(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “City of Fear”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s movie is 1959’s “City of Fear,” starring Vince Edwards (Vince Ryker), Lyle Talbot (Chief Jensen), John Archer (Lt. Mark Richards), Steven Ritch (Dr. John Wallace), Patricia Blair (June Marlowe), Kelly Thordsen (Detective Sgt. Hank Johnson), Joseph Mell (Eddie Crown), Sherwood Price (Pete Hallon), and Kathie Browne (Jeanne) (credited as Cathy Browne). Directed by Irving Lerner; cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Produced by Leon Chooluck; distributed by Columbia Pictures. Edited by Robert Lawrence. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Screenplay by Robert Dillon and Steven Ritch.

This film comes at the tail end of the original noir period, so you can see signs of cinéma vérité and neo-noir creeping in. Like other noir films of the 1950s, it plays on the existential angst caused by the nuclear age.

The movie opens with an ambulance speeding down what appears to be a country road, and within 30 seconds we realize the occupants up front are a couple of prison escapees. One has a bleeding wound to his abdomen which looks pretty bad; he’s begging the driver to go back. But the driver is intent on heading to L.A. in order to sell what he thinks is a canister filled with heroin and ignores the pleas of his passenger, who quickly expires after a brief tussle between the two.

Problem solved!

The convict needs to ditch the ambulance and sees a car he cuts off. The driver of the car is quickly dispatched, and so our anti-hero is on his way, his identity now obscured by ditching his prison garb and taking on the identity of a traveling cosmetics salesman. (I noticed the second time through that he tells the hitchhiker he picks up his name is “Vince Justin.” So, Vince Edwards plays a character named Vince Ryker who pretends to be Vince Justin. Well, it amused slightly sleep-deprived me…)

It turns out the cylinder isn’t filled with heroin at all, but rather Cobalt-60, a highly radioactive isotope. And the steel canister it’s in isn’t adequate to fully contain radiation, so it’s leaking out. Law enforcement has to work round the clock to try to catch the escaped convict (Ryker) before he opens the canister and irradiates half the city!

Ryker Enters a Motel Room.
Danger Lurking in the Shadows.

If you’d like to give it a view, you can do so here:


If this sounds reminiscent of “Kiss Me Deadly,” that’s because it is. And “City of Fear” lacks the snappy patter of KMD, to be sure. But it has a really nice jazz score which held my interest (a few times, more than the plot did). The acting was good from all involved (though the cops seemed a bit stiff…). The plot, though, was a little threadbare and predictable. Overall, the directing was really good, along with Ballard’s camera work.

So all in all, I’d give this a 3.25 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

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