Directed by Anthony Mann
Screenplay by Harry Essex
One of film noir’s strongest, most unique qualities is its malleability. A film which fans and scholars deem as part of the genre need not be especially violent, nor especially thrilling, nor especially long, nor especially short, etc. Despite that so many take pleasure in listing the many ingredients they deem ‘essential’ for a movie to be described as noir, the reality is that the possibilities to play around with the elements allows for remarkable freedom for writers and directors. Anthony Mann is a name that should be very familiar with any self described noir buff, having directing more than a handful, among them brilliant gems such as Side Street and Border Incident. Much like in the latter of the the two mentioned pictures, the director takes noir by the horns and creates a sharp, tough story dictated by a rapid fire pace for 1947’s Desperate.
Having already watched Side Street, Desperate comes across as a precursor to the former, placing a very similar protagonist with a very similar pregnant wife character in a similar misadventure: on the run against a group of no good crooks who want nothing more to see them dead. The poor fellow in question in Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) a down to earth truck driver who recently married the woman of his dreams, Anne (Audrey Long). On the night they are to celebrate their four month anniversary (and that Anne is to reveal her pregnancy), Steve receives a call from a colleague who requires immediate assistance in transporting some goods that. A 50$ pay is enough to convince Steve to show up at the docking bay shortly thereafter. The presence of Watt Radak (Raymond Burr) and a bunch of his hoodlums equipped with pistols sets off the alarms in Steve’s mind, who alerts nearby police. The hero escapes the battle, but learns that Watt’s younger brother is in jail for the murder of a police officer. Now Watt, who fears the worst for his sibling, including the death sentence, wants payback, and he wants it as soon as possible.
Another element which encourages the viewer to conclude that Desperate is very much akin to Street is in how director Mann has the plot zip along like an Formula 1 race car, albeit with the best intentions at heart which in turn produce the best results. To put it bluntly, the film takes little to no time in sending the central figure’s life into a dizzying tailspin of tension, thrills and action. From the time the opening credits role to the moment Steve notices that he is a pawn in Watt Radak’s smuggling operation, barely 6 or 7 minutes have past. Where this incredibly quick pacing really takes the viewer by surprise is that it never works against the film or the development of its characters. In those precious few minutes Anthony Mann has established with terrific gusto who the protagonist is, provided a general outline as to what type of man he is (honest, driven by young love), what his job is, who his wife and that she is pregnant, that they could improve their financial situation given how they easily drop their evening plans in favour of earning 50$, that Watt Radak is the chief antagonist of the piece, and finally what sort of predicament Steve will have to deal with from that point until the end of the film (on run from the villains). To be able to convey all that information so confidently and stylishly with only few precious scenes speaks to Mann’s talents as not just a visual storyteller, which should be obvious to anyone who has seen a couple of his films, but one who perfectly grasps narrative and editing. From there the movie only kicks into higher gear, providing the young couple with a heap of unfortunate luck and challenges to face if they are ever going to live the happy, quiet life they dream of. Every single time Steve and Anne believe to be in a safe haven, something or someone indicates that they have to be on the move once more. The effect is like the thunderous bang of a pistol which shockingly interrupts a sequence of tranquillity. That is Mann refusing to slow the story down, and if a viewer cannot keep up, then just too bad.
The fallout to Steve’s early escape is equally unorthodox and entertaining. Mann could have had Watt and his men directly chase after Steve and Anne for the remainder of the picture, but instead he chooses to have Burr’s character remain hidden in the shadows while awaiting his imprisoned younger brother’s fate. Not one let the hero escape unscathed for his mistake, the vindictive gangster has it that the police embark on a hunt for Steve and Anne by telling them by phone (not revealing who he is, obviously) the licence plate number for Steve’s truck. One thing then leads into the another and before one knows it, Steve and Anne are not just on the run from criminals, but those who should be looking for the real criminals in the first place. A series of tense scenes follow in which the lovers are continuously a hair away from being wrongfully arrested, but Steve refuses to call for help from law enforcement before he as Anne in a safe and secure place where Watt’s boys cannot get to her. During this stretch of the film, the antagonists stick to their hideout and send a private eye, Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) to search for their targets. Essentially, honest people are doing the villain’s dirty work for him. Brilliant.
It is a curious decision on the behalf of the filmmakers to withhold the villains from playing greater a part in the story until very late in the film. Interestingly enough, it does play into the overall theme of the film, that being desperation (the title is a bit of a giveaway, admittedly). Granted, the tension derived from feeling the pressure of despair affects Steve more than anybody. It begins with him accepting a job worth 50$ instead of celebrating with his wife, but of course snowballs into the desperation of securing his pregnant wife’s well being before even going to the police, something he should have done from the very outset (prolonging the period between the fateful night which started the adventure and his visit to the authorities only solidifies his image as the culprit in the eyes of the law). The movie spreads the desperation around however, ensuring that more characters than just Steve and Anne are driven by it. Watt, for instance, is so desperate to find Steve that he hires a private eye to do the job for him while he stresses over his brother’s impending doom. That desperation later carries over into his bizarre obsession, once it has been revealed that his brother is indeed to be executed, with killing Steve at the exact same time of his sibling’s state approved demise. Despair brings with it psychological unease and duress, making it therefore fascinating to witness characters on both sides of the moral pendulum wrestle with it throughout the entire film, not just the hero.
Mann consistently brings out the best work in his casts, but Desperate may take the cake in terms of the amount of actors who provide memorable, sharp performances, regardless of how large or small their parts are. Steve Brodie elevates the quality of his character (which is written rather plainly, truth be told) with some finely tuned acting making his character a very caring one, somebody the audience definitely does not want to see suffer harm. Having a protagonist on the run behave with anxiety during an entire movie is one thing, but only offers one-dimensionality. This protagonist is a really nice guy who enjoys working and making friends, so seeing him constantly thrown back into the frying pan whenever he thinks he and Anne are safe has him earn empathy, and Brodie plays the part wonderfully. Raymong Burr is an absolute beast of a man, both physically and personality-wise. Few can intimidate as easily as him. The list of fine acting goes well beyond the leads however. Jason Robards plays one of the best detective lieutenants in any film noir ever: cool, experienced, funny, smart, basically a character who can earn the audience’s respect despite that he trying to arrest the protagonist, until the very end that is. Virtually every single individual appearing in the film delivers their lines with their own tremendous energy, which makes the world of Desperate a fully realized one where everybody is actually a character and not just either a lead or an extra, even though the film cannot possibly follow them all. Dick Elliot’s tiny role as Sheriff Hat Lewis is brilliant, Douglas Fowley as Watt’s private eye is appropriately reptilian in his sleaze, even the actor playing Watt doctor, Ralf Harolde, who only appears in one scene, is great. It is a tall challenge to recall another film in which literally everybody was excellent, from the top billed actors to the briefest of cameos.
Desperate is short, but what it lacks in running time it makes up for by utilizing every second the best way it can. The movie is fun, it is action packed, it looks incredibly slick with some cinematogaphy which seems directly inspired by 1930s German Expressionism, and its cast, literally without exception, is remarkable.