Saturday, September 7, 2019

TRAPPED (1949)

Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, September 6th, 2019 to Thursday, September 12th, 2019

TRAPPED (1949)
Eagle-Lion Films, 78m
*Newly restored 35mm print

This year's NOIR CITY: CHICAGO lineup celebrates "Film Noir in the 1950s" but includes a straggler from 1949, presented this afternoon by Eddie Muller, the host of TCM's Noir Alley. Thanks to a 35mm print that emerged from a private collection, TRAPPED has been restored by the Film Noir Foundation and now has its place in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The projected image looked super and the film itself is a fine example of '40s tough guy noir, so let's hope a Blu-ray release is imminent for those of us who remain loyal supporters of physical media. In the meantime, Muller mentioned the film will be aired on TCM in November.

TRAPPED was directed by Richard Fleischer, who always delivered admirably when devoted to film noir material, i.e. BODYGUARD (1948) and FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949). This effort was a one-off he did for Eagle-Lion Films, and it has more than a passing resemblance to that studio's T-MEN (1947). Producer Bryan Foy developed his craft at Warner Brothers, where the B-unit thrived under his supervision from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Foy's expertise when it came to churning out tight screenplays no doubt influenced the screenplay authored by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman.

The potboiler opens with a glorified review of the U.S. Treasury, and then quickly gets to the justification for the department's existence. After a suspicious twenty-dollar bill is brought to a bank teller's notice by Mrs. Flaherty (Ruth Robinson), the harmless looking woman is scolded for not being aware she was given counterfeit currency. It's a heavy-handed scene, intended as a wake-up call to all audience members, who dare not be as careless in their financial transactions as Flaherty. Treasury agents recognize the phony twenty as the work of imprisoned counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), who reluctantly agrees to cooperate in the search for the plates behind the funny money. As it turns out, Tris has alternate plans. Chief Agent Gunby (Russ Conway) is no match for the quick thinking and even quicker fists possessed by Tris, who after his escape from Gunby returns to his blonde girlfriend. That young woman is Meg Dixon (Barbara Payton), probably the most erotic cigarette girl of 1940s cinema. Is it any wonder undercover man John Downey (John Hoyt) won't leave her alone? Her physical presence is enough to make anyone want to smoke.

Tris begins his own search for the counterfeiting plates he helped engineer, and he proves himself a very tough customer along the way. Convincingly played by Lloyd Bridges, the noir protagonist Tris belongs very much in the same league with rogue males portrayed by the likes of Lawrence Tierney and Charles McGraw. Tris provides evidence of his durability when he escapes custody, and continuously shows that elements of surprise and intimidation are major components of his game plan. When he returns to Meg, the first thing he does is cover her mouth, as if some type of robbery or assault were about to take place. He seldom treats her better. He gets decidedly more physical with Sam Hooker (Douglas Spencer), the ex partner who sold the plates Tris returned to claim. Sam is left in a cowering heap on the floor. When Tris encounters Jack Sylvester (James Todd), the new owner of the plates, the insouciant Jack shaves while sitting at his desk. Tris unplugs the razor. In his quest to escape with Meg to Mexico, it seems nothing will stop Tris, but naturally the treasury guys have other ideas.

The serviceable cinematography by Guy Roe (RAILROADED! [1947], BEHIND LOCKED DOORS [1948] and again working with director Richard Fleischer for ARMORED CAR ROBBERY [1950]) promotes the persistent grittiness of the taut narrative with well-covered slug fests and an atmospheric concluding sequence at a trolley station. What takes place when a criminal attempts to raise his hands in surrender could only transpire in a film noir.

TRAPPED is precisely the type of noir artifact that this annual event's devoted attendees deserve. Kudos to Muller and the many people who made the film's restoration a reality.

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