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FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

Although he starred in the underrated He Walked By Night, Jack Webb is best known for his tight-assed portrayal of Sgt. Joe Friday on TVs Dragnet.

Every so often the style of film noir undergoes a popular revival and reexamination, with movies as varied as L.A. Confidential or Seven or The Grifters being dubbed "modern day noir" (though to noir purists, the notions of noir and color film are mutually exclusive). Noir was not so much a genre as a style, a look, and a thematic concept; it was a visual style that was so popular for several years in Hollywood that countless films assumed it, from major studio productions to Poverty Row quickies. The film vaults swell with titles we may have to dig for or may never even get a chance to see at all. Here are three authentic noir films that probably won't turn up on AMC or TCM; though they may not be as well-known as Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, or Murder, My Sweet, they are worth viewing nonetheless (as well as being three fairly notable film debuts).


Fear in the Night

D: Maxwell Shane (1947) with DeForest Kelly, Paul Kelly, Ann Doran, Kay Scott, Charles Emmett Keene

DeForest Kelly's first feature film is an adaptation of "Nightmare" by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich) in which he goes to sleep and dreams of murdering a man, then awakes to find a button and a key which appeared in the dream, as well as blood on his arm, convincing him that it was no dream. Distraught, he goes to his detective brother-in-law Cliff (brawlin' Paul Kelly, who took a break from fistfights long enough to stick his pugnacious mug in this picture), who of course dismisses it. They all go out on a picnic, but wind up taking refuge in an empty mansion during a thunderstorm. When Vince (DeForest Kelly) knows every room in the mansion in detail, Cliff becomes convinced that he actually did commit the murder and concocted the whole story about the dream. Cliff realizes that the whole thing is a bit too tidy, though, when he saves Vince from suicide and it becomes apparent that wealthy Mr. Belknap (Keene) compelled Vince to murder under hypnosis. Fear in the Night stays faithful to the feel of the Woolrich story, with inventive dream sequences and moody, high contrast black & white camera work. It retains a truly pulpy feel, with seedy set pieces and a propulsive story line, building up to a truly suspenseful conclusion. Pulp readers of the Thirties and Forties were fascinated with the cutting edge of technology and weird science being used for investigative purposes. So what if no one can be hypnotized against their will, it serves the purposes of the story well. An interesting detail is the octagonal room of mirrors in which the murder takes place, which serves both as a plot point and visual device. Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai also featured a room of mirrors, but Fear in the Night predated Welles' film by at least two years! All in all, a well-done treatment of a classic pulp story, outshining its grade-C noir origins. (For all the Trekkies, DeForest Kelly, aside from being younger and skinnier, acts exactly as he did in Star Trek 20 years later. And, though he's now several years the senior of the average Wal-Mart greeter, looks exactly like he does now.)


The Port of New York

D. Lazslo Benedek (1949) w/ Scott Brady, Yul Brynner, Lynn Carter

The war on drugs, 1949-style. Yul Brynner, in his screen debut, plays Vicola, the head of a drug-smuggling operation. A shipment of pharmaceutical opiates heading in by ship turns out to be crates filled with sand, putting Customs agents on an all-out search for the real shipment. The corpse of the ship's purser is fished out of the East River, and more corpses soon start turning up as a game of cat and mouse ensues between the gangsters and the Feds. One agent is shot by the crooks and dumped overboard when he's discovered in their hideout on an undercover mission; another agent (Brady) goes undercover to try to get all the way to Vicola. Semi-documentary police procedurals became quite popular for a while in the late Forties, with lots of location shooting and official-sounding voiceovers. Port of New York follows in the style of House on 92nd Street and Jules Dassin's Naked City, with a fair amount of suspense and plenty of violent fisticuffs. George Diskant brought his striking camera work to bear as well; sometimes the "dark film" is so dark it's hard to even see what's going on. Most notable, however, is Brynner's first film role; he plays Vicola with sleek menace and self-assured evil (and with a full head of hair, too, I might add). Not an outstanding film, Port of New York is well-suited to its subject matter and has been rather neglected for years.


He Walked by Night

D. Alfred Werker (1949) with Richard Basehart, Scott Brady,Whit Bissell, Jack Webb

Basehart, in his first film role, plays Roy Martin, an ingenious thief who is also quite unbalanced. He shoots a policeman who catches him breaking into an electronics store and takes off through the storm drain system beneath Los Angeles. Later, Martin tries to sell some stolen electronics gear, but evades capture again; his skills at intercepting police radio calls and changing his appearance keep him one step ahead of the cops. He's finally brought to ground in a lengthy chase through the storm sewers, chased down like a rat, but not before baiting the police and slipping through their dragnet several times. Basehart excels in his screen debut as the utterly alienated Roy; he lives alone with no friends except for a little dog, digs a police bullet out of his own body with no anesthetic, and prowls the L.A. streets alone at night. His bland looks and persona hide a brilliant sociopathic personality while enabling him to fade easily into any crowd, almost like a prototype Travis Bickle without the Jodie Foster fixation. He Walked by Night's terse dialogue and police-procedural style are perfectly tailored for Jack Webb's matter-of-fact characterization; indeed, it seems like a blueprint for the Dragnet TV series, showing off state-of-the-art police technology (like the newly-developed Identikit for composite drawings of suspects). The story, unsurprisingly, was taken from an LAPD case, and despite shortcomings in the areas of character development and story, this movie's strong suit is in its overall look; John Alton provided very dramatic camera work and lighting, especially considering the low budget and tight shooting schedule. Alton and Anthony Mann would later strike up a profitable partnership in the minor noir classics T-Men and Railroaded.- Jerry Renshaw


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