Judge Paul Corupe claims he's been through the desert on a horse with no name.
"The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name."—J. Edgar Hoover
With Warner Brothers and Universal liberating a goldmine of film noir classics from their shadowy vaults, it was only a matter of time until the other studios followed their lead. A little late to dinner but still welcome at the table, Fox has finally debuted their first DVD collection of noirs built around their crown jewel, Laura. Although a focus on gangsters makes this film's inclusion a little bit questionable, The Street with No Name, shouldn't be passed over by fans of classic crime cinema—it's an intriguingly gritty little gem with a water-tight script and a solid performance by quintessential noir villain Richard Widmark.
Facts of the Case
A ballistics test confirms that a housewife and a bank guard were both shot to death with the same gun. When a hired goon suspected of the murders is found dead with a third matching bullet, FBI big cheese George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan, Earthquake) blames ruthless mobster Alec Stiles (Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death), and sends undercover agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens, Within These Walls) in to infiltrate his gang. After watching him box a few rounds at his gym and checking out his FBI-doctored criminal record, Stiles recruits the incognito Cordell, who quickly learns the ins and outs of the organization while receiving orders from his contact. Cordell tips off the feds about a planned robbery, but before the cops can bust the hoods, Stiles realizes the betrayal and calls the operation off. When Cordell sneaks into the gang's gun repository to try and get a ballistics match for Stiles's gun, the nervous gangster suddenly realizes he has a mole in his gang, only he isn't sure exactly who. After taking the recently fired gun to a crooked cop for a fingerprint analysis, Stiles learns Cordell's true identity, and plans a new heist that promises to be the G-Man's last.
Incorporating elements of docudrama and chest-beating FBI boosterism, The Street with No Name is a noir that works overtime to create a gritty, believable reality. The film immediately launches into a typed preface by J. Edgar Hoover about the dangers of law-breaking before switching to full "March of Crime" newsreel mode, with an overview of the valiant FBI's crusades against organized crime. This is followed by some authoritative narration that informs the viewer that if gangsterism continues unabated, 75% of all U.S. citizens will die from criminal encounters—a statistic which seems wholly plausible and not the least bit alarmist.
Once that commanding, if far-fetched, opening segment finally concludes, The Street with No Name shakes off its documentary trappings and finally delivers the impressive crime noir tale that it promises. With a strong focus on the procedural side of crime—both the execution and later investigation—the film is primarily concerned with showing how North America's increasingly sophisticated criminals are outfoxed by an even more advanced network of federal gangbusters. Although modern audiences will no longer bat an eye at the then-impressive ballistics testing that figures prominently in the plot, the film still is quite effective at making its point about the role of technology in police work—especially when it shows agents like Cordell making some boneheaded decisions in the field, like sloppily cleaning up after collecting Stiles's bullets, and then walking into swinging punching bags while trying to escape the gym unnoticed. What is interesting, however, is the way The Street with No Name has Stiles rely on what he calls "scientific" gangsterism to methodically keep his boys in check and oust the stool pigeon. After realizing that someone has tampered with his gun, Stiles is even able to get Cordell's fingerprints lifted, as though he were solving a crime himself. Technology, as the film wants us to see, is a tool that is not the sole domain of law enforcement officials.
Director William Keighley's (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Brother Rat) unbelievably gritty and realistic location work is probably The Street with No Name's greatest asset. Grimy back alley flophouses, squalid arcades lined with girlie nickelodeons and a neon-lined skid row lend the picture an air of authenticity. Even the gang members are perfect, sipping beers in their cheap, showy suits against a background teeming with transients and bums. The whole picture is drenched is an unseemly cheapness that has rarely been matched by any noir, and really immerses the viewer into a forbidden world of risky crime and fast money.
Really more of a gangster film than a noir, Richard Widmark gets far more screen time in The Street with No Name than his FBI pursuers. Although this was only his second screen role, Widmark is absolutely riveting as Alec Stiles, despite the obvious cookie-cutter qualities of the character. Billed above Widmark, Mark Stevens is ultimately flavorless as the undercover FBI man, but his brand of bland heroism actually works for the film, since Stevens operates as more or less a catalyst for some of the more interesting relationships and acting performances in the film.
Despite a reliance on these sometimes stock characters, screenwriter Harry Kleiner (later of Bullitt and Fantastic Voyage) delivers an extremely tight noir tale in The Street with No Name. It works so well in fact, that his story was subsequently recycled seven years later for House of Bamboo (also available this round from Fox), director Samuel Fuller's flawed, if interesting, reworking that takes the action to post-World War II Tokyo.
I wasn't particularly impressed with the print Fox used for this DVD of The Street with No Name, which is riddled with artifacts and grain. Black levels are extremely lacking, making it difficult to differentiate between shadows and some of those spiffy dark gangster suit coats. It's easily the poorest transfer in Fox's noir series, but it's not unwatchable by any stretch. A choice between stereo and mono tracks seems almost gratuitous for this film, but the sound is generally quite nice, with dialogue presented clearly. We get a few extras on this disc, starting with Alain Silver and James Ursini's informative commentary track, which delves deeply into all aspects of the film, placing it within the proper context and discussing the FBI gangbusting genre as a whole. Trailers for The Street with No Name and the rest of the recent spate of Fox film noir titles fill out this DVD.
Although the transfer is a bit of a disappointment this time around, Fox has made an excellent addition to their noir collection with the underrated The Street with No Name. Here's hoping that Fox continues to raid their back catalogue for more intriguing crime celluloid treats.
Not guilty—now move along, ya bum.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver
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