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Man-Trap (Blu-ray Review)

1 Oct, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Jeffrey Hunter, David Janssen, Stella Stevens.

Well, it’s called Man-Trap and features Stella Stevens at a special time in her career (first starring role, in fact). So already, we’re conditioned not to expect, say, a day in the life of the nun played by Ingrid Bergman who teaches the kid how to box in The Bells of St. Mary’s. What’s more, the title’s meaning can be presumably extended to embrace the perilous limits of male buddy-dom nurtured by mutual combat experience, as dramatized by having buddy A (Jeffrey Hunter) half-reluctantly getting talked into driving the getaway car in a money-making caper cooked up by person B (David Janssen) as recompense for the heroic life-saving act A performed during the Korean War sequence that opens the movie. Buddy-dom should only go so far.

But no, Stevens is the indisputable trap the story is selling in the only picture ever directed solo by actor Edmond O’Brien — the kind of tawdry enterprise (from a John D. MacDonald novel) where you play up the sexual angle because it’s your own production company’s dough invested in the enterprise. Stevens had been a Playboy Playmate and a featured player (as the well-named Appasionatta Von Climax) in the Broadway version of L’il Abner, so we’re not exactly dealing with Nancy Kulp as Miss Hathaway on "The Beverly Hillbillies" here. Our negligee-garbed intro to her, post-Korea, is a domestic scene in which Hunter comes home from a frustrating day at work pushing a new housing development with her father (his partner), and she drunkenly shoots him with a squirt-gun filled with a martini. (Why can’t I find interesting women like this?)

On balance she’s probably no prize, and even her God-fearing housekeeper (Jack Webb regular Virginia Gregg) thinks Stevens is simply rotten to a husband who’s not only a Marine vet but one with a steel plate in his skull from the Korean heroics. Worse, this slattern (an out-of-fashion word that certainly applies) makes a play for Janssen the second he shows up to launch his heist scheme — one of those characteristically odd takes where Janssen is employing a kind of Clark Gable voice (Janssen had big ears as well) and Cary Grant mannerisms. Well, if you’re going to be derivative in your era, copy the best.

The heist involves ripping off a Central American dictator in a cheeky airport ambush rationalized by its perpetrators as a half-patriotic scheme, which gives the movie an ever-so-slight tinge of Castro-by-association flavoring that probably went down well at the time. It all gets very preposterous, and there’s also an overwrought performance by Elaine Devry, who was once the fourth Mrs. Mickey Rooney and (as Elaine Davis) co-starred with the Mick in Republic’s mind-blowing 1954 comedy The Atomic Kid, which asserted that a little radiation could be fun. She’s good-looking between the tears, though, and I think I saw a little Diane Lane in some of her expressions.

I caught Man-Trap a few years ago in a pan-and-scan edition, and though I almost never say this, I’m not certain that it didn’t play a little better that way because O’Brien doesn’t know what a lot of interior space at his disposal shooting in a Panavision aspect ratio (though this is another nice black-and-white Paramount print) could do. But either way, Stevens is fun and as often happens in potboilers of this era, we get a lot from the throwaway tangentials — which, in this case, include a lot of martini-swilling femme suburbanites who seem hot to adulterously trot, possibly because their boisterous husbands seem to old for them (one guy at a backyard grill wears a chef’s had that refers to “the Kook” as he kooks some burgers). The result is such consummate period drive-fare — in my hometown Man-Trap premiered at second-run neighborhood theater and in dusky outdoor venues — that I could almost hear the reverberation from my neighbor’s car speakers when I cranked it into my Blu-ray player.

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