Film Noir Friday: Without Warning! (1952)



Arnold Laven’s Without Warning! is a nasty piece of work with a killer who piles up more blondes than Alfred Hitchcock. This 1952 motion picture is based on a screenplay by William Raynor, who would go on to have a rather successful career in television writing. There is some debate as to the noir credentials of Laven’s movie, but a solid case can be made for its inclusion in the genre.

Parts of Without Warning! are reminiscent of unflappable procedural noirs like Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, with plenty of talk about how policemen catch bad guys. Laven even has Joseph F. Biroc nose the lens down a microscope so we can check out clothing fibres and other tiny pieces of evidence. Police chemist Charlie Wilkins (Byron Kane) has a chance to talk shop.

The cops are on the trail of a killer and Laven’s flick lets us in on the big secret right away, revealing that a horticulturist named Carl (Adam Williams) is the perp. He lives in a shack overlooking the freeway and makes friends with a little girl (Connie Vera), but he also has a penchant for wasting blondes with his gardening shears.

Carl sets his sights on Jane (Meg Randall), the daughter of the owner of a supply store, and it looks like he’s found his next victim. The police are trying to piece together clues and they go so far as to set up a curvy cavalcade of decoys to trap the blonde-loving nutjob. They also draw up a psychological profile, but Carl is shrewd – at least until the blinding rage takes him again.

Without Warning! does an interesting job with perspective, as it doesn’t really stick to one side of the law for long. Laven shadows the police as they set up the sting and interview potential suspects, but he also turns the camera around and draws some likeness of sympathy for the devil. We’re right over his shoulder during a critical chase sequence, for instance.

There is certain prurience to the killing in Without Warning! and Williams plays his character well. He allows the audience to get close to his psychopathic proclivities and we sense there’s proper indignation beneath the surface. He sneers and seethes. He seems to pick up “loose women” and operates a sort of retribution ruse. The cop shrink (Robert Shayne) thinks it has something to do with an ex.

Many of the finest crime pictures of the era make a great deal out of the psychological components of society’s dark side, but Without Warning! seems to offer up particularly convincing components. Pictures like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s Psycho were nearly a decade away, which speaks to the dangerous tug of Laven’s ominous trip.

In some respects, Without Warning! is an ancestor of the slasher flick. Carl’s use of shears gives him a central characteristic and his disturbed attachments to punishing women play to the entrenched elemental pathologies in cinema’s extravagant exterminators. While the genre can be traced all the way back to 1932’s Thirteen Women, Laven still has at least one foot in the bloodstain.

Given the slasher subtext, the case has to be made for Without Warning! as film noir. And indeed, Biroc’s cinematography doesn’t do a lot of dirty work with the lights out and there are no femme fatales or punch-drunk dicks. But there is a formal sense of darkness and sex, especially in the relationship between Carl and Jane, and the movie’s searing scorn is hard to shake.

Carl exists as part of an evil world and he stalks the streets where women are in constant danger and the traffic never stops. These components are evidenced with the mise-en-scène, like when Biroc uses overhead shots or skulks just over the swooshing highway for one last look. And sin is in the details, with Carl’s phallic garden shop menace proving he’s got devious considerations in mind.

Without Warning! may not the most traditional of the noir pictures, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a damn satisfying yarn, with elements of police procedurals, killer thrillers and slasher movies slipped into the cynical drip-drip-drip of the heartless city.

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