Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tight Spot (Columbia, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran an interesting if flawed movie I’d recorded at the tail end of the recent Ginger Rogers festival on TCM: Tight Spot, a 1955 Columbia production whose plot synopsis in the TCM program guide — “A district attorney tries to get a hardboiled woman to testify against the Mob” — made me chuckle if only because I could readily have imagined the same stars, Rogers and Edward G. Robinson, making a movie with the same basic premise when they were both at Warners in 1932-33. The 1955 version features Rogers as Sherry Conley, an inmate of a New York state women’s prison (for crimes the script by William Bowers, based on a play called Dead Pigeon by Leonard Kantor, keeps ambiguous) whose credo is, “Don’t volunteer!” — don’t let the authorities talk you into pulling extra duty and, when they order you to do something, do nothing more than exactly what they ordered (what unionists call “working to rule”).

The opening scene shows three men in a car — all of them look like gangsters (one of the good things about this movie is the marvelous ambiguity about who are the cops, who are the crooks and whether or not there’s really all that meaningful a difference in the way they operate) but only one of them is. The gangster of the bunch is Tonelli (Alfred Linder), who’s on his way to the Manhattan courthouse to testify against crime boss Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene, pre-Bonanza and playing the head of a very different kind of “family”) but isn’t all that confident about the ability of his police escorts to get him to the courtroom in one piece. His suspicions are all too well founded; while he’s walking up the long set of steps leading to the building he’s mowed down by two Costain-hired snipers hiding out in buildings across the street (didn’t the New York City courts have a back entrance in 1955? They do on Law and Order!), and all of a sudden prosecutor Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson) is without his star witness.

The only other person who can put Costain away, it turns out, is Our Anti-Heroine, Sherry Conley, who before she went to prison four years earlier briefly dated Tonelli and took a yacht trip with him and Costain, during which she saw Costain engage in criminal activity as the yacht stopped on various Caribbean islands, which will give federal prosecutor Hallett the grounds to have him deported as an undesirable alien (to where, Scotland?) and thereby break up his 30-year crime ring. Accordingly, Hallett gets Sherry out of prison, accompanied by police officer Vince Striker (Brian Keith) and Mrs. Willoughby (Katherine Anderson), a matron at the prison whose task is to guard Sherry and make sure she doesn’t try to escape. Virtually the whole rest of the movie takes place inside the hotel room where Hallett is holding Sherry and trying to talk her into testifying — a single-set device that betrays this movie’s origins as a play and makes the whole thing more than a bit dull — and where Hallett is convinced he’s been able to hide her from Costain’s gang, only two people from the gang learn her whereabouts, take a couple on another floor of the hotel hostage and use them to gain access to the fire escape and get into Sherry’s room. Sherry and Vince are both shot but survive; Mrs. Willoughby is not so lucky — determined not to report her own injuries until the hotel doctor has treated Sherry’s, she gets sick and is taken to a hospital, where her condition is touch-and-go for two days. (One gimmick of the plot is that the story starts on a Friday and Costain’s trial is scheduled to resume on Monday, so Hallett has only three days to convince her to testify and if he can’t get her to do so, he’ll have to dismiss his case.)

Vince leaves the hotel room and is seemingly kidnapped by Costain’s minions, until [spoiler alert!] in a dramatic plot reversal that works mainly because it’s the only one in the script (Kantor and Bowers don’t pile reversal on top of reversal the way Tony Gilroy and other irresponsible writers of thriller movies do now!), it turns out that Vince, whom we’ve seen up until then as an incorruptible, unscrupulous Dirty Harry prototype, is actually on Costain’s payroll and he’s been the one who fingered both Tonelli and Sherry for the previous attacks. He’s instructed to unlock the window in the bathroom of Sherry’s hotel room at 8 that night, just before she’s transferred out of the room and moved to the city jail, to admit Costain’s latest hit man — but in the event he has a change of heart (the fact that he’s fallen in love with Sherry in the meantime had something to do with that!) and shields her with his own body, so he and the hit man kill each other and Sherry is moved by Mrs. Willoughby’s death (earlier the two women had formed a bond after Sherry learned that Mr. Willoughby died in the Normandy invasion and Mrs. Willoughby has been working as a prison guard to raise enough money to support her daughter) to testify after all.

Tight Spot is a movie that could have been better — the director, Phil Karlson (a usually underrated thriller and noir specialist), is clearly more inspired once he can get himself, his actors and his cameras out of that damned hotel room and shoot scenes taking place out of doors; and by 1955 Ginger Rogers had been playing respectable women so long she had a hard time reverting back to the proletarian character, surviving by her wits, she’d done so well in her early days at Warners and RKO pre-Astaire. (Robinson was also a bit too avuncular by 1955 to play his character as well as he conceivably could have in 1932.) But it’s also got some quite intriguing touches, including the annoying TV show by country-fried entertainer “Mississippi Mac” (Doye O’Dell) that seems to be the only thing on during the Weekend From Hell Sherry is obliged to stay in that hotel room — later it’s explained that it’s a telethon — and the marvelous shot of Sherry and Vince dancing after she gets him to turn off the TV and put on a radio (which is broadcasting a quite beautiful ballad called “Forbidden Love” whose singer, unidentified on, is a very good Eckstine-style baritone) and he pushes his gun belt farther back on his waist so she doesn’t grab the gun away from him and use it to escape. (After Ginger Rogers quit musicals, just about any shot of her dancing was welcome.)

Tight Spot was a good movie that could have been even better — though I can see why William Bowers did only minimal “opening up” (the tension of having most of it take place in one room was pretty basic to the structure of Kantor’s source play, even though it risks monotony — and sometimes achieves it — on screen) — and Rogers’ performance, superficial at first, gains power and force as the film goes on and she’s able to make her transformation (almost a female version of the Bogart character) from disinterested, apathetic prisoner to raging figure of anti-Mob vengeance completely believable.