The Hunted fills all the requisite film noir quotas: a cynical detective, shady characters who may not appear what they seem, shadowy urban streets, and… figure skating? The Allied Artists studio, a leader in b-movies, produced this 1948 drama as a showcase for its sultry blonde star - a British former Olympian by the name of Belita. Surprisingly, this wasn't the first time Belita and noir collided. Now that The Hunted has joined 1946's Suspense as part of the Warner Archive Collection of made-to-order DVDs, enterprising movie lovers can create their own cheapie-crime-on-the-ice double feature.
The Hunted's intrigue-filled story follows Los Angeles police lieutenant Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster) as he visits a parole officer (Edna Holland) to inquire about the one of the women she's looking over. Laura Mead (Belita) was recently sprung from a four-year jail sentence on robbery charges brought on by Johnny, who once carried a torch for the former ice skater. Johnny and defense lawyer Simon Rand (Pierre Watkin) both want Laura under constant supervision due to death threats they received. Meanwhile, Laura shows up unannounced at Johnny's apartment and makes an appeal that she wasn't involved in the diamond heist that got her put away. Johnny insists that she's covering up for the currently incarcerated criminal who engineered the heist, Hollis Smith (Larry Blake). Still harboring feelings for her, Johnny sets up Laura in a boarding house and arranges for her to get a job teaching and entertaining at an ice rink managed by his friend, Paul Harrison (Frank Ferguson). While Johnny and Laura rekindle their romance, her success at the skating rink points to a bright future - until Simon Rand, her former lawyer, turns up dead. With all the evidence pointing at the shady blonde, Laura skips town with Johnny and most of the California Highway Patrol in hot pursuit. Johnny eventually catches up with Laura slinging hash in a dingy Arizona border town, although he still can't fully reconcile that the woman he loves could also be a callous murderer.
Typical appearances aside, The Hunted is actually a subtly done, enthralling little flick. The film benefits from solid direction by noir pro Jack Bernhard, who also helmed the 1946 gangster saga Decoy and the underrated public domain favorite Blonde Ice. Bernhard brings out some excellent, naturalistic performances from leading man Preston Foster (whom I've always found painfully bland, especially in the '30s) and Belita, who comes across like a sullen, fascinating Lauren Bacall/Veronica Lake hybrid. Dialogue and action is pleasantly understated by noir standards - instead of making the film tedious, however, it brings out the layers in the characters and makes them worthy of the viewers' attention. Although the ice skating angle might seem odd at first, it's incorporated into the story logically enough. Belita's skating routine doesn't appear shoehorned-in, since the ice serves as Laura's escape from her otherwise dreary life (or perhaps there was this huge audience for femme fatales who could also execute a perfect Axel?). The film also effectively makes use of a smaller budget, incorporating creative camera setups and generally giving the impression of being more lavishly produced than it really was (I've seen plenty of other Allied Artists/Monogram films that were cheap and looked it). While the story tends to peter out in the final third, The Hunted's subtle characters and tense, tough atmosphere make it a good bet for noir fans.
The print quality on Warner Archive's made-on-demand DVD edition of The Hunted falls slightly short compared with their releases of contemporary Warner Bros. and MGM films, with more instances of specks, dirt and damage. Nothing too drastic, however. The mastering is sharp and clean, bringing out the grainy texture in the film stock.
Although several louder passages on the soundtrack caused distortion on my home video setup, the mono soundtrack is a decent listen. No subtitles are included.
Keep looking, dollface - the disc only sports a simple menu using elements from the film's poster artwork.
The Hunted has all the ingredients for good, gritty film noir, effectively building tension and atmosphere on a b-movie budget. What struck me the most about this film: the naturalistic dialogue and cliché-free story, about a detective (Preston Foster) who falls back in love with the shady ex-convict he's following (the unexpectedly fine ice-skater-turned-actress Belita). Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.