A pretty good if not great example of film noir, The Street with No Name (1948) is all over the map both in its scripting and visual style. Directed by former Warner helmer William Keighley (Bullets or Ballots), it has both the look of that studio's '30s gangster pictures, simultaneous with the "docu-noir" style established at Fox, where this was made. Co-star Lloyd Nolan reprises his FBI agent character from The House on 92nd Street (1945), and the basic story is a virtual clone of the far superior White Heat, released one year after The Street with No Name.
By contrast this is more conventional though still entertaining. "Adapted from the files" of a real FBI case, the film opens in "Central City," with two violent robberies, at a roadhouse/gambling joint and outside a bank, where two innocent bystanders are shot dead with a Luger. A drifter named Danker (Robert Patten) is linked to one of the robberies and arrested, but after insisting his innocence to Agent Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), Danker is bailed out of jail. The bail bondsman (Phil Van Zandt) is questioned, but the identity of Danker's patron is undetermined. Soon thereafter, Danker turns up dead.
The FBI sends Agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens) to retrace Danker's steps, undercover as a drifter with a long criminal record named George Manly. Taking a room in a seedy downtown hotel, "Manly's" movements are under constant surveillance by another agent, Gordon (John McIntire). Manly soon impresses gangboss Alec Stiles (Richard Widmark) with his boxing prowess, and after cleverly running a check on Manly through Stiles' corrupt cop/partner, Ralph Demory (Howard Smith), Stiles invites Manly to join his gang.
The Street with No Name is thin but entertaining, with the first third of the picture devoted to the gee-whiz technology of the FBI (including what would appear to be a rudimentary proto-computer), all shot in the high-key, flat documentary style that would soon spread over several genres (including '50s science fiction) over the next decade. These scenes are interesting for their amusingly quaint technologies and for how much of the FBI's procedures are carried over into thrillers made today. Some second unit footage appears to have actually been shot at the FBI Academy, and this footage is especially interesting.
Most of the rest of the picture adopts a more conventional noir look, effectively photographed by Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Call Northside 777). MacDonald also shot House of Bamboo (1955), a brightly-colored CinemaScope confectionary reworking of The Street with No Name's script. The film overflows with bombastic narration and relies on Lloyd Nolan to carry most of the exposition, which he handles in his usual likeable, authoritarian manner. Nevertheless the picture finds time for long passages told visually with a minimum of dialogue. These scenes give The Street with No Name its most memorable quality.
Neither of the two leading characters has much depth. Stevens' undercover man is cool as a cucumber but is enigmatic, perhaps by design. Widmark's gangster regards himself as one smart cookie who takes the "scientific" approach to running his still not very disciplined crime organization. A brief, underdeveloped scene with wife Judy (Barbara Lawrence) suggests that perhaps Stiles isn't quite as together as his confident demeanor suggests. When his men go home Judy berates him like Alice Kramden pouncing on Ralph for acting like a big shot and making a mess of the apartment. It's a good scene and there should have been more of this. Widmark's character walks around shooting his nose up with nasal spray, but this never really amounts to anything more than a visual signature.
Video & Audio
The Street with No Name is presented in its original full frame format in an okay transfer using secondary elements. The film is pretty beat up, with a lot of scratches, wear, and so-so contrast. One assumes the original negative is lost or unusable. The opening titles are windowboxed. The mono sound, too is particularly weak in the opening reels, but gets better as it goes along. A faux stereo track is included but not recommended, along with a Spanish mono one, and optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
The main extra is a Commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver; they put the picture into the context of its era and its place within the noir genre. A Trailer is almost in better shape than the movie. Fox Noir offers four other trailers: Call Northside 777 (a reissue trailer), House of Bamboo (16:9 anamorphic), Laura, and Panic in the Streets. All are complete with narration and text.
If you're just now getting into film noir (and many DVD consumers seem to be, what with Warner, Universal, and Fox all quite active recently), The Street with No Name isn't perhaps the best place to start, but it is a decent example of the genre, and enjoyable.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.