Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Roadblock (1951)

Posted by Steve-O

I consider Roadblock to be Charles McGraw’s best film noir. RKO’s B-movie alternative to Robert Mitchum was certainly in better crime thrillers. The Narrow Margin for one is today considered a classic - and it is. Before becoming a leading man, McGraw appeared as a supporting actor in a slew of films like the great T-Men and The Killers. I never doubted McGraw’s acting ability - I always enjoyed in everything he was in. Seeing Roadblock for the first time surprised me however. Who knew he could play a love-sick sucker? McGraw's surprising performance is the reason this one stands out.

The film starts by showing McGraw as he usually was in the dozens of thrillers he appeared in. He plays a hard-nosed gravely-voiced investigator who’ll do anything to solve his cases. The clever opening teaser shows McGraw and his partner faking a shooting to scare a suspect into showing them where some stolen money is hidden. So far, not much different than the cops McGraw played in Armored Car Robbery or Loophole. Everything changes when Joe Peters (McGraw) falls in love with a con woman (Joan Dixon) just moments later at an airport on his way back to Los Angeles. Seeing McGraw wave at Dixon like a kid with a crush, or even later when he breaks into her apartment to decorate a Christmas tree is a wonderful change of pace for the tough-guy actor.

Joan Dixon no doubt broke into film acting because she looked a lot like Gene Tierney. If you want to talk about an actor without much range check her out in the otherwise entertaining Bunco Squad or Experiment Alcatraz. In Roadblock she too is better than expected. Dixon flirts with the love starved insurance investigator and quickly has him eating out of her hands. Once she has him hooked, Diane (Dixon) tells McGraw that they would never work out because he just doesn’t have enough money. She quickly stops McGraw’s attempts at seduction. A few weeks later, Peters finds out she’s a play thing for a local Los Angeles mobster (Lowell Gilmore) who rents her an apartment and buys her lots and lots of furs. Dixon is sexy and funny and you can’t blame McGraw for continuing his courtship of her despite her ties with organized crime. Unfortunately, one of the few flaws of Roadblock is that Dixon doesn’t get to be a true femme fatale. Right when Peters decides to risk it all to get rich quick and win the love of Diane, she turns and decides to love Peters no matter how much cash he has. It’s nice that she does this but she’s a heck of a lot sexier when she was a money hungry con artist earlier in the film.

The plot is simple. When Peters falls for Diane he concocts a scheme to rob a train loaded with cash. Instead of doing the robbery himself he sells the idea to Diane’s mob boyfriend. The agreement is Peters would get a great percentage of the take. The mobster agrees. Diane and Peters go off on their honeymoon -which doubles nicely as an alibi. Diane wants Peters to call off the risky crime but it’s too late. The mob won’t cancel the job. After a few stressful days in the woods the couple hears via radio report that the train robbery goes off nicely. Peters is mailed his share of the loot and Diane is disappointed in him for planning the crime. Diane at this point keeps telling Peters that she’s changed but I suspect that Peters knows the truth. Eventually Diane will probably want the “finer things in life” and eventually leave the working-class Peters.

Now the sticky part comes up. After the honeymoon in the wild Peters goes back to Los Angeles and is assigned to investigate the robbery. Peters tries as hard as he can to lead the investigation away from his mob partners but eventually his best friend - equally square jawed Louis Jean Heydt - easily figures out Peters is the inside man. Heydt tries to convince Peters to turn himself in but instead gets a beer bottle in the head.

The film climaxes when Peters and Diane try to escape L.A. with their bundle of cash. Peters is shot dead on the concrete bed of a nearly-dry Los Angeles River.

Roadblock is a well-paced true film noir. The fatalistic story has a few nice touches in addition to the two lead performances including a slick opening credit sequence and a decent (but generic) film score.

Don’t miss it the next time it airs on TCM.



Mark Colby said...

I have one comment about your article. You wrote, "Peters is mailed his share of the loot and Diane is disappointed in him for planning the crime. Diane at this point keeps telling Peters that she’s changed but I suspect that Peters knows the truth. Eventually Diane will probably want the “finer things in life” and eventually leave the working-class Peters."

I'm curious to know why you think Diane hasn't changed. I've never seen any evidence that her moral transformation is anything but genuine (and the scene with her alone and unhappy at the bar at Christmas would be pointless unless it means that her transformation is genuine).

Steve-O said...

just an opinion. I really don't think she can change that quickly. Eventually, she'll go back to her old ways. Or at least I think McGraw thinks she hasn't really changed.

Mark Colby said...

I certainly agree with you that it's a quick change. Perhaps it should have been given more attention so that it would be more convincing; but so many B films have such structural weaknesses. However, I think the change improves the film because it deepens its existential aspect (though at the cost of making Diane less of a traditional femme fatale): Peters' ultimate fate is absurd because it results from the crime he planned as the only way to get the woman he loved, yet he didn't need to commit a crime at all because she changed and learned to love him for himself (perhaps because of, not in spite of, his moral qualities).

Trash said...

Nice blog! :)


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this noir film very much; not a great one but good and solid. My favorite line, in the hotel room;

Diane: One day you'll want something really expensive which you won't be able to afford on a detective's salary.

Joe: Like what?

Diane: Like me! Good night.


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