Tight Spot (1955)

Tight Spot (1955) is a witness protection prison police tough-talking tough-cop versus mob boss film noir, inspired by Senator Estes Kefauver's tactics in coercing Virginia Hill to testify in the Bugsy Siegel prosecution.

It's based on a play by Leonard Kantor, and so is largely contained within a single set, a luxury hotel suite, and within the mix of styles are touches of screwball romantic comedy, courtesy of Ginger Rogers, and material far darker and more in line with the hand of noir. 

It takes place over a weekend before the start of a mob trial and with crucial witnesses murdered, prosecutor Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson) has only one long shot left in order to prosecute public enemy and nemesis mob boss Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene)

Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) is in the final year of a five-year sentence, and she is the one who could offer testimony which undermines the legitimacy of Costain’s immigration, proving that he had lied to the authorities and thus commencing the process of his deportation, by proving he smuggled a mafia boss into the country — perjuring his application for citizenship.

But Sherry is a scion of the noir strain, bitter and cynical, and issuing a plenitude of noirish cracks and remarks, and having been convicted on circumstantial evidence, she’s not inclined to stick her neck out, especially considering what happened to the other witnesses. 

She’s collected from prison by a tough and noir-by-deign hard-boiled cop named Vince Striker — terrific name that — played by Brian Keith — and even before she is taken to the top floor of the St Charles Hotel where she is going to be holed up, the two quickly start to share open contempt for each other:

"Why is it nobody ever thought of building a nice big statue to the first cop who ever called a girl 'sister'? Because if he hadn't come along, the police would sure have been on their bare faces for small talk."

As the hours of their confinement in the hotel pass and they gradually reveal themselves a mutual attraction grows — and despite attempts being made on Sherry’s life, the tone remains quite light, leaning towards comedy, until things take a darker turn and violence erupts, convincing Sherry that Hallett is right and she does indeed have a social responsibility to stick her neck out for a larger cause.

Film noir experience is not lacking in Tight Spot — Phil Karlson and experienced noir cinematographer Burnett Guffey both knew what they were doing. Without the corners and doorways and stairs and diners, and the many other features of the urban noirscape, Tight Spot does have to rely on performances by Rogers, Robinson and Keith to keep it going and give it atmosphere. Comedy undercuts a lot of it, largely from the dialogue offered to and delivered brilliantly by Ginger Rogers, but the tonal mix is solid 1950s film noir, which is lighter in aspect and more solidly grounded than the classic 40s feel — perhaps it even has an eye on television.

Television its good self appears in Tight Spot as an intrusive and annoying round-the-clock entertainment in the hotel room, showing a rodeo-musical fund-raising show which the characters find unbearable and corny, even for its own day, which is 1955.

Columbia Pictures is thought of as one the big five American film studios of the day, but wasn’t always this way. Columbia began life as one of the so-called poverty row studios in Hollywood in 1918, making its name through B-movies and finding success in the massively popular screwball genre in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Perhaps because they started small, Columbia’s producers were skilled at making something from very little, a great asset for any film noir production — and they made a handful of crackers in the 40s and 50s. The film noir from Columbia generally available to view today include:

  • Address Unknown (William Cameron Menzies, 1944) 
  • Escape In The Fog (Budd Boetticher, 1945)
  • Framed (Richard Wallace, 1947)
  • Johnny O'Clock (Robert Rossen, 1947)
  • Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947)
  • The Dark Past (Rudolph Maté, 1948)
  • Walk A Crooked Mile (Gordon Douglas, 1948)
  • The Sign Of The Ram (John Sturges, 1948)
  • The Undercover Man (Joseph H Lewis, 1949)
  • Knock On Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949)
  • Tokyo Joe (Stuart Heisler, 1949)
  • 711 Ocean Drive (Joseph M Newman, 1950)
  • In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
  • Convicted (Henry Levin, 1950)
  • Between Midnight And Dawn (Gordon Douglas, 1950)
  • Sirocco (Curtis Bernhardt, 1951)
  • The Mob (Robert Parrish, 1951)
  • The Family Secret (Henry Levin, 1951)
  • The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952)
  • Walk East on Beacon! (Alfred Werker, 1952)
  • Affair in Trinidad (Vincent Sherman, 1952)
  • Drive A Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954)
  • Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954) 
  • Pushover (Richard Quine, 1954)
  • 5 Against The House (Phil Karlson, 1955)
  • Tight Spot (Phil Karlson, 1955)
  • A Bullet Is Waiting (John Farrow, 1954)
  • Chicago Syndicate (Fred F Sears, 1955)
  • The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson, 1957) 
  • The Burglar (Paul Wendkos, 1957) 
  • The Garment Jungle (Vincent Sherman and Robert Aldrich, 1957)
  • The Lineup (Don Siegel, 1958)
  • Murder By Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)
  • City of Fear (Irving Lerner, 1959)

