Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trapped (Eagle-Lion, 1949)

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

I ran another movie, with some trepidation because I was worried it would seem a letdown after Carnival of Souls, but it turned out to be quite good in its own right: Trapped, an Eagle-Lion production from 1949 dealing with the U.S. Treasury Department and a Secret Service campaign to bust a gang of counterfeiters. If this seems like a familiar premise, it’s because Eagle-Lion released a better-known film called T-Men on the same subject the same year, with a more highly regarded director (Anthony Mann instead of Trapped’s Richard Fleischer) and cinematographer (John Alton instead of Trapped’s Guy Roe), but Trapped emerges as an even better movie, partly because its plot is more unified, partly because there are fewer pseudo-documentary pretensions (there’s a stentorian narrator at the beginning over footage of the actual Treasury Department in action, stressing the sheer number of separate steps by separate people needed to create authentic money, almost as if to put off potential counterfeiters by making the process seem extraordinarily and intimidatingly difficult: “Do not try this at home!” — and Charles recognized some of the same documentary footage as was used in T-Men; fortunately, in this film, after the opening scene the narrator shuts up) and partly because, if anything, it’s even more stylized as film noir despite being shot largely on actual Los Angeles locations.

The plot begins with a middle-age woman restaurateur complaining when a $20 bill that’s part of a bank deposit she’s making is identified as counterfeit and confiscated by the bank. When the bank turns it over to the Treasury Department, the agents who examine it realize it was printed on the same plates as the ones used by previously convicted counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), but Stewart has been in prison for three years and is looking at seven more. The feds offer him a deal — they’ll facilitate his “escape” from prison and get his ultimate sentence shortened if he helps them find the people who are now using his plates. Tris reluctantly goes along with the plan, but it becomes clear when he gets really rough with the Secret Service agent he’s supposed to be “escaping” from that he’s really a loose cannon and it’s not at all clear from moment to moment exactly which side he’s on: is he using the feds to get to the crooks and make money off them, using the feds to get to the crooks and have his revenge on them for sticking him with the rap, or sincerely living up to his deal?

There’s a nice shock scene at the beginning when Stewart is led into the Secret Service office and briefed on the deal they’re offering him — the shock, of course, is that Lloyd Bridges, of all people, is cast as a crook — and throughout the movie his character just drips with the moral ambiguity that’s the basis of all truly great film noir (the writers are Earl Felton and George Zuckerman — the latter a favorite of Douglas Sirk’s during his Universal years). He’s bitter about his former partner, not only for leaving him to take the rap way back when but also for selling the priceless plates to Jack Sylvester (James Todd); he gets a gambler to stake him to the $25,000 in (real) money Sylvester demands as his price for letting him back into the operation; ultimately he runs afoul of another Treasury agent who’s working undercover and, unbeknownst to Tris, has already infiltrated Sylvester’s organization; and though the plot sometimes gets confusing and the atmospherics a little too dense (it’s not all that clear during the final sequence — a shoot-out in a trolley barn — precisely what’s supposed to be happening), for the most part Trapped is a marvelously amoral film in which the crusading Treasury agents (except for the one who’s deep undercover and is so good at projecting criminal sleaze it’s a major surprise when we find out he’s really a cop!) are kept at a distance, and we get to see the crooks — including the marvelous Barbara Payton, who in real life was as unscrupulous a femme fatale as the roles she played on screen, playing Tris’s ex-girlfriend who jilted him for Sylvester — up close and personal, looking for their main chances and screwing each other. This film and the original The Narrow Margin are so good it’s hard to think of Fleischer’s subsequent career — mostly glossy big-budget assignments in conventional Hollywood grooves — without a sense of regret that he rarely got to do movies this good once he became more conventionally successful!