Blonde, beautiful, busty babes in sunny California, huh? Appellate Judge Erick Harper missed the "film noir needs to lighten up" memo.
Our review of Without Warning (1980) (Blu-ray), published August 31st, 2014, is also available.
All blonde! All beautiful! All bait!
In Los Angeles, a troubled gardener, recently divorced, is killing a series of busty, beautiful, blonde women who happen to remind him of his wife. Will his garden shears strike again, or will he meet justice at the hands of a couple of hard-boiled LAPD detectives?
Without Warning comes billed as a "lost noir," and indeed sites like the IMDb label is as such. However, it lacks most of the trappings usually associated with the genre. This is the most un-gritty noir I have ever seen. The Los Angeles depicted here is a bright, sunlit place, full of hardware and garden supply stores—sort of an oversized Mayberry, except for the disaffected serial killer lurking on the edge of town, within sight of the shiny modern highways and skyscrapers. The cops investigating the "love killer" aren't the hard-bitten, cynical flatfoots one expects in a noir. Instead, these guys are a couple of regular Joes. "Pete," the lead homicide detective (Edward Binns, Twelve Angry Men, Patton) doesn't seem like the usual cigarettes-and-cheap bourbon gumshoe we expect; he probably goes home to a nice, normal family after work and has pot roast and mashed potatoes. Even the killer (Adam Williams, The Big Heat, Fear Strikes Out) seems like a normal, clean-cut sort of fellow when he's not stalking and killing attractive blondes. The whole case, apart from the aforementioned seduction and stabbing, seems pretty tame, the sort of thing that might make a nice two-part episode of a TV cop show. Even the quirky lab technician, with his dry humor and odd habit of using chemistry flasks and tubes to make coffee, seems like a made-for-TV sidekick. Indeed, first-time director Arnold Laven went on to some considerable success directing television programs like CHiPs, Hill Street Blues, and The Rockford Files. Perhaps more importantly, the film lacks the sense of moral ambiguity that characterizes the masterpieces of the genre. There is no doubt in the viewer's mind that the cops are good and upstanding while the killer is sick and disturbed. In short, Without Warning is a neat little police procedural, but it doesn't fit the mental image or definition I have of film noir. (I'm sure readers will write in to tell me how wrong I am, however.)
Genre hairsplitting aside, Without Warning is a nicely done if unremarkable yarn, with a goodly amount of suspense. Williams's psycho killer is all the more frightening precisely because he is so normal, a seemingly regular guy hiding dark secrets. The police work carries a note of authenticity and even ingenuity, even if it seems quaint to viewers of the modern-day forensics-glutted primetime lineup. Director Laven is clearly a competent craftsman, and while his handiwork doesn't show a lot of ingenuity or innovation, he tells his story and provides the thrills smoothly and efficiently.
Without Warning is an early entry in the catalog of a new imprint, Dark Sky Films, which is a subsidiary of MPI Home Video dedicated, in their words, to "deliver the highest quality in classic horror, grindhouse, oddities and 'lost' films to fans of the more eclectic genres of home entertainment." Regardless of who might be responsible, this is a very nice-looking transfer. There are some scratches and blemishes visible in the very early going, but for the most part this is a shockingly bright, clean, clear transfer with almost no digital gremlins to complain about. The audio, presented in its original mono format, is mostly clean and pleasant. Overall, this is a surprisingly good transfer of a nearly unknown film. Special features are limited to a photo gallery. Not groundbreaking stuff, but better than the bare-bones treatment I would have expected.
In short, Without Warning is an interesting police procedural that probably doesn't deserve the "film noir" tag that's been hung on it. The DVD from Dark Sky Films/MPI offers a great transfer. If you like this sort of thing, you will probably find Without Warning an interesting diversion.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
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