Tight Spot is an odd student at film noir academy. At times it feels about to burst into comedy due to Rogers’ character and performance, playing it big and snappily cracking until the jokes wear thing and toned down and the violence begins.

Brian Keith is a surprise as he does both hardboiled and gruffly sensitive, changing pretty fast between the two modes.

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947) was an American mobster who was a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip. In 1941, Siegel was tried for the murder of friend and fellow mobster Harry Greenberg, who had turned informant. He was acquitted in 1942. Siegel travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he handled and financed some of the original casinos —  and although in 1947 an estimated $1 million of the construction budget of The Flamingo overrun had been skimmed by Siegel's girlfriend Virginia Hill, none of this seems to have slipped into Ginger Rogers' character, who is portrayed as low class, crass and street smart, having never —  as she lets us know — experienced love.

During the trial on which the film is ever-so-loosely based, newspapers revealed Siegel's past and referred to him as "Bugsy." Siegel hated the nickname because it was based on the slang term "bugs", meaning "crazy", and used to describe his erratic behaviour. 

Brian Keith in Tight Spot (1955)

For Phil Karlson, the movie resembles his 1951 flick, The Texas Rangers — both films do profile a cynical prisoner released from stir to cooperate with the police — and in both films, these prisoners gradually change their minds. 

Karlson's America is not a place that we know well, and as a director he should probably be better known. His view of American society is however a place where nobody can be trusted and where authority is generally corrupted and not on your side. 

Karlson's morality is in fact perfect for film noir — for the film noir world is a place where everything has a price — be it in money, betrayal or death. He made tough and violent melodramas, and generally made good money for the studios doing so. He did not seem to be motivated by anything other than an artistic and social vision, as this excellent interview on cine-resort shows:

TM and RT: A scene in Kansas City Confidential that sticks out in my mind as being unusual for the period - now, of course, we have all these pictures about cops and we all know that cops are just hoods with badges - but the scene that brings home the point about the cops holding him illegally overnight, beating him up, and so on… 

KARLSON: Exactly. I'll tell you, this was so far ahead of itself that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times. Unfortunately, Phil Karlson never got the credit for it because I've never been a publicity hound. I come from the school where what we want to be judged by is up on the screen, not by how well I know so-and-so or so-and-so. 

What gives Phil Karlson a huge hall of his own in the film noir hall of fame is this vision and his dedication for sharing it. It ain't mainstream — in fact it says that America is not what it appears to be on the surface, and that it's a place where violence can be a way of life, and where authority cannot be trusted. This 1950s America does come from a base level of rationality — John Payne's character in Kansas City Confidential is a true hero as he has two combat medals and plenty of guts — but he is also a vigilante.

Ginger Rogers in Tight Spot (1955)

In fact it is revenge that drives him, and so answers are never easy — vigilantism if that is what this is — is a toughly-tempered mix of revenge and justice, with the police in fact being an utter irrelevance. Not only is Mr Big in Kansas City Confidential a disillusioned cop, turned to crime, but the main cop scenes in that movie are the illegal beatings the deliver to an innocent suspect.

In Tight Spot (1955) too the cops are everywhere, and yet still taking a back seat. And it is not a straightforward tale, neither.

Lorne Greene in Tight Spot (1955)

The script is by William Bowers, the man who gave us such excellent films as Split Second, The Law and Jake Wade, The Mob, Cry Danger, Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone, and, the immortal Criss-Cross.

Tight Spot (1955) remains a more conventional Phil Karlson film in many ways, with chatter instead of bitch slaps, and yet when it gets into the parking garage where Lorne Green and his mooks are waiting to beat on Brian Keith, it blasts with full force. It's more talkative than many of the film noirs he made, but it still rolls along with a great punch, and portrays a successful romance between a couple that starts of all friction, and turns into something tender between two misfits.

Brian Keith and Lorne Greene in Tight Spot (1955)

Tight Spot (1955) at Wikipeda

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