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The Steel Trap

The Steel Trap(1952)

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teaser The Steel Trap (1952)

A decade past their celebrated pairing in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright were reunited as leading man and lady for Andrew Stone's tense later noir The Steel Trap (1952). Though the pair had been cast persuasively by Hitchcock as uncle and niece (Wright was then a youthful 25 to Cotten's worldlier 38), the intervening years had allowed the actress to mature to the point at which the twelve-year difference between the stars was less jarring. Taking a tip from earlier studio noirs, which had filmed on the streets of Los Angeles as a way around wartime restrictions on set-building, Stone filmed much of The Steel Trap on location to add a level of verisimilitude to the tale of a staid assistant bank manager who breaks up the monotony of his day to day life by plotting the perfect crime. Though the film affords its stars a fresh pair of characters in which to live, The Steel Trap hews close to the Shadow of a Doubt playbook, with Cotten playing to perfection the part of the wrongdoer whose faade of normalcy crumbles in the face of unforeseeable events and Wright the faithful family member who comes to understand that there is something not quite right about her loved one.

Until Wright catches on late in the second act that their working vacation to Rio de Janeiro has been underwritten by embezzled funds, The Steel Trap belongs almost solely to Cotten, who spends much of the film performing in edgy pantomime as his voiceover relates the genesis of the perfect crime from its humble origins as "an amusing thought to dwell on while shaving or riding to work." The film could easily have been adapted from a radio play, so reliant is the narrative on spoken exposition (Cotten and Wright did in fact take the tale to the air for a September 1953 adaptation by Lux Radio Theatre); Cotten's ruminations on the relative ease with which he might get away with murder (figuratively speaking) suggest a kinship between The Steel Trap and Edgar Allan Poe's cold-blooded confessional The Tell-Tale Heart, though the first act of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is recalled as well, reliant as it is too on ghostly voiceovers as a harbinger of conscience. No one was more urbane while breaking the law than Joseph Cotten but The Steel Trap works against the Virginia-born actor's native suavity in the service of an anti-crime tract that illustrates the death of his character's avarice by a thousand cuts of circumstance. Cotten's performance was an apt warmup for his next role, as Marilyn Monroe's psychotic husband in Niagara (1953).

Writer-director-producer Andrew Stone would bring a journalistic immediacy to many of the films he made after serving his journeyman years with Universal, Paramount, and United Artists. He was by this point crafting a run of crime films to his own taste, among them Highway 301 (1950), Confidence Girl (1952), A Blueprint for Murder (1953) - again, with Cotten - and The Night Holds Terror (1954). By his own estimate, Stone and cinematographer Ernest Lazlo (fresh from shooting the noir classic D.O.A.) shot 98% of The Steel Trap on location in Los Angeles and New Orleans. (Stone would achieve the apex of reality in 1960 with The Final Voyage, a proto-disaster film that made use of the real-life sinking of the French luxury liner SS Ile de France.) Walking a fine line between noir expressionism and the vogue for docu-drama, Stone fills his frame with faces that are less familiar than they might have been, though the eagle-eyed will recognize Walter Sande from Invaders from Mars (1953), Carlton Young from Reefer Madness (1936), and - more clearly heard than seen in a bit as a cleaning lady - Marjorie Bennett, who later played Victor Buono's blowsy mother in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Vanity Will Get You Somewhere by Joseph Cotten (iUniverse, 2000)
Teresa Wright obituary by Tom Vallance, The Independent, April 1, 2005

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