Tight Spot (1955)

“Whenever I deal with something dirty, I always get a little soiled.”

Tight Spot AKA Dead Pigeon is a little known but surprisingly good crime film, loaded with excellent performances, strong dialogue, and a very tight script. If you’re a fan of 50s gangster films, then there’s a good chance you may enjoy this one

The film begins with the murder of a snitch–would-be government witness Tonelli is assassinated before he can start singing in the courtroom. With the government case against mobster Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene) weakening, district attorney Lloyd Hallett (Edward G Robinson) arranges for the transportation of the only remaining possible witness, good-time girl Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) from the state prison to a swanky hotel room. Here Hallett hopes to convince Sherry to get up into that witness stand and testify against the brutal Costain. Hallett has two carrots to help entice Sherry to testify: he promises to cut the remaining eleven months of her original 5 year sentence, and he also lectures her about her “debt to society.”

Costain’s trial is due to begin Monday morning, and on Saturday Sherry is transferred without a word of explanation from the prison to the fancy hotel. Her escorts are a prison guard, Willoughby (Katherine Anderson), and a hardened cop Vince Striker (Brian Keith).

The film is based on a play and the film certainly maintains a tense claustrophobic atmosphere with its limited, mainly interior scenes and very controlled situations. Over the course of the weekend, Sherry is pressured to comply with Hallett’s request to testify, but wise-cracking, tough-talking Sherry has learned all about self-preservation. She’s not about to put her life on the line to ‘protect’ a society that’s largely screwed her over, and when it comes to the idea that she owes a debt to society, Sherry doesn’t see it that way at all. Sherry is portrayed by Ginger Rogers as a basically decent person whose Achilles’ Heel just happens to be men. As far as I’m concerned, Ginger Rogers stole the film from her very first scene when she lectures a new prison inmate about how to slack off inside (“See if you can’t think about this joint as a training ground for future life”). This is an important character-setting scene as it establishes that Sherry is no dummy, and she’s not a pushover either. She’s not about to break her back working in the prison to help facilitate a system she despises.

Locked in the hotel room, Sherry begins to build relationships with Willoughby and Striker. While Willoughby treats Sherry with compassion, natural adversaries Sherry and Striker eyeball each other warily. To Striker, Sherry is just a gangster’s dame, and to Sherry, Striker is another no-good cop put on the planet to harass her. As Sherry’s story becomes clear, she earns grudging respect from Striker, and they begin to see each other as three-dimensional human beings. When Sherry’s sister arrives on the scene, even the DA begins to feel sorry for his potential star witness.

One very clever element used in the film is the concurrent television charity marathon, which features a soulful, annoying crooner. Just as the crooner is locked into the weekend’s action, Sherry and her protectors are stuck too. Sherry, however, is fully aware that she’s a sitting duck, and she’s not about to let herself be used in anyone’s game–no matter the bribes she’s offered. Alienated from a society that’s taught her to be wary of any government offers, she’s interested in self-preservation–until caring about other people finally breaks through her brittle veneer. From director Phil Karlson.

Some lines from the film:

“You mean you brought me up here to let me be insulted by some cheap dame even if she is my sister.”

“I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask if my civil rights is being violated.”

“Look sister, I wouldn’t know styles if you shoved ‘em down my throat.”

“Men–they ought to trade themselves in for something a girl really needs.”

“And being a cop, you can’t imagine it might be a phony rap, could you?”

“I thought newspaper reporters were supposed to be drunk by this time on Saturday night.”

“Here’s to the men who blow up prisons.”

“You’ve no idea how utterly desirable you are to a girl.”

“Government officials bribing people. I thought it was the other way around.”

“Maybe it doesn’t pay to be an honest hardworking woman.”

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Filed under Crime, Gangster

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