Saturday, February 16, 2019

Noir City 2019: Trapped/The File on Thelma Jordan

It’s February in Seattle and after two weeks of crippling snowstorms temperatures have returned to normal (mid-40s), streets are clearing, and everyone has gone back to their usual routine.  And on Friday night (also as per the usual routine of a Seattle February) Noir City - a week-long festival of classic, rare, and restored film noirs - has arrived.  This year’s theme is “Film Noir in the 1950s.”  Under the calm exterior of the Eisenhower era boiled the raging murderous and criminal passions which made America great (or at least made American movies great).  

Opening nights at Noir City feel like a party.  There was live music from the Casey MacGill Trio, the bar was crowded, and folks dressed up in vintage finery or its nearest equivalent.  In attendance was Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation (who organized the festival held under the auspices of SIFF).  Eddie is also the host of Turner Classic Movies’s Noir Alley.  Is there anything about film noir which he doesn’t know?  I think not.    

Trapped (1949)
Lloyd Bridges plays Tris Stewart, a counterfeiter behind bars for creating fake currency plates of impeccable quality.  The Treasury Department wants to spring him from jail so he can go undercover to break up a counterfeiting ring who have his handiwork.  Tris agrees.  But he has other plans.  Once free he turns on the Feds and decides to go after the plates himself.  

This is a tough, grimy docu-noir.  The first few minutes are taken up with extolling the virtues of the US Treasury Department in its many capacities.  Directed by Richard Fleischer from a script by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman, Trapped never entirely loses its documentary feel.  What makes it effective as a story, though, are the ongoing betrayals which drive the narrative.  No one is quite who they seem.  Once he goes rogue, Tris immediately sets off to see his gal, Meg (Barbara Payton).  She’s a cigarette girl at a nightclub.  One of the patrons there is a flirtatious low-level grifter played by John Hoyt.  He seems harmless enough - except that he turns out to be an undercover Treasury agent sent to entrap Tris and Meg.  It’s all one big hall of mirrors.  
Lloyd Bridges and John Hoyt

The leads are all very good.  Lloyd Bridges is very convincing as a criminal.  As he corners various associates of his you believe that he’ll do them harm, and he does.  He has just enough crazy behind those eyes.  Barbara Payton is lovely and cynical as Meg.  But to me it’s John Hoyt’s film.  That granite face!  Those steely blue eyes!  Hoyt usually played the bad guy but he’s equally good as the hero in Trapped.  The moment his real character is revealed we start pulling for him.  Another appealing aspect of Trapped (strictly in a noir sense, let me add) is its complete callousness.  This film has no compassion for its victims.  When Tris slaps around his former parter, who’s now turned into a drunken bum, there no sympathy for the poor bastard whatsoever.  And when one of the main characters is shot dead at the end of the film nobody expresses any concern for them.  The body falls and we all move on.

Looks like he picked the wrong week to quit smoking...Lloyd Bridges and Barbara Payton
Trapped is also an excellent instance of the good work done by the Film Noir Foundation and why it deserves the support of film-lovers everywhere.  The only copies available of this film were poor reproductions of a 16-mm version.  It was believed that all the 35-mm prints were lost.  But after years of looking, the FNF finally found one in a private collection from upstate New York which had been donated to the Harvard Film Archive.  The FNF, in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, have been able to strike a new negative from it and thus put this tasty little treat back into circulation. 

The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)
When assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) first lays eyes on Thelma Jordan (Barbara Stanwyck) he falls for her head over heels.  She’s come to see him about a prowler who’s attempting to steal her old, rich aunt’s jewels, but instead Cleve and Thelma start up a torrid affair and soon the assistant DA’s marriage begins to fall apart.  Then one night old Aunt Moneybags winds up murdered (don’t they always) and the truth about Thelma starts to emerge.

This film is clearly a re-do of Double Indemnity (1944), complete with Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale (though without the ridiculous wig) and Corey as the beguiled official caught in her snares.  Both films even feature seedy Italian-Americans lurking in the background.  I tried hard to like Thelma Jordan, but to no avail.  Directed by Robert Siodmak, its 100 minute running time felt much longer.  Certain scenes are drawn out for no purpose and it seemed as though multiple different endings had been crammed together for this film’s conclusion.  If only Robert Wise had been the editor…  Also, I like Wendell Corey, but his performance in this film is weak, there’s no depth to it.  He looks too much like an actual assistant DA from 1950 - and they were an unexciting lot.  Unlike, say, Fred MacMurray or Charles McGraw, Corey doesn’t seem to have that dark underside which the enterprising female can use to her advantage and his ruin.  But no matter.  This is Barbara Stanwyck's movie.  Is she, as Eddie asserted, the greatest actress in the history of movies?  Perhaps.  But there's no doubt that Thelma Jordan is a magnificent showcase for her.  She's bewitching, elegant, tough, and sympathetic.  This film made Wendell Corey a star, but to my mind he was merely riding Stanwyck's coattails.  Then add in the fact that all her outfits (with or without coattails) were designed by Edith Head and you've got a film to delight any Stanwyck aficionado, or to turn the viewer into one. 

Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey


John O'Dowd said...

An excellent write up, Andy. As Barbara Payton's biographer, I am very much looking forward to eventually seeing the restored version of TRAPPED. I have a new hardcover photo book out now on Barbara, titled "Barbara Payton: A Life in Pictures", and there are plenty of photos in it from the film.

Andy Nicastro said...

John - Glad you enjoyed it.