It’s quite possible that Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap (1965) is the last example of film noir to be actually shot in black and white. By the mid-sixties, black and white was not an artistic choice made by a director and dictated by the film’s subject matter, but was employed mainly in B-movies as a cost cutting measure, because the film stock was less expensive to use than color. And despite the august presence of Glenn Ford and Joseph Cotten, make no mistake about it--The Money Trap is definitely a B-movie.
As an L.A. detective with personal demons to overcome, Ford walks through the movie with a world-weary air. Or maybe it’s just that he’s tired of being reduced to B-List status and is going through the motions of making one more pulpish thriller. Gone is the charisma that made him such a complex villain in the original 3:10 to Yuma (much better than Russell Crowe in James Mangold‘s overstuffed remake of this 1957 western classic). Or the reassuring sense of decency that makes him such a strong foil for Ross Martin’s asthmatic bank extortionist in Blake Edwards’ noirish Experiment in Terror (1962). Or the glee he displays in playing straight man in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (as Damon Runyon’s Dave the Dude) and those two World War II-era service comedies, Don’t Go Near the Water and The Teahouse of the August Moon (opposite Marlon Brando as Sakini, an Okinawan translator). And in Cotten’s wooden performance, one searches in vain for any trace of the actor whose Yankee brio enlivened Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Sir Carol Reed’s The Third Man, three of the best movies of the forties. The only bright spot in this movie comes from Ricardo Montalban playing Ford’s detective partner with an uncustomary-and much welcome-hint of bemusement in his smile.
There is, come to think of it, another bright spot-the character of Ford’s former girl friend from the old neighborhood, played by Rita Hayworth in what amounts to an act of bravery, as she drops all pretense of glamour and really allows her age to show. Ford and Hayworth were, of course, famously paired in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946). And the casting of Hayworth is more than a stunt because it forces the audience to recall the Hayworth of old even as she now strips away her cosmetic facade to show how many miles she has traveled in the years between that movie and this one. She is probably the only untainted character in the movie, and she acquits herself with dignity in a role that calls for her to be bloodied but unbowed by life.
In The Money Trap, Ford plays a detective who is married to Elke Sommer. They live beyond their means in a cool sixties house (complete with swimming pool) and are in desperate need of money. So Ford, with the connivance of his partner, plans to break into the safe of a society doctor (Cotten) with mob ties who peddles heroin on the side. The story takes place in L.A, but is shot mainly on the M-G-M back lot. The climactic shoot-out in the rain takes place on a dead end street that looks déjà vu familiar because it was probably used as the street where Tom Hanks guns down Paul Newman (also in the rain) in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002). The interior sets look empty and unlived-in. And the movie is only enlivened by two scenes actually shot on location—one on the Bunker Hill funicular, the other at what looks to be the Ocean Park amusement pier.
The director, Burt Kennedy, got his start as a screenwriter. Among his credits is the terrific western, The Tall T (1957), directed by Bud Boetticher and based on a short story by Elmore Leonard (3:10 to Yuma is also based on a Leonard story). As a director, Kennedy has mostly western films to his credit, such as The Rounders (1965-not to be confused with the Matt Damon/Edward Norton vehicle, Rounders) and the popular Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). The Money Trap is an anomaly among his oeuvre. No attempt is made on Kennedy’s part to turn it into a contemporary western. Instead, with a screenplay by the one-time blacklisted Walter Bernstein (adapted from a novel by Lionel White), it is a morality tale that exposes the corrupting influence of money (and its lack thereof). With the exception of Ford’s wife, everyone in the movie who comes in contact with the contents of Cotten’s safe ($250,000 cash and an equal amount of heroin) ends up falling victim to it. Ford and Montalban even grow mistrustful of one another and clash over it. Innocent people also lose their lives over it.
In true film noir fashion, Ford, too, becomes a victim of his own greed and corruption. But instead of dying outright, he is given the chance, like many noir heroes, to contemplate his own fall from grace before the final fade out. In the last scene, a wounded Ford returns to his cool sixties house. Elke Sommer sees that he is wounded, maybe even dying, and goes to call for an ambulance. As they wait, Ford, holding his gut with one hand, turns on the house lights, switches on the hi-fi, which floods the house with jazz, goes outside and turns on the pool lights. And so, surrounded by the empty signifiers of his materialistic lifestyle, Ford waits to meet his fate. In an ironic note, one of the first true film noirs to be shot in color, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), features a scene in which, while spending the night at a mob boss’ empty house, Angie Dickinson awakens Lee Marvin, with whom she is on the run, by turning on every electric appliance in the kitchen—a brilliant comment on America’s consumerist culture run amuck.
In the course of the movie, beginning with the shock cut that ends the opening titles, Kennedy shows a love of women’s underthings that verges on the amusingly fetishistic. The jazz score that accompanies the movie’s action strikes a discordant note. And there is a subplot involving a man who kills his wife because she turned tricks to help make ends meet that is supposed to show the humane side of Ford’s detective. But Ford can’t seem to muster up enough energy to reveal this aspect of his character to the audience. And there is not enough desperation attached to Ford’s need for money. Can’t he just tell his wife to cut back the poolside cocktail parties to once a month? In the end, though, with its stripped-down plot and unsparing sense of fatalism, The Money Trap is a good enough example of neo-noir to help you make it through the night.