Free Noir is a new short-run series here at 4:3, releasing weekly, wherein our contributors look at film noirs (films noir?) which have fallen into the public domain.
Five Minutes To Live [aka Door-To-Door Maniac] (dir. Bill Karn, 1961) – Watch
Chris Neill: Five Minutes To Live is an interesting take on the heist genre, in which the leveled-headed crook Fred Dorella and the sadistic Johnny Cabot attempt to rob a small town bank by holding the wife of its’ vice president hostage. What Fred and Johnny don’t know is that the vice-president, Ken, is on the verge of divorcing his wife and eloping to Las Vegas with his mistress. While it’s not a bad movie, I’m not sure whether or not I’d consider it a good one either. It’s an interesting enough concept and a decent script but it’s unfortunately marred by bland direction, poor pacing (the first third is near-glacial) and an overall low production value. The films biggest draw is that Johnny Cash plays the cruel Johnny Cabot, in the first of his incredibly few big-screen appearances. And he does a really good job of playing an absolutely horrible asshole – a minute into the film he merciless guns a police officer down, and spends the majority of the film both physically and mentally torturing the VP’s wife.
Released in 1961, Cash was just beginning his meteoric rise to fame and was in the early days of forming his ‘Outlaw Musician’ personality; due to Cash’s popularity sky-rocketing the film was re-released in 1966 and retitled Door-To-Door Maniac. While his acting ability is pretty limited – he more or less plays himself – he does a good job of portraying of a cold-blooded killer. The film’s best moments come from him torturing Nancy; at one point he gleefully dances around the room smashing things, while another has him grazing Nancy’s face with a gunshot and then proceeds to play the film’s title song on his guitar while she rolls around screaming in pain. The film also manages to maintain a decent level of suspense, which honestly surprised me after how direly boring the opening third was. There’s genuine tension as they build to Fred learning that the banker is fine with his wife dying, while Johnny is such a wildcard that he could unremorsefully kill Nancy at any moment. The film’s pacing problems do slightly ruin this suspense; when Fred confronts Ken the question of whether he’ll let Nancy die is quickly resolved. Overall, Cash’s scenes are probably the only parts worth watching. He may not be a great actor, but he brings some much-needed energy to the film. Five Minutes is very much a B-movie, but if you’re interested in seeing the Man in Black go full outlaw it’s worth a watch.
The Basketball Fix (dir. Felix E. Feist, 1951) – Watch
Brad Mariano: The Basketball Fix is a curious small film, a rare crossover in the Venn diagram between “sports movies” and “film noirs”, wrapped up in a lean morality tale spanning little more than an hour making it feel more like an after school special than textbook noir, but with noir’s fatalism – but not the aesthetic – infused throughout. Narrated by a beat sportswriter, we witness the tale of Johnny Long, a promising high school basketball player making the leap to college, as he gets introduced to the underbelly of college sports by the friendly and ostentatious gangster Taft. Ostensibly similar to a host of boxing noirs like Robert Wise’ The Set-up about fighters told to “take the fall”, the switch to basketball isn’t just a refreshing change of scenery, but a slightly more nuanced and morally ambiguous situation – punters on basketball aren’t interested in which teams win or lose (in the lopsided amateur divisions these are generally foreseeable, and pay out very short odds) but point differential, i.e. how much the better team wins by. And so Long, the star player in his team’s juggernaut squad, is introduced to ‘point shaving’, where he can still play to win, but tactically miss shots here to reach a certain point total.
It’s an interesting ethical dimension to the film, even if the conclusion makes the moral decision for us. It’s also well played and sufficiently nuanced with bits of personality squeezed into its lean runtime – the gangster’s moll obsessed with star signs, or the coach’s obsession with eating are some fun running gags, and its tropey noir dialogue is deliciously inverted with a great pun when Long expresses that he is hesitant to be complicit in the scheme and is threatened and told to “play ball”. Marshall Thompson as Johnny Long probably isn’t young or athletic-looking enough to convince but is a likable and innocent presence that makes his situation sympathetic, and gangster Taft is played as sufficiently charismatic by Rock Hudson lookalike William Bishop and it’s easy to see why a young desperate kid would be attracted to follow him. The device of the jaded writer seems unnecessarily beholden to noir conventions rather than storytelling necessity, but is passable enough. Though the film might be of interest now as a historical and cultural document – few major sports have changed as radically in a half century as basketball and it’s hard to know if the old-timey sports jargon and woeful in-game scenes is a result of genuine cheese or just how it was back then in the sport’s competitive infancy. However, throwaway lines about the financial exploitation of college athletes hint at a fascinating subtext that resonates through much later scandals like the Fab Five and even today as a controversy about the NCAA that continues to divide.
Fear in the Night (dir. Maxwell Shane, 1947) – Watch
Conor Bateman: Well, not every one of these public domain noirs can be a gem, and Maxwell Shane’s Fear in the Night is an interesting look at an overly lean narrative, one that relies upon a gimmicky twist to explain its mostly compelling murder mystery. The draw to the film, and the best thing about it, is the premise – Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) wakes up from a nightmare in which he commits a murder and finds tangential evidence from the crime scene in his room. Shane, who adapted the film from Cornell Woolrich’s novella Nightmare, packs his script with some interesting concepts – our protagonist’s confidant brother-in-law is a cop who struggles to believe the outlandish story, instead placing himself in an ethical quandary as to whether he should help Vince get away with murder. In audience is also forced to play this game; every time Vince collapses or blacks out, our sense of reality is tested, and the scene of the crime, a mirrored room, imbues the film with even more uncertainty and dread.
There are a whole host of problems, though, that drag this compelling concept down; Kelley is pretty dreadful in the leading role, his stilted performance is distancing for the viewer rather than engaging, the cinematography is nothing special (admittedly the 240p copy on archive.org doesn’t help), the two women in the film are idyllic ignorant partners for the leading men, the overbearing score doesn’t match the drama within, and the twist ending is predictable and underwhelming. The strange mirror smashing/mosaic editing technique for the blackouts never strays far enough into the realm of surrealism, and the film’s aversion to any real visual nightmare, despite having an incredulous Hail Mary ending, leaves Fear in the Night as a hit-and-miss jumble of noir elements.