Noir City Film Festival began with the very enjoyable WHIPLASH (1948) and then moved on to THE HUNTED (1948), a very obscure film which I found completely captivating.
THE HUNTED gave CRY DANGER (1951) a run for its money as my favorite movie experience so far this year. It was shown in a gorgeous new black and white print restored by the Film Noir Foundation in cooperation with Warner Bros. and UCLA.
THE HUNTED is filled with iconic noir imagery, from the moment it begins on the proverbial dark and stormy night. It also has great romantic mood, telling the story of the tormented love between cop Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster) and Laura Mead (Belita), the woman he sent to prison for four years as accessory to a diamond heist. Laura's done her time and is now on parole; is she telling the truth that she was framed, and she and Johnny can find a way to live happily ever after? Or is she a world-class liar, a femme fatale who will bring him down in a tragic ending?
The movie keeps viewers uncertain of the answer for most of its 88 minutes, but in a most believable way. It has a very good, fast-moving script by Steve Fisher, who wrote the novel which inspired I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941). Fisher also wrote screenplays for some other classic film noir titles, including DEAD RECKONING (1947), LADY IN THE LAKE (1947), and ROADBLOCK (1951).
The Noir City program describes THE HUNTED as "a strange, hypnotic Poverty Row noir," and I found "hypnotic" an apt description. The romantic longing in the film is palpable, whether it's a late-night discussion between Johnny and Laura upon her return from prison, or Johnny standing across the street watching Laura return safely to her apartment when she gets off work near midnight. Foster and Belita aren't necessarily names which come to mind as great romantic leads of the '40s (grin), but I thought they were terrific and completely bought into their passion for one another.
The Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller wrote an excellent article on Belita which can be read online. He describes THE HUNTED as "a small gem" and aptly notes that "the script crackles with tension between the two leads." He also notes the late night scene which made such an impression on me, as they "sit in the dark trading bitter, lovelorn jabs."
I've seen the ice skater and dancer Belita in her later work at MGM, including NEVER LET ME GO (1953), INVITATION TO THE DANCE (1956), and SILK STOCKINGS (1957), but this was my first time to see her in one of her '40s noir titles. She was excellent; she's not classically beautiful but is striking, as well as a very interesting actress. As a child Belita skated in the 1936 Olympics, and the movie even finds a way to include an elegant ice skating routine without disrupting the noir mood. Sure, maybe it's a little odd that her post-prison employment is working as the intermission entertainment at hockey games (grin), but it's film noir and strange things happen now and then!
Larry Blake plays creepy Hollis Smith, who was also implicated in the diamond robbery. Blake's son Michael was in the audience to watch his father's work, which made the screening extra-special.
Frank Ferguson, who also had a significant role as the partner in James Mason's medical practice in CAUGHT (1949), which I'll see at the festival later this month, here plays Belita's employer. He's one of those character actors whose presence is always most welcome.
The cast also included Edna Turner as Miss Holland, a women's parole officer; Russell Hicks as the police chief; and Joseph Crehan, Tristam Coffin, and noir star Charles McGraw as police officers.
THE HUNTED was directed by Jack Bernhard, whose first directing credit was the cult noir DECOY (1946). It's beautifully shot by Harry Neumann.
My only regret regarding this movie is that I loved it so much and it might be very, very difficult to ever see it again, especially in such pristine condition.
We can only hope that the Film Noir Foundation will be able to team with a company like VCI and bring it to DVD, as they have done with THE PROWLER (1951) and hope to do with CRY DANGER.
Highly recommended for noir fans who love dark, rainy streets, lovelorn cops, and dangerous women.