Classic Film of the Week #17: Tight Spot (1955)
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If you've been noticing that these movie of the week posts have been coming more rapidly than once a week lately, the reason is that I've slowly but surely fallen a few weeks behind since I started this series--now I'm just playing catch-up! Today I'm taking a look at Tight Spot, a film featuring one of my favorite actresses playing a role completely unlike anything else she had ever done before: the lovely Ginger Rogers. Actors always take a risk when they step out of their comfort zone like she does here, but in this case it turns out to be a fantastic choice, with Rogers putting in one of the greatest performances I've ever seen from her.
Directed by Phil Karlson, Tight Spot is a film adaptation of the play Dead Pigeon and has an all-star cast of Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, and Brian Keith. Rogers plays Sherry Conley, a female convict nearing the end of her sentence who is unexpectedly given a vacation from prison by Lt. Vince Striker (Keith) and dropped into a fancy hotel room, where she finds out she's attorney Lloyd Hallett's (Robinson) only hope to get infamous mobster Benjamin Costain off the streets. She was an inadvertent witness to him smuggling an undesirable person onto American soil, and her testimony should be enough to get him deported. But she's not entirely sold on the idea: the reason Hallett is coming to her is because his last witness was shot dead--in broad daylight, with two police escorts. Hallett and Striker are on a deadline, and they're determined to change Sherry's mind and get her in that courtroom, but in going up against her they find that her resolve is just as steely as theirs.
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Ginger Rogers is known for playing perky, upbeat characters, but just below the surface there's always an edge to her persona: there's no naivety to her optimism, with her cheerfulness instead stemming from her incredible strength of character, able to keep going and putting on a happy, funny front when times are hard--even really, really hard as they are in her Depression and wartime-set pre-Code films. Tight Spot is the only film I've seen from her where that edge is front-and-center, playing a character whose lifetime of hardship and suffering has turned her into a hard, opportunistic woman who fends for herself because no one else will. All of Rogers' glamour and humor is stripped away--even her signature blonde curls have been lopped off in favor of an incredibly short, prim haircut that reflects Sherry's no-nonsense attitude, but also betrays her vulnerability, giving the camera complete access to her facial features and the range of emotions she expresses. As I watched the film, I kept thinking of Barbara Stanwyck, and how this role easily could have been played by her: it would fit in perfectly with the rest of her 1950s filmography where she played so many tough women with hearts of gold. But it's a testament to Rogers' performance when I say that I truly don't think Stanwyck could have done a better job--and more than that, I actually think Rogers was a better choice than Stanwyck would have been. So much of Rogers' power here is the way she subverts her audience's expectations, delivering such a convincing and layered portrait of a woman no one would have ever expected her to play, much less play so well.
While Rogers is the clear stand-out, I also liked the performances of Robinson and Keith and how their characters impact Sherry. This is a film where each character has a clear motivation, and the film revolves around the way the characters' dynamics shift as they each try to get what they want--in particular, while Robinson and Keith are working on the same side, their individual relationships with Sherry alter drastically over the course of the film. At first, Sherry and Hallett have a good rapport: while she won't give him what he wants, he shows her respect and she, in turn, is honest with him and doesn't try to play games. Lt. Striker, on the other hand, is the bad cop: he knows her background and not only doesn't see her as a lady, but makes a point not to treat her like one, to the point where Hallett must reprimand him, fearing the Lt. will scare Sherry off even more. Striker stays in the hotel room to protect her while Hallett leaves to continue work on the case, and while at first this seems like a pretty horrible set-up for Sherry, as time goes on Striker becomes more empathetic and the pair form a close personal connection. As Striker becomes more concerned about Sherry's well-being because of his attachment to her, he comes into contrast with Hallett, who also wants to keep her safe--so he can win his case. The whole matter is merely business to him, and he takes no personal interest in Sherry despite the fact that he's asking her to risk her life. And so, the two men fight for the same thing--the safety of the same woman--with completely different motivations for doing so.
Now, Tight Spot was not well-received when it was released and doesn't carry much esteem even today. Why? It's based on a stage-play, and has a noticeably stagey set-up, with 80% of the film taking place in the hotel room--almost everything happens through dialogue, not through action. Normally I would be the first to decry the film for this, and I've certainly disliked a number of other films because of this particular issue--I actually make a point to avoid films based on plays because I so often find them disappointing--and yet, somehow, I found the characters and performances in this film so compelling that the talk-heavy, action-less set-up just didn't bother me. To my mind, it was engaging and interesting from start to finish, and I'm sorry that so many others didn't see the same merits that I did, hindering Rogers from getting the acclaim she so deserved for this performance.
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