Sunday, April 26, 2015

City of Fear (1959)

While Columbia’s 1959 production City of Fear is included in the Columbia Film Noir Classics II DVD boxed set and while it does certainly have affinities with film noir it really belongs to another characteristic 1950s movie, the “terror in the streets” paranoia movie.

Vince Ryker (Vince Edwards) is on his way to LA, having just escaped from San Quentin, killing a guard in the process. Ryker has however done something much cleverer than merely escaping - he has also stolen a steel flask containing a million dollars’ worth of heroin from the prison infirmary. The heroin was being used in experimental trials on prisoners. Or at least that’s what Vince thinks. In fact the flask contains Cobalt-60 in granular form. That flask isn’t going to make him rich, it’s going to make him dead, and it could make a lot of other people dead as well. In fact it could make the whole population of Los Angeles dead!

Police Chief Jensen (Lyle Talbot) isn’t quite sure where his duty lies. He feels that the people have the right to know about this threat to their safety but he’s been persuaded that this would cause the biggest panic in history. For the moment the police will concentrate on trying to find Ryker before too much damage is done.

Of course the police will need help from scientists. Dr John Wallace (Steven Ritch), who looks every inch a typical 1950s movie scientist, will provide that help. The police will also be able to call on the assistance of the Enforcement Branch of the Air Pollution Control authorities. I had no idea that such a thing even existed in 1959 but according to this movie they not only existed but had numerous patrol vehicles. These vehicles are soon cruising the streets, equipped with geiger counters.

Meanwhile Vince is looking for contacts to help him turn that (supposed) heroin into cash. His search for such contacts leads him to a shady shoe store owner, Eddie Crown (Joseph Mell), and a very sleazy street crim named Pete Hallon (Sherwood Price).

Naturally a hoodlum like Vince has a no-good dame for a girlfriend, in this case the very hardbitten June Marlowe (Patricia Blair). Lieutenant Mark Richards (John Archer), the detective in charge of the case, has very little success in persuading any of these police to help the police.

It’s a race against time. That steel flask provides no barrier to radiation and everywhere that Vince goes he leaves behind him a trail of radioactivity and a trail of people exposed to that deadly Cobalt-60.

Pretty soon Vince is a very sick boy indeed but he has no idea it’s the flask that’s making him sick and in any case he’s so convinced that he’s go his hands on a fortune that he probably wouldn’t listen to anyone who tried to persuade him that he’s signing his own death warrant by carrying the flask around with him.

Vince Edwards did a couple of extremely good late 50s noirs including the excellent Murder by Contract. He had the ability to be rather chilling and psychotic while still bringing some complexity to his characterisations. He gives a fine performance here as the deluded loser Ryker.

Patricia Blair is wonderfully hardboiled as June. June is a very unsympathetic character but she’s entertaining. The other players are generally solid and workmanlike.

Irving Lerner had a rather spotty career as a director but he does a good job here, keeping things suitably tense and exciting. Lerner had also directed the aforementioned Murder by Contract. As well as playing the scientist Dr Wallace Steven Ritch co-wrote the screenplay (and he also wrote the very fine 1957 heist movie Plunder Road). Jerry Goldsmith provides  the very dramatic music while the movie’s noir credentials are enhanced by the work of ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard. 

The ethical dilemma faced by Chief Jensen adds an extra interesting touch although the real emphasis of the movie is the race against time to find Ryker and the Cobalt-60.

The transfer is anamorphic and it’s superb. The only significant extra is a brief spiel by Christopher Nolan which provides nothing whatsoever of substance.

City of Fear is a decent and rather enjoyable little movie. Recommended.

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