Movie Review: Roadblock (1951)
“Hot Lead and Cold Cash Outside the Law”
Director: Harold Daniels
Cast: Charles McGraw, Joan Dixon, Lowell Gilmore
Synopsis: Honest LA insurance detective Joe Peters becomes corrupt after falling in love with sensual gold-digger model Diane.
From the sleek looks to the expensive furs, the character of Diane (Joan Dixon) in Harold Daniel’s Roadblock is the quintessential femme fatale, which is why she understandably shrugs off the advances of hopeful but lowly-paid insurance investigator, Joe Peters (Charles McGraw – The Birds, Hang ‘Em High). He’s like a different species to her, one she can’t quite understand: “Someday, you’re going to want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary,” she tells him. “Like what?” He asks. “Like me,” she purrs. If Joe was smart, he’d back away, but she’s already begun to loosen the binds of the moral code by which he’s lived his life up to now. He’s so hung up on her that you can see the undercurrent of desire seething beneath his rugged features as he nurses a drink in his small, cheaply-furnished apartment.
Fate conspires to throw them together once more. There’s a connection, and it’s enough for Peters to set in motion a plan to mastermind the robbery of a mail train with Webb which will net him somewhere in the region of $400,000. The kicker is that their unexpected meeting has also stirred feelings in Diane that are strong enough for her to decide to forsake life as a criminal’s plaything for that of the wife of ordinary, honest Joe. One turns bad for the same reason that the other turns good. It’s a neat subversion of the genre formula, but Roadblock never really follows through. Diane, so sure of what she was and what she wanted in the film’s early scenes, devolves into this passive doll, nothing more than an appendage of her new husband. She doesn’t even get mad when Peters tells her about the robbery.
Roadblock could have been a classic had it been able to shake itself free of its restraints. Produced at RKO at a time when its mad new owner, Howard Hughes, was systematically chipping away at the foundations on which the studio was built, it was assigned to a workhorse director with limited vision or ambition. The key role of Diane would have been tough for an accomplished actress to play, but Joan Dixon, one of many Hughes starlets whose careers went nowhere, simply has no idea of what expression to wear with which line. And to make matters worse, the train robbery which plays such an important part in the story takes place off-screen while Peters gazes wistfully at a toy train in the store near the honeymoon cabin in which he’s established an alibi.
Somehow, a half-decent movie emerges from this apparently willful attempt to produce something of banal mediocrity. Roadblock opens strongly with a twist scene that echoes the theme of duality, and McGraw, an accomplished actor who never quite managed to break into the big time, gives one of the best performances of his career. Roadblock also boasts an impressive finale with what must then have been a unique car chase in the dried-out L.A. riverbed. The final shot, had it been handled by a director more concerned with creating scenes that resonate with an audience than simply ensuring the camera is pointing in the right direction, could also have been one of those classics that left you pondering on the fate of its subject for days. Instead, you just wonder why the police aren’t chasing after them…
(Reviewed 11th May 2016)