March 11, 2014
After Howard Hughes purchased RKO Pictures in 1948, the release slate was severely curtailed. Of the forty-nine features planned for 1949, only twelve were made, three of which were directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had started as a title writer at RKO’s Pathe News division, but had worked his way up to B-movie director, specializing in the dark crime tales later described as “film noir.” The influence of his brief reportorial experience is visible on the big screen, his thrillers notable for their detached, observational qualities, with the emphasis less on the individual cops and robbers but on the routines and processes that feed their institutions. His three RKO features in ’48 were The Clay Pigeon (an amnesiac mystery), Follow Me Quietly (a serial killer procedural) and Make Mine Laughs (a collection of filmed vaudeville bits co-directed with Hal Yates). His work evaded Hughes’ attention, with Fleischer receiving “no interference from anyone” that year, though his luck would run out soon. He completed his most famous noir, The Narrow Margin, in 1950, though Hughes would delay its release until ’52 (he was hoping to remake it with bigger stars). Witnessing the constricting impact Hughes was having on RKO, Fleischer rented out his services to Eagle-Lion, an even lower-budgeted concern that was originally a distribution arm for British productions. Trapped is the fourth Fleischer film from 1949, the story of an imprisoned counterfeiter (Lloyd Bridges) who pretends to turn informer to secure his freedom. It’s Eagle-Lion’s attempt to recreate the financial success of their own 1947 hit T-Men, directed by Anthony Mann. It screened last weekend at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, part of a Fleischer retrospective programmed by critics Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, part of their Overdue series on neglected films.
Eagle-Lion was founded in 1946 by British movie impresario J. Arthur Rank and railroad tycoon Robert Young to expand distribution of their respective production concerns. Rank wanted more stateside exposure for his veritable monopoly of British features, and Young was seeking worldwide distribution for his Poverty Row outfit PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation). Eagle-Lion would distribute Rank’s pictures in the U.S., while Rank would facilitate getting Young’s movies into Europe and points east. The stateside operation was managed by Arthur Krim (later of United Artists), who fostered a secondary B-movie unit as an additional income stream to the Rank-Young films. His first slate of releases flopped, which Krim attributed to their investment in big name actors. His explanation, as quoted in Tino Balio’s United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry:
We made mistakes the first year by taking on players who added nothing to the box office. As a result, we made films that were costlier than they had to be because we wanted names. Later, we learned these names meant little or nothing when the film reached theatres.
Another unstated difficulty was getting their movies into theaters in the first place. The antitrust Paramount Decision was still a year away, so the big studios still owned their theaters, making it nigh-impossible to get independent productions on a critical mass of screens. In response, Krim continued to cut costs and experiment. Balio writes that, “beginning with the 1947-48 season, Eagle-Lion shifted from a studio system form of production to a hybrid type of independent production.” Head of production Bryan Foy resigned to become an independent producer for the company. They would no longer fully finance features, but instead split the costs (and the profits) with the producers. As part of the shake-up, the PRC line was folded into that of Eagle-Lion, to shed any Poverty Row associations. Krim then recruited independent producers, and in addition to Foy, lured the highly respected Edward Small (The Man in the Iron Mask) and Walter Wanger (Scarlet Street).
These producers needed to work miracles. Without stars or much of a budget (they varied between $350 – $650,000), they had to crank out features that would scan as “A” titles and net high rental fees from the big theater chains. Krim: “The nerves and ingenuity of our production departments are being taxed to the extreme.” It was a doomed enterprise from the start, but they did manage some resourceful successes. One of the biggest was Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), which looked like a million bucks thanks to John Alton’s dizzying chiaroscuro lighting that swirls around two undercover Treasury Department investigators. It made $1.6 million on a $424,000 budget, though Eagle-Lion was only entitled to 25% of the profits.
Seeking to mimic that film’s success, Trapped was put into production in 1949 by Bryan Foy, with a similar docu-drama setup. The scenario was written by Earl Felton, who also collaborated with Fleischer on Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952). It opens with newsreel footage of the Treasury Department and sheaves of freshly printed bills getting sliced up at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Though used as a cheap way to eat up screen time and give off the odor of official authority, these images also set up Fleischer’s unobtrusive style. The stylistic experiments of Mann and Alton render T-Men’s documentary trappings absurd, while for Fleischer it’s more representative of his approach. Both counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges) and the army of investigators on his tail are machine-like in their relentless pursuit of their goals. Tris wants to get to Mexico with his girl Laurie (Barbara Payton), and will stoop to any dirty tricks to make his play. The early scenes consist of a series of reversals before the plot proper begins, setting up the story as a performative game; who wins is the one who acts their role most convincingly. Within a few scenes Tris is an inmate, a snitch, an escapee, and an undercover agent, and then goes on the lam for good. Bridges plays Tris as a jittery hotfoot who has learned how to control his clattering energies. He would calm them even more for his slick sociopath in 1950′s Try and Get Me.
The strait-laced investigator Foreman (Robert Karnes) is easily deceived by Tris’ illusion of collusion. He orchestrates a fake escape, expecting Tris to help him infiltrate his old mob in exchange for a reduced sentence. Instead he gets coldcocked and Tris returns to slinging fake bills. Tris can only be felled by a fellow performer -and he is deceived by the superior turn of John Downey (John Hoyt), an agent going undercover as a small-time con man. Downey fronts the real money for Tris to set up a big counterfeit cash score, in order to follow the dirty bills to their source. Fleischer frequently gets his DP Guy Roe to set the camera low on the studio floor, getting the audience down to scum level. There is an elaborate bit of business during a sting operation, when it’s not only Downey performing a role, but the entire investigative team. Foreman is an unconvincing grocer painting his storefront, puttering interminably over his sign, while the rest of the team mows lawns and unloads trucks. The operation fails as the sale of counterfeit goods never goes through.
For the criminals it was a dry run, a rehearsal, while the cops thought it was opening night. It is only Downey’s convincing portrayal of criminal reality that can net Tris and his counterfeiting network. And just as Downey replaced Foreman on the side of the law, once Tris gets collared the plot shifts to follow the escape route of Jack Sylvester, the printer of the fake tender. The individuals are unimportant in Fleischer’s noir worlds, they are just more blood to flow through the networks of crime and punishment.
The most elaborate moves Fleischer allows himself take place in the climax, set in a trolley car garage, in which Sylvester traverses all of the angles at his disposal. He starts at eye-level, sneaking through the empty carapaces of the cars themselves, then finds himself crawling like a beetle underneath the rail floor, before finally emerging on top of a train. There he can cop a hero’s pose an an extreme low angle, until his grand performance ends in ashes back on the ground.