Written by John D. Macdonald and Ed Waters
Directed by Edmond O’Brien
Some people offer to keep promises whereas others are either forced or compelled to offer payback in return for another person’s deeds. The former sounds very much like a nice, virtuous act while the latter tends to fall into a more sour category, like a chore.. Funny then how easily those notions can be flipped on their heads, subverting expectations in the process. For instance, one can promise to avenge an affront or gladly pay back someone who was kind enough to assist them in the past. Both notions easily intertwine depending on the circumstances and neither is necessarily an indication of a purely good or evil intent. What one advertises as a promise to fulfil a good deed may hide ulterior, more nefarious motives. Edmond O’Brien, one of the great actors of the classic film noir era only directed a couple of films, one of them the film under review this week, Man-Trap, a pseudo-noir from 1961.
Matt and Vince (Jeffrey Hunter and David Janssen respectively) have not seen each other face to face for eight long years, not since their participation in the infamous Korean War back in the early 1950s. Members of the same platoon, their fates were locked together on the day Matt risked his life to rescue Vince from certain death. Bloodied and injured, Vince was at the mercy of North Korean soldiers, and were it not from a bold and brave manoeuvre on the part of Matt, he would be nothing but bones and ashes somewhere on a Korean beach. While they have remained in communication via letters and postcards since the war, today is the big reunion. For Matt, reconnecting with his old friend could not have come at a better time. Disillusioned with his work and experiencing more than just rocky waters in his marriage to the morally bankrupt Nina (Stella Stevens), he could very much use something of a lift. However, that is not quite why Vince has finally made an appearance. His promise to repay Matt for saving his life is about to come to fruition, as he lays out a plan in which together they will steal a hefty three and a half million dollars from a Latin American dictator arriving at a San Francisco airport in the coming days. Is it a Robin Hood act or pure theft, Matt wonders. Plus, Nina and Vince seem a little too cozy with one another to his liking…
Those still adapting themselves to film noir, the newcomers so to speak, might not see an issue with Man-Trap‘s inclusion in the column. The more seasoned watchers might be quick to cry foul and, in honesty, their reasons are legitimate. For one, the vintage noir era is often said to have concluded in the dying days of the 1950s, with Touch of Evil, from 1958, being the last great noir. Edmond O’Brien’s film is from 1961, a full 3 years later, not to mention released in a decade no one associates with the genre. Secondly, film noir is often tied to the ghosts of the second world war, either directly or indirectly, emphasizing the fractured nature of American society, its increased bitterness and cynicism, in the aftermath of said war. Man-Trap uses the Korean War as the launching pad for its story. Thirdly, the film contains a sizable amount melodrama between the married of characters Matt and Nina, the latter who is a heartless drunkard that continuously bemoans her husband for just about everything. That said, there is a lot about Man-Trap that adheres to the themes of noir that would allow some to accept it as a entry. Nevertheless, cautioned was used in the introductory paragraph by using the term ‘pseudo-noir.’ One might even be tempted to consider O’Brien’s film as the very first neo-noir picture.
The most recognizable genre trope is surely the portion of the story which deals with the bond between Matt and Vince. As has been written so frequently, including in this very column, the idea of the past coming back to affect one’s present is one of noir’s strongest attributes. That past should preferably lead to a poisonous and harrowing misadventure down the dark recesses of Man’s heart of mind, and in that respect Man-Trap earns top honours. In fact, all the scenes involving Matt and Vince are the very best in the entire film even though they only make up about half of it. Matt, played with appropriate woodiness by Jeffrey Hunter, is a man whose war-time exploits have led to very little significant fulfilment back on home soil. He is living a fatalistic nightmare by workin for a corrupt man and is remaining married to the latter’s corrupt daughter. Having gone over to Korean to fight against communism eight years prior, today he is confronted by capitalism’s worst incarnations. When confronting his employer for the dubious business practices their company practices, he is berated for trying to act the hero. It requires too much energy, his boss yells. Deeply disillusioned and dissatisfied with life, Vince personifies the potential for a much needed reprieve. It quickly becomes apparent that Vince’s own motivations are not as clear cut as the protagonist might have preferred. After reminiscing for a bit, Vince lays out what sounds like a perfect plan to rob a Latin American dictator while posing as the man’s American liaison and chauffeur. While on the surface it appears to be a plan that would stick a wrench in an evil person’s machinations, the reality of the situation is that Vince is as corrupt as everyone else Matt knows. It is but theft to satisfy greed’s insatiable hunger, and while Vince has thought of pulling off the trick with his old friend in order to thank him for his act of heroism all those years ago, it changes nothing of the fact that by agreeing to participate, Matt puts himself in grave danger. That said, what choice does the protagonist have before him? Continue living his humdrum existence or at least take a chance on something better even though the second options entails becoming a criminal in the process? On his own, Matt is not much more than a stiff citizens caught in a rut. Vince, as the most interesting character in the film, makes Matt more interesting too.
David Janssen is superb as Vince. In stark contrast to Jeffrey Hunter, Janseen plays his part with a supreme amount of confidence. Clearly, his character has performed such acts of villainy before, having grown quite accustomed to being a bad person at this point. It is a very seductive performance and really sells the idea that Matt would fall prey to engaging with the plan. Even though he is no better than the morally bankrupt Nina, he is the most entertaining aspect of Man-Trap. As Vince’s greediness becomes increasingly apparent, so does Janssen’s harder edge come to light. As usual, there are very few people a hero can genuinely trust in such films.
On the topic of Nina, it is very much this other half of Man-Trap dealing with a flailing marriage which pegs the movie back from ever becoming a great noir. There is a surprising amount of time allocated to scenes in which Matt and Nina berate each other, exchanges which escalate to the point of physical violence. It is less that such scenes are devoid of any quality (there is an unorthodox quality about them. More on that in a moment) and more that they eat away running time which could have gone to the film’s purer noir angle. The film is truthfully two types of stories melded into a single picture with some occasional intertwining in the final third when Vince and Nina take a liking to one another. There is at least one reason to highlight the living room melodrama: Stella Stevens. This is one of the most over the top, theatrical performances in any film reviewed in the column. She appears to be acting in another film entirely. Playing a drunk and embittered character is one thing but Stevens is operating on a completely different level. Truthfully, it does not fit very well with the remainder of the picture yet it is so watchable for its unabashed depravity. Nevertheless, going all out as a flamboyant alcoholic can only carry one so far in a movie with many more interesting ideas it could have concentrated on.
While Edmond O’Brien has trouble balancing the importance of these two conflicting storylines, the same criticism cannot be written about the film’s look, which is stellar from start to finish. The cinematography is courtesy of Loyal Riggs, who provides Man-Trap with a very sharp look in a terrific black and white palette. The opening scene on the beach during the Korean War is a thing of beauty and a wonderful taste of things to come. The stark contrast between the well lit scenes and those muddled in the dark ironically end up serving the film rather well considering the duplicitous nature of Matt’s story. Man-Trap will demand the patience of some, but there are some brilliant nuggets to be found.