Friday, June 20, 2014

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets, released by United Artists in 1954, is a noir-tinged police procedural with an intriguing structural twist.

FBI Agent Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) is working on three cases simultaneously, a normal enough procedure. The three cases are not connected but a connection will be formed, a connection that will lead to murder. In fact, to two murders. Fellow FBI Agent “Rip” Ripley (Broderick Crawford) will have to find the connection.

One case involves a violent criminal on the run. Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett) has a long record and it is purely by chance that the Bureau gets a lead on his possible whereabouts. That lead doesn’t work out but it seems possible that Walpo’s girlfriend, a cheap blonde named  Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer), might provide them with the break they need.

The second case involves a car theft racket. Vince Angelino has been set up as a patsy and risks prison rather than reveal the identity of a man who hired him to a driving job. Vince’s blind wife Julie (Marisa Pavan) turns out to be a more valuable witness than most people with perfect vision.

The third is a case of extortion that could lead to kidnapping. Someone is threatening Kate Martell (Ruth Roman), demanding the insurance money her late husband left her. The threat is that her child will be killed if she doesn’t pay the money.

A shoot-out in a dark alley leads to tragedy, leaving Agent Ripley with the task of tying the threads together. It is possible that only one of the three cases is linked to the murder. A second murder seems to close off the one lead that may have provided the link.

This unusual structure, with three parallel investigations running simultaneously, could have resulted in a disjointed film but the three-strand narrative is handled quite skillfully. The action moves back and forth between the three investigations without giving the impression of being overly episodic or choppy. The screenplay by Gordon and Mildred Gordon and Bernard C. Schoenfeld gets the job done effectively. Arnold Laven directed a handful of movies before switching to a lengthy career in television. His work here is brisk and efficient.

This is a sympathetic role for Broderick Crawford. Ripley is a quietly efficient investigator who is undismayed by setbacks. It’s a solid and nicely understated performance. Ruth Roman does well and the supporting players do all that is required of them. Martha Hyer is  the standout here in the closest this movie has to a femme fatale role.

Being an FBI movie there’s a focus on scientific methods as well as the more routine style of police investigation. The most interesting aspect is the use of semantic analysis to identify the extortionist’s characteristic speech patterns. This sort of thing could have slowed the action down but that doesn’t happen - we get just enough of the scientific methods to keep us interested without feeling that we’re sitting through a lecture on forensic policing.

There are some action scenes and they’re done particularly well. They provide the most obviously noir moments of the film. The stalking of a suspect in a lonely cabin is a highlight. There’s nothing flashy about these scenes but they’re suitably tense.

One very cool feature is the use of the famous Hollywood sign for the climax. I think this may be the only film noir or crime movie of this era to make use of a setting that offers such obvious noir potential.

The made-on-demand DVD from the MGM Limited Edition series offers a good transfer although it is somewhat unfortunately presented in an open-matte format (the original aspect ratio being 1.75:1). There are no extras.

Down Three Dark Streets provides plenty of entertainment and scores extra points for carrying off its unusual structure surprisingly successfully. A fine police procedural, highly recommended.

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