April 12, 2009

ROADBLOCK (1951)



Note: This essay contains spoilers. 

More than 55 years after the end of the classic period of film noir, Charles McGraw, with his tough-as-nails screen image and unmistakable voice, has come to represent the quintessential noir tough guy. One could also characterize Bogart or Mitchum in this way, but their household name status excludes them from being identified as strictly noir performers. When Bogart’s name comes up in casual movie-buff conversation, it’s just as likely to be connected to The African Queen or Casablanca as it is The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. The same holds true for Barbara Stanwyck or even Joan Crawford, both of whom appeared in numerous noirs but will never be associated with the genre as definitively as Lizabeth Scott or Gloria Grahame. The presence of performers such as McGraw and Scott has become something of a signpost for establishing a film’s noir provenance — seeing McGraw in a fedora and trench coat is as good as any shot of black and white prowl car gliding shark-like down a rain-soaked alley. Even when McGraw was miscast, as he was in 1951’s Roadblock, we still get that rush. And although he’s out of place, his presence alone makes the movie worth watching and talking about.

McGraw plays Joe Peters, a Walter Neff-like insurance detective who watches his life spiral down the drain after falling for an ambitious and money-hungry woman. The movie has strongly cinematic opening and closing sequences, but its poorly developed characters and illogical story don’t match its strong visuals. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forgive faults where McGraw is concerned, though one need look no further than his own The Narrow Margin to see that a low-budget is no excuse for subpar filmmaking.


Roadblock starts off with zip and a twist: a frightened man witnesses a murder on a dark city street, but is quickly spotted by the killer.  When confronted, he tries save his own skin by volunteering that he too is on the lam from the cops. As a show of good faith, he even offers to share the spoils of his crime — a big-time heist — with the murderer. After a rainy drive, the pair enters a dark cemetery mausoleum where the cache of cash is hidden. But as soon as the loot is out in the open, in walks the apparent murder victim, as if he rose like Lazarus from a nearby grave, and we realize that the whole affair was an elaborate ruse meant to entrap witness-thief. Joe Peters (McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) are the brains behind the stage-play.

Later, when Joe boards a plane to get home he meets Diane (Joan Dixon), who cadges a half-price fair by claiming to be his wife. Although Joe doesn’t like being made an accessory to Diane’s scam, he lives in a world where everyone is working an angle and reluctantly plays his part. When fate diverts their flight away from a fogged in airport, the two are obligated to take a room together in a shabby motel. Their conversation is hardly romantic: he thinks she’s a gold digger; she thinks he’s a square. Before long she’s calling him ‘Honest Joe.’

Director Harold Daniels hopes we’ll discover sexual chemistry between the two characters, which would explain their frustration with each other’s worldview. But romance wasn’t exactly McGraw’s forté, and the inexperienced Dixon lacks both skill and confidence (Roadblock is the bright spot in a very brief film career). To her credit she brings to mind Lizabeth Scott, minus the range and the smolder. Regardless, the chemistry fizzles, and viewers are obliged to take it on good faith that the sexual tension between them is strong enough to lead Honest Joe down the primrose path.

One of noir’s deadly recipes is present in Roadblock. Diane suffers from a brazen materialism that drives her to make immoral and ultimately destructive choices, while Joe is so sexually repressed that he’ll do anything to get into her pants. She has to have jewels and furs, he has to have her — and crime is the only way for them both to get what they want. That first night in the motel, after flipping a coin for the bed, they consummate their destiny with a portentous good night exchange:
Diane: “Some day you are going to want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary.”
Joe: “Like what?”
Diane: “Like me. Good night.”
The first act of the film ends with impromptu airport kiss after the weather clears and the ersatz couple are obliged to go their separate ways. Joe’s hooked though — when see it later when he spies Diane at a nightclub with notorious fur thief Lowell Gilmore (Kendall Webb). She’s gotten her pelts, but from another man. It’s the jealous tipping point that nudges Joe to consider breaking the law .

The middle of the film finds Joe vying with the racketeer for the girl, and eventually partnering with him in a daring train robbery. The impact of poor casting and really begins to resonate as it becomes harder and harder to swallow that Joe is this gaga over the girl, and consequently willing to throw away his career, self-respect, freedom, and long-time friendship with partner Harry for a girl he doesn’t appear to like or be able to get along with — this ain’t Lancaster and DeCarlo in Criss-Cross. There’s no sense that Joe and Diane can’t live without each other. Roadblock leaves us asking all the wrong questions.

In the days leading up to the train heist, Roadblock becomes inexplicable. Diane pulls a bizarre switcharoo and gets religion; she no longer craves a life of luxury and material things. She’s ready to be a hausfrau on Joe’s insurance salary, forget about all those diamonds and rubies. With this new vision of domestic bliss in mind, Joe meets Gilmore and tries to beg off — no dice Joe, you’re in too deep! So the lovebirds get hitched and head off to their perfect alibi honeymoon. The train heist comes off as planned and all’s well until Harry finally gets wise and the thieves start to turn on each other. Deadly mayhem ensues, until eventually Joe and Diane find themselves trapped in a sedan trying to leadfoot it out of Los Angeles. 


With the nonsense of contriving the final sequence out of the way, Roadblock nearly redeems itself in its final moments. After a crackerjack car chase through a warren of L.A. side streets, Joe hastens into the concrete prison of the L.A. river basin. The camerawork and editing are excellent as Joe, finally recognizing the futility of his situation, shoos bad-girl-turned-good-girl Diane out of the car and tells her to forget him. He speeds away, but a mere moment later destiny shunts him toward Harry and a mob of blue uniforms hiding beneath a nearby underpass. Out of his car and looking to make a break up the embankment, Joe is gunned down by a patrolman just as Harry draws a bead on him. Diane sprints to the scene and Joe tumbles down into in her arms. The film closes with a beautiful wide shot of the jilted femme fatale staggering away down the basin, as a train whistle sounds in the distance.




Roadblock (1951)

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Director: Harold Daniels
Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca
Screenplay: George Bricker, Steve Fisher
Story: Richard Landau and Daniel Manwaring (credited as Geoffrey Homes)
Starring: Charles McGraw, Joan Dixon, Lowell Gilmore, Louis Jean Heydt, and Milburn Stone.
Released by: RKO Radio Pictures
Running time: 73 minutes

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