The Underexposed Cinema of Irving Lerner – Part Two

posterShortly after Irving Lerner completed MURDER BY CONTRACT (the focus of last Saturday’s blog) he moved on to CITY OF FEAR (1959), another low-budget crime drama for Columbia also shot on location in Los Angeles, using several of the same people who worked on MURDER. Among them were producer Leon Chooluck, cameraman Lucien Ballard, art director Jack Poplin, co-stars Kathie Browne and Steven Ritch (who also wrote the screenplay for CITY OF FEAR and played the title role in THE WEREWOLF in 1956), and in the lead, Vince Edwards.

 

The film has a terrific premise – so what if KISS ME DEADLY featured a similar plot twist back in 1955? Vince Ryker, an escaped convict, is on the loose in Los Angeles with a sealed cylinder that he stole from the prison hospital thinking it was heroin. Instead it’s a deadly form of radioactive cobalt (what the hell was THAT doing in the prison? Who cares? It’s the Macguffin.) As the police race against time to apprehend him, Vince contaminates everyone and everything he comes in contact with along the way. 

 CITY OF FEAR looks great and almost works as well as MURDER BY CONTRACT but lacks that film’s terse economy and fascinating idiosyncracies. The pacing seems to be off a beat and unneeded exposition (scenes at police headquarters with Lyle Talbot of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE fame) sabotages the tension at times. But CITY is by no means a typical second feature programmer and is definitely worth seeing for Ballard’s evocative black and white cinematography of various Los Angeles locations (many of them victims to progress since that time) along with a jazzy score by a very young Jerry Goldsmith (It was only his second film soundtrack).

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Vince Edwards is once again perfectly cast as the lead, playing another criminal but this time he doesn’t have the pathological hang-ups about women. He also lacks the methodical cunning of MURDER’S icy hit man. In fact, he’s not too bright. You’d think he notice a connection between the toxic cylinder he keeps close to him and his rapidly deteriorating health but nooooooo…he just keeps getting weaker and coughing more violently until he’s in the throes of death. CITY BY FEAR is just the sort of imperfect but engaging B-movie that Hollywood should be trying to improve upon instead of another version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (the latest Nicole Kidman film).

Neville Brand 

Lerner had also directed two other crime-oriented B features before MURDER BY CONTRACT and CITY OF FEAR which might be lost films at this point. Neither of them seem to turn up on television anymore. MAN CRAZY, from 1953 and co-scripted by Philip Yordan, sounds promising. Three small town girls from Minnesota make their way to Hollywood, get seduced by the city’s allure and various shady characters and wind up in jail. In a change of pace role, Neville Brand is NOT some creepy underworld thug but a former football hero turned manual laborer who advises the girls to go back home. Joseph Turkel (BLADE RUNNER), who’s starred in his share of gangster films (PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE), is in the supporting cast. For a more detailed plot description, see the tcmdb entry from the AFI at http://www.tcmdb.com/title/title.jsp?stid=82562.

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EDGE OF FURY (1958) sounds even more intriguing. A mentally unstable portrait painter rents his beach cottage to a woman with two attractive daughters and then becomes obsessed with them leading to a violent incident that caps the film (It’s told in flashback). There are no recognizable stars in the cast but Conrad Hall (IN COLD BLOOD, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) was one of the cinematographers. Here’s the full AFI description: http://www.tcmdb.com/title/title.jsp?stid=17102.

Cry of Battle 

Unfortunately the above two titles may never resurface in any format which is true for most of Lerner’s directorial efforts. Only THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN (1969), a film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about the culture clash between the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors, and STUDS LONIGAN (1960), based on James T. Farrell’s literary trilogy, exist on DVD in less than adequate transfers and may be out of print soon.poster And what of CRY OF BATTLE (1963), an offbeat World War II romance starring James MacArthur, Rita Moreno and Van Heflin or A TOWN CALLED HELL (1971), a spaghetti western set during the Mexican Revolution and starring Telly Savalas, Robert Shaw, Stella Stevens, Martin Landau and Fernando Rey? The latter is the last feature Lerner  worked on in a directorial capacity though he received no credit – Robert Parrish claims the screen credit as director.

 

When so much of his work is unavailable it’s easy to see why Irving Lerner is often dismissed as a one-shot wonder whose only real contribution to cinema is MURDER BY CONTRACT. Besides that film, his reputation mainly rests on STUDS LONIGAN which film scholar David Thomson dismisses as “a tasteful failure” and Variety called “an earnest attempt gone wrong.” But STUDS is worth a look for Haskell Wexler’s arty cinematography (lots of unusual angles and distorted persepctives), an early appearance by Jack Nicholson and good performances by impressionist/actor Frank Gorshin, Dick Foran and Helen Westcott. And even Thomson includes Irving in his NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, noting that Lerner (and cinematographer Lucien Ballard) “showed the potential of the genre quickie when made by accomplished technicians.” In my book though, MURDER BY CONTRACT is worth more than Brett Ratner’s entire filmography (yes, even X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) and enough to deserve a special mention by any film scholar when discussing the history of cinema.

