Without Warning! (1952)


USA. 1952.


Director – Arnold Laven, Screenplay – Bill Raynor, Producers – Arthur Gardner & Jules V. Levy, Cinematography (b&w) – Joseph Biroc, Music – Herschell Burke Gilbert. Production Company – Allart Pictures Corp


Adam Williams (Carl Martin), Meg Randall (Jane Saunders), Edward Binns (Lieutenant Pete Hamilton), Harlan Warde (Detective Donald Warde), Angela Stevens (Janet Collier), Marilee Phelps (Virginia), Connie Vera (Carmelita), Byron Kane (Charlie Wilkins), John Maxwell (Fred Saunders), Robert Shayne (Dr Werner)


L.A. police detectives try to catch a killer who is obsessed with blondes. The killer is in reality gardener Carl Martin who charms and then stabs the girls with a pair of garden shears. As the police comb the city for any hint of a lead, Carl sets his target on Jane Saunders who works at his garden suppliers.

Without Warning! is an absolutely fascinating early psycho film. It has a number of similarities to the same year’s The Sniper (1952) – both films are about the police pursuit of a killer where both the side of the law and the point-of-view of the killer are contrasted. In both films, the killer is an early version of the serial killer before such terminology was ever coined, although we never get any clear motivation for their actions. Both films also adopt a pseudo-documentary-like approach.

Without Warning! is made in the then-prevailing style of tv’s Dragnet (1951-9) – a hard-boiled detective drama that came with grinding voiceover narration explaining police procedure. It is certainly fascinating to see the portrayal of the police procedural and lab scenes, which are like watching a much more primitive version of tv’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigators (2000-15). It is absolutely fascinating when it comes to the psychiatrist describing killer profiles. These are divided into three types:– the sadistic psychopath – someone who enjoys killing; the epileptic – someone who is said to kill in a frenzy; and the paranoiac – a co-dependent who kills out of revenge over rejection. It is fascinating to contrast these types of 1950s psychological profiles with the modern type of forensic psychology that became all the fad after the success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

The killer is cast as a pretty boy psycho in Adam Williams. Director Arnold Laven maximizes Williams for his sexual charisma as much as it could get away with for the time that Without Warning! was made, frequently parading Williams about in bare chest. The camera frequently moves in to focus on Williams’ face, which is babyish and smoothly calm but frequently seen covered in sweat to denote his psychosis.

Directorially, Arnold Laven creates some excellent scenes. There is a wonderfully showoffy sequence that begins with a platinum blonde toasting Adam Williams across a bar, before Laven pulls back as she walks out from the side of the frame and we realise that the two are communicating in a mirror. Outside her car won’t start and Williams comes along – the dialogue between the two here has a wonderfully flirtatious cool. They kiss and then next we see the car under a motorway overbridge and her dead. Motorcycle cops come to see what he is doing, only for the car to stall in the sand as he tries to pull away. He shoots the officer and then flees as the cop’s partner starts shooting. It is a stark and marvellously directed sequence, one where we realise that Laven has drawn us into the killer’s point-of-view and created considerable sympathy for him. There is another fine scene where Adam Williams picks up the lady cop who has been sent as a decoy and drives up into the hills followed by a police tail, where he pulls up and approaches her on a cliff-edge saying “What’re we going to do? Nothing. You’re going to walk home from here. Maybe this’ll teach you that there are some guys that still respect another man’s home.” The climax has a classic scene where Meg Randall ventures into Adam Williams’ house quite innocently, only to find the garden shears, cuttings from the paper about the killer and then put things together when she finds her own photo – and then for Williams to return just as she is about to go, persuading her to stay for a cup of tea even when he sees that she has been looking at his things. Without Warning! is quite an undiscovered classic – both as an early psycho film and as a work of film noir – and a pleasure to see it unearthed from obscurity.

Arnold Laven was a regular director in television over the next three decades. His one other genre film was the monster movie The Monster That Challenged the World (1957).

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