The greatest tale of moral degradation in film noir is Quicksand (1950) — with Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney and Peter Lorre. It’s okay for a film noir to ship with a weak male lead, but often these guys have issues to begin with — their moral compasses have been spun to point to Palookaville — sometimes by war, by crime, suburbia or a dilemma that’s placed in their path. It ain’t so with Mickey Rooney as Dan Brady.
Dan Brady in Quicksand isn’t crooked — not like his boss — and he ain’t a heel. He’s a happy-go-lucky hard worker who winds up on a an epic moral descent, which begins after he successfully chats up femme fatale Jeanne Cagney but then needs twenty dollars to take her on a date.
This leads him to cop the $20 from the cash register at work — which lack of funds then leads to pawning, usury, and from thence via blackmail and robbery, burglary, mugging, through violence and grand larceny to kidnap, grand theft auto — with worse to come.
That this is compacted into one 80 minute slide towards the dark side is testament to everyone involved, not least the great script by Robert Smith. Mickey Rooney works in the role because it’s hard to ever see him as bad — sure he makes bad calls — and often he’s between a rock and hard place — but he ducks the problem each time and drops deeper into the mire. Mickey Rooney doesn’t present as a scheming individual in his portrayal of Dan Brady — instead this is film noir with a flat message about the nature of crime.
Mickey Rooney and Jeanne Cagney
Mickey Rooney is so fresh-faced that to begin with, you’ll wonder what he’s even doing in a noir — but it’s only a matter of moments before he meets and falls for the worn-looking Jeanne Cagney, whose creepy sneer and walk suggest corruption the second she appears.
Hum — what is that overarching message about crime? Oh yeah — that it’s inspired by the weaknesses for and of women — those dark and scheming sit at home beauties, who can’t even light a cigarette without someone getting murdered.
The settings fit the seedy stories of Quicksand very well — the garage, the barrooms and the penny arcade. Briefly throughout, Mickey Rooney provides a voice-over inner monologue which seems inappropriate, first because it’s sporadic, but largely because it never fails to tells us in a couple of lines what we’re seeing on the screen anyway. You can’t think too much about this flick that’s maybe true — the cops are as lousy as they’ve ever been in tackling crime and seem to know nothing even though most of the crimes are witnessed.
In the final thirty seconds Mickey Rooney reverts to type, as a cheery old mucker, with him and the whole production seeming to forget that although he faces time in prison, he’s still done a whole heap of antisocial behaviour, infraction, and even violence that he should in no way be proud of.
There isn’t any real quicksand in Quicksand — it’s just a metaphor for Dan Brady’s slide from cheery chappy, to chump, to wanted man on the run. It might not be believable, but Mickey Rooney does his best to make it so, and if his back isn’t against the wall then he’s hemmed in by blackmailers, bandits or other of the many nasties that crawl the Bay Area.
There was of course a time when a pit of quicksand would appear almost every week in your favourite adventure serial or science fiction flick, and episodes of Tarzan (especially the Ron Ely era) were a gloopy wash of the stuff. Broadly speaking sinking hazards of various sorts could still be found as late as the 1980s — The Neverending Story — The Empire Strikes Back — and The Princess Bride, but as a plot device, the steep decline into actual mushy sand — is dead.
In fact a quote from Daniel Engber sums up the drying up of this fearsome staple in his post-millennial quest for the stuff — “And what about Lost—a tropical-island adventure series replete with mud ponds and dangling vines? That show, which ended in May, spanned six seasons and roughly 85 hours of television airtime—all without a single step into quicksand.”
There are a couple of oddities and loose ends in Quicksand that would probably have been dealt with if the film had another ten minutes to run, the funniest one for me being the musical mysteries of Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. If you watch the very end, the short credit screen rounds off with this credit, which reminds you that near the top of the film, Mickey Rooney asks Jeanne Cagney (the younger sister of James Cagney) if she likes the music of Red Nichols and his band. She agrees that she does, but when they get down to the gig, they find the band aren’t playing. They do however get a brief appearance elsewhere.
Peter Lorre in Quicksand (1950)
Without doubt watch Quicksand for Peter Lorre — although leaving Quicksand, there is a strange feeling that Lorre’s aspect of the story hasn’t been wound up — something else that may have been addressed with an extra five or ten minutes. Peter Lorre plays the scheming owner of a penny arcade with huge relish. A Jeanne Cagney interview quoted in The Lost One, by Stephen D. Youngkin says of Lorre’s approach to Quicksand:
He did it with all his might. Even though the picture was not a top drawer film he still approached it as if it were the “A” picture of all “A” pictures.
He was so menacing that you felt as though that must have been a part of the initial performance. It was like finding gold. In the first place, the slow-moving quality was all gone. His reactions were so much faster, and his feet were so much faster that I was startled. The first reasction was just pure delight in finding an elfin quality. He seemed very much younger when you met him, very much jollier, and quick on the uptake. He and Rooney were just a marvellous team as far as springing off each other with the jokes.
Also to look out for is Jimmy Dodd (who plays Dan Brady’s mate Buzz) who was the original Head Mouseketeer of television's Mickey Mouse Club around two years after Quicksand.
Quicksand with Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre can be watched for free. It’s punchy, entertaining, and you get to see a frantic fresh-faced Mickey Rooney exploring criminality and the inevitability of that moral message — one crime leads to another — with theft from the register at work being the gateway crime to murder — he sinks, sinks, sinks, faster and faster, until this great chase at the end — with Rooney doing all his own stunts on the pier — with nowhere to go expect towards a policeman’s pointed gun — and the air slowly bubbling up as he loses control of everything, and sinks into a mire of his own devices.
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!
A guy who yields to temptation just once...... ....and finds it's once too often!
This is the story of a nice guy who borrows $20 from a cash register to keep a date... with a cop... and a killer!