Saturday, February 14, 2009

Trapped (1949)

Juggernaut Institutions
"You don’t make that kind of dough selling bibles."

Inaccurately labeled as a semi-documentary style film, Trapped from director Richard Fleischer begins with a heavy voice-over describing and lauding the efficiency of various government agencies: the Treasury Department and its Secret Service agents, the Coast Guard and the Customs Department. According to the film’s preamble these departments work synergistically to not only do their jobs, but also to stop anyone from interfering with the smooth operation of the U.S. money supply. While listening to this monologue, you get the distinct feeling that you’re watching some sort of recruiting film, written by--and a homage to--the government--and its myriad institutions that collectively form a faceless monolithic beast...

Trapped’s stiff and laudatory introduction underscores the film’s central theme--that crooks are trapped in a web of efficient crime detection orchestrated by the Secret Service Treasury Agents--T-Men. And the more criminals struggle to get out of this web, the more they become entangled in the intricate pathways created by the various government departments. In fact, the way Trapped lays out the story of the futile struggles of career criminal Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), crooks are so out maneuvered, they might as well give up before they even try savoring a life of crime.

When the film begins, a hardworking restaurant owner stands in line at the bank to deposit her measly earnings, but one of her twenties turns out to be a clever forgery. While the poor woman tearfully asks if she can get a replacement--a real $20--the bank clerk snottily and self-righteously scoffs at the notion, and in an offended tone tells the woman that it’s the responsibility of everyone who handles money to learn to distinguish the real thing from the fake.

The bank clerk’s moral high ground is all part of Trapped’s depiction of the crushing Righteousness of Institutions--from the police department, the prison system, the FBI, and the Treasury Department. But this scene establishes that a bank clerk--as part of the banking industry (albeit a small part) still has the ‘moral right’ to lecture a hard-working stiff who’s been fooled by a slick counterfeit.

This particular banknote comes to the attention of the Secret Service who recognize its similarity to counterfeit notes made by criminal Tris Stewart years ago. While the counterfeit plates have never been recovered, Stewart is rotting away in an Atlanta prison, so the conclusion is that Stewart’s ex-partner must be back in business churning out fake notes. Agents visit Stewart in prison and make him an offer: he can become a stool pigeon and tell them where his ex-partner is and then, in exchange, he can go free. Stewart refuses. But then the next scene shows Stewart on a bus being transferred to a Kansas City prison. Sitting in the window seat, Stewart is focused on the traffic--while his lackadaisical guard is snoozing on the job. Stewart grabs his guard’s gun and makes a daring escape from the bus to a waiting car.

Trapped (1949)
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This entire escape is fabricated to hide Stewart’s cooperation with the Secret Service, and Stewart’s so called ‘desperate escape’ is orchestrated by Secret Service agents with Agent Foreman (Robert Karnes) driving the getaway car. Holed up in a hotel room with Foreman, Stewart discusses his girlfriend Meg Dixon (played by the luscious Barbara Payton) before suddenly cold-cocking agent Foreman and dashing out the door.

Meanwhile switch to Meg Dixon who is working in a Los Angeles nightclub under an assumed name, Laurie Fredericks. While she dresses scantily and sells cigarettes to customers, Meg--now Laurie--makes it clear that that’s ALL she’s selling to customer Johnny Hackett (John Hoyt). He’s loaded and as a would-be Romeo, he sniffs around Laurie, hinting that he’s ready to show her a good time, but Laurie isn’t interested and brushes off this potential sugar daddy. This is just as well as Stewart, now apparently free from the long arm of the law, makes Meg (aka Laurie) his first stop before getting back the plates.

At this point in the film, Stewart has made a faux escape and a very real escape from U.S. Treasury agents. He plans to grab his girl, grab the plates and hightail it to Mexico, but since agents are already bugging Meg’s apartment, Stewart’s every move is known the minute he voices his plans. When Stewart’s alcoholic ex-partner confesses that he sold the plates, Stewart finds himself doing business with shady real-estate developer Jack Sylvester (James Todd) in a desperate attempt to fund his dream life in Mexico. Before we can say ‘entrapment’ Stewart is unwittingly being funded by the Secret Service in a sting operation that is guaranteed to throw him back in the slammer.

