People have a tendency to panic under pressure. And this panic has a tendency to exacerbate the problem a person faces. Which puts them under more pressure. Which makes them panic more. Director Irving Pichel explores this concept in the 1950 film Quicksand; the title, of course, is metaphorical.
Mickey Rooney stars as Dan Brady, a young auto mechanic who has just recently dumped his girlfriend, as things were getting too serious for him. When the movie starts, he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, but that doesn’t last long. His problems start, as these things so often do, with a spirited blonde.
This could all be avoided if he just paid the bill and left. Not that I really blame him for this much.
We get an early hint at Dan’s poor judgment in the opening scenes, where he discusses with his friends the fact that he’s dumped his longtime girlfriend, Helen (Barbara Bates). Helen is apparently bewildered by the decision, and calls him frequently; she is, one has to say, rather clingy and doesn’t have a strong sense of self outside of her relationship with Dan (as her friend sarcastically remarks upon). But she seems to be a nice girl. Dan’s reason for breaking up with her? Things were “getting too serious”, he says, indicating that he’s not ready to settle down yet. And in the midst of this discussion with his friends, he sets his sights on the new cashier at the diner, Vera, played by Jeanne Cagney. Vera isn’t high class — but she dearly wishes to be. She has ambition in spades, and a lot of spirit. Dan only gradually manages to win her over on the idea of going out on a date with him. And there the problem begins… Dan realizes that he’s broke, and won’t have the money to actually take Vera out on their date. After exhausting several reasonable options, he decides to “borrow” $20 from the till at the auto shop where he works, planning to return the money before the till is audited at the end of the week. But the next day the auditor arrives early, and Dan’s problems quickly compound as he tries to find ways to get himself out of the mess he’s in.
Fewer people would turn to crime if they understood what a pain in the neck it is.
Dan’s criminal problems are compounded by his romantic entanglements. Helen has no idea what Dan has been up to, and still wants to get back together. Vera quickly figures it out, but has no moral qualms about it and wants to use Dan to improve her own lifestyle. It’s your classic good girl, bad girl love triangle, with Dan, the well-meaning petty crook caught in the middle. The two actresses both play their parts well, and Mickey Rooney does a good job of keeping Dan a sympathetic character even as the audience watches him dig himself ever deeper into trouble. There’s a sense of a cautionary tale about it, with Dan’s everyman nature; “this could happen to you”, sort of thing, if you decide to cut corners on moral issues. Some occasional doses of humor and a lack of lecturing keep it from feeling like it’s preachy, though.
Some of the side characters in the film are particularly interesting. Peter Lorre has a small role as Nick, Vera’s former boss (and implied to be her former beau); he’s as weaselly as Peter Lorre characters tend to be, and just being around him complicates Dan’s life considerably. Dan’s overbearing boss is played by Art Smith, and at first he seems to be just your general miserly businessman who never gives his workers a proper break. But there’s a moment in the film when one realizes that Mackey isn’t entirely on the level either. Dan, Nick, Mackey… they all make choices that put them into bad situations, choices that were easily avoided in all cases. The same could be said of Helen and Vera as well. In fact, the only character who has any real impact on the plot who doesn’t fall into this trap is Taylor Holmes’s Harvey, who seems to be the one person with a level head on his shoulders. It’s a minor role as well, but Holmes gives Harvey enough professional friendliness that it feels like a bigger role than it is.
There are some flaws with the film, though. One is that Dan is such an everyman we don’t really get much of a sense of his specific personality. Mickey Rooney does a good job of portraying a basically good, if somewhat clueless, young man, but there’s not much more to him. Contrasted with Vera, who has a stronger sense of personality (if one that is ultimately not much better defined), he comes off a little lacking. It makes it a little bit harder to sympathize when he continues making bad decisions. The same basic complaint also applies to Helen, who is pretty much there to be Dan’s hanger-on, and has approximately as much emotional depth as he does.
They make a nice couple, if only because I can’t think of another adjective to use.
Another flaw is that is that the film tries to use some trappings of the film noir genre, in particular the use of narration. Dan’s thoughts only occasionally intrude on the film, but each time, they stick out as something which just doesn’t work very well. In every instance, the narration is either unnecessary or would have been better worked into the dialogue.
And finally, there’s the plot itself. While entertaining, there’s a heavy reliance on contrivance to keep Dan spinning out of control. In a way it helps preserve his basic “good guy” nature — there’s a sense that things wouldn’t escalate so much if he wasn’t having some supernaturally bad luck that week — but it also makes it that much harder to believe everything.
Quicksand is still a fun film to watch despite those issues, however. Although it lacks character depth, and the plot is somewhat simplistic, it’s a fun plot to follow along. It’s not an all-time classic or anything, but it should entertain most people.