Cinema Station

Picture of the Week: The Steel Trap (1952)

December 12, 2012
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The Steel Trap (1952)

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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.

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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.

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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.”

-GE.

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The Hawkins Brothers: Crime Storytellers

October 28, 2010
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For a moviegoer, sometimes unfamiliar names become familiar. During the credits of the Andre De Toth directed Hidden Fear, the name John Hawkins struck a bell but I ignored it. I didn’t think about the name until I started Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose and there it was again in the opening credits.

The very first time I saw the name was months ago: another De Toth picture, Crime Wave. The link the between the three movies isn’t only a name; it’s a consistency in craft, in the tiny character details that elevate these three crime pictures above most others.

John Hawkins, of whom I can find little about, was a writer and producer. He produced Bonanza and other than the movies, wrote for such television shows as The Fugitive and The 87th Precinct series. Alongside his name is his brother’s: Ward Hawkins. They each collaborated on Crime Wave and The Killer is Loose. From what I can gather, both of these films where based on stories by the brothers (they were frequently published in the Saturday Evening Post).

Both films had a screenwriter other than the Hawkins (Harold Medford for The Killer is Loose and three writers for Crime Wave). Although sometimes it’s hard to pick out the parties responsible for the exceptional qualities in good work (perhaps it was the director with an idea on set, or the actor), the name Hawkins keeps repeating itself at the beginning and end of good crime pictures.

The Killer is Loose is an odd cop story. The lead, played by Joseph Cotten, accidentaly shoots the wife of a bank robber played by Wendell Correy. He’s no ordinary bank robber, and no ordinary killer as the poster suggests. He’s timid, introverted; in the army we learn that he was constantly made fun of. Still, he involves himself in crime and the punishment is not his own but his wife’s.


Wendell Corey

The outcome of the innocent murder: Cotten made a mistake and Correy goes to jail. But before he goes, he swears to take the life of Cotten’s wife and when he escapes sometime later, the picture really takes off. That’s all I’ll say about the plot. The picture, like many in the gallery of second-run crime movies, is fast, sharp, and much smarter than most A-pictures. The characters’ actions are fresh, unpredictable, and downright complex. Budd Boetticher was a great director, not only of Westerns. Whatever his strengths, I can’t help but credit the “story” men behind this one: the Hawkins brothers.


Timothy Carey, front and center

Crime Wave, which I focused on before in an article about its director, is a little crime gem too. A tale of the burden of being an ex-crook at its core, the movie comprises police-procedural, heist, and kidnapping in a killer plot. The cast highlights are Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey. Hayden plays a tough cop about as good as anyone could and Carey plays the ultimate scene-stealing psycho (he may have been the best scene-stealer ever). Again, De Toth was a terrific director but it’s not only the starkness of the pace and lighting that make Crime Wave a great picture; it’s the root of the movie, the core, where it came from.

Unlike the previous two, the movie Hidden Fear was not based on a story by Ward Hawkins. From the available information, it seems the screenplay was written by both Andre De Toth and John Hawkins. Like the other two, this is a tight little crime movie. The basic plot involves an American cop (John Payne) trying to clear his sister’s name after she gets mixed up with a murder in Denmark. Somewhere along the way, counterfeit and other such crimes become involved.


John Payne, a Pulp machine in my mind, here with two broads in Western mode

On one level, Hidden Fear feels like an early entry in the French New Wave. The lighting is almost all natural, the cutting abrupt and ragged but effectively so, the whole thing stripped of Hollywood exaggerations. It is a lean, mean picture but what really gives it guts are the characters and dialog. Payne’s American cop is Mickey-Spillane tough. In one great scene from Hawkins and De Toth, he slaps his sister around to find out the truth. The Danish cop enters the interrogation room and tells him, “This isn’t the way we do things here.” Payne, lacking all emotion, responds, “Sometimes it’s the only way.” He parades through the picture as a tall, strong statue, a perfect machine of pulp and Hawkins’ script is his backbone. Outlined with tons of great characters: a sultry blonde played by Anne Neyland and a backstabbing ruthless villain played by Alexander Knox. Hidden Fear climaxes with a great, minimal car chase and a harsh ending that conveys the same bizarre since of victory and tragedy as Hawkins’ ending for The Killer is Loose.


Alexander Knox

I’ll keep an eye out for John and Ward Hawkins from now on. And because their names were once unfamiliar to me and have now become synonymous with great crime writing, I’ll look for others like the Hawkins, buried in the credits of great forgotten cinema.

-TM