Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Steel Trap (1952)

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The Steel Trap is a gripping race-against-time film noir thriller that actually delivers the thrills that it promises.

Joseph Cotten is Jim Osborne, assistant manager of an important Los Angeles bank. Osborne has a steady job with a future, he has a lovely wife to whom he’s devoted, a great daughter and a comfortable house. He should be content. And he thought he was content, until one day one of the bank tellers made a chance remark that put a terrifying but very tempting thought into his mind. The teller had remarked on how simple the procedure was for securing the money in the safes inside the vault. Osborne realises that the procedure is so simple it would be child’s play for him to rob the bank. Robbing the bank is an idea that has occurred to him before, as the kind of daydream we all have at times. He would never really rob the bank. And yet, it really would be so simple.

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Osborne starts to think the idea through. If he cleaned out the vault on a Friday afternoon no-one would discover the theft until Monday morning. Of course he’d have to get out of the country, but that would be no good. The US government would extradite him. Of course if there was a country that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the US that would be a different matter. To satisfy his curiosity more than anything else he looks into the matter and finds that Brazil has no extradition treaty with the US. Brazil is a nice place with plenty of sunshine and it’s not so very far away. In fact it’s close enough to reach in 48 hours, which is how much time he would have.

By this time Jim Osborne has realised that he’s really going to rob the bank. His problem is that in a week’s time the bank will start opening on Saturday mornings as it always does at this time of year. So if he’s going to do it he will have to do it this weekend. That’s going to leave very little time for obtaining passports and visas. But by now the idea has implanted itself so firmly in his mind that he ignores all obstacles. He tells his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) that the bank is sending him to Rio de Janeiro to negotiate an important deal, and that he’s going to take her with him. It will be like a vacation.

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Osborne, being strictly an amateur at bank robbery, has overlooked all the dozens of things that might go wrong, that might delay his leaving the country. And every one of those things that could go wrong does go wrong. Every step of the way frustrating things happen that delay him. The Brazilian Consulate is closed when he gets there and he has to frantically search for someone who works there who can give him back their passports (which had to go to the Consulate to get the visas stamped). He cannot get a direct flight to Rio and has to catch three connecting flights. Every plane seems to be delayed. Every trip to airports finds him stuck in traffic. Time is always running out on him.

The tension builds steadily. Obstacles are raised, he finds ways to overcome them, and then new obstacles appear.

Joseph Cotten is ideal casting as a respectable and very ordinary man who has succumbed to temptation. He’s a classic noir hero who has never done anything go wrong before and now just once he’s succumbed to temptation and every minute it seems like it’s all going to come crashing down on him. The focus of the movie is entirely on Jim Osborne. Teresa Wright’s role as his wife is very much a subsidiary role but she handles it well.

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Writer-director Andrew L. Stone was responsible for several bona fide noir classics and he displays a very sure touch here. He keeps building the tension, then relaxes it for a moment only to start building it again. The pacing is relentless.

What makes it interesting is that you expect the protagonist in a race-against-time movie to be constantly moving. But in this case Osborne spends a great deal of time not moving. Only the hands on the clock are moving, and that’s where the tension comes from. Stone keeps putting poor Osborne in slow-moving queues, or waiting with desperate impatience for delayed planes to finally take off. The technique is in some ways even more effective than having him constantly moving. And of course every official or airline employee that Osborne encounters is in no hurry at all. Whenever Osborne tries to get things moving he inevitably attracts attention, and that’s not exactly what you want when you’re carrying a suitcase with a million stolen dollars in it. In 1952 offering a cab driver a hundred dollar tip to get to an airport in time was a sure-fire way to get yourself noticed, but of course Osborne has no choice. Those minutes just keep ticking away. You don’t need car chases to generate thrills.

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This movie offers few opportunities for classic noir cinematography. Jim Osborne’s world is not the dark and seedy sleazy-glamorous world of film noir. It’s a world of sunshine and neat lawns. Don’t expect any noirish shadows here. The noir quality of this movie lies entirely in the plot and in Joseph Cotten’s performance as the increasingly desperate and increasingly jittery Jim Osborne, but these qualities are enough to make it genuine noir.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD provides a very fine transfer with no extras. The movie was shot in black-and-white in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The Steel Trap is a remarkably tense and thrilling movie that provides great entertainment. Highly recommended.

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