“You’re a nice guy, Honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” Diane
Roadblock is a fair to middling offering in the Noir canon, made on a dime by Harold Daniels for RKO. Daniels's career was a largely undistinguished one and healthy helpings of schlock and camp were his meal ticket. Roadblock is a no-frills B movie without many subtleties, paint-by-numbers but moderately entertaining nevertheless. As we’ve seen with The Narrow Margin a shoestring budget does not have to equate unspectacular filmmaking but unfortunately Roadblock is hampered with a script that doesn’t add up and Daniels was not the man to rise above mediocre material. The dialogue is quite good but not even Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is up to par.
Roadblock’s plot line follows the well-known Noir trajectory. A straight-arrow insurance investigator crosses over to the dark side because of his love for a rotten dame. If you think you’ve seen it all before you’d be right. You have. Many times. And better. This film has all the classic Noir ingredients and obviously pilfers bits and pieces from more well-known films, such as Double Indemnity. It also borrows - very unconvincingly - stock footage of a car accident from High Sierra.
The best thing about the picture are the opening and closing sequences, the middle not so much.
The movie starts off with a bang. A man witnesses a deadly shooting and is taken hostage by the killer. The witness admits he’s on the run from the law and is willing to offer the loot from his bank robbery in exchange for his life. At the hiding place all of a sudden the “murder victim” shows up, alive and kicking. It was all a setup. Insurance investigators “Honest” Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) faked the deadly shooting to scare the bank robber into showing them where the stolen money was hidden.
Interestingly our first impression of Honest Joe is that he’s a violent thug. In the end he will be just that and the “murder” foreshadows Joe’s descent into crime.
Unfortunately soon the movie takes a nosedive. On his way back to LA Joe meets Diane (Joan Dixon) at the airport. Passing herself of as his Mrs. Diane cons the airline attendant into selling her a plane ticket for half price. And then seats herself right next to Joe on the plane, acting as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Joe is angry and calls her a chiseler who takes him for a soft touch. But Diane knows a sucker when she sees one. She knows his anger is just a front and she has him hooked already.
Joe is drawn to the dame like a homing pigeon the minute he claps eyes on her, but she makes it abundantly clear that she’s an expensive plaything. She has ambitions way above his pay grade. That thing between them would never work out because mink and ermine don’t come cheap and you can’t buy those goodies on a measly $350 a month insurance investigator salary. Apart from that she’s the personal property of mobster Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) who slithers around with reptilian grace and who can and gladly does supply her with the finer things in life.
Happiness can't buy you money shrugs the dame and Joe takes this to heart. To offer gold-digger Diane the lifestyle she is accustomed to, he comes up with a plan to rob the mail train for a million dollar cash shipment. His partner in crime: Diane’s cast-off sugar daddy Webb. Bit awkward but not a bad idea really. Then all of a sudden the movie goes sideways. Diane changes her mind. She doesn’t want money anymore, she just wants Joe. How touching. So the two get married.
Diane wants him to call off the mail robbery but it’s too late for Joe. The mob won’t cancel the job. After the deed Joe and his partner Harry are assigned to investigate the crime. Very soon Harry puts two and two together and sees that Joe was the inside man on the robbery. Joe’s not the only one who’s good at his job. The noose quickly tightens around his neck.
McGraw plays it differently here and maybe that’s what doesn’t sit well with me. McGraw could play both sides of the law, tough cop or tough gangster. Either way, it was deeply unwise to mess with him. But the emphasis was always on tough. What he couldn’t really play was suckers pining for a no-good dame. It’s out of character. He of the granite jaw and gravelly voice starts out as the guy we all know and love, a gruff and uncompromising insurance investigator who doesn’t stop at much to get his man. Then almost out of the blue he abandons his principles.
Mobster Webb says to him:
“It took reform school and several jails to built my character, but you’ve been square all your life. Now suddenly you decide to steal.”
Perceptive. Joe going bad after so many years of rectitude just doesn't add up. His descent into crime is too abrupt and so is Diane’s change of heart. This being a B movie with a runtime of 73 minutes this picture - like so many of its kind - had to have an uncomplicated shorthand, it had to kick its story straight into high gear. B movies rarely had the luxury to dwell on their protagonists’s inner lives and struggles. But Joe’s epiphany comes too sudden. This is the first serious hiccup in the film.
