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Due to its scarcity, not even film noir experts have had all that much to say about Loophole, a compact crime thriller that maintains a high level of credibility. It will probably communicate to audiences better now than it did back in 1954: when trouble with the law comes, one really isn't "innocent until proven guilty." This less fatalistic example of "Loser Noir" (the prime example is Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour) avoids melodramatic pitfalls to concentrate on a realistic catastrophe that could happen to any of us.
Bank teller Mike Donovan (Barry Sullivan) does nothing out of the ordinary on Bank Examiner day, not realizing that an impostor has joined the group of accountants come to check the bank's balances. At the end of the shift Mike is shocked to discover that his cash box is short by the staggering sum of almost $50,000 dollars. He foolishly waits until the next working day to report the problem, so his branch manager has to bring in the police and the bonding company. The authorities grill both Mike and his wife Ruthie (Dorothy Malone) fairly severely. All Mike can do is repeat his story about an 'extra' bank examiner entering his teller's cubicle. The bank lets him go because the bonding company will no longer cover him. The cops soon let up, but not Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw), an agent of the bonding company. Slavin tails and harasses Mike, trying to scare a confession from him. Whenever Mike lands a job, Slavin makes sure that he loses it. Mike and Ruthie lose their house and move into a tiny apartment. Slavin's persecution is so intense that Mike can barely contain his temper; even the cops warn Slavin to back off. Who did this to Mike and Ruthie, and what can they do about it?
Plenty of films noir construct a 'trap of fate' around an innocent man, drawing him further into trouble. The problem can usually be traced to a minor fault in the loser hero, such as Al Roberts' pessimism in Detour or Dan Brady's desire to impress a date in Quicksand. The nightmarish events that follow are grossly disproportionate to the loser's 'original sin'. In Loophole the unlucky Mike Donovan doesn't really make a mistake. He doesn't feel guilty and no matter what happens he never entirely succumbs to despair. His faithful wife Ruthie sticks by him, and to some extent so does the police, who are satisfied by Mike's score on a lie detector. There's even a scene where a police captain tells ex-cop Gus Slavin to back off, implying that he left the force under less than ideal conditions.
Mike Donovan is a pocket edition Jean Valjean to Gus Slavin's Javert. One suffers unjustly, the other persecutes in the name of justice but really to gratify a sadistic streak. Mike soon discovers that his innocence means nothing once his good name is placed in doubt. His career in banking is over. The smiling Slavin is always there, letting his new employers know that he's a thief, plain and simple. Slavin doesn't believe in lie detectors or in giving the benefit of the doubt; he's convinced everyone's guilty and that he's been ordained to squeeze Mike until he confesses. Mike has no choice but to take Slavin's abuse. The only thing he has on his side is the faith and loyalty of Ruthie.
Loophole eventually gets around to the real perpetrators of the crime. (As we see them plainly in the film's first scene, this is no spoiler.) The story develops into a two-way chase, with Mike trying to nab the crooks and Slavin in hot pursuit, convinced that they're Mike's partners in crime. But the film also generates feelings and associations that go beyond its immediate story. The swindler that victimized Mike by impersonating a bank examiner proves not to be a professional bunco artist, but another low-level workingman named Herman Tate (Don Beddoe). The two men have a tenuous connection. Mike earns enough as a bank teller to own a house and provide for his wife, and they're happy, if not rich. 1 The "criminal mastermind" Herman Tate is a quiet little nobody who looks like Elmer Fudd. The real villain is Tate's aggressive, unstable companion Vera (Mary Beth Hughes). The greedy Vera has obviously put Tate up to this, and says more than once that without the money she'd have no reason to stay with him at all. Slavin is right when he says the crime is about a cheap slob thinking he can cheat the system, he's just got the wrong guy.
