8 August 2011 | ferbs54
Trelane Does Noir
A tough choice for nice-guy assistant locksmith Tommy Dancer: to continue plodding on with his $80/week, go-nowhere job, OR to give in to the demands of petty hood Willis Trent, and get paid $5,000 for using his skills to break into the safety-deposit box of top-dog criminal De Camp and steal $200,000. This ethical conundrum becomes a no-brainer, however, when Trent turns the screws by kidnapping and threatening Tommy's newest girlfriend, Betty Turner. Anyway, that's the setup for Andrew V. McLaglen's "Man in the Vault," a compact little film noir from 1956 that, despite its "B movie" status--and despite the "Maltin Film Guide"'s assertion that it is "drab" and only deserving of one of its lowest ratings--still offers much. Though surely made on the cheap, the film looks just fine, and features at least two highly suspenseful sequences: the heist that Tommy carries out inside a crowded bank, and a nighttime game of cat and mouse between Tommy and one of Trent's thugs inside a deserted bowling alley. Plus, with a running time of only 73 minutes, the picture is lean and fast moving, with little in the way of flab (excepting, perhaps, that three-minute song "Let the Chips Fall Where They May," warbled by a chantootsie early on at Trent's house party).
And then there is the film's single best element: a surprisingly excellent performance by William Campbell as Tommy Dancer, who does indeed get to "dance" all over L.A. while embroiled in this film's shenanigans. Campbell, who is perhaps best known for his appearances in three "Star Trek" episodes (as Trelane in "The Squire of Gothos" and the wimpiest Klingon ever, Koloth, in "The Trouble With Tribbles," both from the original series, and then toughening up Koloth considerably, many years later, in "Deep Space 9"'s "Blood Oath"), is immensely likable and sympathetic here. The late actor (he passed away on 4/28/11, at the age of 84) easily carries this film. Karen Sharpe (not to be confused with Karen Steele, as I did going in) is cute and appealing as Betty, Berry Kroeger is memorable as the smarmy Trent, and former heavyweight wrestler Mike Mazurki adds his always welcome, menacing presence. Oh...how could I forget the main reason for my rental of this film in the first place: Anita Ekberg, Miss Sweden 1951, playing the part of De Camp's moll, Flo Brant? Sadly, Anita is only given perhaps 10 minutes of screen time in all to make an impression, but looks so stunning that, yes, an impression is most certainly made. Anita would have to wait another four years before really making the world sit up and take notice, in 1960's "La Dolce Vita," but is still fairly riveting here, despite her small part. Throw in some nice location photography of 1950s Los Angeles (including the Hollywood Bowl and Hollywood Blvd., replete with a Rexall Drugstore!), some well-done, naturalistic dialogue, efficient direction from McLaglen and a highly satisfactory denouement and you've got a little film that's a lot more than merely "drab"!