Obscure film noirs keep turning up to surprise us, and Dark Sky DVD has unearthed a good one, a 1952 Los Angeles-based manhunt thriller called Without Warning! It's an early collaborative effort by the team of Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy and Arnold Laven. They became prolific producers of theatrical and television fare, hitting it big with the 1958 TV show The Rifleman.
Plenty of early 1950s independents were turning out low-budget B&W crime thrillers but few are really memorable. Thanks to a tight script and good direction, this story of a serial killer is far better than most. It compares favorably to Edward Dmytryk and Stanley Kramer's somewhat similar The Sniper of the same year.
If Without Warning! derives from an earlier model, it's the superior manhunt drama He Walked by Night from 1948. Both films feature loner anti-heroes that give L.A. cops a run for their money before being cornered in a violent finale. Without Warning! doesn't have the previous film's John Alton to give it a fine noir visual edge, but it compensates by creating one of the first credible psycho-killer stories in which the criminal is the leading character. Someone's stabbing beautiful blondes to death in a repeating pattern, almost like a "full moon killer." Conventional methods fail to unmask the killer so the detective squad puts a number of policewomen on the street as bait. Finally, a tiny clue sets the cops on the path to their man.
Adam Williams' killer has no trouble picking up his victims in bars and on the street, and leaves no clues. He's given a psychologically sound rationale for his murders, having been deserted by a faithless wife. Most crime thrillers in the early 50s considered subject matter like this too sordid; newspapermen routinely suppressed the gruesome details in cases like The Black Dahlia. Williams' Carl Martin leaves his victim's dead eyes staring up in close-up, the kind of graphic detail that would be handled more discreetly in a big studio film.
Director Arnold Laven reveals a sensitivity that eluded him in much of his later feature work. We observe Carl Martin as he goes about his gardening business, but we're also encouraged to identify with his strange attitude toward women. His usual victims are bar-girls, and he's somewhat confused when he finds himself similarly attracted to the wholesome daughter of his nursery supplier. Laven artfully shows Carl's frustration when the perfect opportunity to kill her eludes him. He's far too controlled to just go berserk.
The best thing about Without Warning! is the early 50s atmosphere in The City of the Angels. Detectives Ed Binns (Fail-Safe, Night Moves) and Harlan Wade behave quite a bit like the cocky cops in L.A. Confidential, putting a slight swagger into their step. They have a police chemist (Byron Kane) for light comic relief, an expert who's always holding two test tubes and can offer snap scientific opinions faster than the clues come in. As in TV's Dragnet, he's the kind of guy who uses fancy lab apparatus to brew coffee.
The Los Angeles locales are like a window into the past. We see various locations around the downtown area, and a major foot chase occurs at the newly completed 4-level freeway interchange. Even better is the use of Chavez Ravine for the killer's home address; he lives in a bungalow practically hanging over the Pasadena Freeway. Civil Rights activists are still debating the city's use of eminent domain to raze the Mexican-American enclave in Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium. In Without Warning! we get to see what it looked like before the city planners bulldozed the last predominantly Mexican neighborhood West of downtown.
Without Warning! generates its share of suspense as Carl traps his last victim just as the police close in. It may not be the most sophisticated noir thriller but it certainly is deserving of re-evaluation. United Artists released it soon after undergoing a major reorganization. Many UA pix from those years are essentially lost, and it's possible that this film barely got a release when it was new.
Top-billed Adam Williams was basically a bit player but soon graduated to more visible parts. He returned in Arnold Laven's Vice Squad and had a juicy role being choked by Glenn Ford in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. He's most easily remembered as one of two thugs employed by James Mason to harass Cary Grant in North by NorthWest. Leading lady Meg Randall had a small part as Burt Lancaster's brother's girlfriend in the noir classic Criss Cross. Ubiquitous actor Robert Shayne is a police psychiatrist. The heavy Dragnet influence is felt in narrator Gene Wood's stentorian voiceover. He'd spend the next 35 years announcing on game shows!
Dark Sky DVD must have contracted directly with the Levy-Gardner-Laven representatives because their disc of Without Warning! is practically perfect, with only a few age-related blemishes. The B&W photography looks brand new. Herschel Burke Gilbert did the score and would continue to be associated with the directing-producing team for the next two decades.
The menus and package design make the most of limited graphic resources -- really just the two or three still photos that appear in a brief ad art gallery. The cover graphic isn't very impressive but the disc is high quality all the way. We wish every obscure "lost film" could be given this kind of DVD presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Without Warning! rates: