The Steel Trap (1952)
This is the kind of film for which the phrase “They don’t make them like this anymore.” Was coined. It is a small, low budget tightly scripted black and white thriller in which the suspense is constantly to the point of being unbearable. I suspect that it falls into the “noir” genre of some kind because it very definitely focuses and explores the noir or dark side of its principal character’s persona. But I would prefer to call it a “cozy” of some sort. But I don’t mean that in the British Mystery sense of the word. I call it that because of the narrow scope of the picture both in its visuals and story which is almost exclusively about the leading character Jim Osborne, his wife Laurie and the crime he commits. Just about every other character in the story is a walk-on in terms of screen time. There are a few outdoor scenes but 80% of the action takes place indoors, either in houses, office buildings, hotel rooms or airports. This lack of visual expansiveness is what gives the viewer this cozy sense, enclosed feeling I am talking about.
The story in outline is simplicity itself. A bank manager discovers a loophole in the US extradition laws with Brazil and decides to change his hum-drum life by stealing a million dollars from the bank on Friday thereby giving him the whole weekend to get to Brazil and disappear before the theft is discovered on Monday. He lies to his fife who is unaware of his plans. He tells her that he’s going on a business trip and would like her to accompany him. He then commits the crime and they start on their journey. But things don’t go as easily as he had thought and he is faced with one problem after another. Some of them are major but most are trivial or mundane circumstances that we all face when travelling, without much tension, simply because we don’t have a million stolen dollars in our luggage.
The film begins casually enough but then in about 10 minutes in the suspense starts to build and build until we’re about to explode. This because the director (Andrew L. Stone) who was also the author puts us not only in the shoes of Jim Osborne but also into his mind via narration. It stars Joseph Cotten as Osborn and Teresa Wright as Laurie. Both were in Hitchcock’s terrific Shadow of a Doubt (1943). There they were uncle and niece; here they are husband and wife. Cotten, with his Patrician looks and cultured sounding speech patterns always had a talent for projecting something sinister underneath. Here he tempers it with a certain kind of tender concern. Teresa Wright, on the other hand, always projected a kind of outright honesty that was engaging without being cloying. And in the context of this story that quality is used to good effect.
The running time is 85 minutes. But it is an 85 minutes packed with so much nail biting suspense that it could or should be used as a model of effective screen economy in these times when just about every other released mainstream picture seems to be an indulgent 20 or 30 minutes too long for its own good…In the olden days of the Studio System (in which this film was made) a picture like this was called “ a programmer” meaning it was a taut, expertly made cinema exercise of little or no significance. Just something to go on the bottom half of a double bill. But today if a sharply made suspense film like this came along, we wouldn’t call it commonplace, we would most likely call it a “work of art.”