The interesting thing is that Tate behaves more like a victim than a bad guy; he's the story's real Noir Loser. It's easy to imagine alternate versions of Loophole, that tell the story from other points of view. Herman Tate's version could be about a desperate, lovesick cuckold, something like Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street. Gus Slavin's version could be about a good cop who can't control his drive to punish criminals, an exaggeration of Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Wrongly considered a minor noir, Loophole has an unusually mature attitude toward the "faults in the system" criticized in left-leaning noir classics. Human perversity is the culprit in this show, not the system. Mike is caught between two bad men who victimize him for different reasons. A political interpretation would insist that "the system" oppresses both Donovan and Tate, encouraging them to cheat one another to get ahead. But the fault is really with the greedy Vera and the weak Herman Tate. If there's anything wrong with the system, it's the lousy security at the bank, the "loophole" that allows Tate to pull off his nearly perfect scheme. I'd much easier believe that an executive at a big bank with a lot to lose, might victimize a lowly employee to protect its business reputation.
Other writers have pushed the significance of Loophole further, to compare Mike Donovan's persecution with the activities of the HUAC. I suppose someone attuned to that issue in 1954 might have made a connection, what with the way ordinary people were hounded on the basis of slander and innuendo. Mike is deprived of the ability to make a living, as happened to many victims of the witch hunts. I should think that the general fear of being unjustly accused of something had to be on people's minds back then. If Mike were being persecuted for a political opinion, I'd buy into this more.
Gus Slavin's cruel pressure campaign takes up most of the movie's running time. We'd expect a guy in Mike's situation to put up with quite a bit of harassment, as he only made things worse by not reporting the lost money immediately. But the Javert-like Gus behaves as if his job is a crusade, and he takes a sadistic pride in his work. Barry Sullivan and Dorothy Malone are very good in their roles, and Mary Beth Hughes is a frightening blonde menace. But Loophole is Charles McGraw's picture. With his impossibly gruff voice and fixed, bulldog stare, Gus Slavin is the last guy any of us would want suspecting us of anything. (spoiler) Much has been made of the film's last shot. Mike's back at work at the bank, and seems to have gotten a promotion to boot. Although there's no reason for it, Mike sees Gus watching him through the bank window. It's completely unnerving... there is no scene in which Gus admits that Mike was innocent. 2
Loophole's director Harold D. Schuster has sterling editorial credits, having cut the classic Sunrise back in 1927. He doesn't crowd his actors and his fluid direction makes us forget that this is essentially a low-budget film. Schuster also has an excellent feel for ordinary Los Angeles streets. The banks involved appear to be on Wilshire Blvd., one close to downtown and another near the corner of Wilshire and Western. In a foot chase scene we see just a sliver of the iconic Pellissier Building and Wiltern Theater. Any Angeleno will immediately recognize it.
And that's not all. In the final action scene Mike follows Vera and Tate to a beach house out at the far end of Malibu. We see a wide shot of a car moving down a lonely beach-side road, until a pan reveals that we're looking right down on what has to be the legendary Atomic House from Kiss Me Deadly, made the very next year. Noir fans unprepared for this sight will fall out of their chairs.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Loophole is a great-looking enhanced widescreen transfer of this unjustly obscure noir gem. The B&W picture looks great, with minimal to no damage, and the soundtrack is clean as well. William Sickner's cinematography appears to use real locations for offices and bank meeting rooms.
According to the Noir Film Foundation's Alan K. Rode, Loophole was almost considered a lost picture until decent elements were finally located just a couple of years ago. The Allied Artists release had only been available on exceedingly poor bootleg discs, but now is back in great shape.
The gaudy original release artwork used on WAC's packaging shows that Allied Artists cleverly misrepresented the film. Barry Sullivan is pictured looking guilty as hell with a valise leaking money. The Donovan - Tate identity swap makes Sullivan into the bad guy, a "Desperate Man On the Hot Spot ... with the Police ... the Mob ... the Wrong Girl ... and Only One Way Out!" That's news to us --- Loophole has no "Mob" involvement whatsoever!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Could a bank teller really afford a house in 1954? If so, things have changed since then, and not for the better.
2. This worries me somewhat. Even with his name cleared, would Mike Donovan really get his job back? Wouldn't the bonding company feel that he's too much of a risk, for carelessly allowing so much money to be stolen out from under his nose? And wouldn't the bank feel that he's bad for general morale, because he's associated with a crime? Mike is also proof that the bank made a mistake, and businessmen with images to polish can't afford to admit that they make mistakes.
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T'was Ever Thus.