Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Steel Trap

A movie that's got an interesting premise but which unfortunately goes wrong in the execution is The Steel Trap, which is on TCM this evening at 10:00 PM.

Joseph Cotten stars as Jim Osborne, a man whose life seems somewhat reminiscent of the character played by Dick Powell in Pitfall. Osborne is a middle class (by early 1950s standards) bank assistant manager, married to a lovely wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) and father to an infant daughter. Now, if you saw Pitfall, you know there was a femme fatale. There's a femme fatale of sorts in The Steel Trap, too, but it's an inanimate one: the almighty dollar.

Jim Osborne suggests that if you work for a bank long enough, it's only logical that once in a while, your thoughts are going to wander to whether or not you can get away with getting any of that money for yourself. The only thing is, there are all sorts of security measures to try to keep people from stealing that money. The bank vault is on a timer; the assistant manager knows only half the combination, with the other half being entrusted to a second person; there's no place to go with all that money; and so on. But Jim decides that it would be easy to look over the shoulders of the people who have the other halves of the various combinations, and starts doing research into how he can get around the other dificulties. The most difficult one is not getting extradited back to the United States. Theoretically, I assume the communist countries of the day might not have extradited him, but getting into those countries would have been a problem. But Jim discovers that there's a loophole in the extradition treaty with Brazil, so he's going to steal the money and hop on a flight to Brazil with his wife and kid!

This is where the movie starts to go wrong. Jim has to steal the money after the close of business on a Friday, so that he can get on that plane and make it to Brazil before Monday morning when the bank opens, it's discovered that a lot of money is missing, and the suspicion points to Jim. (Remember, this is in the era before jet travel, when even plane travel was a good deal slower than it is today.) This isn't a crime of keeping people from figuring out who did it; it's a crime of getting oneself outside the scope of law and who cares who neat or messy the crime is. However, there's one catch. The bank has seasonal opening hours that include a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, and that season is just about to begin next week. If Jim doesn't pull off the job This Friday, he's going to have to wait months to pull it off. Any logical person would spend those months preparing for the job, but stupid Jim takes the other option of committing the deed now.

And with this, Jim starts to reveal himself not as a suave criminal who could con people, but as a bullying jerk who commits one blunt lie after another that everybody should be able to see through. Jim and Laurie don't have passports, because international travel wasn't so common back in the early 1950s and you didn't need a passport to travel to Canada or Mexico back then. Some of those six months could have been used to get those passports: since Jim works for the Bank of Italy, he could make up a smoother lie about being interested in getting into the international banking part of their business, and getting the passports for him and his wife to prepare for that. But no; Jim has to get na emergency expedited passport for him and his wife, which is where the scheme should fall apart. It doesn't, and the film goes on for another 40 or 50 minutes with Jim compounding his lies and being exceedingly dislikeable in doing so.

Or, at least, that's the impression I got watching this movie. A lot of other reviewers have much kinder things to say about the film, so this is definitely one you'll want to watch for yourself to judge. Cotten and Wright are generally quite good actors, too, so that should make it easier to like the film.

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