Steel Trap, The (DVD Review)9 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright.
Conceived in its day as either a shaky ‘A’ or reasonably pedigreed ‘B,’ this primer in what can go wrong after stealing a cool million in 1952 dollars from your own bank played its first-run engagement in my hometown as part of a fairly co-equal double bill. Or to put it another way, you decide which was the main attraction: this one-man caper pic that reunited the stars of Hitchcock’s said-to-have-been personal favorite Shadow of a Doubt — or a Robert Wise comedy with Victor Mature and Patricia Neal about Congressional lobbying called Something for the Birds (a movie that’s easier to take than it sounds but definitely burdened by one of the definitively DOA box office titles ever).
Trap was a small independent production distributed by 20th Century-Fox, but in one of those vagaries of rights and distribution, it is now controlled by Warner Entertainment and not often shown. Its director (Andrew L. Stone, who largely eschewed soundstage shooting) had been around since the early ’40s, but was still a few years away from his best known movies made by that time with wife Virginia: The Last Voyage and Ring of Fire, which both show up on Turner Classic Movies with some regularity. Respectably dealing with an ocean liner’s sinking and a monster blazing forest, they were substantially more elaborate than this film. The only gimmick Stone had to deal with here was a nifty bank vault that was presumably close to state-of-the-art for its time.
The script doesn’t mess around much with motivating assistant bank manager Cotten’s rather rash decision to lift his million bucks of Federal Reserve deposit loot and — together with innocent but vaguely suspicious spouse Wright — impulsively take off for Brazil, which doesn’t have extradition treaties. He regards his job as only a little less dull than its future, and that’s basically it — which, if it doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological depth, does rapidly get us into the story. The yarn Cotten concocts to get his wife to go along on the trip deals with a supposed high-pressure assignment (involving transport of a 115-pound suitcase) that one would expect to be more in the domain of a company VP if it happened at all. But this is his big unexpected chance, he tells her — which, in a way, it is. Of course, once they get there, won’t she be surprised to learn that they’ll be staying in Brazil for the rest of their lives? And that they’ll have to “send for” their grade school daughter? Pesky details both.
The bank, eatery, airport terminal and (later) even New Orleans location shots give the movie that familiar cool semi-documentary feel that was prevalent in the late 1940s and early ’50s — though they’re ironically contrasted with those floridly weeping and instantly identifiable Dimitri Tiomkin strings on the soundtrack, which do give the movie an idiosyncratic personality boost. And before long, Cotten wants to weep as well because the period between late Friday afternoon (when he steals the money) and Monday morning (when his theft will be discovered, by which time he had better be in Brazil) becomes the weekend from hell. All those peeking eyes at the bank, passport hassles, overbooked flights, flights that won’t connect, weather problems — you name it. Cotten starts throwing so much money around tipping helpmates to the point of bribery that his obvious stress becomes suspicious to everyone. There used to be a TV commercial decades ago that described “one of those days when you need a good deodorant.” Here’s a guy who has three or four of them in a row.
An actor of great charm starting with Citizen Kane and beyond, Cotten could also convey instability (see Niagara, released just a year after this film) or downright irascibility (think of the classic California brand of reactionary he plays in Richard Lester’s masterpiece Petulia much later in his career). Cotten doesn’t get much opportunity to display much charm here, but even when the story comes off as borderline contrived from all the roadblocks that come his way, it’s fun to see him on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And though she played his niece in Hitchcock’s 1943 Doubt, Wright (atypically blond here, or something pretty close) doesn’t come of as an ill-conceived casting match here — though she hasn’t much to do beyond look askance as her husband keeps bellowing at ticket agents and or offering a cabbie a hundred bucks to floor it to the airport.
After this movie and through the very early ’60s, Stone kept climbing the suspense-pic ladder. His ‘B’ success with 1955’s gun-jumping The Night Holds Terror (hoods invade and take over a household) probably contributed to the box office disappointment of William Wyler’s much showier and similarly themed (also better) The Desperate Hours later that same year. And a year after that, Stone even got a screenplay Oscar nomination for Doris Day’s Julie, despite the fact that it was and is an over-the-top melodramatic howler. Ultimately, his career was done in (talk about a last voyage) by a completely different kind of camp fest: 1970’s Edvard Grieg biopic Song of Norway, which is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made — one (I’m told) that can cause lead Florence Henderson to shriek in mock horror if someone brings it up in an interview. This was followed by the commercially dreadful decision to more or less return to the same well by remaking MGM’s The Great Waltz (which had been a 1938 hit) in 1972. This was not a movie that anyone asked to dance in a year when any bar you walked into was playing the O’Jays doing “Back Stabbers.”