It was interesting to discover recently in the decades between my first and second viewing of Tight Spot, 1955 how much of the movie remained vivid in my memory; a true sign that something is working. In my opinion, that something was director Phil Karlson whose way with a well-paced western or crime picture truly came to a peak in the 1950s with pictures such as Gunman's Walk and The Brothers Rico.
William Bowers (Cry Danger) screenplay was based on a play by Leonard Kantor titled Dead Pigeon which had a brief run of 21 performances on Broadway over the Christmas holiday of 1953-1954. The three person drama set in a single hotel room featured Joan Lorring (The Corn is Green) as a potential trial witness with Lloyd Bridges (The Sound of Fury) and James Gregory (The Manchurian Candidate) as her police detective guards.
The Samuel French synopsis reads: "Two detectives bring a young lady from the penitentiary to a secluded seaside hotel and hold her in protective custody before her appearance at a murder trial. Actually, the girl knows nothing about the murder of a gangster but has turned state's witness in order to get a day's vacation from prison. But the underworld does not know this: nor do the detectives who are in league with the underworld and who are ordered to kill the girl. But the younger of the men has a heart and a bit of a conscience left. He upsets things when he falls in love with the girl. The menace that night comes from the other detective who is undeterred in his mission of murder."
Sherry Conley played by Ginger Rogers is in a tight spot. She has less than a year left on her five year prison sentence, having assisted a less than honest boyfriend in a payroll robbery. How was she to know what he had in mind? Sherry has information that can assist the Feds in getting a conviction on a mobster. It is an undesirable alien rap that can only result in deportation, but it is better than nothing. Until now witnesses have disappeared or been killed. The prosecutor has one weekend to convince Sherry to "do her duty." Sherry doesn't think it is worth it although she will take advantage of the sudden plush accommodations. Of course, the mob only wants to tie up loose ends and that means Sherry Conley must die.
Ginger Rogers was perhaps ten years or so older than the character as presented through the dialogue. The tweaking of a line here or there would have assisted in her characterization. In fact, though no means a hag (We should all look so good in that polka dot dress.), her been-around-the-block status assists with the character of Sherry.
Ginger brings her considerable professionalism and instincts to the role as the actress was always adept at the quips which make up a lot of film noir dialogue. The character of Sherry Conley finds sisterhood with much of Ginger's filmography, the neglected and abused Ellie May Adams in Primerose Path
, the vainglorious Roxie Hart
, and the vulnerable convict Mary Marshall in I'll Be Seeing You
Detective Vince Striker played by Brian Keith is in a tight spot. He's worked hard on this case but he realizes what is at stake for the reluctant witness. It is the sort of detail he would rather avoid. His reasons are many and varied, but suffice to say he is in as tight a spot as he has ever been in his life.
Brian Keith was breaking out of the uncredited portion of his career with a number of fine and tough-minded characters during this period, mostly at Columbia. See The Violent Men, 5 Against the House, and Nightfall. Ruggedly handsome and adept at his craft, Vince Striker is a character that gives the actor a myriad of emotions to convey and some nice action sequences.
Prosecutor Lloyd Hallett played by Edward G. Robinson is in a tight spot. The mob has all the power and the means of getting information that should be secret. The mob is powerful and committed. Killing isn't an option they use occasionally; they are brazen with the tactic. The deportation isn't what Hallett has spent years building up a case for, but the time is now and he needs this witness.
Edward G. Robinson channels a bit of Barton Keyes from Double Indemnity as he deals with his resistant witness and the leak in his department. Particularly satisfying is a scene with the mobster's lawyer where Hallett holds nothing back in his feelings about the criminal.
Mobster Benjamin Costain played by Lloyd Greene is in a tight spot. Every time he gets rid of one "loose end" the Feds come up with another. This time it is some dame he doesn't even remember who can finger him for this stupid deportation. Sherry is merely another nuisance to be taken out. Costain has no doubt in his power and is an angry man, but can he keep all of his team in line?
Lorne Greene, the legendary Canadian broadcaster appears in his second Hollywood feature as the mobster Costain. His barely contained anger makes the character a frightening antagonist. Despite the might of the law collected against him, Costain's arrogance will not imagine defeat.
The play is opened up from the hotel room to give the audience views of the penitentiary, city streets, and the intrusion of television. The prison shows us Sherry's present circumstances, how she has adapted, and why she would like a break. The city streets bring us shop windows, people, and sudden violence. The television intrudes with an insipid telethon with a mediocre entertainer to contrast the life and death stakes facing our characters.
I find Tight Spot an engrossing and fascinating crime drama with an outstanding cast and taut direction. If you haven't seen it, give it a try. If, like me, you saw it eons ago, surprise yourself with a revisit to the Noirvember Hotel.
Actress Katherine Anderson is a ray of sunshine in the dark environs as prison guard Willoughby. According to online sources, Ms. Anderson turns 99 on December 11th.