Film noir are crime movies, but not all crime movies are film noir. There has to be an element of tragedy to the film noir – of a normal person (criminal or not) who takes an opportunity to do indulge their worse nature, and their world falls apart around them because of it. A real film noir needs to be about a failing of moral choice. There has to be some chance that the main character could have acted in a different way, may have wanted to, really, but they had their moment of weakness. An itch they just had to scratch.
Using this admittedly nebulous definition (there’s a lot more to film noir than that), Trapped isn’t really a film noir. It’s a crime movie, about a criminal who commits crimes, then when he’s busted out of prison to play stool pigeon for the treasury department, doesn’t hesitate for an instant in getting back to his life of criminality.
Directed by Richard Fleischer for Eagle-Lion films in 1949, Trapped is a semi-documentary crime story about a counterfeiting racket. Lloyd Bridges, in one of his first starring roles, plays Tris Stewart, several years into a stint in prison that has seven years left to go. When one of his phony bills shows up at the treasury department despite him being locked up, he’s contacted by an agent and told he could shave off some time, even be released if he could help them catch whoever was using his old plates to forge the new currency.
Tris gets out under the guard of a treasury agent, but escapes as soon as is possible to reconnect with his girl, Meg (Barbara Payton in her first starring role). She’s still mad for him, and would like to get away from her job as a cigarette girl at a club. She particularly wants to escape the eye of a club regular, John Downey (John Hoyt), who’s clearly trying to get more than cigarettes from her.
Tris has two goals: to find out for himself who is using his money plates without cutting him in, and to make sure his girl is happy. To ensure the latter, he breaks into Downey’s hotel room with the intent to make sure he stays away from Meg, and determines from his luggage he’s a high-roller, a gambler. They fight, but then strike up a bargain – he can front Tris some money to print counterfeit currency to spread around down in Mexico. They go into business but Downey’s not really a gambler. He’s another treasury agent, gone undercover to infiltrate the counterfeiters from the other end.
It’s a swell story of intrigue and double-crosses, and there are a bunch of fun scenes, well-staged throughout. Fleischer directs violence and action with a sure hand, and there’s usually something interesting visually going on in the exposition scenes to keep the dialogue from going stale. The film begins with a narrated overview of the work the treasury department does, tracing down counterfeit currency and the like, and while it becomes a fairly standard narrative film after the opening, many of the scenes maintain a distanced tone. The camera observes the action and doesn’t get too involved. Still, it’s briskly paced at only 78-minutes long, a pretty standard running time for the era’s B-pictures.
What throws a wrench in what could have been a top-notch crime thriller is that just as everything is coming together, the main character disappears. Eventually, Tris get arrested and then is literally never seen again in the film. He’s gone for the entire third act, and now the shady treasury agent is our protagonist. The entire climax of the film happens between the wrong characters.
On one of the bonus features available on the disc, it is speculated that Lloyd Bridges got sick, and the razor-thin budgets for Eagle-Lion productions under tightfisted executive producer Bryan Foy meant there was no-way anyone was going to be paid for sitting around while filming was delayed. So they made do with what they had. It’s speculation but it makes sense, since Trapped stands as a movie that is just getting really good then it hops horses mid-stream.
Despite this very odd decision or circumstance, as the case may be, Trapped is still a tightly directed, beautifully photographed example of late ’40s Hollywood filmmaking. Since the film had fallen into the public domain, this beauty was not readily apparent on the budget DVD and downloadable copies of the film that had been previously available. This release has been fully restored from a 35mm film print that had been donated by a private collector to the UCLA film archive. As a result, the film looks astonishingly crisp and clean, particularly for a minor film from a long defunct production house that made mostly low-budget films.
Trapped doesn’t hold together that well as a cohesive story. It might be said to be less than the sum of its parts, because individual scenes and arcs hold together better than the movie does as a whole. Lloyd Bridges gives a taut, frightening performance as a not at all reformed criminal who wants to barge his way back into the world of crime he’d left. John Hoyt is creepy playing a lawman who seems more at ease being an undercover criminal. There are plenty of fun sequences in the movie, particularly the end chase scene in a trolley-car repair yard. Beyond the plot, it’s fun to see late ’40s Los Angeles just as the city was coming into its own. I wouldn’t called Trapped a lost classic, but it’s exactly what it was made to be: a decent B-picture. If you’re already a fan of the movie but were just hoping for, finally, a decent home video version, this release is immaculately restored.
Trapped has been released as a dual Blu-ray/DVD set by Flicker Alley. Extras include a spirited feature length commentary by GUY and GAL. There’s also a pair of video extras, “Feeling Trapped” (18 mins), an overview of the making of the film, and “A Sedulous Cinderella: Richard Fleischer Remembered” (12 mins), an interview with Mark Fleischer, Richard’s son, about the director’s career and life. There is also an included booklet with art and photographs from the film, as well as some commentary by Eddie Muller.