Day 12 of Noirvember: Anthony Mann’s Desperate (1947)
It’s a typical noir storyline – a regular Joe gets in dutch with the law, a gang of hoods, or both, and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” he’s in over his head. Way over.
That’s the basic premise of Desperate (1947), starring Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, and Raymond Burr. But in the hands of Anthony Mann, it becomes a tautly directed feature filled with memorable images and standout characters – a minor noir, to be sure, but one that is well worth your time.
Brodie plays Steve Randall, owner of a small trucking company. He couldn’t be more of an everyman, complete with an everyman wife and an everyman life, which we see in the film’s opening scene. Steve is taking a bouquet of flowers to his wife, Anne (Audrey Long) to celebrate their four-month wedding anniversary. He stops to engage in a version of cops-and-robbers with a neighborhood boy. His wife – whose hair is in pigtails – is baking her very first cake from scratch. Oh, and to complete the picture, she’s expecting the couple’s first baby – which she plans to announce to Steve during the night’s dinner celebration.
But this idyllic existence is shattered when Steve gets a call about a last-minute job offer to transport some goods from a local warehouse. He’s reluctant to miss the anniversary festivities his wife has planned, but he’s persuaded by the promise of a (whopping) $50 payment. It will turn out to be a costly mistake. It turns out that the caller works for Walt Radak (Raymond Burr in a particularly nasty role), a childhood pal of Steve’s – and now the leader of a gang of thieves that isn’t planning to pick up a load of perishables but a bunch of stolen goods instead.
When Steve learns that he’s landed in the middle of a heist, he wants no part of it, but Walt uses his rod as a convincer and lets Steve know that he has no choice. Steve manages to signal a passing cop, and the ensuing shootout between police and Radak’s gang leaves the officer dead and Radak’s beloved kid brother, Al (Larry Nunn) captured and later sentenced to death for murder. Steve goes on the lam with his wife, tracked relentlessly by Walt, who is determined to exact revenge for his brother’s impending execution.
And that’s all I’m going to say – I’ll give you the pleasure of experiencing this film’s ending on your own. I will say, though, that Desperate is rife with touches which make it clear that Anthony Mann is behind the camera – here are just a few:
- After Al Radak is captured by the cops, Steve is taken back to Walt’s hideout. Informed that Steve tipped off the cops at the warehouse, Walt wordlessly walks up to Steve and socks him on the jaw. But it’s not an ordinary wallop. Mann has Raymond Burr’s fist wind up right in the camera – it’s like WE’VE just been struck. You can practically feel your teeth loosen.
- Walt tells Steve to tell the police that he (Steve) was behind the robbery and that he talked Al into doing the job. When Steve balks, Walt’s henchmen take over, beating Steve to a pulp. But the thrashing, for the most part, doesn’t take place on camera – instead, we hear the fight and see the unflinching gaze of Walt and one of the members of his gang as they watch the beatdown. And the most striking aspect of this scene is a florescent ceiling fixture that swings back and forth throughout the action, at first illuminating the players and then engulfing them in the shadows. For my money, it’s one of the most memorable scenes in all of film noir.
- Toward the film’s end, there’s a wordless, tension-filled scene featuring Steve, Walt, and Walt’s right-hand man, Reynolds (William Challee). The camera first shows us a ticking clock. Then smoke curling in the air from a cigarette. Then Walt, drinking a glass of milk while he holds a gun on the statue-still Steve. Close-up on the faces of each of the men – and then, even closer, on just their eyes. Back to the clock. Finally, in a wry tone, Walt breaks the silence: “Who was it said time flies?”
In addition to the great Anthony Mann-isms, Desperate offers up some great noir lines. Here are my favorites:
- It’s the scene where Walt’s henchmen try to beat Steve into turning himself into the cops in an effort to save Al. Steve refuses, saying that Walt might as well kill him. In response, Walt shatters a bottle and says to Steve, “Say, I bet that new bride of yours is pretty. How ‘bout it, Steve? Pick her up. Going to the police? While you’re there, we’ll have the missus. I don’t care what you tell them. But if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t going to be so good to look at.”
- Walt derides the member of his gang who was knocked out by Steve during the shootout: “You dumb ox. You must’ve studied to get that stupid.” (Heh.)
- Once he gets his wife safely settled (he thinks), Steve shares the whole story with the police, including that he was the one who signaled the officer at the warehouse by flashing his lights. The detective – Ferrari (Jason Robards, Sr.) – isn’t buying it: “Too bad the policeman didn’t say a word about it, Steve. When I saw him down at the morgue, he was pretty dead.” And in case Steve doesn’t know the extent of the detective’s disdain, he casually files his nails during the entire conversation. “You’re just a nice kid – you wouldn’t harm a fly. Listen, Randall, what sort of a chump do you think I am? You didn’t expect me to fall for that song and dance? Out of every seven guys who go to the chair, six of them go yelling, ‘I’m innocent.’ It was your truck and we found it full of stolen furs. You saw a cop so you ran away. Now your ex-partners are after you and you come running to the police hollering for help. You stole a couple of cars. You left the sheriff lying unconscious in the road. Just a nice kid.”
- Steve and Anne are on a bus when she goes into labor. A female passenger announces that Anne is about to have a baby. “Hey, she can’t do that,” the bus driver says. “It’s against company regulations.”
- Walt tells Steve that the switch is being pulled on Al in 15 minutes and that when Al dies, Steve will die. He tells Reynolds to make some sandwiches for Steve’s last meal. “I’m sorry I can’t give you a choice of food, Steve. But it won’t make much difference. You’re not going to live long enough to get any nourishment out of it. You only get a good meal when the state pays for it. Isn’t that right, Steve?”
Desperate doesn’t benefit from the hoopla afforded several other Mann noirs, like T-Men and Border Incident, but you can believe me when I say it deserves more fanfare than it gets. If you haven’t seen it, make it your mission.
You’ll be glad you did.
Join me tomorrow for Day 13 of Noirvember!