Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Steel Trap (Andrew Stone Productions, Bert Friedlob Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I squeezed in a movie between the Rachel Maddow Show on MS-NBC and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS: The Steel Trap, a 1952 production by Bert E. Friedlob for 20th Century-Fox, though currently owned by Warner Bros. (a color version of their logo adorns the print we watched, from the backlog of DVD’s I recorded from Turner Classic Movies back when you could still do that sort of thing, on a disc from a night they showed of “caper” movies), and produced, directed and written by Andrew Stone. The stars are Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, reunited nine years after they acted together in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt, in which “Uncle Charlie” (Cotten), the relative teenage girl Charlie (Wright) was expecting to come in from out of town to liven up her otherwise drab small-town existence in Santa Rosa, turns out to be a serial killer. Though hardly in the same league as Hitchcock’s classic, The Steel Trap turns out to be a quite good suspense thriller in its own right. Cotten plays bank executive Jim Osborne, who, in a voice-over narration that’s obviously Cotten’s real voice but is recorded in an oddly sepulchral acoustic that would have been more appropriate if he’d been doing an audiobook of Edgar Allan Poe stories, explains to us that every morning he leaves the house at the same time. rounds the corner to the train station, takes the same train into the city and shows up for his job as the assistant bank manager — he tells us that he started out at the bank 11 years before as a junior teller and he’s risen to assistant manager; now he’s training a newly hired junior teller and he tells us that in 11 years the new teller may be the assistant manager and he may be the branch manager. Jim has hit on an idea that by exploiting a loophole in the bank’s security system and looking for a country that has no extradition treaty with the U.S., he can steal $1 million in cash from the bank vault and high-tail it out of the country, living the life of Riley for the rest of his days and treating his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) and their eight-year-old daughter Susie (Stephanie King) to a similar existence. 

The voice-over in which Jim explains his plans to himself and to us recalls the similar spiel we got from Fred MacMurray’s character in Double Indemnity — both characters tell us that at least part of their motivation for crime is just proving to themselves that they could do it — but with the key differences that Jim is not motivated by lust for a femme fatale (the original ads for this film hinted that he was — the tag line was, “For the Love of a Woman, He Stole $1,000,000!”  — but he wasn’t: his wife Laurie is the only woman he’s interested in) and he doesn’t intend to kill anybody, just make it out of the country with the money, which the bank will never miss because they’re insured (so yeah, everyone else’s premiums will go up to pay for it). Unfortunately, he’s on a really tight schedule because he has to commit his theft on Friday night, just after closing, and he has to do it soon because in a week or two the bank is going to go on “winter schedule,” which means it will be open on Saturday and he figures he needs the entire weekend to make a safe getaway. He invents a story and tells Laurie that he needs to go to Brazil to conclude a deal for the bank that, if successful, will make him vice-president; he tells Laurie he wants her and Susie to come with him, and Laurie agrees but balks at dragging along a child on what’s only supposed to be a brief business trip. The main part of the film details the struggles Jim has in trying to pull off his presumably perfect crime: he has to get his passports on an emergency basis (and he ends up literally breaking into the Brazilian consulate to obtain them with the necessary visas and almost getting himself arrested for that!), he has to struggle with various airlines, including real ones like TWA (at the time this film was made they were owned by Howard Hughes, and the Lockheed Constellation they fly in was designed by Hughes, but he couldn’t manufacture it himself because the Federal Aviation Administration forbade airlines from buying planes their parent companies manufactured, so Hughes licensed the design to Lockheed in exchange for a cut-rate deal on a large purchase of the planes) and “Chicago-Southwest” (which apparently also existed but was actually based, despite their name, in Memphis, Tennessee), to make the right connections to get to Rio on time. 

They end up stranded in New Orleans, where they go to the famous Antoine’s restaurant (Louis Armstrong remembered it but never ate there because they didn’t serve Blacks) and a Bourbon Street nightclub in which Helen Humes sings a song by Dimitri Tiomkin (who otherwise contributed one of his typically overdone background scores) and lyricist Stan Jones, but though we hear Humes’ voice on the soundtrack we don’t get to see this tragically underrated singer on screen. (If you want to see her, download the 1947 film Jivin’ in Be-Bop with Dizzy Gillespie from archive.org.)  The main problem with this film is that Teresa Wright’s character is drawn as such a ninny it takes her nearly the whole film to figure out that her husband is a crook — and when she does she startles him by refusing to accept his ill-gotten gains and returning to L.A. instead of going on to Rio with him. It also has other glitches, including the fact that Jim takes the money out of the bank in a seedy-looking suitcase that practically screams, “Embezzlers ’R Us,” and though we’re told it weights 115 pounds (a lot of people who haven’t carried suitcases or bags full of tightly packed paper don’t realize how heavy the stuff is — it is wood, after all!) it doesn’t look that heavy when Joseph Cotten or the other actors who handle it are carrying it. But overall, though hardly at the level of the great film Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright made for the real Alfred Hitchcock, The Steel Trap is a quite good thriller that explores the same moral ambiguities as some of the Hitchcock films, in which we’re rooting for the villain to succeed in each little impediment to his plan even while overall just waiting to see him get caught.  

The Steel Trap also belongs to the interesting sub‑genre of film noir in which an ordinary person who’s been previously law-abiding suddenly gets caught up in the criminal underworld and has to learn how to function and survive in it (other examples: Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Dick Powell in André de Toth’s Pitfall, Joan Bennett in Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment), and Stone makes so much of the contrast between the Osbornes’ suburban normality and their (or at least his) criminal activities Charles joked that the film could have been called Ward and June Cleaver Go Bad. But The Steel Trap also suffers from an ending [spoiler alert!] that in 1952 probably counted as dangerous Production Code-bending but now just seems unsatisfying: stunned by the fact that his wife would rather leave him and high-tail it back to law-abiding suburbia than hang out with him and help spend his ill-gotten gains in Rio, Jim Osborne decides to return all the money to his bank and sneak it in on Monday morning so he can put it back in the vault (the titular “steel trap”) with no one the wiser. He doesn’t have time to put the money back in the four big strong boxes that it was in when he stole it, but he figures no one will either notice or care — and he gets away with it! My expectation had been that the film would have the more Code-compliant ending in which just as Jim is getting the money back, he’s confronted by bank security who’ve brought in the police to arrest him — which would have actually made more dramatic sense and given the story more of an air of tragedy than it has. Still, The Steel Trap is a good movie and a nice item on the résumé of the usually notoriously overwrought Andrew Stone.