“I feel like I’m being shoved into a corner”, Mickey Rooney (as Dan Brady) says during the final half of Quicksand (1950), “and if I don’t get out soon it will be too late.”
This one line neatly encapsulates the situation of most leading men in the film noir genre.
Sharply directed with flair by Irving Pichel, Quicksand tells the story of Dan Brady (Rooney), an aw-shucks, apple pie eating auto mechanic who’s biggest problem at the beginning of the movie is that his gorgeous girlfriend Helen (Barbara Bates) is getting too serious. “I spent four years in the Navy fighting for freedom, why get anchored down now?” he whines to his unsympathetic pals. “Some dames are sure hard to shake off,” his friend Buzz replies. Cue sexy blonde bombshell Vera (Jeanne Cagney) and the jazz saxophone soundtrack. With her trench coat, platinum Harlow locks and that quintessential Cagney swagger, she turns Dan away from his apple pie. Surprisingly, she agrees to a date but now Dan has another problem: it’s five days until payday and he’s flat busted – how’s he gonna show a swell dame like Vera a good time? Desperate and horny, Dan “borrows” twenty dollars from his employer’s cash register. The stolen dough leads him down a rabbit hole of crime and depravity.
In many ways, Quicksand is a Catholic parable: sexual desire leads to stealing and stealing leads to murder. But never mind the moralizing – Quicksand is a fun movie with a standout cast, making it one of the most enjoyable film noir films I have seen thus far.
Now let’s talk about that cast. Rooney is about thirty years old here but he looks much younger. It’s a little jarring watching him seduce the confident, sexy siren Cagney. He’s a boy – she’s a woman. Although in real life, Rooney did have a reputation as a ladies’ man, who could count Lana Turner and Norma Shearer among his many conquests. According to Hollywood lore, his nickname among the actresses on the MGM lot was “Andy Hard On”. But of course Mickey got the babes: he was a movie star. Dan is an auto mechanic. John Garfield would have been more believable as a broke but desirable womanizer. Still, Rooney gives a terrific and nuanced performance here – one that many critics believe is his best.
It’s too bad that Jeanne Cagney’s film career was so short lived. Physically she looks like the quintessential bad-girl vixen but she adds layers to the role; making Vera more than a film noir trope. When Rooney asks “think you can handle me?“, she replies “I can handle you easy,” with all the steely-eyed gangster confidence of her famous older brother Jimmy. And like Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931), Vera goes after what she wants: “I want that coat,” she says, spotting a two-thousand dollar mink in a department store window. “And I’m gonna get it. Whatever it takes.” A tigress hunting mink.
Code-era films decree that bad girls must die or suffer some other sort of punishment, but Vera lives – and gets her mink coat. Well, until the pesky coppers take it – and her – away. Still, I’m glad she had a few precious moments with it.
The standout performance in Quicksand is Peter Lorre as Nick, the menacing owner of Joyland, the penny arcade where Dan takes Vera on their first date. As Nick, Lorre is sinister, creepy and sad: juxtaposed with the arcade’s jangly carnival music and pinball machines. Calm yet slithery, he blackmails Dan with all the disassociated coolness of a cat who breaks a mouse’s neck not because he’s hungry but just because he can.
In the 1930s and 40s, Lorre had starred in such revered classics as M (1931), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). But according to his Wikipedia page, in 1949 Lorre filed for bankruptcy which probably explains why he’s in this B picture. Even so, Lorre gives a million dollar performance in a low budget movie.
With captivating cinematography, vibrant street scenes and knockout performances from Cagney, Lorre and Rooney, Quicksand is an action packed 79 minutes and well worth checking out for any fan of film noir.