Friday, April 18, 2014


Is it too soon to admit I usually found Mickey Rooney annoying, too brash by a hundred, and as endearing as surgery without anesthesia? Yes, I know Laurence Olivier -- not always on speaking terms with subtlety himself -- considered Rooney "the greatest actor of them all." Me? Every time I saw a clip of one his MGM musicals, or some variety show, or his legendary, hot-headed interviews -- always veering off-topic to remind us he was once the most popular movie star in the solar system -- I'd find the nearest pillow to crawl under until the moment passed.

On the other hand, there's his performance in Quicksand, one of the most underrated film noirs of its time. Unlike the know-it-alls he was used to playing, his character here, Dan, is a sap from the opening moments of the movie, disparaging the girl who loves him while falling hard for a cashier named Vera, who's obviously one step away from the alley and two from Tehachapi. 

Sure, kid, nobody's gonna notice that
missing double sawbuck.
Quicksand's story is classic film noir -- the kind of move where the "borrowing" of $20 from the office cash register leads to an escalating series of crimes that climax with a carjacking/kidnapping after the boss is strangled. 

And what would drive an honest, hardworking mechanic like Dan into, well, a quicksand of disaster? A bottle-blonde dame who smells of sex and stinks of the gutter. It makes me feel better about myself that, no matter how stupid I was in the past regarding women, it was nothing compared to your typical noir dope.

Dan reflects on what an idiot he is
to go out with this woman.
You know there's going to be trouble when, on their first date, Vera takes Dan to gaze at a window display featuring a fur coat that's been on her radar since forever. Their reflections looking back at them in the window, Vera can't take her eyes off that coat, while Dan wonders just what the heck he's getting himself into. But we know already: a whole mess of mess. Jeanne Cagney (sister of James) portrays the brassy, brazen Vera, who's hard as nails -- and ready to pound them into Dan in order to get what she wants.

For a fun time, visit Nick's penny arcade!
"Sleazy" can't begin to describe the people and surroundings Dan has to put up with. From his perpetually angry, skinflint boss, to the cheap carnival they go to on their first date, to Vera's former(?) lover, Nick, the rodentesque owner of a low-rent arcade. 

And since Nick is played by Peter Lorre, Quicksand's noir factor ratchets up a dozen or so steps. A guy with the charm of dung-covered Black Mamba, Nick orders some noisy little boys out of the arcade -- "or I'll save you all the trouble of growing up." One of my all time favorite actors, Lorre has a rare presence, unique delivery, and the ability to elevate any movie he appears in. It's he who discovers that Dan has mugged a drunk to pay off a debt, but offers to keep his mouth shut if Dan supplies him with a new car. Nice guy! (Their brief, believably sloppy fight scene -- without stunt doubles -- is a highlight.)

"Would you like to spit on me, Danny?
You can, you know."
For reasons she herself can't explain, a good girl named Helen (Barbara Bates) is head over heels in love with Dan. He ignores her, lies to her, dumps her for Vera, winds up committing more crimes in a few days than most criminals do in a lifetime -- and still Helen keeps coming back for more. Maybe because Dan is the only guy she's dated who's smaller than her. Boasting the style of a nursery school teacher, Helen is the total opposite of the icy Vera, whose eyeballs probably have dollar signs in place of pupils. 

Never trust a dame with a fur coat,
stolen money, and a big, fat smirk on her face.
By the time Dan figures out what Vera's all about -- way after everyone in the audience has -- he's up to his boyish blonde hair in trouble. "What kind of a dame are you?" he demands after she's sold him out. "The kind who watches out for herself!" she replies, and, brother, she's not kidding. All she cares about is the cabbage (and I don't mean coleslaw). If it isn't green and ready to fit in her wallet, she ain't interested in what you're carrying, bub. Unless it's a fur coat. 

Jimmie Dodd (left) turns from the camera
so the Mouseketeers don't see him ogling
a tramp like Vera.

Mickey Rooney isn't the only unexpected actor in Quicksand. Dan's co-worker, Buzz, has only one scene at the very beginning of the movie. He'd be completely forgettable if it wasn't for the fact he's played Jimmie Dodd, a few years away from becoming the Mouseketeer godfather on The Mickey Mouse Club. Quicksand offers the rare chance to see Dodd without large, round discs atop his head.

Mickey Rooney made Quicksand as his career was going into eclipse. Ironically, this was the time he gave his best performances in dramatic movies and, occasionally, on TV. (His portrayal in the corrosive title role of "The Comedian", a live episode of Playhouse 90, is an absolute a career highlight -- especially when you know it's based on a combination of the holy terrors Milton Berle and Red Buttons.) Unlike the MGM musicals he's best known for, Quicksand allows Rooney to often shift down into first gear, giving him several wonderfully subtle moments. Watch him dicker with Lorre over the keys to the stolen car in return of the bloodstained handkerchief he used in the mugging -- a scene where, like a couple of others, he resembles Leonardo DiCaprio not only in looks but style. 

Yet, only 30 years old and already on the third of his eight marriages, he appears to know that his major box-office days are already behind him. For Mickey Rooney, Quicksand was more than just a movie. It was his becoming his life.


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