Transfer: Very Good
Label: Twentieth Century-Fox
Region: 1 (NTSC)
Released: June 7, 2005
Genre: Film Noir / Crime
Synopsis: A FBI agent tries to solve the puzzling murders of a housewife and bank guard, linked by the same murder weapon, and a local crime boss.
Special Features: Audio Commentary by Film Historians James Ursini and Alain Silver / Theatrical trailer for “The Street With No Name,” plus trailers for “Laura,” “Panic In The Streets,” “House Of Bamboo” and “Call Northside 777.”
Not unlike House of Strangers (1949), The Street with No Name is a fellow noir that’s perhaps been overshadowed by its bigger, and in this case, crazier colour CinemaScope remake, Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), but Harry Kleiner’s story and William Keighley’s direction managed to form a near-perfect 1948 thriller that’s more true crime than noir, mostly because it follows the same format as Fox’s equally stellar Call Northside 777 (1948) in which the nuances of investigative reporting, period crime fighting technology, and actual locations are part of the narrative that gives the story such verisimilitude.
Street was apparently filmed almost exclusively on real locations, giving the story of an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a slick gang of thieves a lot of credit. From the stentorian narration to an emphasis on the FBI as the pre-eminent crime fighting entity on Earth (with nods to agency bigwig J. Edgar Hoover, via personal ‘The Mission is Go!’ teletype message) to the minimal use of score and location sound, it’s a taut little drama that’s also been edited with exceptional economy, excising all the fat so audiences are glued to the tense twists that make up Gene’s (Mark Stevens) quest to first prove ringleader Stiles (Richard Widmark, in perhaps his typecasting swansong to smiling, sneering, sadistic thugs) pulled the trigger on several innocent bystanders; and secondly, take the sonofabitch and his snickering gang down.
Like Warner Bros.’ glossy salute to the agency, The FBI Story (1959), a fair amount of procedural details are shown to trace the selection of Gene as the right candidate to infiltrate Stiles’ clique of ex-military ex-cons, including a lengthy montage at a FBI firing range in which Gene walks the gauntlet and must differentiate between ‘civilian’ and ‘criminal’ pop-up targets (a sequence that amusingly recalls a parody in Men in Black).
Gene stays in a shitty motel in a part of skid row, meets Stiles at the boxing club where his gang hangs out, and later rendezvous with FBI superior Briggs (always steel-jawed Lloyd Nolan) on a ferry at midnight. When he’s with the gang, Gene partakes in their peculiar lifestyle of poker, beer, a ludicrous amount of smoking, and sometimes hangs out at Stiles’ own apartment where his mollish wife Judy (Barbara Lawrence) complains and verbally browbeats Stiles with mouthy attitude.
Joseph MacDonald’s camerawork is stunning – beautiful stark, high contrast lighting that brings out the grime in the streets and Gene’s crummy hotel room – and Keighley insistently has cars moving towards the camera, if not having the camera swoop and track fast between people and objects like a classic thirties gangster drama, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the prolific director made the FBI classic ‘G’ Men (1935), and co-directed the great Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
Genre historians James Ursini and Alain Silver (who also contributed a commentary to the release of House of Bamboo) reveal Keighley was close to retiring – he bowed out in 1953 at 64, and passed away 30 years later at 94 – and critics in 1948 didn’t approve of his antiquated use of montages and cross-cutting, but it’s a slick little film that packs a lot of tension into a 91 minute running time. Yes, there’s a tough blonde, Tommygun toting cops, and exciting shoot-outs, but they work, and one particular sequence – an aborted robbery – is heightened by cross-cutting between the crooks and cops gathering arms, tearing off in vehicles, and messaging their respective contacts before a planned arrest is a complete bust.
The audio commentators also provide excellent bios of the film’s cast, which includes smart-assed Joseph Pevney (later to become a ridiculously prolific TV director), and perpetual character actors Ed Begley (Billion Dollar Brain), and John McIntire (Psycho) as Gene’s Skid Row contact.
The two noir experts also cite core differences between the Keighley and Fuller version of Kleiner’s story. Fuller would magically transpose the story to Japan in Bamboo and accentuate the homoerotic undertones of the story’s leading adversaries in his own rewrite of the script, and while it’s still easy to trace the surviving story in Fuller’s reinvention (and maybe traces of homoeroticism: Stiles has a ‘business’ discussion with Gene in the bedroom), Fuller’s emphasis on culture clashes (plus more contemporary tweaks to the characters’ backgrounds, and a slight female love interest for the hero) make it possible to enjoy both films as distinct caper films.
Perhaps consistent with genre conventions, the lone female characters in Street and Bamboo are treated pretty shoddily. Bamboo’s Shirley Yamaguchi may not have had a meaty role with Mariko – she’s a slight love interest, and functions as a cultural ambassador for American audiences, explaining differences to Eddie (Robert Stack) and us – but it’s a more integral role than her Street counterpart. Judy gets yelled at and brutally smacked around not unlike Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), and after 3 or 4 scenes, she disappears from the narrative after Stiles pretty much beats the shit out of her in a scene that seems to have been trimmed to avoid the ire of the Production Code. In all three aforementioned films, though, the women are smacked around and manhandled, with Debby getting half her face burned off by hot coffee, Judy getting nasty blows to the head and choked, and Mariko smacked and wrestled to the ground by Eddie. When compared to genre classics like Double Indemnity (1944), the female roles these noirs are quite regressive (although Debbie does enjoy some measure of payback by the end of Heat).
Another peculiar trait ties Street to another noir – Violent Saturday (1955) – in which Stiles’ common cold phobia (he hates drafts and cold rooms) and persistent Benzedrine sniffing was borrowed by Lee Marvin for his lesser but no less impressionable role of a trigger man in Richard Fleischer’s heist-gone-very-wrong thriller. Both actors began their careers playing tough and often mentally dented thugs, and sought to escape the severe typecasting in later years to prove their genuine versatility in a variety of roles and genres. Marvin was Debbie’s pivotal face-burner in Heat, but it took a long time before the actor could escape thugs, goons, and wise-cracking tough guys. Widmark’s performance style enabled him to easily bring out moral indignation, hence his (kind of) breakout rolls as a loser in Jules Dassin’s superb Night and the City and Elia Kazan’s tense Panic in the Streets (both 1950).
Barbara Lawrence – Letter to Three Wives (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1949), Kronos (1957) – would soon retire from acting, but Mark Stevens – the film’s co-star – never emerged as an A-picture headliner. Stevens co-starred in the Oscar-winning The Snake Pit (1948), but he eventually settled into TV, where he also directed episodic series. His first poke at directing was another noir, in which he co-starred with Martha Hyer in Cry Vengeance (1954).
Screenwriter Harry Kleiner would also write Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), The Violent Men (1955), Fantastic Voyage (1966), the procedural cop film Bullitt (1968) and the minimalist racing film Le Mans (1971).
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review