Without Warning! (1952)
Directed by Arnold Laven
Written by William Raynor
Produced by Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy
Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc
Edited by Arthur H. Nadel
Dark Sky Films DVD – interlibrary loan (1:15)
Without Warning! looks like a super low-budget picture (which it is) that you’d probably pass by, but you shouldn’t; it’s surprisingly good. The first thing I noticed about the cheesy-looking DVD cover was Adam Williams – a somewhat familiar actor – holding a pair of garden shears.
Outside of his many appearances in TV shows, Williams (a distinguished WWII veteran) is probably most famous for his role as Valerian, one of Phillip Vandamm’s (played by James Mason) henchmen in North by Northwest (1959), where he also handles a pair of garden shears, albeit a larger pair. (That’s Williams on the right, trying not to get upstaged by Cary Grant. Sorry, Adam… You don’t stand a chance, dude.)
Of course hardcore film noir fans will also remember Williams (far left) as Larry Gordon, another henchman for another bad guy, this time working with Vince Stone (Lee Marvin, far right) in The Big Heat (1953).
The woman on the DVD cover looked just enough like Lizabeth Scott for me to get my hopes up, but alas, it was not to be. (It’s actually Meg Randall who also appears in Criss Cross.) But no matter… I also wasn’t sure what the “Lost Noir” designation on the cover meant. Was this truly a lost film? Is it a true film noir or a police procedural? Or one of the first psycho killer movies?
The film begins with a jazz soundtrack underscoring nighttime L.A. scenery until we settle on a seedy-looking motel, the type of place where bad things tend to happen.
They’ve certainly happened here. Just ask this woman. Well, unfortunately you can’t, not anymore… The scene just before this – as the killer makes his escape – is pure noir filled with darkness, shadows, and a narrow escape. Again, I was pleasantly surprised that a film that’s this low-budget looks this good: the lighting, pacing, camera angles, the whole package. Don’t get me wrong: we’re not talking about a masterpiece here, just good solid noir.
Then we see the killer, seemingly mild-mannered Carl Martin (Williams) working as a gardener for a local gardening supply store. All is well (or as well as it can be when you’re a psycho with a fixation on blondes) until Carl discovers that the store owner’s daughter (Randall) is in town to help out with the business. And as you can see, she’s a blonde, which creates an unfortunate tendency in Carl to do some serious pruning.
Once the police procedural point of the film has been introduced, we meet our good friend the voiceover narration. Soon the police begin to see a pattern in a series of local murders: other blondes have been killed in a similar manner. The film also stars Ed Binns (right) as the investigating police lieutenant. You’ll probably remember Binns from his most famous role as Juror #6 in 12 Angry Men (1957) or maybe as a police detective in the previously mentioned North by Northwest. (I guess he just can’t stop pursuing Williams…)
The police procedural scenes are handled just about as well as they are in bigger budgeted films. Without Warning! adds a little something extra with Byron Kane as of one of the guys (a chemist) at the crime lab, the type of guy who’s just weird enough to brew coffee with his own lab equipment. (Hey, you find these simple pleasures where you can…) There’s also a few nice, tension-filled scenes involving a little girl (Connie Vera) with a broken doll she keeps trying to get Carl to fix for her.
This has to be one of the earliest instances of movie police asking civilians (totally untrained at that!) to pose as bait for the killer as in this scene. Of course I’m not going to tell you how it turns out…
I also won’t tell you about the rest of the film, except that Arnold Laven delivers a thriller that’s quite successful. Call it thriller, film noir, a police procedural, a psycho killer film, or all of the above – it’s quite effective and suspenseful, even if the ending doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the film. Laven did pretty well for a guy who started in the mail room at Warner Brothers. Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy all served together in the Army Air Corps’ First Motion Picture Unit. After the war, they decided to form a production company, Allart Pictures (which initially became Levy-Gardner-Laven). Without Warning! (reportedly made for $15,000) was the company’s first production, followed by Vice Squad (1953) with Edward G. Robinson and Adam Williams, and Down Three Dark Streets (1954) with Broderick Crawford.
Laven directed more films but went on to direct TV shows for more than 30 years. If you’ve ever watched The Rifleman, Mannix, The Big Valley, The A-Team or a whole list of other sTV hows, you’ve probably seen Laven’s work. (You can read more about Laven’s interesting career here.) I really hope you’ll seek out a copy of Without Warning! (or watch it on YouTube.) If you do, let me know what you think.
Photos: Pyxurz, Getty Images, Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, RareFilm,