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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50 thoughts on “Roadblock

    • Yes, there are some important names involved, people who made quite significant contributions to noir. This is a very low budget effort, although there are some nice bits of location work around Los Angeles near the end to add a bit of variety, and probably not all that familiar to many. If my own experience is anything to go by, it’s one of those movies whose title you come across while reading and then you have to go about tracking down a copy – a bit of hunting around suggests the last time it was shown on the BBC was back in 2005.

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  1. Good writeup, Colin. I wrote about the movie just a few months ago and found it unfortunately disappointing for the same reasons. Both McGraw’s and Dixon’s change of heart comes out of nowhere. The last scene makes up for the middle of the movie that just dragged. All in all I found it not quite up to Noir standards.

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  2. Apparently I am a little at odds with you here, Colin, as this is just the kind of lowish-budget but well-made film I like to sink my teeth into! It is a bit of a favourite of mine (despite the slightly unconvincing character shifts). I find one remembers the final section, with cars racing down the L.A. storm drains long after the film is over.

    Charles McGraw was, as you so rightly say, made for film noir. I also really like “ARMORED CAR ROBBERY” (1950), which you did not mention as one of his lead roles around the same time. These are films I can watch multiple times and get something new out of them on each viewing.

    Great choice for a welcome review!

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    • Yes Jerry, I should have mentioned Armored Car Robbery when I was at it – you’re right it did provide another leading role for McGraw, and a good one at that.

      I’m not totally down on the movie and I hope I didn’t come across that way – there are indeed positives to take away from it, but the weaknesses in the script do need to be noted I feel.

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  3. Oh, I agree its construction is not perfect, Colin, but it is another good example of the kind of small film made by RKO during their best years. So many good titles, for me at least and probably mostly for you I believe.

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    • Yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my fondness for RKO movies before – the studio’s noir and thriller output was right up there. Even the middling efforts, and I think that’s what Roadblockreally qualifies as, had much to recommend them and I’d hate to be without this kind of film.

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  4. Colin, I think that Jerry and I like the movie a little more than Margot and you. ROADBLOCK has its flaws, but it also as things going for it which makes it worth watching and I’ll take a mid-level formula film Noir any day. Charles McGraw is, hands down, a Noir “Icon.” Here he actually gets to fall in love. I can watch and listen to him in any type of movie, or TV show. Also, I like McGraw in LOOPHOLE(1954), where he again portrays an insurance inspector, who doggedly pursues savings-in-loan teller Barry Sullivan.

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    • Loophole is a movie I have a copy of but need to find a bit of time to fit in – same old excuse I’m afraid.
      Yeah, I’m pretty happy to see McGraw pop up in anything too, Walter – Personally, I don’t have as big an issue with McGraw’s casting in this as Margot does. I think he plays the part fine but it’s the writing that leaves a big dent in the credibility of that part. Much the same could be said for Ms Dixon too.

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  5. Colin – Thanks for the review. McGraw was a great character actor, and what a voice. You don’t hear many voices like that anymore. McGraw was in THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI in a small part as the commander of the Navy pilots and he has a great scene at the end with Fredric March who played the captain of the aircraft carrier.

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    • I like that point about the voice, Elgin, as it’s something I’ve not given much conscious thought to yet is obvious when you pause to do so. There are voices which just don’t seem to be heard much on screen nowadays, and certain accents as well to an extent.

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    • I can think of no one of that era like McGraw with that ‘voice’. It not only caught your attention…..it held it. That ending scene in BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI with a somber tempered McGraw was great……he definitely showed his versatility.

      As a side note – Victor Jory with his ‘voice’ always caught my attention.

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      • Yes indeed! Good call on Jory, his was another instantly recognizable voice. It would be possible to do a post on great voices of classic cinema, and I reckon the fact radio, and its consequent requirement for distinctive vocal skills, was still a dominant force in entertainment may have played a role here.

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        • Voices and accents change over time. I know a lot of people from the South (the American South), and they sound different from their parents, who in turn sound different from their parents. The accents get stronger the further back you go. The men of the WWII generation sounded quite different from the next generation of hippies. McGraw was solidly in that WWII group. Maybe it was hard times during the Depression, or military service, or just too many cigarets that accounted for the voice.
          BTW – the IMDb has a list called, “Unmistakable Voices of the Golden Era” which includes Lionel Stander, another great, gravel voice. Here is the link:
          https://www.imdb.com/list/ls004929049/

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          • I read through the list……..it was like okay thank you. To me, many of the individuals were just voicing out their roles or just had a foreign accent. However, Charles Bickford I felt had a soothing commanding voice that projected confidence and respect at the same time.

