April 12, 2009

ROADBLOCK (1951)



More than 55 years past 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 might 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 as likely to be connected to The African Queen or Casablanca as it is for The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. The same holds true for Barbara Stanwyck or even Joan Crawford, both of whom appeared in numerous noir movies but will never be associated with the genre as definitively as Lizabeth Scott or Gloria Grahame. Certain performers, such as McGraw and Scott, have become benchmarks for establishing a film’s noir provenance — seeing McGraw in a fedora and trench coat is synonymous with that of a black and white prowl car gliding shark-like down a rain-soaked alley. Even when McGraw was miscast, as in 1951’s Roadblock, we still get that rush. And although he’s out of place in the film, his presence alone makes it worth discussion.

On the surface, Roadblock is a typical B feature. The plot involves McGraw, an insurance detective in the tradition of Walter Neff, throwing caution and good sense to the wind because of an ambitious and materialistic woman. Roadblock has strongly cinematic opening and closing sequences, but its poorly developed characters and illogical story don’t support its strong visuals. It’s easy to forgive faults where McGraw is cocerned — he’s so damn exhilaratingly cool — though one need look no further than his own The Narrow Margin to see that low-budget status no excuse for shoddy filmmaking.


Roadblock starts off with zip and style: a frightened man eyeballs a murder on a dark city street. When the killer turns in his direction, the man tries desperately to shake his witness status by volunteering that he too is on the lam from the cops. In an effort to avoid the same fate as the man lying in the nearby gutter, he offers to share the spoils of his own crime with the murderer. The two men drive to a dark cemetery and enter a mausoleum, where the cache of cash is hidden. Yet as soon as the dough is out in the open, in walks the apparent murder victim, as if he climbed from a nearby grave, and it dawns on us that the whole affair was an elaborate stage play put on for the witness/thief’s detriment by two insurance men, Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt).

When Joe boards a plane to get home he first encounters Diane (Joan Dixon), who scams a half-price fair by claiming to be his wife. Although Joe doesn’t like being an unwitting accessory to Diane’s con — he lives in a world where everyone is working an angle — he reluctantly takes part in the ruse. 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 — to him she’s a gold digger; to her he’s a squarejohn chump. Before long she’s calling him ‘Honest Joe.’ Director Harold Daniels wants us the believe a strong attraction exists between the two, which would explain the frustration they have with each other’s worldview. Romance wasn’t exactly in McGraw’s wheelhouse as an actor, and Dixon performance lacks skill and confidence (Roadblock is the bright spot in a very brief film career). To her credit she resembles Lizabeth Scott in looks and speech, minus the range and the smolder. Since their chemistry fails to come across, 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 path to his doom.

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 her suitor is so sexually repressed that he’ll do anything to get into her pants. Put simply: 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 when the weather clears and the ersatz couple go their separate ways, but not before an impromptu airport kiss. Later, we realize Joe is hooked when he sees Diane at a nightclub with racketeer and notorious fur thief Lowell Gilmore (Kendall Webb). She finally has her pelts, along with the dirtbag she needed to get them. Seeing Diane with another man is apparently the nudge that Joe needs to finally spiral into thoughts of crime. The middle of the film is heavily expository, and involves Joe bristling with the racketeer over the girl, and partnering for a daring train robbery of an insurance company cash shipment. The impact of poor casting and resonates throughout the picture, as it takes a lot for us to believe Joe is this gaga over a girl with whom he has no chemistry and no basis for affection. It strains credulity that Joe is willing to throw away his career, self-respect, freedom, and long-time friendship with partner Heydt over a girl he doesn’t seem to like or be able to get along with. Joe’s motivation is perplexing, as is Diane’s, who seems to have found what she was looking for. Joe and Diane are no Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff — there’s no suggestion that they can’t live without one another. Roadblock leaves us asking all the wrong questions.

In the days before the train heist is actually brought off, Roadblock becomes inexplicable. Diane pulls an incredibly bizarre switcharoo and gets religion; she no longer craves a life of luxury and material things. She’s ready to be a hausfrau on his insurance pay — forget about all those diamonds and rubies. With this new vision of domesticity in mind, Joe confronts Gilmore about calling off the heist, but learns that he’s in too deep to beg off. Gilmore expects Joe to see this through, and Joe is forced to stick. Meanwhile, the lovebirds get hitched and head for a picture-perfect alibi honeymoon. The train heist comes off as planned and all seems well until Joe’s partner Harry finally gets wise. Predictably, the heister’s plan begins to unravel and they turn on each other — Joe calls arranges to meet Gilmore on a dark stretch of highway. The gangster conveniently shows up alone and is promptly murdered by Joe. The movie manages to kill three birds with one stone in this scene: Gilmore learns the hard way that crime doesn’t pay, Joe’s seals his own fate in the eyes of the audience, who in turn get to see a fiery car explosion.

Afterwards Harry attempts to take Joe in, but somehow exits their restaurant meeting place with Joe walking behind him. Next thing he knows he’s sprawled on the floor amidst the broken glass from a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Joe is nowhere to be found. 

With the nonsense of contriving the final sequence out of the way, Roadblock does much to redeem itself in its final moments. There’s a crackerjack car chase as Joe and Diane try to leadfoot it south of the border through a warren of L.A. side streets, with the titular roadblocks popping up around each new corner. The camera work and editing are excellent here, as McGraw’s sedan speeds onto the familiar concrete prison of the L.A. river basin. The ultimate outcome of the situation finally occurs to McGraw, and he shoos bad-girl-turned-good Diane out of the car, telling her to forget him and return to her home in Texas. He speeds away, but fails to get far before destiny brings him face to face with Harry and a mob of uniforms at a claustrophobic basin underpass. Out of his car and looking to make a break up the embankment, Joe is abruptly gunned down by a radio car hack just as Harry draws a bead on him. Diane returns to the scene and Joe dies in her arms, his last words “haven’t you left for Texas yet?” The film closes with a beautiful wide shot of Diane walking 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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