The opening scene of Framed is glorious. It’s the epitome of why these old B pictures have some much to offer audiences often bloated on cinematic glut. A runaway truck careens down a mountain road as the driver sweats it out trying to punch the breaks uselessly. Entering a busy town, he’s forced to make a wild maneuver the other way. Finally, his big rig dies down lazily plunking a truck backing out into the street.
In the ensuing altercation, we learn so much about the tightwad trucking foreman who won’t pay for the damages and our nameless hero who took the gig for the cash and proceeds to hand over what’s coming to him to pay for the damages of the victim (Edgar Buchanan).
We’re finally allowed a breather as he steps into the nearby La Paloma cafe and conveniently our whole story is laid out before us in tantalizing fashion. We’re on board for the ride.
The internal logic of the film noir malaise means everything that can be stacked up against a man will be. Mike Lambert’s not a bad fellow; he seems as honest and frank as any. True, he drinks too much, he’s prone to gambling, but he’s been given the bum steer. In a matter of minutes, he sits down at the bar only to get whisked off to court and sentenced for his misdeeds. In this regard, the crook of the law seems to be bent in favor of the unscrupulous.
However, this is only a starting point or a pretense because Lambert is pulled out of the clink by the dubious generosity of an amorous barmaid bombshell with a pair of bewitching eyes (Janis Carter). Why she would stick her neck out for a stranger and dish out $50 remains to be seen.
Except everyone in a picture like this has an angle to work. Soon enough, we find out hers. Because she and an accomplice are looking for the perfect stooge, the perfect patsy, the perfect man to be framed.
The movie is built out of what feels like a chainlink of romantic entanglements with people strung out in a line between one another. Glenn Ford is romanced by Janis Carter to keep him in town and at the same time oblivious. Her real accomplice is a man named Steve Price who has married into money; his wife remains utterly disillusioned with their loveless marriage.
It’s also a contrived story where everything is conveniently interconnected — at least in cinematic terms — so all the relationships, even if they feel circumstantial, fit together in just the right ways to tease out the dramatic situation.
Consider for a moment how Ford, a field engineer, reconnects with the straggly man Cunningham (Buchannan) who happens to be a miner in need of a loan. Then, consider how the man in charge of loans at the bank is none other than Mr. Price. It’s his refusal that keeps Lambert waiting around town looking for a break as Paula continues to run interference and ingratiate herself to him.
However, the logic never feels like a lynchpin because it all builds up to this near fatalistic helplessness of a man unknowingly walking straight into a trap. Perceptive viewers might recognize that this ensuing sense of powerlessness setting in is not unlike North by Northwest or more aptly Double Indemnity — albeit from the inside out.
It gives us a different kind of investment as this time our “hero” is not the perpetrator but the victim. Because Lambert, without his knowledge, is being dragged into a grand conspiracy rife with larceny, murder, and any number of things. Although in the end, the trap is sprung in a different manner than expected.
Do you think Ford’s about to get bested in his own picture? Not likely. As a steady leading man, he’s always easy to like even when he verges on the brusque in a movie like this. The film sets him up as a straight arrow, hampered by his vices though he might be. Edgar Buchanan falls into his role like most any of them with a familiar aplomb. Whether the part is stretching at all seems beside the point, because he manages to fill it so seamlessly.
Another character veteran, Art Smith, has a bit part as the none too solicitous, solitaire-playing hotel clerk. If nothing else, while I always enjoy coming upon him in a picture, his presence is a marker of the times. He too, like so many others, would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era witch hunts, self-imposed by Hollywood. Included in this unfortunate club was the film’s screenwriter Ben Maddow as well as actress Karen Morley.
Barry Sullivan is unscrupulous but fairly straitlaced and bland while end-to-end Janis Carter is yet again the unsung hero of the picture. Like all the great conniving dames of yesteryear, beauty is an asset with which to utterly bewitch the opposite sex. She uses it handily.
We watch her continually modulating between moments of self-serving opportunism and genuine showings of sentiment and fear — as the fairer sex — with the movie somehow casting her in this duplicitous mold of both temptress and victim.
There you have the heart and soul of the femme fatale right there. So when Paula looks out the back of that car and Mike drops his cigarette butt in disgust, we are borne into the tension. It’s the tension between doing the right thing and getting to have someone like that look at you that way. In such a disquieting world, there might be right or wrong, but somehow, it doesn’t make it any more agreeable on the other side. Frankly, it stinks.