Roadblock (1951)

I was torn on whether to write this up at all. The holiday section accounts for roughly thirteen minutes of the movie's runtime, plus or minus depending on when you assume some ambiguous events are taking place. The section is pivotal and the use of the holidays interesting, but this is more a case where it's relevant to trends of how Christmas appears on film, rather than of particular note to the movie itself. But I found it notable enough in context to want some notes, and this blog is largely turning into a sort of public collection of notes I'm compiling on holiday media for.... God, I don't know. I'm still figuring that part out.

Regardless, the compromise I came up with was to write this up but hold the post until after the holidays. I don't want to water down our Christmas season posts any more than I already have. So that's why you're seeing this now.

This movie, I should note, is a good one. Roadblock is a noir crime story with a tragic love story at its core. The pace is brisk, the dialogue witty, and - once it gets going - the tone is tense. There's an extended chase sequence at the end of the movie (which is where the title is drawn from) that still feels exciting, something not a lot of movies from this era can claim. In short, if you're a fan of the genre, this one's worth checking out.

Roadblock opens with a man witnessing a stranger shoot another man in a parking lot. The shooter then takes this witness hostage. Naturally terrified, the witness reveals he's a thief himself and as such is in no position to go to the police. The shooter expresses skepticism, and the hostage offers to take him to where his money's hidden, promising to give him a cut in exchange for letting him go.

But once they arrive, they're joined by the man we saw - or thought we saw - shot dead in the opening. The two men are detectives employed by an insurance company, and the setup was a ruse to locate the missing funds. They take the thief into custody and start back towards the office, splitting up along the way.

I had a lot of fun with this section - it has the vibe of a Mission: Impossible episode (for those of you old enough to remember that was a television show decades before it became an action movie franchise).

The man who's (at this point) pretending to be a murderer is Joe, the central protagonist of the film. On his flight home, he meets and falls in love with Diane, an adventurous woman determined to live a life of luxury and who considers rules and laws minor inconveniences in her path. She's interested in Joe, but at this point considers his modest salary a dealbreaker.

They're eventually reunited when Joe finds her dating Kendall, a criminal mastermind Joe is investigating for theft. By the time Christmas rolls around, Joe is infatuated with Diane. Believing it's the only way to win her, he approaches Kendall with a proposition: Joe will provide the information necessary to pull off a daring heist in exchange for a cut.

At the same time, Diane - unaware of what Joe is up to - rethinks the direction her life is headed and decides she'd be happier living an honest life. She goes to Joe, and the two are soon married. Joe attempts to call off his deal with Kendall, but the crime lord convinces him it's the only way he'll be able to keep Diane happy.

The heist mostly goes as intended, though a bystander is killed in the process. Despite Joe's attempts to interfere in the investigation, signs begin pointing towards Kendall. In an attempt to cover his trail, Joe murders the crime lord. Unfortunately for Joe, his partner suspects something's amiss. Eventually, the pieces come together and Joe and Diane find themselves attempting to flee Los Angeles, attempting to evade police roadblocks. Joe eventually forces Diane out of the car and then forces a confrontation in which he's shot and killed. The movie ends with Diane walking slowly away in the empty canal where the chase concluded.

It's a dark ending but not a surprising one - thanks to the Hays Code, Joe's fate was pretty much sealed the moment he turned to crime. The first part of the movie establishes Joe and Diane as likeable tricksters, which adds quite a bit of gravitas to that finale. The car chase is one of the better ones I've seen prior to the 1960s, too - the movie really sells the sense a net is closing around them, even as Joe's skill and knowledge of the system he's running from keep it from feeling as certain as it really is.

Again, the holidays really aren't a huge part of the movie, but I find their use here interesting. Both Joe and Diane have moments of transformation linked to the time of year. While these scenes are set at Christmas rather than New Year's, this feels more akin to the sort of annual resolution and change associated with the end of the year, a traditional thematic aspect of the holiday season in stories and film.

The part I find particularly interesting is the way their paths cross each other's, with Joe falling from grace as Diane ascends. The dynamic reminds me of the contrasting journeys of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, with similarly tragic results (for the men, at least - I suppose there's technically still hope for Diane, despite the bleakness of that closing shot). The emotional weight here is really driven by Joe and Diane not being on the same page - the ending would be the same if she'd never changed her outlook, but it wouldn't have the same impact. Alternatively, had Joe simply just stuck to his principles, this would have a happy ending (though there'd be no real movie, so that wasn't going to happen).

We of course see the holidays used as a moment of transition all the time, but it's the simultaneous contrasting transformation I found worth discussing. It's an unusual but fascinating way to play with this holiday tradition, and it adds a little extra resonance to an already good movie.

But, in case it's not already abundantly clear, this still isn't what I'd consider a Christmas movie.