The Steel Trap (1952) – A Review

The Steel Trap 1952 Joseph Cotten
Joseph Cotten enters The Steel Trap

Jim Osbourne (Joseph Cotten) is a mild-mannered bank officer in Los Angeles. He’s got a loving wife (Teresa Wright), a daughter, a steady job and overall a nice life.

However, one day he realizes just how easy it would be to steal from his bank, take the loot and make off to Rio where extradition laws would allow him never to get charged for the crime. All he has to do is make off with the cash Friday and by the time the bank reopens Monday he and his family will be safe in Rio with a suitcase full of money and able to start a new life.

Jim goes about his plan and everything goes relatively easy. However, once he leaves the bank with the suitcase of money mounting troubles begin to pile up that with an agonizing series of ordeals that prevent him from making it out of the country. And time is running out. Every hour ticking by is another hour closer to the bank opening and his bosses learning what he has done. If Jim can’t get down to Rio by Monday he’ll be spending the rest of his life in another not so inviting place!

The Steel Trap is tight suspenser that builds up tension with Cotten being held up by every possible wrench getting thrown into his plan. There’s a last minute problem with his passports, a rush to get to the airport, bad weather delaying flights, a nosy co-worker. The crime itself is simple, it’s the getaway that’s a problem.

Written and directed by Andrew Stone, the film manages to make you just as nervous as Jim as he frantically attempts to jump over every hurdle that he comes up against. They are neverending and the complications are believable. Once that money is taken out of the safe it’s an ongoing difficulty of overcoming one problem after another.

We’re always aware that the clock is ticking and although we know Jim is committing a crime we’re on his side and want him to get on that plane and get to Rio before it’s too late. We get just as flustered when something new happens to prevent him from succeeding. We get narration from Cotten to keep reminding us what the stakes are and a fast paced booming driving score to accompany all the rushing around and suspense that builds during the weekend.

Joseph Cotten Teresa Wright The Steel Trap 1952 noir

Cotten gives a jittery performance as he gets more and more frantic as this long white knuckle weekend trip progresses. Wright is the understanding wife who he has in tow who’s under the illusion he’s going on a business trip. She’s the one who has to rattle his conscience and make him step back and decide if this crime is all worth it. And he can’t think about it too long. Once Monday morning arrives there’s no turning back!

I’m so used to seeing the pair in Shadow of a Doubt where they played uncle and niece, I can’t help but feel strange seeing them embrace and kiss as husband and wife. It just doesn’t look right to me, but that’s my own personal cinematic baggage.

I don’t know if I would necessarily categorize this as a noir. There’s a crime that takes place, but it doesn’t have many of components one would associate with a film noir. So maybe I’d say it’s on the distant fringes of the genre. In a way it’s a dramatic telling of the similar story of the comedy Quick Change. It’s an effective little suspense film.


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