Sad-sack little pseudo-noir thriller. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Limited Edition Collection, has released No Escape, the low-budget 1953 crime meller released by United Artists, and starring Lew Ayres, Sonny Tufts (no jokes, please), and Marjorie Steele. Miscasting, blah direction, and a frequently unintentionally funny script by scripter/director Charles Bennett help make No Escape's title all-too prophetic. No extras for this okay transfer.
'Frisco, 1953. Flat-busted has-been John Howard Tracy (Lew Ayres) used to be a big-shot composer on Broadway. But a self-financed flop a few years back ended his career, and now he hangs out at the Love and Laughter Café, purposely bumping into customers for a "chance meeting" so he can craft a hackneyed song about them for drink money. A note from blonde Pat Peterson (Marjorie Steele) leads to a suggestion he make up a song about "Sally Doyle," a dead singer who used to work at the Café. This evokes a strong reaction from Pat's boyfriend, Detective Simon Shayne (Sonny Tufts), who's called out on an assignment with his partner, Bruce Gunning (Lewis Martin). Tracy makes his move on sympathetic Pat, but slimy playboy Peter Hayden (James Griffith) humiliates the penniless Tracy, drops him a sawbuck for his troubles, and whisks Pat off with him to his bachelor pad. Drunk, Tracy goes to Peter's place to throw the money in his face, only to find Peter's face smashed in...with a cartoon of Pat laying next to the body.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS...ALTHOUGH INCREDIBLY, IF YOU READ THE BACK OF THE DVD CASE, M-G-M ACTUALLY TELLS YOU WHODUNIT!
Not that you couldn't figure out who the murderer was in five minutes. That is, if you had stopped laughing by the time of the murder, after that absolutely hilarious opening noir narration, where after a bit of flowery travelogue about San Fran, the narrator suddenly thunders, "You'll be glad you're in this lovely city...UNLESS YOU COMMIT MURDER! Because YOU'LL NEVER GET AWAY! Not once the police SPRING THE TRAP!" He follows up by repeating the prophetic phrase, "no escape," three times―just in case you didn't get the message―before he starts up again, introducing Ayres and sounding exactly like one of those 16mm cautionary instructional films on V.D.. No Escape never recovers from this ridiculous opening (...which the filmmakers have the nerve to repeat if you can believe it, later in the film).
Look, if you've read even a few of my reviews here at DVDTalk over the past six years, you know I'm predisposed to giving a movie like No Escape every possible break. After all, it has everything I like in a vintage Hollywood exercise: it's old, it has old stars, and it should offer simple genre pleasures that by their very inclusion, should satisfy the most curmudgeonly viewer. Sadly, though, I couldn't find much of anything to recommend here in No Escape. Directed and written by the usually reliable Charles Bennett (a slew of early Hitchcock classics, such as Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Secret Agent, Foreign Correspondent, and later the classic supernatural horror thriller, Night of the Demon), No Escape never seems remotely believable, even down to its most mundane details, while the characters' motivations switch uneasily from clichéd convention to positively inexplicable. Why, again, wouldn't Steele just go to the police and clear Ayres if she felt so guilty about his unintended frame-up? For that matter, how did the murder victim know Ayres, and why was he giving him money and needling him at the same time? And why again did Steele want to jab Tufts with that song suggestion about Sally Doyle? What was Ayres' plan to make money for all three of the principal leads...by vaguely blackmailing them? And then not blackmailing them? Are we really supposed to believe that Steele would jump out of a window because Ayres might get caught? And what did she hope to accomplish going with him to Mexico on her escape plan? And what about my favorite: Ayres, on the run for his life, sees an old mark from his bar-song days, ditches him and goes with the guy's friends to a party...where a Broadway producer just happens to be in attendance, where Ayres, a complete stranger, is asked to sing his newest song?
Even the most ludicrous script can sometimes "play" if there's some verve in the direction and/or the performances, but No Escape has neither. Bennett shoots every scene like it's a TV sitcom (the camera is square-on, with blown-out, flat lighting that looks like The Donna Reed Show), while the pacing is leaden. Even the San Fran second unit work, which should have added some verisimilitude to the proceedings, is travelogue boring. As for the casting, well...it's hysterical. Lew Ayres was a fine, gentle actor in the right role, perfect for his celebrated Dr. Kildare series. However, as a supposedly oily, smarmy, smart-assed, self-destructive skid-row composer, Ayres is about as effective as casting Fred Rogers in an Out of the Past remake. Ayres just doesn't have the romantic stones, the corrosive self-dejection, the coiled violence, or the poetic sad awareness of overwhelming fate, to convey the subtext of a classic noir anti-hero/victim (I love the preposterous dubbing of Ayres' singing voice, too; it sounded like he swallowed Dick Haymes). As for the iconically-maligned Tufts, as least he looks the part of a corrupt cop/killer (oh come on―you couldn't tell he did it? You would think she's the killer? Or maybe Ayres?). He's beefy and jowly and dissipated looking, but he's such a unskilled, even rotten actor that you begin to finally understand what Carson and the Medved brothers were really goofing about when they (and countless critics before them) mercilessly picked on Tufts. As for Steele, she doesn't even vaguely figure into any noir semiotics, with a bland, blonde vagueness and zero sexual heat that drifts over her indifferent screen presence here. Throughout its every element, No Escape suffers from that same enervated feeling.Big hair blob in gate.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.