Saturday, January 2, 2016

Stubs - Roadblock (1951)

Roadblock (1951) Starring: Charles McGraw, Joan Dixon, Lowell Gilmore, Louis Jean Heydt, Milburn Stone, Joseph Crehan. Directed by Harold Daniels. Screenplay by Steve Fisher, George Bricker. Produced by  Lewis J. Rachmil. Run Time: 74 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime, Christmas

Shot on the streets of Los Angeles, a popular locale for  many film noirs, Roadblock was one of the first to utilize the cemented Los Angeles riverbed as a locale.  While this usually bone-dry canal would subsequently be used in such film as Them! (1954), Chinatown (1974) and Transformers (2007), at the time it was considered an inspired choice, but most likely was chosen out of budgetary considerations.

The film starts in Cincinnati with a bit of misdirection, a murder. Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) poses as a murderer, shooting his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) in front of a bank robber played by Peter Brocco. As the lone witness to the murder, Joe takes him hostage. Trying to show that he’s on the run, too, and won’t talk, the robber takes Joe to where he’s buried $100,000 he stole, his uncle’s crypt. There is, of course, a gun on top of the strong box, so the robber doesn’t go down without a fight. Joe though is too powerful and when Harry arrives, the ruse is exposed and the robber taken into custody. Turns out Harry and Joe aren’t cops, but insurance investigators.

Harry flies back to LA ahead of Joe, who happens to pick up a wife along the way. Fellow passenger Diane Morley (Joan Dixon) uses Joe, without his knowledge, to take advantage of the airline’s (TWA for those that remember that far back) cheaper husband-wife-first-of –the-week fares (now I know this is fiction). Joe doesn’t know until she sits down next to him on the plane and gives the stewardess the name Mrs. Joe Peters when she checks off the passenger list. (I guess they used to do that.)

Diane Morley (Joan Dixon) poses as Joe Peter's (Charled McGraw) wife to qualify for a lower fare.
While Joe is mad that she’s using him to cheat the airlines, calling her a “chiseler” he’s attracted to her enough not to turn her in. But things get dicey when bad weather forces the plane down in Kansas and the airline puts the couple up in a hotel room together until the weather clears. Forced to share a one-bedroom suite, Joe and Diane flip for the bed; Joe wins and flip for the lone blanket, Diane wins.  Joe doesn’t trust her and sleeps with his gun and his wallet under his pillow.

The unmarried couple share a room, but not a bed. Diane loses the coin flup and sleeps on the couch.
The next morning, over breakfast, Diane tells Joe that things would never work out between them, because she wants what Joe can’t afford on his insurance investigator’s salary, $350 a month. She wants furs and jewelry and a man who can give her those things. Joe makes one attempt to win her over with a passionate kiss, which she rejects, telling him it takes two.

Back in Los Angeles, Joe and Harry are given a week’s vacation to spend at the cabin they own together, their boss Thompson (Joseph Crehan) rescinds the offer when there is a burglary at a furrier’s the company insures. They quickly suspect Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore), a well-known racketeer who happens to own the building the fur company is located in. As part of their investigation, Joe follows Kendall to his usual watering hole, Larry’s, and while he’s staking him out, he sees Diane with him, of course, wearing fur.

Joe doesn't expect to see Diane with Kendall Webb.
She makes a point of coming over to speak with Joe and insists that she’s earned the fur. Joe is skeptical and starts to walk away, when Diane kisses him. This time he rejects her with the same line, “it takes two.”

Thinking they might be on to something, Joe and Larry go to Kendall’s apartment, where they interrupt his early Christmas celebration for two. Once again, Diane is there and she’s wearing another new fur. Joe’s suspicions that it’s from the robbery are thwarted by the sales receipt she has in the pocket. Even though they leave empty-handed, Joe’s mind is full of thoughts of her.

Joe and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) go to Kendall's
apartment, but Joe can't stop thinking about Diane who was also there.
He even goes to her apartment and puts up a Christmas tree for her. When she finds him there, she tells him that she has feeling for him, but insists that he can’t afford her.

Joe goes to Diane's apartment and puts up a Christmas tree for her.
This plants in Joe’s mind an idea how to get a lot of money fast. When he reads about an upcoming $1.25 million cash transfer that his company is insuring, he goes to Kendall with a plan. Joe wants a third of the take and Kendall agrees to the plan.

