Sunday, November 22, 2009

Without Warning (1951)

“In the annals of crime of any great city, there is always one case that for sheer savagery will never be forgotten. No professional criminal could ever match its fury, for it is the record of murder without reason, of fear and of terror of a killer who strikes without warning.”

So begins the story of the garden shear wielding love-killer, at large in 1951 Los Angeles, who has a murderous penchant for blondes.

Originally released through United Artists, on DVD by Dark Sky Filmsas part of their “lost noir” series, directed by Arnold Laven, this is a little-known gem that I find unique for many reasons, which I will be discussing below.

Opening outside a motel with blaring jazz music, the police are investigating the murder of a lovely blonde who was killed by a large pair of gardening shears. It is determined that the woman was in her twenties and married, although her husband is clearly not in the picture. As the cops probe the scene, our love-killer, boyish gardener Carl Martin (Adam Williams, North By Northwest), collapses into bed, awakening the next day to head to a local gardening supply store, where he spots the owner’s comely daughter Jane (Meg Randall) who is helping out her dad while her husband is overseas. (And let me just add, there is a little girl, Carmencita, who has the tendency to show up in some of the most inopportune moments for Carl). The police, meanwhile, think that the latest murder is linked to one a month earlier - the similarities are striking. While the authorities do everything and anything they can to stop and identify the murderer (including having pretty blonde decoys accompanied by plainclothed cops in an attempt to lure the psycho into a trap, studying torn fabric from the suit he was wearing at the time of the motel killing), Martin is still able to claim two more victims, but not before the police psychiatrist makes his diagnosis. The love-killer is a less than confidant guy who fell head over heels in love with, and married a woman (you guessed it, a blonde) who left him high and dry for another man. So the women he chooses as victims are prototypes of his ex-wife. Blonde, attractive, married but estranged from their husbands for whatever reason. He was unable to punish his wife so instead he punishes other women. Although Martin does pick up one of the decoys, while driving to an out of the way place, he notices that they're being followed and promptly drops her off - alive - but not before delivering a quick little speech regarding morals. It seems that he may be cunning enough at times to stay one step ahead of the law, but he's bound to be found out or exposed - it's just a question of when and how. By the time the detectives discover Martin’s identity and that he is a gardener by profession, it may be too late for Jane, who finds herself alone with Carl as his murderous rage is about to explode - again.

Adam Williams spent most of his career in television, and I can’t help but think that had he had more film roles, if his portrayal here is any indication, he may have become a star in the Richard Widmark mold. His smile could go from sweet to chilling within seconds, his demeanor and facial expression drastically change just by spotting a gal with blonde tresses or noticing any trace that could lead to his capture. When Carl searches for prey in shady nightclubs, or when he stalks Jane, you can feel his eyes on his targets. When he finally tells Jane that she reminds him of his wife, she (and the viewers) know that it's not a term of endearment. You don't know what will set him off, and that makes for on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense.


Without Warning is also a very interesting viewing experience because it introduces some investigative techniques that have become much more prevalent and advanced in recent years - analyzing crime scenes, fabric fibers, cigarette butts, soil and criminal profiling. While not exactly what you’d see on CSI today, the determining of the type of suit the perpetrator was wearing and what motivates him to commit his crimes makes this early 50s noir a cut above the rest that I’ve seen. Also, Martin seems to get a perverse kick out of reading about his savage mayhem in the papers, and along with his clean-cut, seemingly “normal” exterior his inner rage simmers, his murderous intent could explode suddenly or could have him meticulously planning his next move. I couldn’t help but think of Ted Bundy in that respect - Martin, like Bundy, seems on the surface to be last person you’d suspect to be capable of such savage killings.

Of course, I can’t review this film without addressing what critics and fans of the genre have debated - whether Without Warning should be considered film noir or not. And I’m going to answer that as honestly as I can - yes and no. At times, it seems that the movie can’t decide what it wants to be - a noir, a detective story, or a documentary-style thriller. It has very strong elements of all three, but I do think that it does earn the title of noir, even if it is missing some of the better known ingredients (femme fatales, hard-boiled detectives), and only a handful of scenes take place at night - which is usually considered a noir staple. The rest of the action (including a dramatic chase as Martin evades police after claiming his third victim, and the climax) takes place in broad daylight. The police detectives, while dedicated to their jobs, seem to be rather average Joes apart from it and there is no insight into their personal lives. Even Martin’s primary target, Jane, is a regular gal who just wants to help out her father and innocently bide her time until her husband returns. However I suppose it doesn’t matter that Jane is not a two-timing dame, because all attractive blondes of that age are the same in Carl Martin’s eyes. The narration is on hand pretty much throughout, giving the story an air of realism.

The DVD transfer looks very good, crisp and clear for the most part, although one of the night time sequences shows some specks in the top corners. English subtitles are provided on the disc menu along with a photo gallery of lobby cards. The cover art (taken from one of the original posters) and the synopsis on the reverse side of the case made me think of the detective magazines of the era (which I was lucky enough to find in flea markets and/or second-hand stores).

In conclusion, Dark Sky films did an excellent job in restoring and making this “lost noir” available. Check it out if you can.

Written by NoirDame

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