgar Barrier) harbors a grudge against Brindo. (Well, he was responsible for breaking Papa’s back.) While Jimmy tries to ingratiate himself with Brindo, he’s got the pesky problem of a rival street gang to deal with. James “Moondoggie” Darren playing a punk is one of the reasons why Rumble is such a goofy delight; there’s also future accused murderer Robert Blake on hand as Darren’s lieutenant, and cult legend Timothy Carey plays Granger’s #2 man. (“Jungle” Sam produced this one, too.)
Rounding out the movies on Noir Archive Volume 2 are one of the classiest of the selections, a Technicolor offering starring Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons, Footsteps in the Fog (1955—Simmons has an unnatural romantical attraction to Stew even though she knows he’s a murderer) and a flick that has been on my radar for many years now, Cell 2455, Death Row (1955). In this fictionalized account of real-life “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman, William Campbell plays a convict who has time to contemplate all the grief he’s caused folks as he waits to walk the last mile. He inevitably concludes that it’s not poverty or parental neglect or any of those other societal factors responsible—he’s just one disagreeable essobee.
Chessman’s life is told in a much better TV-movie from 1977, Kill Me if You Can (with Alan Alda as Caryl), but Cell 2455 was pretty entertaining (Cliff told me he wasn’t too fond of this one) since it takes itself so seriously at times it borders on parody. Many of the folks from movies I’ve already mentioned in this essay turn up in this (Kathryn Grant, Kerwin Matthews, Vince Edwards) but as always, I’m tickled to see OTR performers like Paul Dubov (as Campbell’s buddy), Eleanor Aubrey (running a gambling house), Forrest Lewis (as Campbell’s parole officer), and Joe Forte (as Campbell’s lawyer…who tells Campbell to suck it when he decides not to defend him in court). You take the good and take the bad with collections like these…but I highly recommend a purchase all the same.