What might you get by combining the two stars of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite film, with the same musical touch composer Dimitri Tiomkin gave to another Hitchcock thriller, Strangers on a Train? The best answer might be 1952’s The Steel Trap, a tense film noir from director Andrew Stone, available at the Warner Instant Archive collection.
Nine years after Hitchock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten (the Merry Widow Murderer ”Uncle Charlie”), and Teresa Wright (Cotten’s innocent neice, (“Young Charlie”) are paired again, very effectively (despite some age differences) as a middle class husband and wife. Restless bank teller Cotten carries out his routine vault duties, but his mind drifts to all the money within.
He seeks an escape from his stagnant life, accompanied by a suitcase containing one million dollars in bills and, preferably, by his unsuspecting wife and their little daughter. Much too quickly and overconfidently, he devises his nefarious plan. Things immediately go wrong, however, and we’re brought along for the nerve-racking ride.
If you’ve ever been running late for an important engagement, only to encounter every red light, train, or slow-moving vehicle ahead of you on the way, you’ll have an idea of what this would-be criminal experiences as he desperately attempts to carry out his heist. While I had some reservations with the film’s conclusion, The Steel Trap has a lot to offer, including extensive location shots of New Orleans’ French Quarter and elsewhere.
Last but definitely not least is Tiomkin’s wonderfully moody score—as much a character of this film as it was in Strangers on a Train. Nearly every action, gesture or glancing aside has its own theme. We go abruptly from nervous to whimsical in matter of seconds, and it all works beautifully.