Irving Lerner is not a household name, though he’s been revered by some film noir enthusiasts for a long time, such as Martin Scorsese. Until last Monday night, I’d seen only his late and flawed conquistador film, Royal Hunt of the Sun. Now I’ve seen also his The City of Fear, thanks to the Finnish Film Archive. (Well, I organized the screening myself, but you know what I mean.) Thanks also to Tapani Maskula, a film critic from Turku, with whom I’ve talked about film noirs and other B-films for almost ten years now. Tapani was there in the screening to talk about Lerner, who seems to have had a very interesting life.
The City of Fear is a very tight little thriller about escaped convict Vince Edwards who thinks he’s onto something when he gets his hand on a small metal cylinder. He thinks there’s lots of heroin, but instead it contains radioactive material. Pretty soon he gets sick, but still tries to sell the “heroin”. The ending is very ironic, even though there’s something unintentionally funny about the radioactive bits in the film – what can you do, Lerner shot the film in seven days with a very low budget for Columbia who needed short films for drive-in theaters? Lerner was before everything else an editor, and this shows in many scenes as they are expertly edited, with verve, rhythm and style, with a touch of Russian montage here and there. Vince Edwards is very good in the lead role: he shows no empathy and you don’t actually feel for him, but there’s something about the empty stare that Lerner emphasizes with his shooting and editing. The facade reveals absolutely nothing, but the way Edwards fondles the cylinder in his pocket… there’s something homosexual about the affair of the man and his fantasies.
I’m hoping to see more of Lerner’s films: Murder by Contract (one of the all-time favourites of Scorsese), Edge of Fury (based on American surrealist Robert Coates’s novel Wisteria Cottage), Studs Lonigan (from the James T. Farrell novel)… there are some others, too, but they seem to be too obscure. There’s one here, take a look. The City of Fear and Murder by Contract are available in the Columbia film noir DVD set.
Tapani Maskula, whom I mentioned earlier, gave his speech about Lerner – I’d really like to read Lerner’s biography. Anyone out there willing to do one? Tapani mentioned in the end that The City of Fear is the film that convinced him to become a movie critic.
Other Overlooked Movies here.