Trapped (1949)

Richard Fleischer’s 1949 thriller, made at the low-budget Eagle-Lion Studios, offers all of the virtues and all of the vices of the old-school B-movies. Mercifully, the film’s virtues ultimately turn this into a mini-triumph.

Counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges, in his first starring role), has completed three years of a ten-year prison sentence when he agrees to a deal with Treasury agents for an early parole. Under the terms of this plan, Tris will be allowed to stage a phony escape with the help of a federal agent and then track down his former business partners in the counterfeiting scheme. But Tris double-crosses the feds and reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, with the goal of enacting revenge on his shady former comrades. However, he is unaware that the feds have him under surveillance – and his efforts to gain revenge become a complicated web of double-crosses involving everyone in his jumbled criminal circle.

On the downside, the film is framed in a clumsy semi-documentary format that feels like it was grafted from a dreary educational film. Indeed, the glorification of Treasury agents (all depicted as humorous square-jawed men in sharply tailored suits) sets “Trapped” off on an unintentionally funny foot, which is not helped by a too-long and irrelevant segment with a too-helpful bank teller lecturing an elderly female customer who is unaware she is depositing a counterfeit bill. It also doesn’t help that all of the law enforcement characters are played in a monotone style, which dilutes whatever heroism they are supposed to offer.

When the film finally gets its groove, the chemistry between Bridges and leading lady Barbara Payton (also in her first starring role) is pure noir sizzle – he is highly effective as the visceral antihero and she provides a deeply complex emotional texture to what could have been a throwaway role. Fleischer and cinematographer Guy Roe create a visually stylish world of harsh lights and inky shadows, and location shots in downtown Los Angeles provide a gritty stage for this rough melodrama to play out. And while the crime-doesn’t-pay denouement will come as no surprise, the method in which the miscreants meet their fates is wonderfully unexpected.

“Trapped” had been available for too many years in crummy public domain prints struck from a lone surviving 16mm print – no 35mm prints were known to exist until a private collector donated one to the Harvard Film Archive, which turned it over to the UCLA Film & Television Archive for restoration. A new DVD and Blu-ray release from Flicker Alley offers this restored version, which should certainly give a fresh new life to this invigorating little thriller.