DESPERATE(director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: Harry Essex/Martin Rackin/from an unpublished story by Dorothy Atlas; cinematographer: George E. Diskant; editor: Marston Fay; cast: Steve Brodie (Steve Randall), Audrey Long (Anne Randall), Raymond Burr (Walt Radak), Douglas Fowley (Pete Lavitch), William Challee (Reynolds), Jason Robards Sr. (Det. Lt. Louie Ferrari), Freddie Steele (Shorty), Paul E. Burns (Uncle Jan), Ilka Grüning (Aunt Klara), Larry Nunn (Al Radak); Runtime: 73; RKO; 1947)
“Anthony Mann is a master at directing these cheapie films and making them look stylish.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A “B” thriller noted for its renown noir scene of the protagonist getting worked over by a ruthless gang in their dark basement hideaway while overhead a single light bulb swings back and forth from the force of the beating. Anthony Mann is a master at directing these cheapie films and making them look stylish. He gets the most out of this thin story because of the complementary performances of Raymond Burr and Steve Brodie. Burr makes for an excellent villain, while Brodie is refreshing as the innocent hero on the run from both the cops and the criminal gang.
Married for only 4 months, independent trucker Steve Randall (Brodie) brings his wife Anne (Audrey Long) flowers to celebrate how happy they both are; but, while getting ready to celebrate that evening he receives a work related call offering him a chance to make more than he normally does for delivering merchandise. It turns out that Steve is being duped by an acquaintance he knew from before he went into the army, and is forced by them to deliver stolen merchandise. Somehow Steve manages to work the blinking lights on the truck to get the attention of a passing policeman in the warehouse area. But the cop is killed after wounding the beloved brother of the gang leader, Walt Radak (Burr). The brother is captured and convicted of murder, and he is sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Walt escaped with Steve still held hostage by the other gang members (Steele, Frederick & Challee). Walt then administers that classical noir beating of Steve as he tries to get him to go to the police and confess he murdered the cop, which would thereby free his brother. When Steve refuses, even after the beating, Walt blackmails him by saying he will hold his wife hostage until he does.
Steve manages to elude the hoods and calls his pregnant wife, telling her they have to get out of town immediately. Steve says that when he gets her to safety in her aunt’s farm in Minnesota, he’ll go to the police. But on the way to the farm, he tries to buy a car from a crooked used-car dealer who cheats him out of his money. Steve ends up stealing the 1927 car, but it breaks down on the road and he is given a lift by the local sheriff. When the sheriff discovers who they are and tries to arrest them, his car goes accidentally off the road and he loses consciousness. Steve will flee with his wife and reach Aunt Klara’s farm. Steve then turns himself over to homicide Lieutenant Ferrari (Jason Robards Sr.-Robard’s father). Ferrari says he doesn’t believe him but lets him go to be the bait for the rest of the gang, as he realizes they are after him.
Walt hires a sleazy private detective (Fowley) to find Steve, who is followed by the cops to the farm and then back to Walt’s hideout. The cops get into a shoot-out with the gang, severely wounding Walt. But the gang escapes, and it’s now 5 months later and Walt’s brother is to be executed at midnight. The climax comes as Walt nabs Steve and threatens to execute him at midnight, just when his brother is scheduled to die.
Violence and desperation are the themes. They are both very real themes, as the innocent couple is more afraid of what the ruthless gang can do to them than afraid of the law. If examined closely there are many holes in the story, but what works very effectively is how the film shows that middle-class aspirations for the postwar period are tinged with cynicism. It’s shown how there’s a sense of brutality that fills the everyday American social scene. The paranoid couple feels the urgency to look out for themselves, not trusting anyone else to help them. This feeling of hopelessness the couple has, gives this film its classic noir look.
REVIEWED ON 4/2/2001 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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