The 1952 film The Steel Trap doesn’t easily fit into any one film genre. It certainly shares elements with film noir of the period: most notably the use of voiceover narration by the main character, it’s centered around a crime (a bank robbery) and throws many unfortunate twists of fate at the protagonist.
Unlike noir, however, there is no femme fatale. The style of filmmaking is closer to the documentary/early television style that became prevalent during the 1950s. At times it seems to fit more into the melodrama category than noir.
Jim Osborne (Joseph Cotten) is an assistant bank manager, who seems to be living out the post-war American Dream. He has a lovely wife named Laurie (Teresa Wright) and daughter, a nice house in the suburbs, a good car.
Yet he is unaccountably discontented. He daydreams of robbing the bank of the close to a million dollars kept in the safe over each weekend. He even goes so far as to research which countries don’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. When the perfect—and final for some time—weekend presents itself, Jim takes the leap and removes the money from the bank.
He tells Laurie he is being sent to Brazil by the bank to oversee an important deal. Laurie is thrilled. They scramble to get passports and flights.
At almost every turn in their attempt to get to Brazil they face obstacles, such as delayed flights, missed connections, and airport security questioning Jim’s unusually heavy suitcase. Stuck in New Orleans, Jim and Laurie try to enjoy themselves.
Finally, Jim is forced to confess what he has done. Laurie, aghast that her husband committed such a deed, leaves him. Jim must decide if he is to go on to Brazil alone or return and confess.
The suspense factor of the film is quite good. There’s hardly a scene where there isn’t some question of whether or not Jim will get caught. Laurie is deeply in love with her husband but not a fool about it. It’s quite refreshing that Laurie is as important a character to the story as Jim.
(I have to mention I found Cotten and Wright as a romantic couple just the slightest bit discomfiting, considering they played uncle and niece in Shadow of a Doubt. I suspect the decision to have Wright go blonde for the role was to help erase people’s memories of their characters’ relationship in the previous film.)
I did miss some of the stylishness of other noir films. The direction is better than competent, and the film makes excellent use of its location shoot in New Orleans, but it doesn’t quite achieve that feeling of enclosing doom that marks most noirs.
On the other hand, the film is an interesting study of post-war ennui, where everything promised to a man like Jim has been delivered, yet he still wants more. It’s not enough that he gets the exact rewards he’s told he’ll get for taking an expected career path, which were the basis of the growth of the middle class after World War II. Unfortunately, the ending undermines that theme. (I have to wonder if it was changed to satisfy the censors.)
The steel trap referred to in the title is of course the cage where the bank safe is kept—but it could just as easily refer to the life Jim is so eager to escape.