Lloyd Bridges is terrific as explosive, gum-chewing hood Tris Stewart. I’ve never been a huge fan of Bridges mainly because the dominant image I have of this actor is in various cheesy television programmes. I’ll admit that Trapped made me revise my opinion of Bridges. As the desperate Tris Stewart, he’s violent and unpredictable. And if you sniff real-life chemistry between Bridges and Payton, you may be right. According to Payton’s biographer, John O’Dowd in his book, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Barbara Payton Story,there are rumors that the two had a passionate affair, and while Payton didn’t name names, she hinted at a liaison with her costar in her autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed.O'Dowd notes that director Fleischer freely admitted selecting Payton thanks to the fact she was “visually stunning,” and that she fit his search image of Stewart’s faithful lover. But Fleischer was also impressed with Payton’s audition, so the 22-year-old blonde bombshell, who was working freelance after her contract with Universal was cancelled, got the part. Trapped is one of Payton’s few starring roles, and in this film she is at the height of her beauty. The camera seems to caress that marvelous bone structure, using lighting to accentuate Payton’s cheekbones and perfectly symmetrical features. Payton exudes health; it’s difficult and immensely sad to grasp this star’s subsequent self-destructive plummet. While Payton sank into oblivion within a few years, Lloyd Bridges went on to enjoy a long, successful career.

Trapped, and what an appropriate title that is, was filmed in approximately 35 days. Labeled a B noir, it’s a perfectly executed tale that never deviates from its theme. The film has the designation of ‘semi-documentary’ but since the heavy voice over occurs only in the film’s introduction and is noticeably absent from the film’s main narrative, the term seems somewhat inaccurate--especially when authoritative voice over could have been added to the film seamlessly. The absence of voice over infused into the plot argues against the term semi-documentary style film, but also very subtly renders the intricate web created by the Secret Service almost invisible, so that there are moments we imagine that Stewart has a fighting chance. The film’s structure toys with viewers’ perceptions--allowing us briefly to think that Stewart has eluded the Secret Service agents. But these moments are swept away by the film’s unrestricted narrative. Viewers know more than the film’s main characters--Stewart and his moll, Meg. As a doomed man, Stewart only thinks he’s free, but he’s caught in a maze--allowed to escape from one environment into another carefully controlled situation simply to encourage him to let his guard down and lead the Treasury agents to those highly-prized plates. Escape is a paramount goal for both Stewart and Meg, yet escape becomes the motivation that spurs this doomed couple back into a world fabricated and controlled by the Secret Service. In one scene escape beckons when Meg sits in an airport with a plane on the runway in the background. But she doesn’t take the flight, and once more she’s lured back into the trap from which there is no escape.

Stewart’s life will be spent in a cage--whether that’s an obvious cage: the prison, or a much more subtle cage--a cage without bars and chains, carefully constructed by the Secret Service. He escapes his first cage only to enter an entirely fabricated environment as fake as Disneyland, and in Stewart’s world, delivery men, grocery stockers, bar patrons, maintenance workers, and car mechanics are all gung-ho members of the Secret Service working undercover and waiting to pounce. With Stewart’s every move anticipated, apartments bugged, streets and nightclubs stuffed with undercover agents, the Secret Service constructs a nightmarish scripted reality for Stewart, and the more he struggles against his fate, the more entwined he becomes in the Secret Service’s intricate network.

The film’s cinematography underscores this theme of closed-in environments, traps and claustrophobic spaces. In the amazing closing sequence, agents chase Stewart’s slimy partner Sylvester in an underground trolley car barn. Shots of Sylvester crouching and running from the T-men accentuate the overhead structures, emphasizing the idea that he’s caught in a giant cage from which there is no escape. Similarly when Agent Downey mounts the stairs with Sylvester to his underground lair the camera catches the claustrophobic setting of hallways and stairs lit only by hanging bulbs.

Director Fleischer has a number of noir credits to his name, including Follow Me Quietly and The Narrow Margin (one of my all-time favorites). Fleischer had a long, productive film career and several decades later he notched up Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985). Trapped certainly pales next to The Narrow Margin, and it may be labeled a B noir, but in my book it’s an A presentation for its strong themes, fast-paced plot and perfect delivery.

Written by Guy Savage


  1. a Lloyde Bridges film. It's on my (Eddie's) list.

  2. Hi all,

    I watched this film last week and the end sequence involving the pursuit in a tram depot, reminded me a lot of the sewer sequence in The Third Man also from 1949. Although on a much smaller scale, the constant play of light and movement, the sense of a trapped rat in a maze running along gaps in between trams instead of along sewer channels, pursued by seperate groups of men, at least to me creates a strong resemblance between the endings of the two films.

    It leads me to consider that the director Richard Fleischer saw The Third Man and opted for a cheap homage. Of course the poetry and beauty of The Third Man ending is missed but I agree with the above comment by Guy Savage that it is an amazing closing sequence and I think it is worth watching the film for this chase scene alone.



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