Fresh off his Oscar nomination for Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark was scooped up as a contract player for Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. While Tommy Udo was a pure sadist through and through, Widmark’s villainous character in The Street With No Name is a much more likable snake. The film is an unofficial sequel to House on 92nd Street and was one of many procedurals backed by the feds, who gave director William Keighley and the rest of his crew access to their offices, crime labs, and training facilities. While most of these J. Edgar Hoover handjobs can be pretty drab, as their main goal is to hype up the FBI and make all their agents look like golden boys, The Street With No Name is a fairly gritty film, anchored with strong performances by Widmark and Mark Stevens (The Dark Corner).
Widmark plays Alec Stiles, a germophobic, woman-beating, racketeer crime boss who’s been a real headache for the feds since his crew started sticking up banks. Their attempts to pin a case on him have been fruitless – the crook is just too slick for them straight arrows. In order to take him down, they need to infiltrate his organization. So they send in Gene Cordell (Stevens), a one time street hustler turned federal agent. He successfully manages to get in good with Stiles, after a tense application process that involves being framed for a jewelry store hold up.
Dig, when Stiles is thinking about bringing on a new recruit, he first has them arrested, typically by framing them for some burglary or casual murder. Then his boy at the police station checks into the cat’s background. If there’s a rap sheet, he’s in. It’s a solid way of weeding out any undercover stoolies. Flawless, however, it ain’t. Cordell’s federal friends make sure Stiles sees a fabricated record when he looks into his background.
So there’s two juicy plots going down: Cordell infiltrating Stiles’ crew and trying to figure who the rat is at the police station who’s doing background checks for him. It makes for some really tense moments, particularly towards the end when Stiles gets wise.
The Street With No Name kicks off with your typical voice-of-god narration, then proceeds to kiss Hoover’s white ass. It’s drab stuff, but things really get dirty once Stiles is introduced. He makes his grand entrance during a nightclub holdup, where he shoots a woman in the back. It’s a rather dramatic shift in tone, actually, that moves the film from standard procedural to gritty melodrama. It’s a welcome change too – I can’t stand that FBI schmooze. The only bits I like about federal procedurals is when an inside look is given to old timey forensics. In this film there’s some cool looks at how they used to trace bullets by lining up their marks, which I believe is still how it’s done today. But this is before computers, so it’s like putting a puzzle together.
Besides the FBI joints, the film was shot on location in many of L.A.’s seedier neighborhoods. Flop houses, penny arcades, Skid Row, and trashy alleyways become their own character here. Shooting occurred mainly at night, with cinematographer Joe MacDonald’s camera capturing the typical poetic shadows of noir. Stylistically there’s nothing too creative, but the use of real locations adds tremendous weight. One sequence really stands out: Stiles creeping on Cordell as he sneaks into the crew’s arsenal stash to find the gun that matches the bullets. It moves along silently for a good five minutes and is as tense as it gets.
The Street With No Name was remade seven years later as House of Bamboo, by the great Samuel Fuller. I’ll have to check that one out soon, but until then this bad boy right here is a really outstanding work of noir.
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