From the Archives: The Steel Trap
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Produced by Bert E. Friedlob; written and directed by Andrew L. Stone; cinematography by Ernest Laszlo; edited by Otto Ludwig; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright. DVD, B&W, 85 min.,1952. A Warner Archive release, www.warnerarchive.com.

The Steel Trap is the quintessential title for the most notable phase of Andrew L. Stone’s lengthy career, which began in the silent era and progressed to musicals and other lightweight fare, like 1943’s all-black Stormy Weather, with Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and The Nicholas Brothers. Then, in 1950, an abrupt turn, onto Highway 301, a gritty armed-robbery picture, followed by 1952’s Confidence Girl and, after this one, a string of movies that were all steel traps: the whodunit A Blueprint for Murder (1953); the true crime-based The Night Holds Terror (1955), with a thuggish John Cassavetes; Julie (1956), where stewardess Doris Day is menaced inflight by insane husband Louis Jourdan;Cry Terror! (1958), with criminal mastermind Rod Steiger kidnapping James Mason and his family; and Mason and Dorothy Dandridge in the seagoing thriller The Decks Ran Red (1958). For 1960’s The Last Voyage, Stone sank the decommissioned SS Ile de France for a proto-disaster film with Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, and then set portions of the Northwest ablaze for the forest fire melodrama Ring of Fire (1961).

For much of his unexpectedly wild ride, his wife Virginia accompanied him, as editor and/or producer of a number of the films. In the home-video era, however, he’s left few tracks. Only A Blueprint for Murder and The Last Voyage have had Region 1 DVD releases; even Julie, with a major star and Stone’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, has slipped below the radar into the Warner Archive, with Highway 301The Steel Trap, and Cry Terror! (The Night Holds Terror is available via the Sony MOD program, which is now called the Sony Pictures Choice Collection). Thriller fans are advised to seek them out—they’re taut and fast-paced, with The Steel Trap, a film unknown to me until its recent excavation, living up to its title. (And I imagine that production supervisor Robert Aldrich learned a thing or two from Stone; DP Ernest Laszlo would go on to shoot many of Aldrich’s films in Stone’s clinical fashion.)

Stone favored a documentary-type approach, and the film begins with assistant bank manager Jim (Joseph Cotten) outlining his day-to-day routine in Los Angeles in terse voice-over. Figuring another eleven years atop of the eleven he’s already put in as an assistant lay ahead, then maybe a promotion to manager, Jim hits upon a shortcut to happiness—emptying the vault of the million dollars in cash it holds for the Federal Reserve every few weeks on a Friday, absconding to a foreign country that has no extradition treaty with the United States over a weekend, then notifying the bank of his permanent withdrawal on Monday. Jim bamboozles his wife, Laurie (Teresa Wright), into accompanying him on an urgent business trip to his destination of choice, Brazil, with a 115 lb.-suitcase stuffed with the purloined cash in tow.

So far, so good, for our plotter, and Cotten is perfectly cast as a weary salaryman jogged back to active life by larceny. Then the trap begins to close, as passports are bungled, taxis get stuck in traffic, flights are delayed, and the wrong people start sniffing around that top-heavy bag on a layover in New Orleans—the movie, in short, comes to resemble a noir-ish, nail-biting version of the transit comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). Chastened by Laurie when he finally confesses his plan, Jim takes stock of his actions, and attempts to put things right, triggering a frantic dash to the vault before the bank reopens.

Thanks to the Internet and other resources, Jim could get on easy street faster today than he could sixty years ago, bogged down as he is by clunky rotary phones, telegrams, library research, travel agencies, and other impediments of prehistoric existence in an unwired America. (On the other hand, the minimal security procedures at that time make it a snap to get on airplanes at the last minute.) That Stone takes the time to outline the difficulties of Jim’s flight from domesticity grounds the storyline in his trademark realism, and much of The Steel Trap was shot on location, another commonplace of his films. There’s one key difference: whereas most of his suspense movies are about the eruption of terror into comfortably settled lives, this one focuses on the protagonist’s inner turmoil, an obsession that leads Jim to sacrifice his daughter to the authorities. (He figures the government will have to allow her to rejoin her parents in Brazil, but even if that is the case, and I didn’t buy it, it’s an extremely uncomfortable notion.)

Playing Laurie is Wright, who in 1943 was the suspicious niece to Cotten’s homicidal uncle in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a DoubtThe Steel Trap reframes their earlier relationship. The obedient Laurie (Wright was thirteen years younger than her costar) harbors not a shadow of a doubt about Jim, and is aghast when he finally spills the beans, saying that his plan to enrich the family’s future constitutes a flight from responsibilities. A knock against Stone is that he puts his characters through hell, only to dispense unambiguously happy endings (and the two are effectively the only characters in the movie, the rest being sketched-in family members, colleagues, and bureaucrats). The Steel Trap, however, is steeped in ambiguity. By the close, Laurie, the good wife, has lied for her husband to preserve a life he chafes at, and questions remain to be asked about their lost weekend. You wonder where the steel trap waits for Jim—in Brazil, separated from his past, or in LA, stuck in that same routine.

It’s tempting to see The Steel Trap as a metaphor for the Stones’ escape from humdrum studio fluff into the seat-of-the-pants world of independent production, where they were known as “Hollywood’s only man-and-wife moviemakers.” After Ring of Fire they relocated to England, where they made the diverting POW movie The Password is Courage(1962), with Dirk Bogarde, followed by two obscure comedies, 1964’s Never Put it in Writing and 1965’s The Secret of My Success. You’d think that by the late Sixties and early Seventies, Stone, free of the Production Code, would get his freak on again and shock us with new, unbound thrillers. Instead, he went full circle, and returned to light musicals that were as retro as they come, ending his career with the costly flops Song of Norway (1970) and The Great Waltz (1972). The rest was silence. Andrew L. Stone died in 1999, at age 96; Virginia, who was nineteen years younger, had passed away two years earlier, having become a director herself. Surely a retrospective of some kind is past due, even if they had said, “Get off my lawn!” to their earlier, edgier career years before, one whose compelling remnants are resurfacing.

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

To purchase The Steel Trap, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.