If you can accept Mickey Rooney as a noir protagonist, you might like Quicksand
May 27, 2011
Dan Brady, a short, dumb palooka, tells us, "I feel like I'm bein' shoved into a corner, and if I don't get out soon, it'll be too late. Maybe it's too late already!"
Vera Novak, a platinum-blonde bad girl, gives us this, "It's not what you run away to; it's what you run away from."
Elsewhere, Dan confides, "I had the right girl all along and I didn't know it."
This just about sums up the story line in Quicksand, a B-movie noir that hits a lot of clichés but which at least is well photographed. Two things stand out, First, the movie just might have become a minor classic if it had kept to the ironic downbeat ending it was rushing toward, and if it had been better cast. The second thing is the overpowering feeling that we're watching part of the endless B-movie melodrama that Mickey Rooney's career became.
Quicksand was made in 1950 and Rooney's great days were long over. He was just 30 years old. The entertaining MGM movies he made in the Thirties had faded. He had suddenly, in his mid-20's after WWII, begun to look like the kind of youthful middle-aged failure you want to avoid sitting next to. His studio support had been yanked out from under him. His attempts to create a new image were going nowhere, limited by his own self-conscious intensity and by what awful offers he was getting. Being married to and then divorced from the zaftig Ava Gardner only added to the general snickering.
In Quicksand, Rooney is Dan Brady, a mechanic at Mackey Motors in Bay City, owned by the aging, sly, and morally corrupt Oren Mackey. One day Dan, who thinks of himself as a hot shot ladies man, meets Vera Novak (Jeanne Cagney), a blonde waitress with icy eyes who has gold-digger finger-painted all over her. Dan scarcely notices Helen (Barbara Bates), the nice girl who has fallen for him. Dan takes a 20-dollar bill from the cash register to pay for a big night out on a date with Vera. He intends to replace the money on his payday. Then the auditors show up and Dan has to find a way to get the money quick. Things escalate as Dan takes one thickheaded action after another, digging himself in deeper, leading to armed theft and phone-cord strangulation.
All the while Vera is playing him like a cheap accordion. Helen just wants to help him. Along the way Peter Lorre, as the owner of a tawdry pinball parlor on Bay City's pier who knows Vera too well, wanders into the film, adds to Dan's woes, and wanders off. At one point Lorre, now noticeably heavy, and Rooney, looking like an overwrought Andy Hardy, get into a fight with fists and a knife that is...I'll be honest...pretty darn good. The fight is brief and darkly lit, but both actors look like they were trying. Lorre, in fact, gives the best performance in the movie as a man you do not want to do business with.
At each step of Dan's descent it was tough not to yell out, "You numbskull, don't do that." There's little satisfaction in watching a dumb guy too dumb to know better do dumb things. This isn't Burt Lancaster screwing up his life because of Yvonne De Carlo. Dan is a second-rater, too dense in his idea of himself as a killer with the ladies to notice he just might become a killer for real.
But casting messes everything up. Jeanne Cagney is one of the most severe looking femmes fatale I've ever seen in a noir. That Vera could mesmerize even a lunk like Dan stretches the point. She was James Cagney's sister and has his eyes. Glenn Erickson once said, perhaps not too kindly, "The moment you realize she's James Cagney's sister, she starts looking like Cody Jarrett wearing a dress..." And then there's Mickey Rooney as a noir protagonist. His deadly serious, almost staccato tough-guy line delivery is just over-the-top earnestness. The two of them make for a decidedly odd couple...not laughable, but not believable. Still, the movie has a great, gritty noir look about it.
If you like noirs and the price is right, you might like this one. If you like movies and the price is right, you'll certainly wind up reflecting on the long, unsettling career of Mickey Rooney. As a side note, Rooney and Lorre put up a chunk of the financing for Quicksand. Not a penny came back.