Anybody familiar with his early work has to realize that casting Lloyd Bridges (1913-1998) as a hero was something of a waste. Tough “good guys” are a lot less interesting that tough guy villains as his treacherous deputy turn in “High Noon” proved.
That’s why he was so hilarious in the “Airplane!” and “Hot Shots” movies. Tough can be taken over the top, and boy did he ever. Rewatch his elderly exercise guru on “Seinfeld” and watch Jerry struggle to not break character. “Over the top” came entirely too naturally for Beau and Jeff’s dad.
“Trapped” is a darker-than-dark noir whose Feds-always-get-their-man messaging is so heavy-handed it borders on parody. Voice-over narration repeatedly pounds-home the dogged determination of the Secret Service, chasing down the source of bogus $20 bills, and “the good guys” in the film are so wired (literally) into the underworld types they’re pursuing that they can seem omniscient.
But a young Bridges, Barbara Payton (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) in her breakout role and director Richard Fleischer (“Narrow Margin,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Fantastic Voyage”) managed to turn out a memorable, brisk thriller that is the epitome of the genre the French later labeled “film noir.”
A compact, tightly-framed and efficient opening scene establishes that there are counterfeit $20 bills in circulation as a little old lady is stricken to learn the money she’s passing at a bank is bogus, and that she’s out $20. A hectoring narrator lectures her and us that “people need to learn” to spot funny money, because it costs us all.
The Secret Service, the agency overseeing currency crimes, recognizes the bill as “the old Stuart note,” and somebody is dispatched to check out its printer. “His address is still Atlanta.”
That’s where the counterfeiter’s in jail. Tris Stewart (Bridges) stands out not just because he’s been allowed to keep his sportscoat, black shirt and dress pants in prison. He’s a cynical smartass. How is he responsible for fresh phony $20s?
“You figure I been, uh, floating’em out the window?”
Somebody has his old printing plates, and they’re going to need him to track them down. An elaborate ruse of an “escape” is engineered, with Stuart affecting a real escape by punching out the agent assigned to shadow him.
Bridges is instantly credible as a tough guy thanks to his commitment to the realistic violence of this opening brawl. He slaps around law enforcement and others like he’s auditioning for “Airplane.”
Stuart is on the lam, tracking down his “cigarette” girl girlfriend, Meg (Payton), passing herself off as Laurie Fredericks out in LA. She’s got the attention of another suitor (veteran character actor John Hoyt, oily and vile even early in his career). But it turns out the charmless mug Johnny Hackett is also a Fed.
They’ve been watching Meg/Laurie. They even have her apartment wired. The film follows them as they track Tris and Meg through LA’s underworld, through old associates, to find those $20 bill printing plates.
The conventional story and its docu-drama treatment aside, the thing that grabs your eye straight off is old school cinematographer Guy Roe’s velvety contrast lighting design and put-it-on-a-poster framing. It’s startling to see a B-movie from that era — and with Eagle-Lion distributing “Trapped,” “B-movie” can seem a tad generous — this gorgeous. A few years later, Roe somehow found himself in Japan with Raymond Burr filming the original “Godzilla” with the A-bomb lizard-obsessed Japanese.
The screenplay by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman is a primer in noir hard-boiled. If there’s a pithier noir one-liner than “No cream, Sugar,” and a better guy to deliver it than Bridges, I’ll eat my fedora.
Payton suggests the star she might have become in her grit-beneath-the-beauty, stand-by-her-bad-man performance.
“Trapped” isn’t one of the greats. But Bridges and Payton, Fleisher and Roe turn this Secret Service recruiting docudrama into something special. They pack a lot of story, a set piece fight or two and flinty shootout finale into a tight, era-appropriate 78 minutes that could teach modern screenwriters, especially those trapped in the slow, soap-operatic cliffhangers of “streaming series,” a thing or two about storytelling economy.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, Russ Conway, James Todd and Robert Karnes
Credits: Directed by Richard Fleischer, scripted by Earl Felton, George Zuckerman. An Eagle-Lion release on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers.
Running time: 1:18