Written by Robert Smith
Directed by Irving Pichel
Everyone is unfortunate enough to experience, at one point in their lifetime, an episode when it seems as though every single decision they make produces the worst results imaginable. Each successive attempt to ameliorate the predicament only worsens it. Call it Murphy’s Law, call it poor planning and judgment, but whatever it is, car mechanic Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney) is bitten by the terrible bug from the moment he meets a lovely girl, Vera Novak (Jeanne Cagney), working the cash register at a nearby deli. Sensing an opportunity to for a fun night out, Dan opts, despite his better judgment, to steal 20$ from his employer’s register, fully expecting to pay it back the next day seeing as an old friend owes him that very amount anyhow. When said friend fails to come up with the money off hand, Dan finds himself in a pickle, especially with the company’s accountant on the way to check the numbers. Panic sends Dan through a spiral of escapades to pay back the original 20$, each one resulting in him owing more than he bargained for!
If there is a genre mash-up with film noir that remains mostly untapped, it is comedy. Of course, the very nature of noir does not lend itself very eloquently to the realm of filmmaking that results in chuckles and knee-slapping laughter. That being said, certain scripts embellish melodramatic plots and turning points to such a degree, one cannot help but imagine that in the hands of a director and a cast with an inkling of a funny bone, the results could be vastly different. A case study for a movie that flirts with comedy from beginning to end without ever fully embracing that potential is director Irving Pichel’s Quicksand. Putting vaudevillian performer Mickey Rooney under the spotlight to carry the film only strengthens the argument that the filmmakers must, in the back of their minds, understand what tone their project could adopt even if it never wholly commits.
What makes Quicksand such an interesting example is the fact that it never crosses the border over into over comedy. The plot is played seriously, as does the entire cast play their parts as seriously as they can. There are even a couple of legitimately tension-filled scenes during which the unfortunate Dan Brady is a hair away from being caught by authorities (or worse) in the desperate attempts to right increasingly cumbersome series of wrongs. If director Pichel had preferred going for laughs, then Quicksand would not be the same movie at all. As it stands, the picture is a drama wherein the misadventures of the protagonist continuously grow more perilous and dumfounding, as if he had managed to peeve off lady luck in such a way that she, in turn, was deadest on letting him have the worst spell of misfortune imaginable.
No human being, however unkind, should ever have to jump through as many fire-lit rings as Dan Brady does in Quicksand. After a while, the viewer no longer asks themselves if anything else can go wrong but rather what else can go wrong, because something invariably will. Such is the card that the filmmakers choose to play: escalation. Escalation is the key to any proper story, that much goes without saying. As the characters grow, so too do the stakes, thus keeping the audience enthralled, salivating at the prospect of what might happen next. Director Pichel and company take the technique of escalation and multiply it tenfold if not more. The messes Brady finds himself in are just believable enough on their own terms. When stacked one atop the other, the film morphs into a wild ride, befitting of the main actor’s vaudevillian background considering that his character does really seem to be part of a variety of crazy acts.
Rooney himself is surprisingly solid in the lead role, keeping in check whatever overtly theatrical tendencies might have otherwise emerged. He epitomizes the noir anti-hero given his nice guy demeanor but an unfortunate propensity to make the wrong decisions, all inspired by some form of greed or jealousy, depending on the circumstances. He is neither a bad person nor a wholly altruistic individual. Fitting the mold of a noir personality, Brady is at the core a decent fellow, only he allows Man’s less savory tendencies get the better of him, which ultimately lands him in a whole lot of hot water. Jeanne Cagney is up to task as the sleazy femme fatale, Vera Novak. She plays hard to get at first, never hiding her materialistic inclinations that a chap like Brady could never possibly satisfy on his current salary. While still charming during the film’s first half, her egotistical nature eventually reveals itself, leaving viewers with the portrait of a gold digger, a woman who sucks a man’s pocket book dry because her fashion come first before anything else. Art Smith is calculatingly cold as Brady’s manager at the auto repair shop, expressing no remorse for the pressure he puts on his employee’s shoulders, even going so far as duping the protagonist into believing that his boss knows about a stolen car from the lot (the kicker being that Brady actually did steal it!). Finally, there is Peter Lorre in a grotesque, slimy supporting role. His character runs the games at a nearby amusement park. He and Vera share a past, the latter taunting him for reasons that are never clearly explained, but with a little imagination one can guess what sort of a relationship they once experienced. In every single scene Lorre looks like someone who has had one too many drinks, seemingly sleepwalking and sporting a nauseating, greasy look. He isn’t in the film much, but his performance as a true lowlife is certainly felt.
Quicksand is a bit of a lark without ever genuinely claiming itself a comedy, and that is what, in part, makes it such a weirdly interesting little movie. Mickey Rooney’s presence supports the less than deadly serious air the film could have otherwise adopted. As it stands, the fact that the movie consciously takes its story seriously ends up selling the subtle levity. Quicksand is difficult to categorize but not difficult to enjoy.