Monday, December 23, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Five Steps to Danger" (1957)

In the grand tradition of mis-named movies comes "Five Steps to Danger." Though it's not quite as egregious as "Across the Pacific," a Humphrey Bogart war espionage drama in which the Pacific Ocean is never even seen, most of the action in the 1957 thriller takes place on the highway from Arizona to Santa Fe.

It's a road picture, and not a very good one, and when and where these five misplaced steps take place is never made clear. The book writer/director Henry S. Kesler adapted it from is called "The Steel Mirror," so gosh knows where the concept of this ill-fated walk came from.

Sterling Hayden, who was more or less the antithesis of a movie star, plays John Emmett. He's such a nondescript Everyman that we never even learn where he's from or what he does for a living. If not for Hayden's inimitable, ornery charisma the character would have slid off the screen like a melted Popsicle.

It's a dippy, third-rate spy flick with a gooey love story tacked on top like a sheepskin spread across the hood of Emmett's ragtop convertible. His car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, so he sells it to the mechanic for $400, intending to continue his trip by bus. Emmett's got a month's vacation lined up and a cozy spot for fishing and hunting picked out.

Until, that is, he runs into Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman), a woman on the run -- in her own convertible, of course. She's driving from Los Angeles to Santa Fe for mysterious reasons, and recruits Emmett to be her wheel man. Soon they start running into trouble involving German spies, Soviet spies, intercontinental ballistic missiles, the FBI and the CIA.

Talk about a dame who's all trouble.

Roman's role is to basically just look confused and vulnerable all the time, and hoping a dashing hero comes to her rescue. At first she claims to be married, but then we're told she's a widow, and rich to boot.

Even at 80 minutes, the movie is a slog of dull dialogue scenes interspersed with a car chase or two, and some improbable canoodling between Ann and Emmett. If I've got my math right, they end up getting married two days after first meeting. Officially that's to keep Ann's psychiatrist, Dr. Simmons (Werner Klemperer), from having her committed to a mental institution against her will. But also because -- don't ya know -- he's fallen in love.

I love the hamminess of the scene where Emmett tells her he loves her. As hard-boiled a performer as there was, Hayden summons up all the emotional feeling as if he were ordering a pork chop dinner.

"Five Steps to Danger" is a prime example of mid-century B-movie filmmaking. It's plodding, unbelievable and dull all at once. Kesler was a TV guy -- this was the only narrative feature film he ever directed. I'm can't say I'm surprised.

No comments:

Post a Comment