Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Street with No Name (1948)

This film is appropriate as an emergency fill and purely a coincidence with Jay’s post this morning on Widmark. I, too, viewed the film in recent days after failing on a couple of occasions to get through its early government propaganda and cheesy patriotic opening theme march. I bought it along with Nightmare Alley upon on its DVD releasebut it sat on my shelf for a good 1 ½ months before I finally forced my way through to the decent movie inside. While this isn’t a great film by any means, it’s well worth viewing for noir fans for myriad reasons.

I don’t know if J. Edgar Hoover had stock in 20th Century Fox but a number of films from that in the late 1940s lot begin with the hokey government rigmarole -- House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets, et al -- set this kind of staid official tempo. And of course, other studios utilized this format as well. Street With No Name might be the most insufferable at the outset, what with Hoover’s scary warning over a teletype that if gangsterism continued to go unchecked, 3 of 4 Americans would eventually be a victim of violent crime. We can only imagine how that must have played in Peoria in 1948. But the dramatic film itself might be one of the best.

Almost a full 10 minutes at the start of the film come off like a government training documentary with on-location scenes at FBI labs in Washington and agent training facilities in Quantico, Va. As stated, I had to turn it off a couple of times (I did the same thing with 92nd Street when I watched that film as well). I simply didn't believe it was going to shift gears the way it did but I kept returning to reviews that said hang in there. That's my best advice if you haven't seen it: Hang in there.

If you can stick out the opening, Street With No Name settles into a pretty entertaining little film with a great grimy urban look. It kicks in at the point Mark Stevens is finally selected by FBI honcho Lloyd Nolan to go undercover in Richard Widmark’s military-style gang of thieves and get enough info to tip off the FBI on a major heist.

Widmark drives the film as the central criminal Alec Stiles. He’s not the loony laughing creep of Kiss of Death but a more intellectually sinister character with a paranoia about germs and dirty air. He uses an inhaler. He beats his wife. He seems to have some sort of kooky relationship with one of his henchmen, who possesses the perfect thug nickname of Shivvy. He doesn’t trust anybody and has an intuitive sense when something isn’t quite right.

In short, in just his second film role, Widmark crafts a villain with fascinating and frightening depth. Stevens, on the other hand, is a little more one-dimensional as the undercover agent. Even when he’s chain-smoking and acting tough, he isn’t terribly convincing. Doesn’t matter. Widmark carries everybody along to the climax.

The plot is papier-mache. The FBI is trying to bust up Stiles’ gang and also pin a murder on him by matching bullets from his special luger, which he keeps in a dark cellar vault along with with gang’s arsenal of other weapons. When Stevens sees the luger upon his first visit to the vault and asks one of the henchman if he can use it, Shivvy immediately dissuades him and gives him another one. That sets up the best scene in the movie -- and the climactic one -- when Stevens goes to the vault alone to try and get a fired slug from the luger so the FBI can attempt to match it with some they have on file. Widmark smells a rat, goes to the location and sees a flashlight in the window and the final confrontation plays out.

This film convinced me I need to have every Widmark noir in my collection and maybe some more non-noirs as well. The man is simply a brilliant actor and it’s a shame he never won an Academy Award for any of his superbly played roles. His daughter has apparently pushed for an honorary statuette for several years but Widmark himself, who is now in his 90s, wants no part of the pursuit. Good for him. Oscar or no, he will forever be an icon on The Blackboard.

The movie itself? Ultimately, it’s a solid watch. The dark nighttime location street scenes, shot by in L.A. by cinematographer Joe MacDonald (Dark Corner, Panic in the Streets, Call Northside 777) are wonderful while the basement vault scenes, shot in almost pitch-black, are as effective as you’ll find in noir. It’s quite a contrast to the bright sunlight shots of Washington D.C. that open the film.

The movie also offers a few familiar noir character actors. John McIntyre, in a different kind of role for him, plays an undercover agent to decent effect (he’s a street bum). Nolan, as stated, is wasted as the FBI boss in charge of the case. Ed Begley is also in the film, as if anyone would ever notice. He has no real dramatic scenes as a police chief. He’s totally slumming. What a waste.

Barbara Lawrence had potential as Widmark’s abused bleach-blond moll, but her role is underdeveloped. Her best scene is when she walks past the gang’s card game and verbally exposes one of the player’s good hands, but that’s as feisty as she ever gets. The beating Widmark gives her in the film might as brutal as any act of spousal abuse in the 1940s or 1950s. It’s positively chilling. He’s not just slapping. He’s slamming.

One can only imagine director William Keighley’s marching orders from Fox about how to go about making this film, but once the opening FBI nonsense is dispensed with, the dramatic scenes are in expert hands. Keighley, if nothing else, knew how to direct a film with bad guys in it. In the 30’s, he was in the chair for such films as G Men, Bullets or Ballots, Each Dawn I Die and Brother Rat. This was one of his final films and probably his last good one.

If you can stomach the first 10 minutes and the corny conclusion, noirheads should enjoy this Street With No Name. I did, once I got to the meat of the drama and the first scene with the great Richard Widmark.


1 comment:

  1. All the FBI footage is absolutely critical to the quality of this film. We see the world in the sewer and the world in the sunlight, where intelligent, dedicated and honest people work to keep us safe. Where would the USA be if we had never set up the FBI?