Friday, August 7, 2009

The Best Film Noir Most People Haven't Seen: Roadblock (1951)

Here is a film ripe for rediscovery. I’m not sure how ROADBLOCK has escaped the attention of so many critics and historians, but it is a brilliant encapsulation of almost everything that we love in crime pictures from the fifties. It is hardcore noir.

ROADBLOCK tells the story of an insurance investigator named Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) who meets a beautiful young society climber named Diane (Joan Dixon) when she cons her way into a cheap plane ticket by pretending to be his wife. At first, he’s offended. He’s a straight-shooter, a hard-nosed insurance cop who takes an immediate disliking for this little “chiseler.” For reasons he can’t quite understand, though, he goes along with her. When a thunderstorm forces their plane to stop for the night in Kansas, “Mr. and Mrs. Peters” are forced to share a room. They flip a coin for the bed. He wins, but she gets the blanket. By the time they make it to Los Angles, he’s asking when he can see her again. Joe, against his better judgment, is already in love, but Diane blows him off. She likes him as much as he likes her, but she thinks he’s a sucker. She’s ready for good times, expensive meals, and nice fur coats. They part company, and soon Joe’s back at work. His first case, funny enough, is the theft of some pricey furs. His prime suspect is a high-class hood named Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore). Joe goes up to Webb’s penthouse to question him and finds Diane slinking around in new mink.

Soon Christmas rolls around, and when Webb heads home to enjoy the holidays with his family, Diane is left spending Christmas with her furs. She goes to find Joe. He’s spending Christmas with a bottle. They fall in each other’s arms, and Diane decides she’d rather have love than money. Joe’s not so sure she’ll keep feeling that way, so he approaches Webb with a plan to rob a mail train carrying over a million dollars. Webb’s a good sport about losing Diane. He agrees to finance the caper, and honest Joe starts down the path to destruction.

The movie is directed by Harold Daniels, a director of little distinction, and ROADBLOCK is a compelling counterargument to the auteur theory of filmmaking. It features a smart script (by George Bricker, Steve Fisher, Richard Landau, and the blacklisted Daniel Mainwaring writing as Geoffrey Holmes), a wonderful cast, and one of the genre’s iconic cinematographers (the great Nicholas Musuraca). It is an assembly of great talent, but it would be difficult to isolate one person to credit for the film’s artistic success.

Perhaps the lack of a notable director at the helm helps explain ROADBLOCK's obscurity among general film buffs, but noir fans should search this film out. For one thing, it features Charles McGraw’s best performance. Most fans know that McGraw can do steely toughness better than just about anyone, but they’ll be surprised how flawed and human he makes Joe Peters. ROADBLOCK is your chance to see McGraw—toughest of the tough guys—being a Mitchum-sized chump.

You can’t really blame him for being such a fool, though. In ROADBLOCK, Joan Dixon does what any great femme fatale should do, she makes a believable case for throwing your life away. Femmes come in all shapes and sizes of course, but Joan Dixon is a unique member of the pantheon of deadly women. She’s not an evil cipher in the mold of an Ava Gardner or a Barbara Stanwyck. She’s a bad girl who doesn’t quite know herself until she meets Joe Peters. Once they fall in love, she tries to go straight because he’s unlocked some latent good she’s kept stored away. The tragedy here is that she’s already unlocked the latent evil in Joe. This is a marriage made in a particularly ironic pit in hell.

Dixon is a virtual unknown today, even in the tiny world of film noir. Her career was brief, starting with a bland little programmer called BUNCO SQUAD about conmen posing as a religious cult. Most of her career was spent in low budget westerns and bit parts on television, followed by a career as a lounge singer. By the end of the fifties, she was mostly notable in Hollywood for her semi-regular appearances in the tabloids as the star in a series of messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992, just another forgotten old lady in Tinseltown who was an actress for five minutes in the fifties.

Like Ann Savage, Joan Dixon had a short, unremarkable movie career. However, they each make one great film before disappearing into history. DETOUR has been acknowledged as a noir masterpiece, and Savage has been given the credit due to her. I hope someday we can say the same thing about ROADBLOCK and Joan Dixon.


I've written before about Joan Dixon. Read here.

I've also written a little on Charles McGraw. Read here.


StephenD said...

Sounds like a good one. I've got to find a copy of it somewhere. It's not available on NetFlix or any store I know of, so it might be a bit of a hunt.

Jake Hinkson said...

It is a hunt to find, but it's well worth the search. Great flick.

clydefro said...

Your site came up in an otherwise unrelated spam post at my own place, but I'm glad to have found it. We seem to have similar taste.

About Roadblock - I too think it's a very prototypical sort of noir in places. McGraw and Dixon both have great screen presence. She's smoldering as a femme fatale. What holds the picture down a little is the complete and unexplained change the two main characters experience. She goes from a seemingly frozen gold digger to a happy housewife while he transitions from stand-up guy to inexplicably determined criminal. It all works with a few leaps of faith but I think the direction is off in a way which some of the other B-noir maestros like Mann, Lewis, Karlson, etc. would have never allowed. The film deserves to be seen and applauded, but I think it comes up a tad short in character consistency.

Jake Hinkson said...

Clyde, thanks so much for your comments. I love discussing this film, but it's so far out of circulation that fellow travelers are hard to find.

I think you put your finger on the real pulse of Roadblock, the changes in Joe and Diane. The success of the film relies a lot on whether the viewer feels that the turns in character are anticipated and well-earned. I feel they are well-earned. This isn't so much a story of consistent characters (as in say Detour, or Gun Crazy, where the couples develop in a straight line of characterization, i.e the weak man gets weaker and the mean woman gets meaner) as much as it's a story of two people who come together and set off tragically bad chemistry in each other. Diane thinks she'll be happy as a gold digging kept woman until she becomes one. Joe thinks he's honest until he figures out a way to be the big shot he thinks Diane will always really want. These changes are foreshadowed by their very attraction to one another, and that's the key, it seems to me. It is precisely these turns in the characters I find so haunting about the film. It's not a story of archetypes--an antihero and a femme fatale--who come into conflict (as in, say, Angel Face). It's the story of a specific man and woman who might have lived happy lives had they never met. They bring out the best/worst in each other.

Your site, by the way, is terrific. I'll post a link to it on my page.

Eric Beetner said...

A true classic. It doesn't get more Noir than this.

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