Joe goes to Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) with a plan to get some money.
Christmas is a time for family and Kendall has a wife back in Las Vegas that he returns to, leaving Diane alone. Feeling unloved by Kendall, she suddenly decides to take the love of a good man over his and turns to Joe. This time love wins out over money and Diane wants to marry Joe.

Thinking he no longer needs the money, Joe goes to Kendall, who has returned after the holidays, to call off the heist. Kendall’s been keeping tabs on the investigator and knows about Diane and their impending nuptials. He warns Joe that in four months, Diane will want something Joe can’t afford and she’ll leave him. Joe relents and the two work out the details of the plan. Once the heist is over, Kendall is supposed to send Joe his cut in care of the mountain cabin, in a hollowed-out fire extinguisher.

While they are on their honeymoon at the cabin, Joe seems to be nervous and when Diane asks him why, he admits to her about the heist with Kendall.  When the heist happens, Joe hears about it on news reports on the radio. The next day, Joe is called back to duty, to investigate the train robbery. In town, the fire extinguisher has already arrived and Joe takes it back to the cabin for safe-keeping before the couple heads back to Los Angeles.

Joe listens to news reports about the train robbery on the radio.
Back in the office, Harry and Ray Egan (Milburn Stone) inform Joe that because the robbers knew exactly which mail bags to take, they suspect an inside job, Joe included as a suspect. His whereabouts, however, clear him as his itinerary for the past few days has already been investigated, down to the delivery of the fire extinguisher, something Harry takes notices of. Ray tells him that they suspect the robbers got away on a particular model of amphibious airplane, which they go looking for, which can carry four to six passengers. Joe notes that’s just big enough for the pilot and the five robbers.

Ray Egan (Milburn Stone) consults with Joe and Harry about the train robbery.
Partos (Richard Irving) is a pilot of such a plane and when grass identical to the field the escape instigated from, he is taken in for questioning. He claims not to know what was going on, only that he needed the money he was offered. When they make him go through mug shots, he finally recognizes one of the men, De Vita (Steve Roberts), a known associate of Kendall’s.

Pilot Partos (Richard Irving) is interrogated about what he knew and when he knew it.
When De Vita is brought in for questioning, Joe calls Kendall to let him know, Kendall insists that De Vita won’t talk, especially if he’s roughed up. Joe is in a unique spot to insure that De Vita gets roughed up; punching him several times before the other investigators pull him off and send him home. The other investigators are surprised by Joe’s sudden violent outburst, especially Harry, who notes that he’s only been that way since the marriage.

De Vita (Steve Roberts) is a known associate of Kendall's.
Harry goes to Joe’s apartment to investigate, walking in like he owns the place, while Diane is busy packing. Harry tells her that since De Vita is an associate of Kendall’s, they suspect that her ex- is behind the heist. When Joe arrives, Harry makes a quick exit.

Nervous that Harry will figure everything out, Joe calls Kendall, who is already feeling the heat as well. Kendall is packing his bags to leave town, but agrees to meet Joe on a lonely stretch of Mulholland Drive, when Joe insists he has a fool proof plan to get them off the hook.  Suspecting something is up, Kendall tries to pull a gun on Joe and the two wrestle on the highway. Joe manages to knock Kendall out. He then puts him back in his car and pushes the car over the edge, but not before taking out some of the money Kendall has with him. The car, as they all do in films from this era, explodes and catches fire, burning Kendall’s body and a lot of the money.

Joe, as Kendall, sends a telegram to Kendall’s wife in Las Vegas that he sending her a parcel and she’s to put it in the safety deposit box. Soon after, when investigators go to pay her a visit, she’s caught red-handed and arrested.

Talking things over with their boss, they estimate that between the money burned in Kendall’s car, the money he sent to his wife and the pay to the other criminals, only two-thirds of the loot has been recovered. Thompson isn’t satisfied until they’ve found it all. Harry thinks he knows where it might be and Thompson charges him with finding it.

