A cool premise: Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) will kill Steve (Steve Brodie) at his brother’s midnight execution time. The gang leader Walt blames Steve for a bungled heist that resulted in Walt’s brother’s arrest as a cop killer. Steve and his angelic wife Anne (Audrey Long) spend almost all of the movie fleeing Walt’s grasp. They’re always within his reach. since Steve is mistakenly implicated in the heist, the police are after him too. So, to keep moving, Steve ends up stealing two cars, one of which belongs to the local sheriff.
The tension between the gang and Steve is compounded by his run-ins with the jaded police lieutenant Ferrari (Jason Robards). Walter and Ferrari drive the plot and action in Desperate, with Steve and Anne caught in between. This is one noir in which there’s definite good and bad guys. Steve and Anne are mostly reacting to what the gangsters or cops are up to; they’re not very interesting on their own. I suppose the lighter moments fit their characters best: the beginning anniversary scene, the wedding scene in the middle, and Anne’s safe escape near the end.
It’s ok to touch base with the everyday world and its fun moments in noir films, but the characters should be able to show more than disbelief when their ordinary life is interrupted. Anne in particular is often reduced to incredulous babbling when she ought to stop and think . The relentless pace of their escape scenes masks these tone lapses with action.
There’s some memorable scenes in Desperate. What’s got a lot of attention on this forum is the great backroom scene with the swinging lamp as Steve’s being worked over by Walt’s muscle guys. Their monster-like faces loom out of the darkness; sort of a precursor to the macabre carnival costumes that Steve and Anne use to hide in the back of a truck. Another notable scene shows the looping stair case at the end where the climactic shoot-out takes place.
That scene, however, points to a couple of issues with the plot. Since Ferrari lies unhurt outside the building, having been shoved out of the line-of-fire by Steve, why did the other officer wait so long to enter the building and help get Walt? Instead Steve is on his own.
Steve is cleared by Ferrari, as one of the captured gangsters admits that Steve hadn’t willingly participated in the heist. Also, the first car ‘theft’ is justifiable, as Steve actually paid for the car. But would the sheriff really not bring charges against Steve for stealing his car, and leaving him injured at the side of the road? Another odd thing happens near the beginning. Since Steve successfully overwhelms the gangster the second time he’s ‘escorted’, why didn’t he even try to mess with the guy sticking to him right after the heist scene?
The simple plot leaves enough room for lingering on the most creepy noir scenes; the small cast also helps to keep the focus on Steve and Anne’s escape. Without Robards and Burr, however, this wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining. Worth watching for the expressionist scenes and a couple of strong performances. 8/10.