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Hardboiled crime fiction of the 1950s can still be an invigorating read, but the list of vintage Hollywood films that captured that particular literary vibe is not a long one. The Production Code precluded the naturalistic presentation of seedy lifestyles, and (in general) it wasn't until the 1970s that studio filmmaking found a scale where a single director could carry through with a style to approximate the vision of writers like David Goodis, Jim Thompson or John D. MacDonald. The only problem was, nobody was adapting these authors' gritty stories. Jacques Tourneur made an admirable attempt with Goodis's Nightfall, but Paul Wendkos' 1958 The Burglar was far less successful. Crime thrillers were spun off from TV shows (The Lineup), re-ran vintage gangster lore (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond) or sought commercial glory with tricky, glossy heist capers (Seven Thieves, Ocean's Eleven). The hardboiled vein was better appreciated abroad, especially by hip French directors already steeped in "film noir" fifteen years before the American style was acknowledged back home: Jacques Becker, Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle.
Author John D. MacDonald had written for TV but 1961's Man-Trap is his first feature sale. His magazine story Taint of the Tiger is a seamy look at the underside of boom times in Los Angeles. The director and co-producer is Edmond O'Brien, an accomplished star demoted to supporting roles and TV since the middle 1950s. Paramount bought the film outright by in an arrangement called a 'negative pickup'. Man-Trap unspools as an updating of the kind of tough film noirs O'Brien excelled at only a few years before. When sold to Paramount the property was called Restless. Advertising materials were prepared for the title Deadlock and the paperback novelization was released as Soft Touch. The final title Man-Trap fixates on Paramount marketing's sales angle, the sexy newcomer Stella Stevens. After a standout feature bit as 'Appassionata Von Climax' in the Technicolor musical Li'l Abner, Stevens was farmed out for TV work for a year, and polished her image by posing for Playboy. Man-Trap is her first starring role; Paramount's publicity favored spicy behind the scenes photos of Stella on the set.
Man-Trap is a plot-heavy pulp story performed with energy but lacking in style and finesse. Marines Matt Jameson and Vince Biskay (Jeffrey Hunter & David Janssen) are both wounded in an escape from a Korean beach in 1952. Grateful for his life, Vince swears to pay Matt back should he ever fall into a sweet deal. Eight years later Matt is married to the alcoholic, sexually inexhaustible Nina (Stella Stevens), the daughter of his partner in contracting E.J. Malden (Hugh Sanders). Matt is in debt to the firm but is too ethical to take kickbacks from subcontractors as Malden advises. The perpetually inebriated Nina cruelly teases Matt, even about the metal plate placed in his head by the military doctors. While she attends 'adult' backyard parties with their suburban neighbors Matt tries to break off his adulterous romance with his secretary, Liz Addams (Elaine Devry). That's when Vince shows up. Having spent the last few years in the Latin American country of Cuellavaca, Vince claims to be buddies with an ally of the dictator. He wants Matt to help him recover 3.5 million in money stolen by the opposition to buy arms for a revolution. The dictator will pay a million dollars if Vince can snatch it back. Matt agrees to masquerade as a limo driver to help Vince intercept the emissary with the cash at the San Francisco airport. But three Cuellavacan thugs from have the same idea. They stage their own ambush, and Vince is wounded. He escapes with the loot, but when Matt takes him home to recuperate the troublemaking Nina sees only another man to seduce. With the killers still at large, the Jameson household threatens to explode from within.
Screenwriter Ed Waters was director/co-producer Edmond O'Brien's nephew (no kidding!) and later adapted John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee thriller Darker than Amber for the screen. Nobody's going to complain that Man-Trap lacks variety, but the story does seem overcrowded with ideas. The war-buddies-hang-tough thread is fairly well done, as stars Hunter and Janssen had just come from Allied Artists' gritty movie about Okinawa, Hell to Eternity.
Then there's the shady heist, with the cynical Vince involving his buddy in outright thievery. The ambush at the airport terminal gives us a chance to see SFX long before it was the giant complex it is today; Vince and Matt must wrestle the case with the loot through a crowd of teens rushing to see a Gene Vincent-like rock idol called Bobby Joe. Man-Trap ends on an appropriately apocalyptic note, with Vince rushing to a Fred C. Dobbs-like fate in Mexico and Matt suffering from amnesia. Like William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia Matt is something of a walking time bomb, a situation exacerbated when the furious Nina whips him across the temple with a hearth iron. Stella Stevens' Nina is indeed a man-trap, flaunting her sexual power over Matt and doing her best to make him miserable. When Vince shows up at the house she's in his arms almost immediately, making lewd suggestions.
