Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Street with No Name (1948)

The Street with No Name is one of those police procedurals with a semi-documentary feel that enjoyed quite a vogue in the late 40s (The Naked City being perhaps the best known). For some mysterious reason these films always seem to get included in the film noir genre, although most have little that is noir about them.

The Street with No Name was made by 20th Century-Fox in 1948, with William Keighley in the director’s chair.

The theme is the rise of a new style of gangsterism in the post-war period and the FBI’s battle to contain this threat. Two violent robberies end in murder and the FBI laboratory confirms that the bullets in both cases came from the same gun. It is clear that a dangerous gang is at work and the FBI assigns one of its top operatives to the case - Inspector George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan).

The Bureau decides the best way to handle the case is to get someone on the inside of the gang. A man named Robert Danker had been arrested for the murders but the FBI investigation had cleared him of any involvement. Before the man can be released someone posts bail for him, and within 24 hours he is found dead. He was a drifter with a criminal record and the assumption is that he was recruited by the gang, set up by them as a patsy and then for some reason the gang decided to kill him.

Special Agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens) is sent undercover to infiltrate the gang. He will pose as a criminal drifter (using the alias George Manly) with a profile almost identical to Danker’s and will hang around the same sleazy pool rooms and other haunts that Danker was known to have frequented. With luck the gang will try to recruit him.

The plans works well. Cordell soon attracts the attention of creepy big shot Alec Stiles and it doesn’t take long for him to discover that Stiles is the leader of the gang that the Bureau is after. But Stiles is not just a clever criminal (he believes his approach to crime is scientific) he is also dangerously unbalanced and clearly extremely violent. This will be a dangerous assignment for Special Agent Cordell, and for his Bureau controller Cy Gordon (John McIntire) who will also be going undercover as a low life bum in order to keep a close watch on Cordell. Cordell is a very good agent but inexperienced at undercover operations.

Now Cordell has to get the goods on Alec Stiles before Stiles gets the goods on him, the latter possibility being a very real one since it is now obvious that Stiles has someone in the city’s police department in his pocket feeding him information.

Mark Stevens is solid as Cordell. Lloyd Nolan is as reliable as ever, my only complaint about him in this picture being that I wish he’d had more screen time - he’s always an actor I enjoy watching. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. One of the great strengths of the studio system was that the studios always had plenty of great character actors under contract who could fill the supporting role in movies like this with complete professionalism.

And then there’s Richard Widmark. In his early career he made something of a specialty of playing psycho killers. In his first attempt in Kiss of Death in 1947 he overdid things a bit and his performance came dangerously close to caricature. But Widmark was a quick learner and by the time he made The Street with No Name he had learnt that toning it down a little and being a little less obvious could actually make his performances far more chilling. In this movie the violent psychopathic craziness is still there, but you can see it bubbling away underneath the confident fa├žade rather than being all on the surface. It’s an extremely effective performance.

William Keighley handles his directing responsibilities quite competently while cinematographer Joseph MacDonald contributes plenty of noirish atmosphere.

This is not a great movie but it’s extremely well made and very enjoyable, the sort of high-quality mid-range entertainment that the studio system at its best could produce in quantity.

The Region 4 DVD is sadly lacking in extras but it looks great.

Highly recommended.

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