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During the Korean War, Matt saves the life of his buddy, Vince, who promises that someday he'll repay Matt by cutting him in on a million dollars. Eight years later Matt is in the midst of a rapidly disintegrating marriage to Nina, a man-hungry alcoholic. Vince suddenly reappears for a reunion with Matt, telling him that enemies of a Central American dictator have hijacked $3.5 million, and that he knows how he can get hold of the money and collect a large reward he'll share with Matt if he will help recover the money. Matt is skeptical, but after a particularly violent quarrel in which he leaves his wife, he agrees to go along with Vince, provided there is no gunplay. Written by
Hard-edged crime drama involving war hero and high-stakes caper
MAN-TRAP (1961) offers an unusual crime drama of a wounded Korean War vet who gets embroiled in a robbery caper with a war buddy whose life he'd once saved. It's got a trio of intriguing lead characters and a set of unpredictable twists and turns that never defy logic. Other than a couple of well-staged action scenes, the film avoids making concessions to genre conventions or established formula. The whole thing is character-driven and rarely do you feel the filmmakers pandering to the audiences' expectations. In fact, it plays like a faithful adaptation of a good crime novel and was indeed based on one, "Soft Touch," by John D. MacDonald ("Cape Fear").
The film opens with a Korean War scene (filmed rather cheaply on a California beach) in which Matt Jameson (Jeffrey Hunter) rescues Vince Biskay (David Janssen) from Chinese riflemen and gets shot in the head as a result. Vince promises Matt that, "If I ever make any money, a lotta money, half of it's gonna be yours." That one line handily and dramatically sets up the premise for the rest of the movie. Cut to eight years later. Matt has a silver plate in his head and is having serious marital and financial woes when Vince shows up out of the blue with a proposition. He's been working for a South American government and has been sent to the U.S. to intercept a cache of money earmarked to buy guns for rebels seeking to overthrow his employers. It's for a good cause, Vince insists, and Matt will be paid a half-million dollars if he acts as driver when Vince goes to San Francisco Airport, in disguise, to pick up the courier.
Once they get to the airport, of course, things go awry when the shooting starts, thanks to rebel representatives with ideas of their own. Matt soon finds himself caring for a seriously wounded Vince, while stashing the money, of which he now wants no part, and trying to stay one step ahead of pursuers. Things spiral from bad to worse when Matt's wife freaks out in an alcoholic rage, with horrific results, and the rebels catch up with Matt. Matt's amnesia soon kicks in and the chance of a happy ending seems impossibly remote.
The airport confrontation is quite clever, especially since it coincides with the arrival of a teen pop star and crowds of teenage girls surrounding him. It's followed by an exciting car chase from the airport into San Francisco and through the streets of the city, a good seven years before BULLITT put San Francisco car chases on the map. (BULLITT also had a shootout at San Francisco Airport.)
It's an intricate tale of an innocent man caught up in a crime of opportunity when he's at his most financially vulnerable. Matt's an honorable man who tries to do the right thing at every stage, often at great cost to himself. But he's so uncomfortable and unhappy at all times that we kind of secretly wish he'd just lighten up, take the money and run off and start a new life. But the film doesn't make it easy for us. Janssen's Vince Biskay is quite a snaky character, charming and loquacious one moment, hard-bitten and dangerous the next. It's a side of Janssen we didn't often get to see. Nina, Matt's wife, is played by Stella Stevens as quite a wild number, given to hard drink at all hours of the day and flirtatious behavior whenever and with whomever she wants. She's so damned cute and sexy and has such an inviting smile, it's hard to dislike her, no matter how much of a lush and a slut she turns out to be. The film really perks up during her scenes, leading me to think that Stella just might outrank all her other hot kittenish blond contemporaries (Tuesday Weld, Connie Stevens, Ann-Margret). Elaine Devry co-stars as the helpful and understanding office secretary with whom Matt is having a rather chaste affair.
Matt's suburban neighbors are a noisy and intrusive bunch, given to parties and heavy drinking whenever we see them. Future "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane is one of them. They play a naughty game called "Braille," in which the wives lie on floors covered in sheets and the husbands have to use "braille" to determine which covered figure on the floor is their wife. This was pretty hot stuff for 1961.
The film was directed by actor Edmond O'Brien (D.O.A.) who does not appear in the film at all. O'Brien also co-directed SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954), a gritty thriller in which he starred as a corrupt cop. I saw both films practically back-to-back. I'm impressed. There are some scenes in MAN-TRAP that have way too much dialogue and are a bit overwrought, but, overall, I like the way the film mixes urban crime drama, caper film, international politics, marital dysfunction, suburban decadence and a lone hero's moral dilemma all in one enticing package. Now I need to track down the novel.
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