The Hunted (1947)
A low budget, but classy film noir, The Hunted is a minor treasure. It's moody, romantic and above all, it has the gently haughty presence of Belita. A woman of many talents, the star who was most famous for her accomplishments on the ice also carved a niche into movie history with a trio of solid films noir, also including Suspense (1946) and The Gangster (1947).
Belita is elegantly weary, but strangely relatable as Laura Mead, recently released from prison after serving time for a jewel theft for which she pleads innocence. Her former beaux is Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster), the detective who arrested her for the crime. He believes she is guilty, and regards her warily because she has vowed to kill him for his lack of faith, but the dreamy blonde still captivates him.
When the attorney who bumbled her trial, another target of Laura's threats, is killed she finds herself under suspicion again. As before, Saxon doubts her claims of innocence, but with his former love back before him in the flesh, he is moved by the memory of their affair.
Belita and Foster have a cozy chemistry, with just enough electricity to give their scenes together a pleasant tension. Saxon may have his qualms, but he's hooked on Laura and he can't help caring for her, even as he fears her.
Foster is a compelling romantic, not as rough around the edges as your typical screen detective. You get the feeling he's really good to his mother. He pushes Belita away with the things he says and draws her near with eyes that grieve for what they had together.
Belita is worthy of the attention. She has screen presence that neuters the need for great acting. The woman was blessed with the sort of magnetism that can't be taught. She carries herself like an heiress who has lost her inheritance, wistful, but aware that she is slumming.
With her long, swoopy hair and fairy princess features, the skating star looks a lot like fellow noir beauty Veronica Lake, but her glamour is more understated. There's a fragile melancholy about her.
It is surprisingly not jarring to see Belita hit the ice for her skating number, perhaps because it is staged noir style, on a dark rink with a single spotlight. While specialty stars like ice skater Sonja Henie and swimmer Esther Williams were typically given the high gloss treatment in musicals and comedies, the less glitzy feel of this show works well. It gives Foster an opportunity to see Laura at work, succeeding at legitimacy, giving him hope in her decency.
The Hunted is a solid B noir, not quite an undiscovered classic, but enjoyable and worthy of multiple viewings.
Stage Struck (1948)
Though a tad uneven, and much less subtle than The Hunted, Stage Struck is another well-crafted late forties B flick. It is both cautionary tale and detective story, set in the dingy nightclub world along the edges of Broadway. In it, a small town girl is murdered by a sleazy club owner (John Gallaudet) and her older sister (Audrey Long) goes undercover to bring the killer to justice.
It is revealed that Long's sister was the victim of a con targeting young aspiring actresses. Gallaudet flatters these hopefuls, claiming they have promise, but require training. He accepts them in his expensive so-called acting course and then offers to let them pay for the lessons by "hostessing" in his club.
At first, Stage Struck has the preachy, statistic-filled feel of an early exploitation film, but without the sleazy thrills they're meant to conceal. As the lead detective on the case, Conrad Nagel goes on about the trouble of these unfortunate women and how such cons affect "thousands of homes," all while offering condescending comfort to the female members of the family. Ralph Byrd provides a warmer counterpoint as his rookie partner.
Things perk up once the action moves to the city. Long is sharp and lively as the girl-next-door with just a shade more nerve than her small town neighbors. She quickly finds herself over her head in the edgy nightclub milieu, but predictably doesn’t see caving in to fear as an option.
The elements of Long's investigation will be familiar to any crime film fan, but the hovering threat of her exposure and some amusing twists near the end provide a few good thrills.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.