Anthony Mann’s Desperate stars Steve Brodie (not to be confused with the other Steve Brodie) and Audrey Long (the future Mrs. Leslie Charteris) as a young married couple on the run from sinister thugs led by the glowering Raymond Burr.
Steve Randall (Brodie), the owner and sole operator of Stephen Randall Trucking, is such a sweetie that he buys flowers for his wife Anne (Long) on their four-month anniversary. (When I watched this movie with my wife, she turned to me and said, “You didn’t get me anything for our four-month anniversary.” Thanks for making the rest of us look bad, Steve.) But the happy couple’s celebration has to be postponed when Steve gets an offer he can’t refuse … $50 for just one night’s work.
When an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The crew of mugs loading merchandise from a warehouse into Steve’s truck are clearly up to no good. When one of them flashes a rod, Steve balks, so they shove him back in the truck and keep the gun on him. They need a clean “face” for the cops.
When a police officer shows up to investigate, Steve signals him with his lights, which leads to a shootout between the cops and the thieves. Steve drives away. Al Radak (Larry Nunn), who has one foot on Steve’s back bumper and the other on the loading dock, falls and is captured by the police. His older brother, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), the leader of the crew, gets away with his henchman, Reynolds (William Challee).
Walt’s crazy about his kid brother, and Al will face the death penalty for the cop who was killed during the warehouse heist. So Walt demands that Steve turn himself in to the cops and claim he was responsible. To convince him, Walt calls in Steve’s license plate number and then has his boys work him over in a dark room with a single swinging overhead light. It’s a stunning sequence, and quintessentially noir.
When Steve doesn’t give in, Walt tries a new tactic. “Say, I’ll bet that new bride of yours is pretty,” he says while holding a broken bottle. “How ’bout it Steve?”
Walt has found Steve’s Achilles’ heel, and he agrees to Walt’s plan. Walt says, “I don’t care what you tell them, but if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t gonna be so good to look at.”
But Steve manages to slip away from Reynolds and call Anne from a pay phone. He tells her to meet him at the train station. They’ll go on the lam together, so Anne will be out of Walt’s reach.
Most of the rest of the film is an extended cross-country chase, as Steve and Anne move from place to place, establish new identities for themselves, and pick up work where Steve can find it. They’re pursued not only by Walt and Reynolds, but by the authorities, since Steve is still a person of interest in the murder of the police officer at the warehouse.
Along the way they have the obligatory conversation about how he can’t turn himself in to the police because they won’t believe him. They have a second wedding on the Minnesota farm owned by Uncle Jan and Aunt Klara (Paul E. Burns and Ilka Grüning) because their first marriage was just a courthouse deal and they deserve a big gathering with a real priest. Anne finds out she’s pregnant. They are crossed up by a sleazy private investigator named Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) and they are assisted by a sympathetic police detective, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards), who’s not above using Steve as bait to catch Walt.
Desperate is not a long film (it’s less than an hour and 15 minutes), but it drags a little during its middle act, which sometimes feels repetitive. It redeems itself completely in its final act, however, which is as dark and as tense as any film noir fan could ask for. Steve insures himself for $5,000 and heads for Walt dead-on, like a man playing chicken with an oncoming freight train. Six months have passed since Al was arrested, and he’s set to be executed. Walt gave up a long time ago on the idea that his brother could be freed, and all he wants now is the satisfaction of killing Steve at the exact moment that Al dies. A life for a life.
Walt and Reynolds take Steve to an apartment. Walt places a clock on the table between them in the kitchen. It’s a quarter to midnight. He gives Steve a last meal — sandwiches and milk — and a cigarette, and promises to shoot him at the stroke of midnight. There are increasingly tight close-ups of their three sweaty faces. “Now who was it said time flies?” Walt asks sardonically.
Desperate is the first really good noir from Anthony Mann, a director whose name is now inextricable from the term “film noir,” but who started out in Hollywood making mostly musicals and comedies. Desperate is not as interesting as T-Men (1947) or as powerful as Raw Deal (1948), but it’s a well-made, well-acted, exciting thriller. Audrey Long (recently seen as Claire Trevor’s little sister in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill) is probably the weakest actor in the film, but she’s called on to do the least. Steve Brodie is an appealing protagonist. He has a pleasant face and a regular-guy demeanor, and he’s believable as a man who’s pushed too far.
The real treat in Desperate is Raymond Burr as the vicious Walt Radak. This was only Burr’s third credited appearance on film, and while I enjoyed his role as the villain in William Berke’s Code of the West (1947), Desperate plays much better to his strengths as an actor. Burr was a remarkable heavy (no offense intended, big guy), and I never stopped to consider how ludicrous Walt’s plans were while I was watching this film. Burr sells every one of his hard-boiled lines with ruthless efficiency.
Mann’s cinematographer on Desperate, George E. Diskant, deserves mention, too. While he’s perhaps not as famous as Mann’s frequent collaborator John Alton, Diskant’s photography in Desperate is beautiful — full of darkness, hard angles, and vertigo-inducing chiaroscuro constructions.