The most ambitious angle in Man-Trap is its vision of perverse doings in an L.A. suburb populated exclusively with alcoholic, sex-obsessed single adults. Most every night is barbecue & rowdy games night in this neighborhood of bored 30-somethings. This volatile situation was dramatized in Martin Ritt's rather daring 1957 hell-in-suburbia flick No Down Payment. The leering regulars include Frank Albertson ("Hee Haw" Marty Wainwright from It's a Wonderful Life) and none other than future TV star Bob Crane, who would soon take a similar licentious lifestyle to self-destructive extremes. Nina leads a gaggle of tipsy neighborhood wives wearing Halloween masks into Vince Biskay's sickroom, making Man-Trap seem a precursor to the psycho-sexual wife swapping epics of Joe Sarno (Sin in the Suburbs). The sleazy "Braille Game" is played by wrapping the wives in sheets, lining them in a row on the floor, and watching as a husband tries to identify his own spouse "by feel". 1
Matt builds houses in a subdivision called "Sophistica" but his own home is a disaster. When Nina Jameson taunts Matt, luring him into bed and then pushing him away to prove her power over him, the 'own your own home' dream seems to go haywire. Nina writes him a note rating him a total dud, a loser, a war hero with a hole in his head. Their drunken struggles reach for the same kind of suburban angst that would be expressed in John Boorman's Point Blank, when Angie Dickinson gives up talking and attacks Lee Marvin with her fists and a pool cue. Nina smacks Matt with that hearth iron and later scratches him savagely. The only witness to these antics is the born-again housekeeper Ruth (Virginia Gregg), who disapprovingly cleans up the empty bottles.
If these descriptions are more dynamic than the film itself, it's because Man-Trap is not interestingly directed. Edmond O'Brien doesn't get exceptional performances from his actors. Jeffrey Hunter's character under-reacts to provocations. Ms. Stevens is required to play the bitchy, oversexed tramp far too long, without much variation in her performance. The budget shows in that she's only really seen in the one house interior set, just as most if not all of the San Francisco work was done with a second unit. The central car chase from SFX to the Embarcadero wants to be like the one in The Lineup, but it's almost all done with rear-projection and the concluding traffic accident is a cheated non-collision.
The suburban sex games aren't very stylishly filmed either, with flat lighting and standard coverage. The Panavision compositions do not take advantage of interesting material like the white-wrapped wives on the floor looking like a line of shrouded corpses. Director O'Brien may not have had an eye, or perhaps the scenes were blocked for speed because of a tight shooting schedule.
Man-Trap joins other '60s post-noir thrillers that don't follow through on their own social themes. Burt Kennedy's interesting The Money Trap, for instance, builds to a classic finish but flubs what could have been a truly iconic final image. Man-Trap ends with one character buried under a concrete slab in a new housing subdivision and another smashed up on a Mexican roadway, but the direction doesn't rise to the level of the concept. 2
Does some of John D. MacDonald's style peek through? While rehearsing the heist, Vince points out Alcatraz in the bay for Matt's benefit: "Be careful, the boys at the Yacht Club might be watching." Nina shoots Matt with a squirt gun loaded with Martinis, and badmouths his secretary/lover Liz by calling her "The cat on the hot tin typewriter." Nina kisses off her marriage to Matt with the terse message, "Zero plus Zero is nothing."
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Man-Trap is a spotless HD transfer of B&W Panavision film elements that may not have left the vault since the movie was new. Loyal Griggs' no-frills cinematography is clear and sharp, as is the process work used for the robbery and chase scene. Viewers familiar with the San Francisco area will be surprised to see a lot of open fields and free space between the airport and downtown. On the other hand, Los Angeles is limited to a couple of views of a storefront street and a half-completed housing tract that could be almost anywhere. Man-Trap joins Stella Stevens' other early career Paramount attraction available from Olive Films, John Cassavetes' Too Late Blues.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man-Trap Blu-ray rates:
1. Was this sex-in-suburbia phenomenon going on all through the '60s? Was it restricted to Southern California? When I was in college in the early 1970s I had contact with a different "scene" in a swinging singles apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley. The action at the poolside was downright R-rated; even dull yours truly was casually propositioned in a sauna. Fear not, I didn't succumb to temptation. My girlfriend was pursued by every loose bolt on the property, including one 'swinger' who would phone from the apartment opposite hers, claim he'd been spying on her for weeks, and repeatedly ask if she wanted company. And none of this was necessarily cause for alarm!
2. Two notes: Actress Elaine Devry was spouse #4 to the remarkable Mickey Rooney, who is presently in his 34th year with his 8th missus. Stubborn folk that deny that Hollywood movies were politically vetted should take note -- when Vince says that the rebels from Cuellavaca (literally, "cow's throat") have come to America to buy arms, Matt is quick to assert that no American would ever sell guns to them, emphasizing that America is not a place to purchase illicit weapons. Of course, agrees Vince, the rebels are making contact with some errant Yugoslavians. The Cold War propaganda lies didn't all come from the Eastern bloc, Pilgrim.
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T'was Ever Thus.