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1959's The Trap is an efficient thriller with an all-star cast and a melodramatic script. The Paramount production in Technicolor may never have been released on home video until now. Popular star Richard Widmark was at the height of his acting career, and also producing and directing. Stage great Lee J. Cobb had been in movies since the middle thirties and had long been a respected featured player. Co-writer, director and (with his partner Melvin Frank) producer Norman Panama began as a comedy writer and was noted as a gag man for Bob Hope; he and Melvin Frank wrote the hit Broadway play Li'l Abner. Panama directed mostly comedies for big names like Hope and Danny Kaye. He also directed the key Cold War drama Above and Beyond, a revisionist view of the Paul Tibbets/Enola Gay Hiroshima mission. The Trap is a second non-comedy directing effort.
The story unspools in the fictitious California desert town of Tula, a tiny spot just big enough to have a downtown and its own airfield. A motorcade from the city arrives bearing the notorious underworld chieftain Victor Massonetti (Lee J. Cobb) and his entourage of hoods, including Victor's close associate Davis (Lorne Greene). The subject of a widespread manhunt, Massonetti has a plan worked out to leave the country, avoiding blocked roads and watched airports. Mob lawyer Ralph Anderson (Richard Widmark) just happens to have kin in Tula. His father Lloyd (Carl Benton Reid) is the Sheriff, and his brother Tippy (Earl Holliman) a deputy. Ralph has been given no choice -- he's here to ask his father allow a chartered plane to spirit Massonetti away to Mexico.
Ralph runs into nothing but trouble. He finds Tippy, now an alcoholic, sleeping in a jail cell. Tippy is estranged from his beautiful young wife Linda (Tina Louise), who was Ralph's girl long ago, before he left town, running away from the responsibility for a cheap crime. Sheriff Lloyd knows how Ralph makes his money now, and at first refuses to listen to him. Tippy is convinced that Ralph has come back for Linda, who is fed up with Tippy's irresponsibility and Lloyd's abusiveness. The family's dirty laundry gets an agonizing airing before Linda decides to leave town. When Ralph finally gets a chance to explain what is happening, Lloyd decides to cooperate and let Massonetti escape. It seems the only way to avoid a bloodbath: the gangster's heavily armed henchmen have already cut communications to Tula and can easily overwhelm Lloyd's lawmen. But the signals get crossed. Eyeing the sizeable reward on Massonetti's head, Tippy and two deputies disobey Lloyd and attempt an arrest. After an initial shootout Ralph has no choice but to use Massonetti as a shield. He and Tippy undertake to drive the gang leader to the county seat across a treacherous road. Spotted by the mob's airplane, the lone car is soon under attack by Massonetti's unseen marksmen. The brothers pick up Linda on the way. Have they a hope to get through?
A transposition of Key Largo to the desert setting of Bad Day at Black Rock, The Trap is a good but not exceptional thriller. Fine second-unit location work on the high desert cannot hide the fact that much of the show is filmed on sound stages. Downtown Tula is the familiar Paramount western town set, the one backed by a painted cutout of a hill to disguise the Hollywood soundstages and palm trees.
The serviceable story follows the family dramatics in the Anderson house with a third-act flight across the desert. The screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons and Norman Panama is no gem, as the characters never seem more than shallow sketches. Richard Widmark's Ralph is supposed to be a corrupted mob mouthpiece, forced against his will to bring armed killers to his hometown. Yet he's also a nice guy and an ethical hero type. His Cain/Abel relationship with Tippy is just a mechanism to poison the family relationships; it provides a character reveal twist that only makes Ralph seem even more of a hero. Carl Benton Reid's Sheriff is a bitter hothead; if he's really so rigidly ethical his decision to break his oath of office and let Massonetti escape seems wholly inconsistent. Poor Earl Holliman doesn't always do well outside a comfortable envelope of rustic nice guy parts. The script lumps so many loathsome hats on Tippy - weakling, alcoholic, abusive husband, treacherous brother, greedy deputy -- that his character turns into a joke. When not double-crossing somebody, Tippy is whining like a bratty little kid.
This leaves the pro contributions of Lee J. Cobb and Tina Louise. Cobb overplayed his share of film roles but keeps the pragmatic Victor Massonetti pitched at just the right level of ironic detachment. The mobster dismisses the local hicks while demanding total obedience from his gang, especially the efficient fixer played by Lorne Greene. Victor figures he's bought and paid for Ralph and trusts him because the lives of his family are at stake. During the highway escape the prisoner is suitably frightened but also confident that his captors haven't a chance.
Third-billed Tina Louise played on Broadway in Li'l Abner and had some TV exposure before her filmic debut in God's Little Acre. Despite her good performance, that picture didn't set Hollywood on fire. After The Trap Louise found herself in two good westerns (Day of the Outlaw and The Hangman). Louise is credible as the town beauty that settled for second best. Linda's initial scene greeting Ralph is so good that it holds out hope for more interesting character developments. Given less emphasis, Linda holds her own and better in the family showdown.
The film's action sequences are logical enough. The unseen mob snipers must have had a lot of experience in the desert, for they appear out of nowhere to harass the fleeing heroes. At one point a construction machine is used to block the escape route, and the group can find no place to hide from the high-powered rifle bullets. No knockout stunts crop up but a showdown between a car and an airplane is nicely handled. The film's best surprise comes when our heroes are met by Highway Patrolmen, who take Massonetti into custody.
The Trap is an undemanding and reasonably tense thriller, smartly acted, that might have fared better with a little more thought given to its character dynamics. At a certain point we feel as if we're watching an updated western with just enough dramatic logic to motivate the shootouts and ambushes, and give us a poster image of Widmark holding a rifle. It is recommended, for the good turns by Lee J.Cobb and Tina Louise.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Trap has two near-flawless transfers of this production, one in 1:78 widescreen and one in open-matte 1:37. The image is sharp overall. Those lonely stretches of desert highway look quite good in long shots. Original prints were in Technicolor but since the camera negative was conventional Eastman stock, restoration issues that plague older 3-strip IB Tech shows do not pose a problem.
A music strike hit town in 1958, which I'm assuming accounts for Paramount's decision to use stock music on The Trap. I'm not so attuned to various composers that I can recognize every individual style, but I am certain that I heard a cue from one of Miklos Rozsa's Paramount noirs of the late 1940s. According to the IMDB my guess was correct, and Rozsa's work is accompanied by recycled tracks composed by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Gerard Carbonara, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Walter Scharf, Leith Stevens, Van Cleave, Franz Waxman and Victor Young. The title theme is not bad; it might be fun to find out from where it was sourced!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Trap Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.