It may seem like a dim, grim memory now, but there was a bleak epoch when a fella didn't have the luxury of just being able to watch The Sniper and The Lineup any old time he felt like it. And if this fella hadn't been savvy or lucky enough to catch that particular pair of pugnacious, place-sensitive 1950s San Francisco noirs back-to-back at the Roxie a few months back, he'd just have to hope and pray they turned up on TCM or in some bootlegger's crap-quality DVDs-for-sale bin.
No longer. Now Sony has come through with a "collector's choice" series of DVD releases, including a box set called Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, two of which just happen to be those aforementioned almost-gone-but-not-forgotten gems. Now any time is the right time to curl up with rifle-toting sex criminals, unwitting heroin mules, crooks, cops and many uncommonly exquisite views of the midcentury city.
The box also boasts of bonus non-local noirs such as The Big Heat, 5 Against the House and Murder by Contract, plus introductions by Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese.
Of course, a fella doesn't need Scorsese telling him The Sniper has a great sense of place. As local noir maven Eddie Muller's ever-sharp commentary points out, the city isn't ever mentioned by name (officials didn't want audiences to get the wrong idea about how we roll here), but we'd recognize all those treacherous hilly zigzags in a quickened heartbeat. The Sniper was not the very first movie about a serial killer, but it was the first, as Muller suggests, "that treated it seriously and made it like an all-American problem." And the sinister beauty of it all is that this particular melodrama of a momma's-boy madman, complete with several rather brutal murder scenes and as many earnest psychoanalytic pieties explaining them, just wouldn't quite cohere anywhere but here.
With The Lineup, or "Dragnet by the Bay," as he succinctly labels it, Muller is joined for commentary duty by legendary crime-fiction Demon Dog James Ellroy, who offers a hilarious raft of foul-mouthed digressions, politically incorrect zingers and debating points on permissiveness versus authoritarianism and San Francisco versus Los Angeles as a setting for noir. (With this new occasion to appreciate Eli Wallach's ice-cold killer prowling around the old Sutro Baths, that matter finally should be settled.) The gleefully sparring commentators do at least agree that director Don Siegel, who of course went on to make Dirty Harry, has much more fun with his crooks than with his cops.
"Grabs your gonads in the first five minutes," Ellroy says of The Lineup. "It inspired Bullitt, which is a yawn by comparison." Really? Well, at least a fella finally has a real good chance to see for himself.