Roadblock

Someday you’re going to want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary.

Like what?

Like me.

I like the look of film noir, and I’m also fond of its narrative twists and switches, the way fairly regular people find themselves locked into a destructive cycle just because of a stupid or rash decision – that feeling that life can never be fully trusted or depended on, that you are never more than a heartbeat away from having the rug yanked out from under you. And of course there’s the  snappy, sassy dialogue. Roadblock (1951) is an ultra-low budget effort that contains all these elements, and races home in just a little under an hour and a quarter.

“Be careful what you wish for…” a cautionary phrase we’ve all heard and probably used too, and it could be said to sum up the moral of the tale here. After a deliciously teasing opening where we, and one of the characters, are treated to a fine piece of misdirection, we get to meet Joe Peters (Charles McGraw). This solidly named guy is presented to us as morally solid too, a sound and upstanding insurance investigator who’s relatively happy with his lot. A bit of innocent flirting in an airport departure lounge sees him make the acquaintance of one Diane Morley (Joan Dixon), a self-confessed chiseller who is aiming to hit the big league and live in style in Los Angeles. Both of these people will be bitten by the same bug, the one promising something alluring and apparently unattainable just the other side of life’s rainbow. Joe succumbs first, losing his heart and then his head as he brushes aside a lifetime of honesty for a shot at wooing an amoral temptress. And that same temptress then sees her own priorities flipped as the mink-draped luxury she yearns for brings an unexpected chill. For a brief moment, it looks like something positive may come of this. But this is film noir folks, and it’s only a matter of time before those louvered blinds get tilted just so and the shadows grow deeper.

There are a limited number of films noir which make reference to Christmas, and I do like to find one, where possible, to flag up at this time of year. I think I’ve covered a fair few others in the past, though I’m still hoping to source a decent copy of Beware, My Lovely at some point. Roadblock isn’t a Christmas movie of course, the holiday season just happens to feature in the early stages, and I suppose at a push one could draw some inference from the characters dreaming of glittering riches. On a more serious note though, the whole thing really is based around that old staple of dissatisfied people striving for that which is always just a little beyond their reach, and then discovering that what they desired so strongly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

If the director of Roadblock isn’t a name I can claim to know well – Harold Daniels – then there’s plenty of others involved in the production that are very familiar. Seeing Steve Fisher featured among the writers usually interests me as the man behind I Wake Up Screaming is sure to grab my attention. In addition, knowing that Nicholas Musuraca was behind the camera and in charge of lighting the whole business is encouraging. Perhaps the presence of the latter is a little disappointing here – you kind of expect the whole movie to be drenched in inky shadows with this man – as quite a bit of the production has a flat, even overlit appearance. That said, the cinematographers trademark darkness does show up from time to time  – the opening sequence is particularly atmospheric – and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him go about his work.

There are actors who were essentially born to play in film noir, and Charles McGraw has to be one of them. He didn’t get the lead all that often – this film and Richard Fleischer’s stone cold classic The Narrow Margin being notable exceptions though – but gave plenty of value in memorable supporting roles for the likes of Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann. McGraw looked tough and sounded tough, and had the presence to hold your attention every time he appeared on screen. I think the switches his character undergoes in Roadblock are maybe too abrupt and too convenient to be wholly convincing, but that’s not the fault of the actor. The same could be said for the writing of Joan Dixon’s siren. She starts out as a brazen noir dame, a femme fatale in training and then she’s suddenly not. I can understand that the script wanted to exploit the irony of two people getting what they think they want only to find out that they themselves have changed in the meantime. So no, the character shifts don’t quite work for me. Nevertheless, I still had a good time watching McGraw and Dixon wind their way along the path fate has laid out for them. In support it’s nice to see Louis Jean Heydt handed a much larger role than was normally the case.

Roadblock is available on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive, and it looks about OK. There is some softness and moments of indifference but it still entertains. This may not be the best known example of film noir and I’d not seen it myself until quite recently but I reckon it’s worth a viewing.

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Blu News – More Prime Noir

One of the great names among film noir directors has to be Robert Siodmak, a man who made a series of hugely impressive pieces of dark cinema throughout the 1940s. The first of those stylish and influential works was Phantom Lady, which I wrote about here some years ago. It’s satisfying to see this film now getting a very attractive release on Blu-ray in the UK via Arrow Academy.

