With a title like Desperate (1947) and a lead character who is a veteran striving to make a success of both his new marriage and his job, it might be reasonable to expect the focus to be on the desperation related to difficulties in settling back into civilian life. What we get, however, is a classic film noir scenario based on some dubious choices and flawed judgement. It is often said that the kind of maladjustment that appeared to dominate the post-war landscape was a major driver of film noir in the mid to late 1940s. I guess the initial poor call by the protagonist that sets everything in motion could be regarded as being tangentially influenced by that, but it’s really just a matter of a guy looking to make a bit of extra cash and how that draws him into one of those spiraling nightmares where it seems virtually impossible to catch a break.
Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) is trying to make a go of it as a trucker and makes what turns out to be a fateful decision to accept a job offer from an anonymous caller. He could have been enjoying a celebratory dinner with his new wife Anne (Audrey Long), and she could have broken the happy news that there was a baby on the way. However, a man just starting out needs money and so the prospect of some easy cash for an evening’s work is too alluring to pass up. That this is the first of Randall’s poor choices becomes abundantly clear when he turns up for the job only to be greeted by a shady old acquaintance, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr). He then discovers that he is expected to haul away the spoils of a warehouse heist. That would be bad enough in itself, but a bungled escape bid by Randall stirs up the thieves and leads to the shooting of a cop and Radak’s brother getting arrested.
Radak is, not unnaturally, sore, sore enough to have his hoods hand out a brutal beating along with a warning that Randall’s wife will suffer too unless he is prepared to take the rap and by doing so exonerate the brother, who is now looking at a date in the death house on a murder rap. Now a smart guy would take the chance to go to the police at this point, say his piece, and let them provide the protection. However, Randall doesn’t do that; he proceeds to make the next of his poor choices and goes on the run, not to save himself but to find a sanctuary where he can stow his wife till the increasingly tangled skein can be unraveled.
So the story follows Randall as he tries to keep at least half a step ahead of the vengeful Radak, and to avoid further run-ins with the law. In a sense, everybody, all of the main characters anyway, grow progressively more desperate as the plot unfolds. Randall fears for his and for his family’s safety, Anne’s anxiety for her husband and child is a constant, and Radak’s hunger for retribution against the man he holds responsible for his brother’s plight becomes almost monstrous.
The tendency is to think of Anthony Mann’s films noir in terms of his work at Eagle-Lion in collaboration with cinematographer John Alton. However, Desperate was made for RKO and was shot by George E Diskant. Alton or not, Eagle-Lion or not, this is without question an Anthony Mann movie. Visually, it is inventive and disorientating – the beating of Randall, as the overhead lamp swings ominously like a blade slicing through the shadows as the hoodlums’ fists slice up the hero, has Radak dipping in and out of darkness like some malign bogeyman. Characters are frequently either squeezed by the frame or shot from unexpected angles, everything highly suggestive of people under pressure and facing circumstances that are fraught with peril and insecurity. Mann has a credit for the story, from which Harry Essex wrote the screenplay, and it is an incident packed affair. If anything though, the movie is probably overloaded with incident, something that becomes even more noticeable when one takes into account the brief hour and a quarter running time. That said, it does contribute to the sense of urgency of the production and perhaps could be seen as going some way toward explaining Randall’s questionable judgement on many occasions. Thematically too, there is much that we associate with Mann on display, notably the violence and brutality the characters must endure, and that typical sense of movement and direction, not so much forward as upward, that ever present striving to reach some high place, which in this case culminates in the shootout on the tenement stairway.
Steve Brodie was a perennial supporting player, a name and a face that will be familiar from countless movies and TV shows. That he never got the lead outside of Desperate is no slight on his acting abilities, he simply wasn’t the type physically to be cast in headline roles. What he had, however, was a recognizably everyman quality with the features and demeanor of a regular guy. As such, he was well chosen to play Steve Randall – it is easy to accept him as a man who can be worked over, one whose decisions will be flawed from time to time. Raymond Burr plays Radak as a relentless and driven figure, and Mann makes good use of his bulk, having him crowd and dominate the frame on multiple occasions. Audrey Long spends much of her time fending off a gnawing anguish and the script offers her little or no opportunity to do anything beyond that. In support, Douglas Fowley, another familiar face from countless movies as well as a recurring role as Doc Holliday on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, is superbly seedy as an ill-fated private eye, while Jason Robards Sr playing the detached detective with the singsong delivery is unusual enough to make his relatively small role memorable.
Desperate came out on DVD from Warner Brothers on one of their later film noir sets and it looks very well. The films Anthony Mann made for Eagle-Lion from around this time draw more critical attention and their profile is correspondingly higher. I reckon the script is a little crowded and busy, but the movie is a good one overall with a strong sense of momentum and it stands as a solid example of the director’s noir work.