Noir Do Wells 2: Desperate (1947)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 26, 2009 08:34pm | Post a Comment
Anthony Mann's Desperate

anthony mann desperate

I tend to view film noirs as fantasies dealing with realistic themes. As such, they don't have to be versimilitudinous representations of the way people would act in a realworld parallel (for the narratives are rarely plausible), but be symbollically suggestive of our moral situation. If Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster falls in love to the point of a sick obsession within 2 minutes of screen time, that's okay; it just adds to the dreamy quality of the film, while still conveying something real. What doesn't work within the oneiric narrative is Desperate's hero, Steve (Steve Brodie), and villain, Walt (Raymond Burr), consistently acting in such a dunderheaded fashion that their actions convey nothing but ill-thought out plot mechanics.

On the eve of his and Anne's (Audrey Long) 6-month anniversary, independent trucker Steve gets a job offer from an old friend, Walt. Tried and true Steve doesn't find out until he gets to the loading dock that the job is transporting stolen merchandise. He, of course, refuses, only to be persuaded at gun point. The cops show up for a shootout, allowing Steve to escape in his truck after punching out the hood who's currently in the driver's seat. Walt's brother, Al (Larry Nunn), isn't so lucky, getting knocked out and arrested. Now on the lam, Steve commits the first in a long line of convenient errors which get him where the scenarists need him to be. He leaves the hood's gun on his lap with the hood unconscious in the passenger seat. The crook wakes up, grabs the gun and forces Steve to take him to Walt's hideout. Although pure nonsense, Mann and his cinematographer, George Diskant, at least aesthetically justify these contrivances with the film's noirish set piece, where Walt and his cronies beat the tar out of Steve in a masterful chiaroscuro rendering:

That light swivels for so long that it must've been motorized. This scene alone makes the film worth seeing. Anyway, proving that Steve isn't the only dipstick in the film, Walt concocts a scheme to get Al out of jail, namely get his former friend to be a patsy. In a contest of wills to prove who's dumber, honest Steve won't just agree and leave unharmed, but instead refuses and takes the above beating. But, even if he had agreed, what would that have done other than getting Steve sent to the big house with Al? Well, what Steve's refusal does is give Walt a reason to go after Anne for leverage. After escaping Walt's clutches, Steve gets his wife, and the two decamp. What follows is one stupid decision compounded on another, with the couple getting drawn further and further into the criminal world. Steve decides Anne will be safer if they run from the law, rather than put themselves under the protection of the police. Even if he couldn't convince them of his innocence, he could've made sure they knew where to find Walt and his crew, saving his wife from danger. 

I suspect Mann and his fellow writer's intent was to show the way a few bad decisions can structure one's world in a such a way that future actions become determined, like a self-imposed fate, or tragedy. However, every choice is structured in such a way that there's a much better, and more obvious, option than the one the protagonist takes. This all makes for pure manufactured hoakum, but there is that one great scene, which is better than what most films offer.

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Desperate (1), Anthony Mann (3), Film Noir (48), Cinema Criticism (32)