"Kimono," unwrapped: Typically offbeat, Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) is notable for its progressive racial politics and casting, which includes dashing James Shigeta in his screen debut. (Photo courtesy Roxie)

Columbia Pictures' noir lights at the Roxie

Dennis Harvey September 17, 2009

Founded in 1924, Columbia Pictures spent some decades just below the top echelon of Hollywood studios. It didn’t own its own theater chain, or otherwise command the resources that MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers or Fox could apply in lavish displays of star power, production scale and promotional oomph.

When the business began changing in the 1950s due to TV, new antitrust laws and other factors, the playing field leveled in ways that benefitted Columbia more than its glitzier, top-heavy rivals. But before then, with the occasional prestigious exception—notably Frank Capra’s films—its bread-and-butter product leaned toward the less pricey ends of the entertainment spectrum. That meant away from spectacular production numbers, costume epics and all-star ensemble pieces and toward such humbler but reliable amusements as a girl, a guy and a gun.

Unsurprisingly, then, Columbia figures large in the film noir annals, something you can experience for yourself as former Roxie Cinema programmer Elliot Lavine brings to that theater another of his noir retrospectives. This Best of Columbia Noir series revives 22 black-and-white chestnuts made between 1944 and 1959, all in 35mm studio vault prints, none currently available on DVD. (Although it should be mentioned a big "Collector’s Choice" box set of Columbia noirs, features included as-yet-unannounced, is scheduled for release sometime in the coming months.)

Though none are famous noir classics (of which Columbia had many, like Gilda and The Big Heat), several titles here are fairly well-known to noir aficionados. 1946’s So Dark the Night and 1944’s My Name is Julia Ross are admired by fans of Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis, a superior stylist usually stuck with second-rate material. The Crimson Kimono (1959) is a typically offbeat Sam Fuller joint notable for its progressive racial politics and casting, which includes dashing James Shigeta in his screen debut.

Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 The Sniper has acquired cult cred for its chillingly prescient tale, anticipating Targets and Taxi Driver, of a disturbed young man who begins stalking and shooting complete strangers to relieve his tormented feelings about women. One of several vividly San Francisco-set features here, it provides a good midpoint illustration of a larger industry trend you can chart chronologically in this series: The move from dialogue-driven, studio-soundstage-bound thrillers (like 1944’s The Whistler, first of eight films based on a popular radio mystery show) to more brutal dramas whose realism was heightened by extensive location shooting.

Being limited to a particular company’s output over a specific period, this "Best" assortment also offers a chance to see talent under studio contract go through their paces several times over. Glenn Ford was one of Columbia’s biggest stars in this era, an unspectacular but adept player at tough guys, nice guys and guys who were both.

In both Framed (1947) and Human Desire (1954) he’s a loner who makes the sucker move of falling for a blonde bombshell with a hidden agenda. The latter reunited him with director Fritz Lang and costar Gloria Grahame of the prior year’s memorable Big Heat. Her partner in crime is Broderick Crawford, who takes a more friendly attitude toward Ford in potent Big House suspenser Convicted (1950). They play, respectively, a humane new warden who realizes one hard-luck involuntary manslaughter inmate has been railroaded.

A lesser-remembered actor worth rediscovering is strapping Brooklynite Vince Edwards, who got his break in Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing and would find greatest fame in the 60s as TV’s Dr. Ben Casey. In between, he was strikingly used in two back-to-back, low-budget gems here, both directed by Irving Lerner. City of Fear (1959) has him as a psychopathic escaped con with a stolen cannister he thinks is pure heroin—but in fact it’s a radioactive compound that could depopulate all Los Angeles, and which is slowly killing him. It’s excellent, but the real find is Murder by Contract (1958), in which Edwards’ hunky young hitman exasperates two colleagues with his unflappable cool as they plot the assassination of a Federal witness. Lean, droll and surprising, it’s terrific.

Some of the series’ other buried treasures likewise entwine unpredictable storytelling with imaginative use of real locations. Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 Nightfall belies its title by traversing from upscale L.A.’s bright lights to the snowblind hills of rural Wyoming. Truck-built, frog-voiced Aldo Ray and an Anne Bancroft at the end of her ingenue days are pursued along that trail by unfriendly parties including future Family Affair superdad Brian Keith as a ruthless criminal. 1954’s Drive a Crooked Road is a Malibu sun’n’surf-soaked tale of betrayal with a poignantly restrained Mickey Rooney as a shy, facially scarred "master mechanic" and racecar driver lured into crime for love.

Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958) from the next year makes fascinating use of San Francisco sights both familiar and vanished, including Sutro Baths during its brief period as an ice rink—in its laconic yet harrowing pursuit by cops and creeps (the latter memorably including Eli Wallach) of a smuggled heroin cache. It’s a great S.F. thriller, arguably as good as Siegel’s later Dirty Harry.

Some other titles in the Best of Columbia Noir aren’t great by any means, but have undeniable novelty appeal. Who can resist the prospect of 1958’s Screaming Mimi, with La Dolce Vita’s fountain-frolicking Swedish siren Anita Ekberg—the kind of 1950s blonde whose voluptuousness now gets labelled "fat" whenever Jessica Simpson or Britney gain a few pounds—as an exotic dancer and "great dame with a Great Dane" terrorized by a killer called "The Ripper."

Even rarer is 1944’s Goth-noirishly styled mix of sermon and supernatural Soul of a Monster, in which a terminally ill man is miraculously saved at the cost of his soul. It’s too talky and spottily paced to be good or even good-bad, but it is the kind of oddball enterprise that rewards on a level of sheer curiosity.

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