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Producer and director Jack Bernhard rose from the ranks at Universal, assistant directing second-rank horror fare like Man Made Monster, and helping to produce the sometimes indecipherable The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. Both Jack and fellow Universal laborer / future major producer Stanley Rubin went to war, Stanley to the Aleutians and Jack to fly bombing missions over Europe. When Jack returned to America he brought with him war bride / actress Jean Gillie, and from Stanley's original story the three of them made the hardboiled, rather fantastic film noir Decoy for Monogram. Bernhard tried to go partly independent with the Monogram- distributed Violence. That thriller went exactly opposite the political tide of the later 1940s, with its story of a labor union being taken over by right-wing fascists. Bernhard then returned to Monogram to direct the latest Belita vehicle, The Hunted. It was released under the new banner Allied Artists.
The interesting Belita (born Maria Belita Jepson-Turner) was a former Olympic ice skater. Finding that Sonja Heine had cornered the ice rink niche in American pictures, Belita ditched the skating genre and tried her hand at intrigue and mystery. This led to a trio of fine Monogram/Allied Artists noir thrillers, now all available through the Warner Archive. 1946's Suspense is a kinky, stylish noir with Barry Sullivan and some nicely integrated skating numbers (the ballet-trained Belita is quite a sight on skates). The next year's The Gangster again pairs her with Barry Sullivan, in a moody, almost Eugene O'Neill- like look at the lower depths of life on a mob-controlled fun fair pier.
In production value and general appeal, Jack Bernhard's The Hunted is a half-step down for Belita. Gone is the impressive art direction and sets of the first two pictures; although there is one ice-skating number, it's scaled down from the extravaganzas seen before. Prolific screenwriter Steve Fisher (Lady in the Lake, Roadblock, City That Never Sleeps) fashioned a story about an unlikely romance between a cop and a convicted thief.
Ice skater Laura Mead (Belita) finishes serving four years in prison for her part in a robbery. Her parole officer is visited by two men she threatened to kill, her lawyer Simon Rand (Pierre Watkin) and Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster), the detective who put her behind bars. Johnny finds Laura in his apartment when he returns late at night, and they discuss their mutual distrust. They were once lovers and each feels betrayed in a different way. Laura still maintains her innocence, claiming that she knows no Hollis Smith (Larry Blake), the other convicted thief, and that someone planted the stolen jewels in her apartment. Despite the animosity between them Johnny finds Laura an apartment and helps her secure a job with Paul Harrison (Frank Ferguson) entertaining and teaching at an ice rink. But just as they rekindle their relationship, the police find the lawyer Rand dead, with more evidence indicating Laura. When Johnny reluctantly moves to re-arrest her, she flees across the state line to Arizona, just ahead of an all-points bulletin.
Neither Preston Foster nor Belita is a high-caliber actor but noir fans will be attracted to their characters' situation in The Hunted. Johnny returns home and finds a lonely blonde hiding in the dark; when they talk it's almost like a noir version of Scenes from a Marriage. Their tough talk betrays hints of pain and need, while the city lights shine dimly into the room. With sensitive direction and perhaps a more realistic feel the picture might have been a first-rank noir, but the threadbare back-lot street and tatty sets do the film few favors -- there are just too many windowless offices with doors to enter and exit, stage right & left. Although we can only imagine the pressures, difficulties and frustrations of shooting a film on a rushed schedule on the Monogram lot, director Bernhard doesn't impart much of a feel to the show. Many scenes seem under-rehearsed, and the camera direction doesn't engage with the script -- those office scenes just bumble along in medium-wide shot. All we can really be sure of is that Belita's single angles will be well lit. She and Preston Foster show every sign of wanting to make something of their on-screen romance, but the heat and emotion stay mainly in the words. 1
Once Laura is on the road things pick up; her existence as a fugitive is a nighttime-only ordeal played out on lonely roads, talking truck drivers into hiding her from the State Police. But The Hunted doesn't have much to offer in the way of action. She makes her escape by klopping Johnny on the head with a bottle and takes a shot at him as well. Yet their ultimate confrontation in an Arizona diner lacks dramatic emphasis. The hardboiled romantic angle eventually pays off, even if the leading players seem to be referring to the script to learn when they're supposed to kiss and make up.
Something instructive happens in the last act. That dirty rat Hollis Smith has been released and re-arrested. The cop in charge of grilling him is none other than Charles McGraw, who at this time was still waiting for his good work in The Killers to secure him bigger parts. In producer Mark Hellinger's Killers follow-up Brute Force McGraw was given the tiniest of parts. When we cut to the interrogation scene McGraw changes everything. The film's other actors including the stars follow the minor league scene blocking rules of hitting one's mark, imitating a statue and saying one's lines without screwing up. McGraw slouches or splays himself on the corner of a table and addresses half his dialogue to the floor. Even though he has to stay in one spot, his natural gestures and relaxed-wary presence form a rhythm with his dialogue. By contrast, everyone else is on Posture Patrol. McGraw doesn't overpower the picture, and probably has fewer than two minutes on-screen, tops. But he makes his scene come to life.
Jack Bernhard's film credits conclude in just a couple of years. He directed the entertainingly simple-minded Unknown Island, a Tru-Color sci-fi adventure where the dinosaurs are played by actors in saggy costumes. His last noir is the micro-budgeted but ambitious Cold Ice, which for years was misidentified as a made from a story by Edgar G. Ulmer. Belita's would-be star faded just as quickly. She came back playing a perfidious ballerina in Never Let Me Go, and her fans may know her dancing appearances in the MGM musicals Invitation to the Dance and Silk Stockings. She certainly made a better acting impression than Sonja Henie. Preston Foster stayed active in westerns and a few noir gems (The Big Night, Kansas City Confidential, I the Jury) before finding a steady payday in TV work.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Hunted is in great shape, with a clean transfer and good sound. The image is a bit softer than the other Belita noirs. I would guess that one reason The Hunted is so obscure, is that its title has been re-used so often. The show was given a nice re-premiere to enthusiastic audiences at Noir City 9 in 2011. As with all noir 'rediscoveries', the response was, "when can we see this on disc?"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hunted rates:
1. Indicative of the 'Monogram way' of doing things is an early scene with Johnny Saxon. He enters his hotel, takes an elevator upstairs and walks to his doorway, all in one cut. Because '40s movies rarely had sets with working elevators, Preston Foster steps into an elevator and the camera moves in to lose the doorjam to the right and left. Some lights shift to indicate the elevator doors and a motor noise is heard, and Johnny steps out and goes camera right down the hall to his door. But we can't help but notice that the plant and the radiator to the left of the elevator are exactly the same as on the first floor -- the crew hasn't even bothered to change the set dressing while we were 'in' the elevator car, not even swap out the potted plant for a statue.
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T'was Ever Thus.