Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Street Of Shadows (1953)

'Street Of Shadows' is a British noir-ish movie from 1953, one of many churned out by UK crews but with American leads. Originally produced by Nassour Studios, it was subsequently bought by Lippert Productions, who co-produced a ton of these cheap programmers in the UK, and who released it Stateside as 'Shadow Man'. According to VCI, who included this movie in its 'Forgotten Noir' series, the US version runs 7 minutes shorter than the original UK version, but they included the UK version on the DVD, complete with the 'Street Of Shadows' title card in the movie, while using the 'Shadow Man' title on the DVD jacket, possibly for the same reason as there being a 'Shadow Man' poster to the left, I couldn't find any sort of poster for 'Street Of Shadows'.

The movie was directed by Richard Vernon, who also wrote the screenplay based on a novel called 'The Creaking Chair' by Laurence Meynell. This was Vernon's only writing and directing effort, but he did (co-)produce 1940's 'Gaslight' and 1948's 'Kiss The Blood Off My Hands'. Cinematography was done by Phil Grindrod and music was done by Eric Spear, they both worked on a lot of these low-budget crime flicks. In this case, they did a pretty good job.

The aforementioned American lead here is Cesar Romero, who plays Luigi, the owner of a 'pin-table saloon', which is a mix between a penny arcade and a dance club, helped by his loyal aid 'Limpy' (Victor Maddern), who does indeed have a limp. One night, Luigi and Limpy bump into Luigi's ex Angele Abbé (Simone Silva) who is being harassed by a sailor. Luigi interferes and KO's the sailor. The police visit his saloon later that night, warning him to keep his hands to himself, he's got a bit of a toughguy reputation and they'll close his saloon sooner rather than later should he get into a fight again. That same night unhappily married socialite Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall) visits his saloon with a bunch of her friends, and Luigi and Kay connect. They have no time to enjoy the still burgeoning sparks however, as soon afterwards Luigi comes home to find Angele sprawled on a rug in his living room, stabbed to death, after he sees Barbara running away and finding one of her gloves on his doorstep. Not knowing what to make of it or what to do, he tries to get rid of the body by dumping it elsewhere, but he accidentally leaves his front door open, attracting the attention of a patrolling streetcop, who discovers the bloody knife and rug. Luigi gets Limpy to get his car and together they take off with Angele's body, only to be picked up by the police in quick fashion, led by inspector Johnstone (Edward Underdown). During a brief interrogation, Luigi manages to escape and he goes underground in search of the real murderer, as he cannot believe Barbara had anything to do with it, and he's wanted for a murder he did not commit.

The main storyline of Angele's murder and Luigi's hunt for the murderer is pretty straight-forward and dare I say it, pretty average (the identity of the murderer can hardly be called a surprise, I'm sure most readers will be able to guess who it is without even seeing the movie). So it helps that there a few side stories woven into the larger story. There's Luigi's affair with Barbara, the unhappily married wife of Gerald Gale (John Penrose), who is gambling away their money. And Limpy has his own storyline as well, his limp prevents him from finding a girlfriend, something he desperately wants, so he sees any female smile thrown his way as a sign of potential love. What doesn't help is that none of the storylines introduce too many likely candidates for the murderer, despite using over half of its running time to establish the characters and relationships. Gerald and his shady, and arrogant, friends aren't the friendliest bunch of people and while Gerald suspects there is something between his wife and Luigi, suggesting a hint of possible involvement on their part, it's too weak to really be considered, leaving only a couple of suspects.

But quite frankly, the plot or the 'mystery' is not where this movie shines. The stand-out feature of this movie is the soundtrack, which features a lot of harmonica, played by Tommy Reilly, and it gives the movie a very different feel, which works in favor of the movie. The harmonica played theme of the movie was actually good enough to warrant being released on record and even as sheet music. I doubt a lot of other B-noirs can say the same. While it's not as quirky, let alone iconic, as the zither music of 'The Third Man', it does give this movie a fairly peculiar and unique feel. There is also a rather massive jukebox which plays an important role in this movie, providing the blaring soundtrack for some nightmarish scenes. Soundwise this movie is exceptionally well-done given its low budget and obscurity.

The main actors also help elevate this movie to a higher level. Not that there are Oscar-worthy performances here, but Cesar Romero, Kay Kendall and especially Victor Maddern are quite solid here. Romero had already done another British 'noir' called 'Scotland Yard Inspector'/'Lady In The Fog' the year before, as many US actors who weren't in the top-echelon or had a declining career travelled to the UK to star in what were otherwise completely British movies. Romero, who had a long and varied career, would become most well-known for his portrayal as The Joker in the 60s Batman series. Maddern is the standout actor here, he gives Limpy a well-rounded and multi-faceted character, loyal and friendly towards Luigi and the locals, crude towards strangers, especially when they dare call him Limpy, and naive in his attitude towards women. If this movie had been shot in the US 10 years earlier, no doubt Elisha Cook Jr. would've played Limpy, Limpy is the sort of sucker that Cook could play to perfection while asleep.

Kay Kendall also played in a couple of these types of movies opposite US leads, like 'Wings Of Danger'/'Danger On Course' opposite Zachary Scott and 'Mantrap'/'Man In Hiding' opposite Paul Henreid. She was a beautiful and dignified actress and she's perfect for her role, and she could really act. Almost the same can be said for Simone Silva, who had the right look to play the promiscuous and sleazy Angele, except her acting abilities didn't quite match Kendall's, to put it mildly. Both women died at an early age unfortunately, Kendall in 1959 at the age of 32 from leukaemia, and Silva in 1957 at the age of 29 from a stroke. Silva would gain a lot of publicity and notoriety in 1954 when she took off her top while doing a photo shoot with Robert Mitchum at the Cannes film festival, but it didn't do much for her career.

The scenes in the pinball saloon are quite nice. The place has a threatening and claustrophobic feel to it, even when it's fully lighted and filled with people, due to the cornucopia of machines like a maniacal laughing sailor machine, a guitar playing and fortune telling robotic monkey and the jukebox, but once the place is closed and the lights are off, it becomes a very dark, shadow filled and noir place. The narrow streets which are almost like tunnels with its pitch-black shadows also help give this movie a distinct noir feel, even if the plot doesn't.

All in all, at 80+ minutes 'Street Of Shadows'/'Shadow Man' is an above-average movie which is not pure noir, but pushes enough of the noir buttons to provide a fun evening of movie watching. It really should not be a 'forgotten noir', despite being labelled like that. It's worth checking out.

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