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            • There are all kinds of voices in there though – Henry Hull, who always sounded about 30 years older than he was and seemed to be in a hurry to match up his real age and his vocal one. And James Mason imitating a blade wrapped in velvet. There are a number of highly distinctive sounds included, and there’s a range that, to my ears anyway, isn’t to be found these days.

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  6. Well, everyone seems to end their sentences with that irritating rising inflection (or question mark). Also, speaking well, and clearly, seems now to be looked down on or unfashionable.
    Give me a Charles McGraw or Victor Jory way of speaking every time!

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    • Ha, we’ve been doing rising intonation in Northern Ireland since forever. These people are clearly just jealous and copying us. 🙂

      As for the mumbling, that gets on my nerves too, and I wonder if current sound mixing techniques doesn’t play a part too?

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  7. Colin, this is another problem that I have with newer movies and TV shows. The actors and actresses don’t speak very well, they just mumble and grunt. They need to enunciate words and sentences more clearly, which would make for better understanding. My native language is English, but with the newer movies that I attempt to watch, although I’m disappointed for the most part in what I see, I have to put on the subtitles to understand what they are supposed to be saying. I doubt if better sound mixing would help with mumbling and grunting.

    I have known people who were born as far back as 1873. They didn’t mumble, grunt, or half whisper when they were talking in their normal voices. Did they have a more pronounced dialect? Yes, because they came of age before radio and television, but with that said, you could still clearly understand them when they spoke.

    I liked the way you described the voice of James Mason as, ” imitating a blade wrapped in velvet,” We don’t hear distinct voices like his anymore. Also, I’m not going to leave out the women. I think Marie Windsor, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katy Jurado, and others had really good voices. I could listen to Marie Windsor and Charles McGraw in THE NARROW MARGIN(1952) all day.

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    • Walter, I reckon poor enunciation is largely responsible, but I just thought I’d thrown the sound mixing theory out there as I seem to recall complaints about certain TV shows in the UK with unclear dialogue, where technical choices were at least partly to blame.

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  8. I’m told that the mumbling is actually TAUGHT now at drama school as it is more ‘realistic’. Do any of you mumble when speaking with friends? I certainly don’t and I am betting none of you do either!
    We certainly don’t need subtitles to help us understand The Duke or Randy!!

    Yes, Colin, I had forgotten that the rising inflection is ‘at home’ in Northern Ireland. NOW we know who to blame LOL.

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    • There does appear to be a school of thought that sees indistinct speech as more naturalistic or edgy so it wouldn’t surprise me – it’s a bit like the now (thankfully) less common trend for Shaky-cam photography in a misguided attempt to approximate rapid or disorientating movement. For the speech though, I still blame Brando!

      The rising inflection? I’ve been teaching English for many years now and I still have the habit, even though people tell me it’s odd. 😀

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  9. Brando is to blame because his imitators tried to adopt his technique, which sounded like natural speech, but actually wasn’t. The imitators have been doing it badly. I could always understand Brando. James Dean was another one who had a technique that sounded like mumbling but wasn’t. I wonder if it was theater training and experience that helped them develop their techniques? John Garfield came out of the Group Theater and he sure sounded like an ordinary guy without resorting to mumbling. Then, there is some great mumbling. I seem to recall Cary Grant mumbling to himself for comic effect. It wasn’t always understandable, but it was funny.

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    • Yes, the comedic variety is a bit of a different animal, isn’t it? A good deal of the comedy comes from the lack of clarity, or the fact you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

      I think you make a good point about the influence of the theater. You can’t get away with poor enunciation in an environment like that, but such a background is far less common these days. Stage and screen acting are, of course, quite different, but just because a performer is working in one field shouldn’t mean all the techniques of the other have to be ignored.

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      • Another really good example would be TUMBLEWEED (1953) with Audie Murphy and the heroic virtues of the White Horse that he got saddled with that looked as though it was ready for the fertilizer factory. A really good Western by Murphy and the horse of course. ‘Horse of Course’…….hmmm, where have I heard that before?

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  10. As Colin points out there’s good material in Roadblock. I liked the writing more than the execution. In different hands this noir would darken nicely. Just keep McGraw.

    Colin, I started a checklist and discussion thread of blu-rays and import blu-rays for the classic American western. If anyone is looking for a western, this is the place to go to order them. blu-ray.com is the host. There are more titles pending which haven’t been entered into the system yet, but they will be:

    https://forum.blu-ray.com/showthread.php?t=313200

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