Of course in Noir the hero goes bad for a dame. In typical Noir fashion it is suggested that beneath a character’s virtuous façade obsessiveness, irrationality and violence were lying in wait the whole time. In Noir crime is not an aberration but a temptation lurking in every heart. Anyone, in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything. Suddenly formerly upright Noir characters cross the line and see what they’re really capable of. Once the floodgates open, there’s no turning back.
But for this setup to work there must be an antihero who suffers the torment of the damned while deciding to go bad for a dame. We don’t get that here. The transition from incorruptible investigator to criminal is too abrupt.
Another aspect of Joe’s character is unfortunately not explored. How much pushing did it really take? Joe seems to take to crime like a duck to water. He may have been calculating the odds his entire life, we never find out.
Joan Dixon - one of Howard Hughes’s protégés whose career never amounted to much - is very alluring and beautiful as Diane though without a doubt an actress of limited range. But she handles her role of icy temptress very well.
Diane is thoroughly efficient. She’s not so much gold-digging as strip-mining and very good at separating men from their hard-earned money. She knows the effect she has on men.
Diane: “One day you'll want something really expensive which you won't be able to afford on a detective's salary.”
Joe: "Like what?"
Diane: "Like me"
Here we run into hiccup No. 2, the character of Diane. Eddie Muller called her “an intriguing spin on the standard issue femme fatale” in his Noir Alley introduction. For once I can’t agree with him. Diane and Phyllis D aren’t exactly sisters under the mink and that’s the problem. Her transformation from gold-digger to loving wife who renounces her gold-digging ways again comes too fast and is not quite believable. Right when Joe decides to risk it all in a harebrained get-rich-quick theme and win the love of Diane, she blows her femme fatale credentials to bits and pieces and decides she loves Joe for his beautiful, upstanding and unblemished soul despite his sadly anemic bank account. This twist feels false as it doesn't operate as a natural part of the overall narrative. The movie wants to have us believe that Joe breaks bad and Diane breaks good, all out of gooey love. It’s regrettably treacly. It stretches credibility to the max. Their change is never really explained. Character development is sorely lacking.
DVD Savant Glenn Ericsson is right when he says Diane’s character is almost unplayable. There seem to be several Dianes. Diane No.1 makes it clear she’s an expensive plaything and belittles, lures and rebuffs Joe because she considers him a square; Diane No.2 does a 180 after getting sloshed and crying into her martini at a bar for five minutes because it’s Christmas (!), renouncing a life of luxury to turn into a happy newlywed overnight. Did she get a lobotomy?
From then on too much time is spent on the happiness of the young couple and as such the pacing was off. This is a crime movie, I wanted to shout at the screen. It’s supposed to be mean and nasty. Some people liked the twist on the femme fatale trope, I like my Noirs dark.
In a way Noir’s irony comes into play. Joe really didn’t need to commit the crime to win Diane. However one interesting question remains. How creditable is Diane’s change? Webb is a bit more clear-sighted than Joe and warns him. Once the bloom of first love wears off, she’ll go right back to her old ways. “Once a girl gets the feeling of mink around her shoulders, she doesn’t forget it.” And my guess is deep down Joe is well aware of the fact. After all there’s the letter from another cast-off rich lover in Texas that she’s kept and who she occasionally mentions to Joe.
In the end the movie is not entirely successful. Still, it has its moments. The last scene with a high-speed chase through the dry LA riverbeds - one of the first to be filmed there - is very good. We’re almost waiting for the giant ants to pop up. They don’t, they hadn’t hatched yet.
This is where the roadblock comes in, the dead-end marker indicating the end of the line. A none to subtle metaphor for Joe’s failed life that has reached the point of no return.
The last scene is pure Noir and almost redeems the movie. The cops kill Joe in a shootout. After crying a few crocodile tears over his dead body, Diane simply and almost dismissively walks away from the scene where her husband has just been gunned down without looking back, presumably right back to that guy in Texas who still wants to marry her. I guess I’m just a cynic.