Thursday, April 23, 2009

Target #53: Roadblock (1951, Harold Daniels)

Directed by: Harold Daniels
Written by: Richard H. Landau (story), Daniel Mainwaring (story), Steve Fisher (writer), George Bricker (writer)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Roadblock (1951) has plenty of the classic film noir ingredients, but it also recalls all those landmarks from which it borrowed them. An honest insurance detective is corrupted into defrauding his own employer – that's straight from Double Indemnity (1944). A swift, suffocating city-wide dragnet embraces the fleeing anti-hero, stifling his final chance of escape – that recalls High Sierra (1941). Even leading man Charles McGraw, typically confined to supporting roles, might credibly be described as a "poor man's Kirk Douglas." In fact, with his chiselled facial features and a gravelly voice, I occasionally found myself picturing Douglas in the role. I also saw Gene Tierney in Joan Dixon's place, but that's just me and my wishful imagination. All things considered, the two main performers do quite well in a B-movie that offers no surprises. Content to follow the already-established film noir mould – to drive the riverbed without breaching its banks, so to speak – director Harold Daniels has produced an entertaining, workman-like thriller. But why rewatch it, especially when you can instead enjoy its superior predecessors?

The film, intended as the lower half of a double-bill, jumps straight into action. A fugitive bank robber (Peter Brocco) becomes witness to a homicide, the killer taking him hostage and threatening to dispose of him. After offering his stolen loot in exchange for his life, the film pulls its first – and probably only – unexpected twist. The "killer" is, in fact, L.A. insurance detective Joe Peters (Charles McGraw), who engineered the mock murder of his partner (Louis Jean Heydt) to discover the whereabouts of the missing bank money. Peters is fiercely honest, having resigned himself to an unglamorous life on a modest detective's income, but this episode foreshadows his character's transformation into a liar, murderer and fugitive. Why do good men turn bad? In Roadblock – as in all noir – the blame is irrevocably placed on a woman. Unashamed gold-digger Diane (Joan Dixon) taunts Peters with her icy beauty, disdainfully implying that he could never afford somebody like her on such a meagre salary. If you're going to turn to crime, I guess sex is as good a reason as any.

Roadblock was directed by Harold Daniels, who doesn't appear to have much else of note to his name, but the cinematography was by Nicholas Musuraca, whose exquisite noirish work is also on display in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). What I love most about film noir is how the photography so often suggests more than would otherwise be understood. For example, despite beginning the film as a questionable, if seductive, chiseller, Joan Dixon's character later takes a turn towards the uninteresting, rejecting her former prestigious life-style in favour of love and marriage (making Peters' fatal transformation ironically unnecessary). Having now settled into her new role as a slighted romantic lover, and apparently deserving of our sympathy, Diane witnesses her husband gunned down by police, and resignedly departs the scene. It's not spoken, but Musuraca's camera doesn't forget who's to blame for this tragedy: he frames her strutting purposely - almost dismissively - away from the devastation her hand has caused, like a gunman turning his back on a massacre.

Currently my #9 film of 1951:
1) Strangers On A Train (Alfred Hitchcock) *
2) The African Queen (John Huston)
3) The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
4) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
5) The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton) *
6) The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks)
7) An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)
8) Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen)
9) Roadblock (Harold Daniels) *
10) Behave Yourself! (George Beck)

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