Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film noir in a teacup.
In the late forties, with the big studios already showing signs of breaking up, many actors previously associated with just one logo found themselves trying to initiate independent projects out in the real world. The really big names like James Stewart simply went to the heads of studios and made special deals. But the survival of many another actor depended on whether or not they were sufficiently self-motivated to run their own affairs. Some middle range names took the easy out and went into television. Mickey Rooney, after getting into an argument with the bosses at MGM (over The Strip, Savant believes) tried his hand at a number of low budget efforts. One of them was a strange little movie called Quicksand.
Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney) is a garage mechanic of modest means who fancies himself a ladies' man. Ignoring 'nice' girl Helen (Barbara Bates), his eye strays in the direction of cafe waitress Vera Novak (Jeanne Cagney). Thinking himself in control, Dan promises to take the calculating Vera on a pricey date. Only later realizing that he's broke, Dan 'borrows' a twenty from the register of his pinchpenny boss Mackey (Art Smith), intending to replace it the next
day. On the date Vera is impressed with Dan's eagerness to spend his money: the only sour note is her ex-boyfriend Nick (Peter Lorre), a seedy arcade manager who takes an immediate disliking to Dan. All goes well until Mackey's accountant shows up to check the cash tally. Panicked, Dan cannot raise the needed double sawbuck until he effects what he thinks to be a sharp transaction: he buys an expensive watch on credit and immediately pawns it at a fraction of its value. With the money safely back in the till, Dan's problems would be over if it were not for the private detective who shows up to threaten him. If Dan doesn't come up with the full one hundred dollars for the watch in 24 hours, he'll be arrested for grand larceny. That's when Dan decides that a little strong-arm robbery might pull him out of the quicksand of his own foolishness.
Quicksand is a pretty nifty little picture. In the 1950s Mickey Rooney seemed to be trying to cast himself against his goody-goody Andy Hardy image, and thus chose a lot of tense crime-oriented roles. In Quicksand Dan's ordinary world quickly becomes a film noir nightmare, where foolish indiscretions can't be cleared up by a heart-to-heart with a kindly Louis B. Mayer - Judge Hardy paternal authority figure. 1 It
is interesting to see a 1950 movie that actually interested in looking at the realities of life for the lower middle class, where finding a way to stretch a measly salary to the next payday means pinching pennies.
Films noir tend to be overly plotted, and the growing chain of ironic events in Quicksand is no exception. Dan Brady's rapid entrapment in the pit of his own devising is almost painful to watch. At several points we think, "No, he can't be that stupid," but in our hearts we know that at some time or another in our own lives, we were probably just as naïve. Rooney's Dan Brady is just smart enough to want 'more' -- a better car, a more glamorous girlfriend -- without realizing that he's not smart enough to control the consequences of his actions. The best moments in the film are those when Brady has just stepped up a rung on the ladder of crime, from robbery to possible murder. Each time, he
looks directly into the camera as if into a mirror, discovering something terrifying about himself: "Is that person me? Is this what I am now?"
Without being blatantly political, Quicksand is almost as negative on America as that masterpiece of subversive noir, Try and Get Me! Dan and his paycheck-slave buddies are the Givers, and his boss is not only a Taker, but a sneak and a crook. Mackey accuses Dan of the theft of a car, and Dan almost immediately folds and confesses. Only later does Dan find out that Mackey accused all of his mechanics individually, hoping for a lucky strike. The venal Nick stoops to cheat a sailor out of a nickel, and drops a noose of blackmail around Dan the moment he even suspects him of a robbery. The object of Dan's affections, the faithless gold digger Vera (soul-sister to Detour's Vera?) goads him into risking his life on a break-in. She then spends the proceeds on a fur coat with the cool suggestion that he make tracks before the cops show up. Even the minor characters inspire us to side with Dan against the world; Vera's landlady (Minerva Urecal) is so onerous, she should have 'justifiable homicide' written on her forehead.
Mickey Rooney carries the movie gracefully; nobody ever accused him of being untalented. It's also a good turn for Peter Lorre, who makes the most of his few scenes and steals some great moments. Rooney and Lorre have a fight that is quite convincing; this is just when Lorre was beginning to put on weight but he clearly gives it his all. Perhaps it was the necessity of finding a leading lady shorter than he that landed Jeanne Cagney the role of Vera. She's an okay actress but looks a little severe. The moment you realize she's James Cagney's sister, she starts looking like Cody Jarrott wearing a dress and makeup ... same chin, nose, eyes. If Barbara Bates looks familiar, it's because she played Phoebe, the 'next Eve' in the next year's All About Eve. Her character is pretty thin but entirely credible. In the context, both she and the Good Samaritan (Taylor Holmes) who help Dan (almost) out of his predicament seem too good to be true. Given the duplicity of most of the rest of the characters, it's a surprise when the Samaritan turns out to be on the level.
The film takes place in 'Bay City', which is really Santa Monica, just as in the Raymond Chandler novels. Key scenes play out on the Santa Monica Pier, but the actual arcade area looks more like the old Long Beach Pike amusement park. Cameraman Lionel Lindon does a good job making Dan Brady's days drab and ordinary, and his criminal nights a shadowy maze.
A cautionary noir, Quicksand has the advantage of almost universal identification. We can all see ourselves following the same crooked path as Dan Brady. The quasi-downbeat ending doesn't simply let Dan off the hook, making for an unusually mature ending.
Image's DVD of Quicksand is a bare bones affair where the film itself is the surprise attraction. Long a public domain title, Quicksand disappeared from television ages ago and lived a miserable video life on gray-market VHS tapes. The copies Savant saw were a sorry mess of splices and missing dialogue. Happily, this DVD is practically perfect, with excellent sound and picture, far better than the earlier Detour. This is a movie with many dark scenes and the blacks are rich and the image detailed. There are no extras, not even a trailer. Savant imagines Quicksand didn't make much of a ripple upon its release in 1950. Those who check it out now will be pleasantly surprised.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Quicksand rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: November 17, 2000
1. Savant doubts that Rooney had any conscious desire to criticize MGM, his Andy
Hardy role or Louis B. Mayer, the paternalistic tyrant that molded Rooney's early career. Savant edited the hour-long laser documentary on the That's Entertainment 3 deluxe laserdisc, a kind of documentary on a documentary, I suppose. The dailies had a wonderful 'interview' with Mickey Rooney taped on the Sony lot in 1994, in which an uninformed 20-something kid asked Rooney a string of lame questions that pretty much revealed he didn't know much about Rooney or his career.
Rooney became sullen and pulled back into his wrinkled Lhasa Apsa face (kind of looking like a senior citizen Cabbage Patch doll, Savant remembers thinking at the time). Then the kid blithely asked Rooney to say something critical of Louis B. Mayer and Rooney blew up. He spent about five minutes verbally reaming the interviewer and ended the session with a five-minute tirade about how wonderful MGM used to be and how great Mayer was. The video cameraman followed all of this action, because Rooney stood up and shouted most of it from 50 feet away, while exiting. A lot of the shot is Rooney railing, dwarfed by the soundstages on either side and intimidating all the Sony workers strolling by. It was a powerful piece of tape that naturally didn't make it into the docu, and I've kicked myself repeatedly for not making a copy of it while I had the chance.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson