A pretty good little B-noir done for Eagle-Lion Films and directed by Richard Fleischer early in his career, Trapped begins like any number of the semi-documentary pictures made in the late '40s, often by Twentieth Century Fox and later wrongly included under that studio's Film Noir DVD banner. There's a voiceover, a montage of some government documents, and an insistence on the power of the long arm of the law. If you've ever wondered about the cinematic inspiration behind the television show The Untouchables and Robert Stack's lead performance as Eliot Ness, this and numerous other unbearably stiff-collared lessons in why it's futile to break the law under the watch of the U.S. of A. could serve as perfect primers. The best of these, Anthony Mann's T-Men, used the propaganda lite approach as a jumping off point to more creative ideas. Trapped, with its Treasury Department endorsement, can even be seen as an extension of T-Men, which was also from Brian Foy and Eagle-Lion.
Though he was a more than capable filmmaker, Fleischer was no Anthony Mann and the absence of cinematographer John Alton takes away a great deal of the artistic ambitions of the earlier picture. Despite that, Trapped has some interesting ideas about its own message. The picture frees itself of that opening montage and seems to almost contradict what now looks like a tacked-on prologue. There's no further narration until the very end, again an ill fit, and the apparent good guys, the T-Men, are mostly portrayed as interchangeable and faceless. A volatile lead performance from Lloyd Bridges as counterfeiter Tris Stewart helps to contrast how blandly the men on the right side of the law are drawn. It's Bridges' Stewart we follow throughout the picture, and he's far more intriguing than the suits on his trail.
The overt self-righteousness displayed by authority figures doesn't exactly help their cause. As the prologue comes to a close, bank clerk Tommy Noonan is shown unsympathetically wagging an imaginary finger at a female customer whose restaurant mistakenly accepted a counterfeit bill. "People who handle money have to learn to spot the bad when they see it. It's their only protection", he says. What a d-bag. This fake cash sets up the film's plot after it's recognized as likely being made from Stewart's plates. The attention then turns to his partner in crime, who, unlike Stewart, is a free man on the outside. To get to the counterfeiter and the plates, the Treasury agents offer a deal to Stewart. He's got plenty of incentive to accept, namely a knockout blonde played by Barbara Payton. Stewart's squeeze Meg changed her name to Laurie and became a cigarette girl turning down offers for nightcaps from men like Johnny Hackett (John Hoyt). She's still crazy about Tris and turns him on to Hackett, who advertises himself as a well-off guy not averse to making some easy money. After a fake escape and a real one, Stewart needs to track down his plates before retreating to Mexico. He's not pleased after finding out his old partner sold the plates to a Jack Sylvester (James Todd) and enlists Hackett to help get them back. Trouble is, Hackett's an undercover government agent.
Hoyt has an interesting face, but like all the other feds in this noir, his charisma pales next to the beady-eyed Bridges. Even if we know the basic way everything will turn out given the parameters of the Production Code, the focus on Stewart belies the situation. He's clearly the criminal, humanized to some extent but basically unrepentant. The film's opening sets up the idea that someone like Stewart would be so overmatched against the government that he'd have no chance against such an awesome force. What follows is plainly contradictory of that, with Stewart's staged escape making the agent look like a moron and his real break-out not painting a much better picture of his badged escort. More boneheaded behavior includes Hackett getting his cover blown in Meg's earshot and Hackett later taking one huge risk after another. In real life he'd probably have been dead. In movie world he gets his man.
It's a little difficult trying to grade Trapped or most of the low-budget films from the noir cycle. For some, myself included, a mediocre film noir is generally better than a fairly good anything else. Richard Fleischer went on to direct superior crime dramas like The Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery before branching out with some incredibly diverse fare. Trapped fits in solidly beneath the other Fleischer noirs I've seen, though fans of this kind of movie will likely still enjoy it. She's not in it nearly enough, but Barbara Payton makes the film completely worth seeing on her infamy alone. Payton was one of Hollywood's truly tragic figures. Her beauty was obvious and men, notably Detour star Tom Neal and her one-time husband Franchot Tone who physically fought over her, were waiting behind every door until her career quickly sputtered out through scandal and alcohol. Payton's lowest points included multiple arrests, even resorting to prostitution before she moved back home with her parents in 1967, dying of heart and liver failure at just 39 years old. A sad fate no one deserves, surely. Payton is good here, far better than mere decoration. She's neither an empty companion for Tris nor a double-crossing femme fatale. The character is loyal and supportive without coming across as heartless - rare qualities for a female in noir.
Yikes. Revelation Films inspired a glimmer of hope by starting a dedicated series of film noir titles for DVD under the Glass Key name. With 54 announced titles that usually kick around public domain labels like Alpha in the U.S., Revelation's Glass Key imprint had the opportunity to give these neglected films acceptable releases at affordable prices. Instead, the company has started off by using the same crap transfers floating around for years now and expecting £9.99 retail price.
Looking at these screen captures, you'll immediately notice how blobby and soft the image is. It's also improperly transferred from NTSC to PAL, resulting in combing and some stuttering. There's poor contrast, incorrect framing in the opening titles and possibly at other times, and an aspect ratio of 1.30:1 because the sides of the frame have black lines of nothing. The result is a barely watchable mess on a single-layered disc and divided into just five chapters. I got through it and still enjoyed the film, and I'm sure you can too, but don't expect any improvement over any other release of this movie.
Audio is a similar disaster. The English mono is low and far off in the distance somewhere. I could mostly hear it and understand what was going on, but there are major aural obstacles involved. No subtitles and, of course, no extra features either. At least the cover art looks nice.