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, an insightful archival documentary featuring contributions from Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk, Dennis Hopper and more
  • Rare, hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, starring Alan Curtis and Ella Raines
  • Gallery of original stills and promotional materials
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork options


FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Alan K. Rode

The Prowler

Film noir is a look and an attitude as much as anything else. There’s the darkness, both visually and thematically, and the fatalistic tone which creeps ever nearer the doomed characters treading the fine line dividing shadow and light, hope and despair, in this cinematic moral maze. If it grew out of the bitterness nurtured by the economic hardship of the 1930s, the wounds inflicted on society were then cauterized and desensitized by the horrors experienced in WWII. And the end result? A feeling of jaded weariness, of disenchantment when the post-war promise of a brighter future for all remained tantalizingly and agonizingly just beyond the reach of some. The Prowler (1951) is a film about disappointment and dissatisfaction, and the lengths people will go to, either consciously or unwittingly, in an effort to conquer this.

The opening sees Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) reacting with shock on realizing that someone has been observing her through her unshaded bathroom window. Naturally, she calls the police to report the incident and has a visit from a squad car containing an old pro on the eve of retirement, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), and another younger man, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). It’s the latter who takes the keener interest, not so much in the case itself as the lady at the center of it. You see, Garwood is a dissatisfied soul, a man whose youth was taken up with dreams of wealth and success as a professional athlete. When circumstances didn’t allow this to come to fruition Garwood became a cop, a second-rate job in his opinion and he began to brood. Here’s a man who feels life has cheated him out of what ought to have been his due, and his nocturnal visit to the luxurious Spanish home with the vulnerable and alluring woman inside has just added to his ethical itch. While our disgruntled cop readies himself to scratch while he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, a similar sensation is beginning to come over the woman, just not quite so obviously. She’s not happy either, and you read it in her demeanor, drifting listlessly around her well-appointed but empty home, as her husband (notably absent at least in visual terms until the fateful moment) is an older, less exciting man – and it’s later revealed that he is leaving her unsatisfied in more than one way. The scene is set therefore for a drama built around betrayal, deceit and ultimately murder.

I guess what I’ve written above gives a fair indication of how the tale develops. However, I’ve deliberately left it there – what I mentioned essentially occurs in the first act, and most of it quite early on – as I think it actually moves in slightly unexpected directions, due to some good writing and a pair of strong central performances. The version of the film I watched comes with supplemental contribution from such noir experts as Eddie Muller, James Ellroy and Alan Rode who make the point of how the film is a critique of corrupt authority and how dangerous it is to put too much trust in this. I certainly don’t dispute that reading and I think it’s a major element of Dalton Trumbo’s script. Nevertheless, I found certain other elements, namely the disenchantment and disillusionment with hand dealt by life, every bit as noticeable and important. The character of Garwood has been warped and turned in upon itself by a sense of thwarted entitlement; it’s there in his words when he speaks of his lousy breaks and it’s also writ large on his face as he surveys the comfortable home occupied by Susan and her elusive husband, a marked contrast to the cramped and mean room he lives in. That post-war American Dream wasn’t delivering for Garwood.

As I said, the script was from Dalton Trumbo but this was the era of HUAC and the blacklist and so his name wouldn’t appear on the credits. Originally,  the story (by Robert Thoeren & Hans Wilhelm) was titled The Cost of Living, a phrase repeated by Susan’s husband during his radio broadcasts (voiced by Trumbo incidentally) and I reckon it’s a more apt one than the admittedly catchy The Prowler. The lead is driven by his materialism and his hunger for social status, and the constant refrain of how the cost of living is going down takes on a decidedly pointed meaning when we think how cheap life becomes in his eyes. Still and all, this isn’t some dull socioeconomic diatribe, it’s a pacy and not entirely predictable thriller, and director Joseph Losey moves his camera around with a calm fluidity – it’s never showy or self-conscious but effortlessly artistic. And the climax had me thinking of Anthony Mann and his penchant for driving his characters towards heights they struggle to scale.

Some years ago I wrote a piece on Act of Violence and remarked then on the way Van Heflin was cast somewhat against type. The Prowler takes that a step further by almost entirely subverting the typical dependability of Heflin’s persona. Having him play a policeman, a figure one associates with protection and security, serves to further heighten the shock value of seeing him as a cold and manipulative schemer. Evelyn Keyes is very good too as the suburban wife bored by her everyday isolation, flattered by the attention yet also horrified by the increasingly chaotic turn of events. While there is some interesting support work, most particularly from an earnest and likeable John Maxwell, this is very much a two-hander and a fine showcase for the talents of the leads.

The Prowler came out on DVD first via VCI in the US and that’s the edition I picked up. I was happy enough with the quality at the time and the attractive extra features I referred to earlier were welcome too. A few years later the same company put out a Blu-ray version of the movie but I it sound like a significant upgrade so I just stuck with my older SD copy, and i can’t say I’m displeased. Frankly, I feel this is a fine film noir, well cast, well shot, well written, and well worth ninety minutes of anyone’s time.