“Out of every seven guys who go to the chair, six go yelling, “I’m innocent!’”
Desperate (1947) is a prime example of what I’d like to call the “partial noir.” These are films that, despite their accomplished casts and moody visuals, feel the need to soften up during the second act and effectively betray everything that preceded it. In short: they play it safe. The list of culprits include One Way Street (1950), Dark City (1950), Macao (1952), and, perhaps most notably, this 1947 effort from director Anthony Mann.
Here, the softening up can be pinpointed to the scene where the main characters, lovebirds Steve (Steve Brodie) and Anne Randall (Audrey Long), enter a barnyard dance. Despite being wanted by the police and hunted by a sadistic gangster, the couple decide to treat us to a scene right out of a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical. If cable was still the main way of watching television, you’d swear the channel was accidentally changed.
It’s a shame, really, because the other parts of the film display some inspired noir storytelling. Anthony Mann was still figuring out his strengths as a director when he landed Desperate, and while the tonal shifts reflect his inexperience, the film’s best moments point towards the classics he would eventually go on to make.
The film’s premise is ripe for the noir treatment. Steve is an independent truck driver whose short up for cash and desperate, as the title suggests. Steve gets hired by an old friend to haul some freight on the side. Only when he arrives, he discovers that the friend, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), is a sadistic burglar who threatens to bump him off if he talks. Naturally, Steve gets a raw deal and panics when the police show up, leading to the death of an officer and the arrest of Radak’s kid brother.
Dragging Steve back to their hideout after the botched heist, Radak and his thugs work him over under the dim lighting of an all time noir sequence. Mann and cinematographer George E. Diskant made the ingenious choice of lighting the entire scene with an overhead lamp, which swings in conjunction with Radak’s ferocity. The burglar’s large frame and tan suit are highlighted by the ominous light, and a single strike to Steve sends his head smacking against the lamp on his way down to the floor. Radak and his goons then stand over him, threatening his wife as the light gives us sparing glances of their piercing eyes.
The scene is a triumph of visual sparseness, and a precursor to the single-source lighting that would dominate Mann films like T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948). It both exemplifies the noir aesthetic and elevates it, especially when Radak allows it to become part of his interrogation tactics. By allowing the characters to play with the light source onscreen, Mann introduces a dynamic of uncertainty that makes the scene all the more frightening.
Where things take a turn for the worse is when Steve escapes and hightails it to the country with his wife. From there, the scenes largely consist of the couple being cute with the locals, with the occasional cutaway to Radak, who sits and fumes like a Shakespearean tyrant. Rinse and repeat. Brodie and Long are both decent actors, and their chemistry is surprisingly good for for a B-movie, but they aren’t given much in the way of compelling dialogue or believable actions; especially when Anne reveals that she’s pregnant.
Like Mann, screenwriter Harry Essex was still honing his craft when he wrote Desperate. Where later films like The Las Vegas Story (1952) and Kansas City Confidential (1952) showcased his talent for juggling multiple story threads, Essex struggles mightily to keep his two main characters afloat here. Steve and Anne aren’t given characteristics to play as much as beats that they need to hit so that Radak an find them. They’re virtuous and kind, but they’re also bland, and the responsibility of making them likable largely falls on the shoulders of the actors. Especially when they put common sense on hold for a barnyard dance.
The only person who manages to escape the limitations of the script is Raymond Burr. As Radak, the steely sociopath with an itchy trigger finger, Burr established the persona that would make him a film noir regular for the next decade. Every time he’s onscreen things gets better, whether he’s fuming to himself or smacking around his goons for letting Steve escape. He doesn’t need dialogue or complexity to dominate other actors, he dominates through the sheer menace of his body language. Mann was among the first to take note of Burr’s talents, and when it came time to cast the villain of his 1948 masterpiece Raw Deal (1948), he wisely brought him back.
Radak’s discovery of Steve’s location is what eventually gets the film back on track. He holds Steve at gunpoint in his hotel room, biding his time until he can blow him away. Mann’s penchant for suspense return to the fore, as cutaways of the ticking clock behind them are interspersed with close-ups of their frayed, sweaty faces. It’s eerily tense, and remarkably modern, especially when compared to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, which earned praise for doing the same thing two decades later.
The tension between Radak and Steve boils over during the climatic shootout, which proves a worthy successor to their earlier interrogation scene. Sadly, its followed by a saccharine ending, with Radak being gunned down and Steve being reunited with his doting wife. Once again, the bursts of creativity the film presents are hitched to scenes of generic, B-movie filler.
Whether subconscious or intentional, Mann would revisit a lot of the same themes and story beats for 1950’s Side Street. He tightened up the script, doubled down on the tension, and did away with the useless second act detour, and the result is a film that triumphs where Desperate sputters. There are certainly good moments throughout, and some that still rank among Mann’s finest, but overall, it’s a film for completists. As I said with my review of Orson Welles’ Journey Into Fear, it is a rough draft by a director who would go on to become a master. C
TRIVIA: Despite his lengthy career, this is the only time that actor Steve Brodie received top billing.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.