Over an uncharacteristic day-time drink, Harry tells Joe that he knows he’s involved. Joe’s knowledge of the number of men involved, before he was told, and the purchase of a second fire extinguisher for the cabin, when the one he’d purchased a few months earlier was working perfectly, has made him suspect his best friend. He asks Joe to come along peacefully, but Joe has other ideas.

Harry takes Joe out for a farewell drink before he tries to place him under arrest.
After knocking Harry out with an empty bottle of beer, he heads for a pay phone. He instructs Diane to call a cab and grab only the money, which they’ve since retrieved from the cabin, and to meet him at a lumber yard. No sooner does she arrive than Joe picks her up and he heads for Mexico.

Meanwhile, the now conscious Harry and Ray Egan, hurry to Joe’s apartment. An APB is put out on him and roadblocks are put up all around town. Trapped, Joe tries driving down on the Los Angeles river bed to make his escape. But there are only four entrances from the street to the canal and the police have them blocked.

Joe tries to escape by driving down on the dry canal of the Los Angeles River.
Pushing Diane out of the car to protect, Joe tries desperately to make his escape. Abandoning his car in the canal, he tries to run up the steep embankment. Harry arrives but Joe won’t go peacefully. A policeman with an angle shoots Joe and he slides down the cement to the riverbed. Diane runs up and Joe dies in her arms. While the investigators talk about the incident, Diane gets up and walks away to her own uncertain future.

Diane walks off towards her own uncertain future.
The film is definitely a taught 74 minutes, skillfully mixing exposition with action and character relationships with plot. While the love between Joe and Diane seems to come out of nowhere, it is not atypical of movies from this time period. There is no time for courtship and it is always deep love at first sight with these movies.

The acting is pretty good. As noted in our review of The Threat, Charles McGraw was adept at playing men on both sides of the law. Here he gets to play a character that does both, going from law abiding investigator to the murderous brains of a major train robbery. All for the love of a woman.

In Roadblock, Charles McGraw plays an honest man who turns to crime to make money fast.
Joan Dixon was a Howard Hughes protégé when he owned a controlling interest in RKO, which explains her second-billing. Hughes tried and failed to make her a star in the vein of Jane Russell. Pretty, but not much of an actress, Dixon appeared mostly in Westerns opposite Tim Holt in her brief career. Diane in Roadblock is her best known role.

Lowell Gilmore plays the suave Kendall Webb. A Broadway actor in the 1930’s and early 40’s, Gilmore came to Hollywood in 1944, making his debut in Jacques Tourneur's war drama Days of Glory (1944) with Gregory Peck. He would next play the painter of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) in what had the promises of a very promising career. Gilmore’s Kendall Webb is a restrained, yet believable portrayal of an underworld figure.

Lowell Gilmore plays Kendall Webb in Roadblock.
Louis Jean Heydt, Harry, came to Hollywood in the 1930’s and appeared in over 100 films, most notably on this blog as the rather hapless Joe Brody in The Big Sleep (1946). A good actor, he’s sort of background in this film, even though he is the one who figures out the plot.

Want also to mention Milburn Stone who plays Ray Egan. Again, a minor role in the film, but it was interesting to see Stone play something/anything besides the Doc Adams character on television’s long-running western Gunsmoke, a role he played throughout the series TV run from 1955 to 1975.

Roadblock shares many of the film noir characteristics of Double Indemnity(1944), an insurance man gets corrupted by a woman and turned into a criminal, and this film does so without the same amount of flare that Billy Wilder brought to the project. The dialogue is noted as being hard edged, existential and cynical, the example always that’s used to illustrate this point is:

Joe - "What makes you the way you are?"
Diane - "What makes anybody the way they are?"
Joe - "You tell me."
Diane - "Where they got started maybe. I had a lot of jobs - modeling, clerking, secretarial work. I tried hard but it was no go."
Joe - "Does that make a chiseler out of you? Must have been something else."
Diane - "Whenever I got a job there was always a man who wasn't interested in my working ability."
Joe - "I understand that."
Diane - "Really? Coming from you that's a compliment."

I prefer the double entendre of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s script:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

But writing pedigree aside, Roadblock was never meant to be a great movie. This was a typical low-budget programmer from RKO which has been elevated because of the acting and directing and ascending along with the nostalgia for the film noir genre. Well worth watching if you ever have the chance.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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