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Roadblock

Roadblock(1951)

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Warner Archive has served up a tasty film noir morsel with Roadblock (1951), a little B movie from RKO that moves swiftly and entertainingly through its 73 minutes. Charles McGraw is superb as an honest insurance investigator named Joe Peters who turns crooked in order -- of course! -- to get the girl, Diane, played by Joan Dixon. Diane has fallen in with local gangster Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore), whom Joe approaches to pull off a daring heist with a seemingly foolproof alibi. Needless to say, things don't go quite according to plan.

The appeal of Roadblock lies in a tight, well-paced plot, killer hardboiled dialogue, and the presence of Charles McGraw, who was never a major star but left strong impressions in film after film due to his imposing presence, scowling visage, and most importantly his unforgettable, gravelly voice. McGraw's persona also made him entirely convincing both as a virtuous cop figure and as a contemptible villain, which is a key reason his transformation here from one to the other is so believable. Among McGraw's many other film noir credits are supporting roles in films like The Killers (1946), The Gangster (1947), Reign of Terror (1949) and Border Incident (1949), and leads in the B noirs Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952) -- an impressive list of noir titles indeed.

But McGraw in Roadblock further brings a sense of tender pathos, loneliness, and sympathy to his portrayal of the lovesick Joe Peters, who ignores any sense of reason and instead dooms himself to oblivion, all for the sake of a dishy dame... and it's here that the movie's true "noir" sensibility can be felt. In one scene (set in a room with a Christmas tree), Joe tells Diane, "I want you so bad I can't think straight. You're what I want for Christmas, the day after, the fourth of July, Saturday nights, all the days there are." Diane's classic response is equally emblematic of film noir, and its cruel dames who drive these poor saps insane: "And I want you, Joe... but not as an insurance cop making 350 a month!"

Joan Dixon, who had a short acting career in the 1950s, is better when she's the conniving femme fatale in the first half of this picture than she is as the reformed good girl in the second half, but she gets the job done. (Another sarcastic exchange she has with McGraw: "Someday you'll want something nice and expensive you can't afford." "Like what?" "Like me.") Character actor Lowell Gilmore comes off appealingly as an oily villain, looking like sort of a cross between Otto Kruger and Gary Merrill, and Louis Jean Heydt, as McGraw's 100% honest partner, is convincing.

As directed by Harold Daniels, Roadblock boasts lots of nice location work around Los Angeles, culminating in a car chase in L.A.'s cement riverbed, which in 1951 was a unique idea. Diane supplies a hoot of a line after Joe drives them down onto the riverbed: "Where does this highway take us?" she asks.

Daniels had a very minor filmmaking career -- Roadblock is probably his most notable picture -- but this little film claims four writers with major noir credentials worth mentioning. The story is credited to both Richard Landau, writer of The Crooked Way (1949), and the famous Geoffrey Homes (aka Daniel Mainwaring), writer of Out of the Past (1947) and The Tall Target (1951). And the screenplay is credited to both Steve Fisher -- Dead Reckoning (1947), Lady in the Lake (1947), City That Never Sleeps (1953), Hell's Half Acre (1954) -- and George Bricker, writer of The Whip Hand (1951) and Loophole (1954).

Roadblock has not been remastered for Warner Archive's DVD-R, but picture and sound are acceptable. There are no extras, not even a trailer, but the movie is solid as an anvil, and this is a disc well worth adding to your collection.

By Jeremy Arnold