Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Street With No Name (1948)

The documentary-style noirs were quite popular in the second half of the 40s. Instead of glamorizing crime and showing flashy but still sympathetic criminals as was so common in the 30s, they depicted hard-working government agents in their struggle against criminals, focusing on the dangerous work these men did and how they defeated crime. The manner in which these movies did this, with not-so-subtle patriotic and pro-government messages, can come across as overly moralistic/naive these days. But with WWII just over and a general sense of disillusionment in the US, it maybe helped people feel more secure again. An early example was 1945's 'The House On 92nd Street', whose box-office success opened up a new avenue for its studio, 20th Century Fox, leading to a string of docu-noirs, including 'Call Northside 777' with James Stewart. One of the FBI agents from 'The House..', agent Briggs, played by noir regular Lloyd Nolan ('Lady In The Lake'), returned again a few years later in 1948's 'The Street With No Name', another Fox docu-noir.
The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name.
The movie takes place in fictional Center City, where the investigation into a violent robbery/murder turns up a suspect. Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) from the FBI is called in to interrogate the guy, who keeps denying involvement. After the guy ends up dead himself, shot with the same gun as the original murder, they decide they need an undercover agent trying to wriggle his way into Center City's underground world. They turn to promising young agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens) for this dangerous job, with veteran Cy Gordon (John McIntire) as his contact-person. They both check in in some cheap hotels on Center City's seediest, but popular, street, Cordell under an assumed name, George Manly. By proving his chops in the ring of a local boxing club owned by Alec Stiles, who is also behind the robbery, Stevens gets some attention. Stiles has an insider in the local police department and has a background check done on Manly. The FBI anticipated this and a custom prepared document ends up in Stiles' hands, showing Manly's fabricated criminal background. Manly is enlisted into the gang, who are planning another robbery. On the night of the robbery Stiles receives word however that the police are awaiting him and he realizes he has a snitch among his ranks. Cordell needs to get a hold of Stiles' gun fast to see if it can be linked to the murders. And who is Stiles's inside man?

This movie is one of the best examples of the documentary-style noir. Besides the segments that focus on the FBI, including a few telex messages from J. Edgar Hoover 'himself', the movie also uses stock footage of the FBI records archives. The movie makers even had access to the crime labs and training grounds, where Cordell gets to impress Briggs with him shooting skills. Shooting on real locations, let aline non-public ones such as the FBI locations, wasn't yet all that common at the time, a lot of movies, including noirs, were shot on studio lots. In contrast, only a handful of days were spent on studio lots for this movie.

After making his movie debut in 1947's 'Kiss Of Death' as crazy psychopath Tommy Udo, which earned him an Oscar nomination, Richard Widmark quickly became a go-to guy for playing weird  and creepy villains. 'The Street With No Name' was his second role, and again he plays an unusual, scene-stealing, villain. Stiles is a control-freak and a germophobe carrying nasal spray with him at all times (even a small sneeze from one of his men nearly sends him into an outburst). He also has an unhealthy disdain for women, despite being married to Barbara Lawrence ('Thieves Highway') in a small, but memorably sleazy part. Why she never played more of these roles, I don't know.

Mark Stevens ('Time Table', 'The Dark Corner') plays his Gene Cordell with a gritty tone, but with a playful edge. Cordell takes his undercover assignment seriously, but he also enjoys the opportunity to distinguish himself. I have a soft spot for Stevens, and he once again proves he's an underrated and unjustly 'forgotten' actor. The pairing of Stevens and Widmark works great, they play characters at opposite sides of the spectrum, not just in the legal sense but also in the personality sense, and both are great in this movie and play well off each other.

Lloyd Nolan ('Lady In The Lake') has very little to do in this movie, but he's always a pleasure to watch and was a real professional. As a bit of trivia, both Lloyd Nolan and Mark Stevens would go on to play private eye Martin Kane on TV. One of the people in the gang is played by Joseph Pevney. After a brief acting career (including 'Thieves' Highway' and 'Body And Soul') he switched to directing, and became a very successful TV director. He also directed a few noirs, including 'Shakedown' (he also had a small role in the movie) and 'Female On The Beach' with Joan Crawford. One of the other hoods in the gang is played by Donald Buka ('Between Midnight And Dawn'). He has several memorable scenes in this movie and is truly scary as the knife-wielding 'Shivvy'. Ironically, in the 50s he would be the host of the 'Crime Does Not Pay' radio show.

Director William Keighley directed several classic 30s gangster movies, including '"G" Men' (which can be easily seen as a prototype for movies like 'The Street With No Name') and 'Each Dawn I Die'. He retired a few years after this movie, which is not surprising given he was already in his late 50s by the time he made this movie! Keighley's solid directing is helped tremendously by the expertise of director of photography Joseph MacDonald. The man is not usually mentioned in the same breath as noir cinematographers like John Alton and James Wong Howe, but his noir work, which also includes 'The Dark Corner', 'Call Northside 777', 'Panic In The Streets' and the vivid color noir 'Niagara', speaks for itself. 'The Street With No Name' is worth watching just for the gorgeous visuals and the vintage locations.
'There's only one scientific way to get rid of a stoolie: let the cops bump him off.'
Some years later, in 1955, the movie would be remade by Samuel Fuller, as 'House Of Bamboo'. You wouldn't be able to tell tho if you didn't know, as the movie is set in Japan and changed a lot of the elements from the original. Joseph MacDonald would also sit behind the camera for the remake, which was shot in lush Technicolor. Robert Stack and Robert Ryan play the Stevens and Widmark roles in this remake, but overall I prefer the original, even with its preachy crime-does-not-pay angles. In all respects, 'The Street With No Name' is a great noir that doesn't get mentioned nearly as often as it deserves.