It’s easy to imagine Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) has the life of many men circa 1947. He’s a war vet, and he makes an honest wage as a truck driver. Brodie and the effervescent Audrey Long are stars befitting the budget of the film, but I rather like them for it. There’s nothing prepossessing about them, and we appreciate them for their sheer likability; they’re humble, honest folks.
From the first instance they’re in a room together, they also prove themselves to be an adorably in-love couple, between flowers, anniversary cakes, and news of a baby on the way. It certainly is an auspicious beginning, and yet it’s all so wholesome; it feels like an instant tip-off that this picture is going to hell very fast. It proves to be the case.
Because Steve gets a call to carry a special load of goods. He doesn’t think anything of it, and he could use the extra dough on his salary. Only too late does he realize his old friend is asking him to haul stolen merchandise. This wasn’t what he signed up for, but they don’t care.
Raymond Burr fortuitously has a reputation for playing the pertinacious district attorney Perry Mason because without that there’s little doubt he would be forever immortalized as one of the most vicious baddies ever conceived in the age of noir. There’s something between his piercing eyes, the command of his voice, and his formidable frame that just leave an instant impression. He knows how to use them to his full advantage in the role of Walt Radak, a merciless criminal who also has a protective streak when it comes to his kid brother.
This is crucial because, in the botched burglary, it’s his brother who is taken by the authorities; the other thugs are frazzled but get away, and all of a sudden Steve is in a load of quicksand sinking fast.
Arguably, the creative apex of the film — or at least its fundamental allure — is suggested in a low-lit sequence in the gangster lair. Steve is cornered and Walt is ready to rough him up, literally knuckling the camera. Moments later, the man’s face is disfigured by a jagged bottle, and he’s pounded to a pulp under a swinging light fixture. We don’t see it explicitly, but the scene is so violently expressive; it’s all the more evocative thanks to this very specific stylization. It’s noir at its finest courtesy of Anthony Mann.
Although maimed, Steve does get away, and he whisks Anne out of town, disregarding her pleas for him to go to the police. He’s scared, worried for his wife’s safety, and he wants to vindicate himself before going to the authorities. What it means is that both Walt and a wry police detective named Ferrari (Jason Robards Sr.) are looking for him, and only time will tell what happens when one of them finds him.
They trade out the urban apartments, trains, and trucks for rural farm life, which becomes a kind of escape valve accentuated even visually. It’s the film’s moment of reprieve as they are immersed in Anne’s doting family who agree to throw her a true Czechoslovakian country wedding — what they never had time for before — and they dance the day away.
The ending is already inevitable. Walt’s slimy private dick (Douglas Fawley) is able to locate Steve, and the vindictive mobster comes ready to pay the fugitive a call. With his baby brother’s impending appointment with the electrical chair, he’s bent on having Steve knocked off at the exact same hour. He might not be able to save his brother, but he can get some semblance of revenge. It’s an eye for an eye mentality with noirish stakes.
When they’re finally thrown together in Steve’s apartment, Mann’s not messing around, and the film’s climax delivers both in its theatrics and as an extraordinary exercise in substantive style. Between the music, the smoke, and the nervous rat-tat-tatting creating the cadence of scenes, he goes into those fabulous claustrophobic close-ups of all his main players and the ticking clock smashed together as one. They create an excruciating effect because we know when the time runs out so does Steve’s life.
Mann milks the moment for everything it’s worth and his handling of time is so very effective. There’s not an ounce of realism in the scene. Maybe we have a dining room table, a kitchen, a fridge, but everything else is fabricated and manipulated to ratchet up the tension of the moment. The results speak for themselves.
The final shootout on the stairwell of the apartment building is yet another feat of ingenuity using everything at his disposal from the visual motif to the shadows, even frightened neighbors opening their doors momentarily only to slam them again. It all culminates in the final crescendo and the ultimate release of anxiety.
It’s easy to see Anthony Mann coming into his own and what a stunning creative force he was. Desperate doesn’t garner too many laurels today, but it capably highlights what makes Mann such a popular journeyman filmmaker. There’s so much grit and tenacity stamped into the very fabric of his genre pieces, whether film noir or his later westerns with Jimmy Stewart. There’s nothing lifelike about them, and yet he magnifies the tension so much so that they function as such a blistering exploration of crime and vindictive human psychology.