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Quicksand

Quicksand(1950)

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teaser Quicksand (1950)

Stuck in a dead end job, lower class garage mechanic Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney) meets a lovely caf check-out girl Vera (Jeanne Cagney, sister of James) and asks her out on a date. Faster than you can say Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he's head over heels in love and veering straight for trouble. Turns out she's only in it for the money - something Dan doesn't really have - and so he pilfers a twenty from the garage cash till to cover his night on the town, intending to slip the cash back before the bookkeeper comes by for his weekly check-up on the company funds. That night the would-be lovebirds cross paths with sleazy arcade owner Nick Dramoshag (Peter Lorre), Vera's unlikely ex-boyfriend, who decides to blackmail poor Dan after the sap gets caught in a bind: the bookkeeper shows up early, causing Dan tries to snag a pricey watch for the pawn money and rob a derelict to cover his tracks. In order to appease Dramoshag, Dan lifts one of the cars from work but gets caught by his boss (Art Smith), leading to an impromptu robbery plan, an attempted murder, and a wild police shootout with Dan scrambling to atone for his rash crimes.

A surreal escalation of nightmarish coincidence, the late-hour noir Quicksand (1950) is best remembered for casting Rooney against type in a twist-filled crime thriller far removed from Andy Hardy. The film was conceived as the initial project in an ongoing independent Rooney/Lorre deal that never materialized, forcing Lorre to declare bankruptcy and, "fed up with making faces" in Hollywood, retreat to Europe (albeit briefly) to direct The Lost One (Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hamsberg). Significantly, this proved to be the final genuine noir for Lorre, who had launched the film style in what is often cited as the first genuine noir film, 1940's Stranger on the Third Floor. As with other efforts like Black Angel, he's a menacing secondary character here with only a tangential influence on the storyline; however, the actor still pulls off his role with the usual skill and professionalism he continued to bring to his AIP cycle of films in the following two decades. Rooney also wrote off the experience, noting in his autobiography (Life Is Too Short), "it was aptly titled. We sank in it." Despite the financial debacle, Rooney returned to noir one year later with the less interesting The Strip for MGM.

Fortunately the film itself earned positive notices and became something of a cult favorite among noir devotees. After the increasingly nihilistic run of crime films in the 1940s, Hollywood began imposing an increasing amount of moralistic control over its product for an unsurpassed decade of cinematic Puritanism that hamstrung even such mainstream, publicly-entrenched studio projects as Carousel and The Bad Seed. While a few uncompromised noirs like Fritz Lang's The Big Heat managed to squeak through during this wholesome period, Quicksand is more indicative of the times with an implausible, last-minute deus ex machina for our hero that sidesteps the accepted norms of noir's damned protagonists. Audiences might be willing to follow Rooney to the edge of a cliff but certainly not over it, at least according to this film's logic. Significantly, the one-night-gone-wrong structure of Quicksand foretold an entire subgenre of similar films decades later including Martin Scorsese's After Hours - another tale of a persecuted sucker on a hellish date-gone-wrong, also with an unlikely "happy" ending against all expectations.

Though Lorre was intended to become a director with Rooney producing under their deal, Quicksand instead proved to be one of the final directorial efforts for sometimes-actor Irving Pichel, best known for co-directing 1932's seminal horror-adventure The Most Dangerous Game. Though most of his output is generally workmanlike, his snappy, expert pacing is well in evidence from his first film through his last; significantly, the same year as Quicksand he teamed with producer George Pal to create the groundbreaking "realistic" science fiction film, Destination Moon. Meanwhile the screenwriter Robert Smith managed to outdo himself with an even more high-pitched late noir, 1952's wildly overplotted Sudden Death, featuring what is arguably Joan Crawford's most anxious and harried performance. Like Pichel, he also leapt into science fiction as the 1950s progressed with two standout efforts, one marvelous (1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms with special effects by Ray Harryhausen) and one so absurd that it borders on crackpot genius (1952's Invasion USA).

Producer: Mort Briskin, Samuel H. Stiefel
Director: Irving Pichel
Screenplay: Robert Smith
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Daniel Brady), Jeanne Cagney (Vera Novak), Barbara Bates (Helen), Peter Lorre (Nick Dramoshag), Taylor Holmes (Harvey), Art Smith (Oren Mackey).
BW-79m.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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