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Noir-vember 2013: The Steel Trap

Posted by martinteller on November 21, 2013

“I was just thinking… I’ve got a wonderful wife, wonderful daughter, good health, steady job, reasonably secure future.  I should be a pretty contented man.”
“So… that’s what was on my mind.”

Jim Osborne (Joseph Cotten) has been working at the same bank for 11 years, working his way up the ranks to assistant manager.  One day it dawns on him how easy it would be to rob the tellers’ vault.  On a Friday evening, he could score a million dollars and be in Brazil before the crime would be discovered on Monday morning.  By that time, he’d be home free, in a land with no US extradition treaty.  The idea becomes an obsession and then becomes a plan… but pulling it off will be harder than he anticipated, especially without tipping off his unsuspecting wife Laurie (Teresa Wright), who thinks they’re going to Brazil on bank business.

I could sum up this movie in one word: tense.  Murphy’s law has got Jim Obsorne’s number… every step of the way there’s some snafu, an unexpected obstacle coming between him and his dream of freedom and luxury.  Cotten’s performance is superb, ratcheting up the jitters and tension with each unwelcome development.  A boss who dawdles on the phone, a wife who insists on leaving their daughter at home (Jim rationalizes this by assuming it will be no problem to send for her later), a plane captain who stubbornly refuses to fly through an electrical storm.  It’s one damn thing after another, and we can’t help wanting our protagonist to get away with his criminal endeavor.  It’s almost too tense, and although the film is gripping and well-constructed, I’m not sure I’d want to sit through all that nail-biting again.  Imagine the last five minutes of The Killing, but a whole movie’s worth.

Wright is teamed up with Cotten again, nine years after playing his niece in Hitchcock’s masterful Shadow of a Doubt.  Her role is less impressive here, as she’s stuck in the role of the submissive wife who is puzzled by but rarely challenges her husband’s odd behavior.  But again, she’s up against Cotten, one of the greats, and either doesn’t have the chops or the material (or either) to step out of his shadow.  But it’s largely Cotten’s show anyway, and much of the film is accompanied by his voiceover.  I know some people have an aversion to narration (“Show, don’t tell” being the tired mantra) but most of the time I find it works well here, and is efficient at displaying Jim’s thought processes that would be difficult to convey visually.

Besides Wright’s lackluster performance, I was also disappointed with Ernest Laszlo’s workmanlike cinematography.  And the theme of disillusionment with “normal” life isn’t handled that well… any cynicism about the matter is politely shoved aside by the end, without a trace of irony.  But for the sheer tension of the plotting and Cotten’s excellent performance, it’s worth a look.  Rating: Good (74)


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