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13 Responses The Underexposed Cinema of Irving Lerner – Part Two
Posted By RHS : August 11, 2007 7:51 pm

… a deadly form of radioactive cobalt (what the hell was THAT doing in the prison?)If I remember correctly, it was being used on prisoners!  I wonder if it was ever entertained in the scripting sessions that Vince Edwards' character was actually poisoned by the radiation before he broke out of prison. 

Posted By RHS : August 11, 2007 7:51 pm

… a deadly form of radioactive cobalt (what the hell was THAT doing in the prison?)If I remember correctly, it was being used on prisoners!  I wonder if it was ever entertained in the scripting sessions that Vince Edwards' character was actually poisoned by the radiation before he broke out of prison. 

Posted By PD : August 11, 2007 8:11 pm

 I am a true Film Noir fan and what  films that I would really like to see released(and restored) on a 6 Box DVD set  are 6 films of actor Peter Lorre.Some of these 6 films have been released on VHS and on Laserdisc but, never on DVD before. I think these films should be released on DVD in order for the film fan to be able to afford them at reasonable prices.(Because I have purchase 2 of the films (in the VHS format) listed below from Amazon.com and both films cost wait too much!!!!)(and another film I am bidding on at eBay and I think that I am about to be outbid on that film!) But, here Goes the List of Lorre's Films that I would like to one day  see on DVD: 1. The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)(95m.) 2.Stranger on the Third Floor(1940) (64m.) 3.The Verdict (1946)(86m.)(with Greenstreet) 4. The Three Strangers(1946)(also with Greenstreet)(92m.) 5.All Through the Night (1942)(107m.)(with Bogie) and The Beast with Five Finger (1946)(88m.). Great films all…….

Posted By PD : August 11, 2007 8:11 pm

 I am a true Film Noir fan and what  films that I would really like to see released(and restored) on a 6 Box DVD set  are 6 films of actor Peter Lorre.Some of these 6 films have been released on VHS and on Laserdisc but, never on DVD before. I think these films should be released on DVD in order for the film fan to be able to afford them at reasonable prices.(Because I have purchase 2 of the films (in the VHS format) listed below from Amazon.com and both films cost wait too much!!!!)(and another film I am bidding on at eBay and I think that I am about to be outbid on that film!) But, here Goes the List of Lorre's Films that I would like to one day  see on DVD: 1. The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)(95m.) 2.Stranger on the Third Floor(1940) (64m.) 3.The Verdict (1946)(86m.)(with Greenstreet) 4. The Three Strangers(1946)(also with Greenstreet)(92m.) 5.All Through the Night (1942)(107m.)(with Bogie) and The Beast with Five Finger (1946)(88m.). Great films all…….

Posted By Maggie T. : August 11, 2007 9:29 pm

Oh my gawd, THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN! Christopher Plummer is out of control in that! He's like Tim Curry's Fr. Frank-N-Furter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, prancing and mincing and making crazy faces as he delivers his dialogue in a weird accent. Then again, he's playing Atahuallpa, king of the Aztecs and what the hell does an Aztec king sound like? This is a real guilty pleasure and deserves some kind of cult audience but it would only work at some after hours gay nightclub where overacting of this order would truly be appreciated. The rest of Mr. Lerner's films I'm not familiar with but this one caught my eye…and it actually got some respectable reviews when it opened. Good intentions….hilarious results. 

Posted By Maggie T. : August 11, 2007 9:29 pm

Oh my gawd, THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN! Christopher Plummer is out of control in that! He's like Tim Curry's Fr. Frank-N-Furter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, prancing and mincing and making crazy faces as he delivers his dialogue in a weird accent. Then again, he's playing Atahuallpa, king of the Aztecs and what the hell does an Aztec king sound like? This is a real guilty pleasure and deserves some kind of cult audience but it would only work at some after hours gay nightclub where overacting of this order would truly be appreciated. The rest of Mr. Lerner's films I'm not familiar with but this one caught my eye…and it actually got some respectable reviews when it opened. Good intentions….hilarious results. 

Posted By YancySkancy : August 17, 2007 8:33 pm

I suppose you're right when you say Edge of Fury has "no recognizable stars," but I certainly recognize lead actor Michael Higgins.  He did a lot of TV before and after that film.  He's absolutely brilliant in Barbara Loden's great film, Wanda (1970), but would probably be most recognized by the average viewer for his supporting work in stuff like The Conversation.  He's now 86 years old and was still active as recently as 2006. 

Posted By YancySkancy : August 17, 2007 8:33 pm

I suppose you're right when you say Edge of Fury has "no recognizable stars," but I certainly recognize lead actor Michael Higgins.  He did a lot of TV before and after that film.  He's absolutely brilliant in Barbara Loden's great film, Wanda (1970), but would probably be most recognized by the average viewer for his supporting work in stuff like The Conversation.  He's now 86 years old and was still active as recently as 2006. 

Posted By Richard : August 21, 2007 9:23 pm

I want to see this movie.

Posted By Richard : August 21, 2007 9:23 pm

I want to see this movie.

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : March 7, 2009 12:31 pm
Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : March 7, 2009 12:31 pm
Posted By Oswald’s Last Picture Show | Cinema Sojourns : November 22, 2013 3:29 pm

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