The only Washington bureaucrat I've ever heard of who could strike fear into the hearts of gangsters, suspected Commies and U.S. presidents alike was J. Edgar Hoover. Even when he wasn't wearing a house-dress while cleaning his home, he must have been a fearsome presence. The Street With No Name is, like The House on 92nd Street filmed three years earlier, a semi-documentary hymn to the house that Hoover built, reverently produced by Darryl Zanuck and complete with the equivalent of organ music (a stirringly patriotic dum-de-dum film score) and a heavenly chorus (one of those stentorian voice-overs that Reed Hadley used to do so well). However, unlike The House on 92nd Street, which now seems dated and cringingly naive, The Street With No Name contains elements that hold up fairly well...but you have to get past all that FBI worship, which is difficult to do.
Alec Stiles runs a smart, murderous gang which has moved from numbers to gambling to heists, and along the way has started to kill those who get in its way. Gene Cordell is an FBI agent who is ordered to go undercover, work his way into the gang, earn Stiles' confidence, and then blow the whistle. Stiles is no dummy but Cordell, posing as a tough drifter named George Manley, pulls it off. Life gets dangerous for Cordell when an informer in the police department tips off Stiles. Stiles has to call off a major robbery at the last minute, and then sets out to identify the rat. He doesn't know it's Manley, but he knows it has to be someone in his gang. It all comes together in a tough, murderous shoot-out. Sound a little like House of Bamboo? It should. House of Bamboo, located in Tokyo and with Robert Stack in the Cordell role and Robert Ryan in Stiles' shoes, was based on The Street With No Name.
What's good about The Street With No Name? Mainly, the look of the film. Most of it was shot in grubby Los Angles locations, often at night, with damp streets and harsh lighting. The crummy, second-floor hotels, the sweaty boxing center (you can pay 25-cents and watch two losers pound each other for three rounds), the deserted factory, the night-time ferry building...all look awful, which means they look great. Alec Stiles' wife, played by Barbara Lawrence, is a fine noir dame, full of whiny, petulant sexiness. Two members of Stiles' gang also make an impression, Donald Buka as Shivvy, Stiles' right-hand man who never seems happy and prefers a knife, and Joseph Pevney as Matty, always grinning, who loves blondes and would turn in his own mother. Richard Widmark as Stiles gives the movie its energy. This was Widmark's second movie, a year after creating a vivid Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. There's a good deal of Udo's menace in Stiles, but Widmark makes him a lot smarter. We'd be negligent if we didn't also give credit to Alec Stiles' nasal inhaler. Stiles has a thing about fresh air and germs; he uses his nasal inhaler the way some children use their fingers.
But then there are the not-so-good things. The movie is constantly interrupted with scenes that show how steadfast and resourceful the FBI is, especially with all their new-fangled technical resources in Washington. Every time we stop to see these FBI resources in action (ordered by Lloyd Nolan, reprising his role as George Briggs from The House on 92nd Street), the movie stops, too. The voice-over and the grandiose FBI music have the same effect. Another major defect is Mark Stevens as Gene Cordell/George Manley. Stevens was a good-looking B-level leading man, but a limited actor without much screen presence. This is, in my view, the same fatal flaw in House of Bamboo when Robert Stack was cast as the good-guy tough guy. Neither actor is believable. They drain tension. Fortunately, Widmark and Ryan by the power of their performances still make the two movies interesting.
I can't think of too many actors who were able to parley creepiness into major leading-man stardom. Widmark, with his skull-like face and easy giggle, is not a guy I would have bet on to be a serious leading man for the next 25 years. It shows, I suppose, that even in Hollywood talent sometimes counts for a lot.
If you're a noir buff you might want this one, but I'd suggest renting it first.