If you hate the thought of a young-ish Mickey Rooney playing a bad guy, please do not read any further.
We mean it. We’re not talking about a fellow who squirts water out of his boutonniere or puts whoopee cushions on people’s chairs. Nay, we’re talking kidnapping and murder, as portrayed in the gritty 1950 crime drama Quicksand.
You may remember Rooney as the über-talented child actor who could do anything – sing, dance, act, and play musical instruments. He became a superstar when he starred as the kind-hearted rascal Andy Hardy, in the Andy Hardy series. It was a character that cast a long shadow.
So, when Andy Hardy – er, Mickey Rooney – breaks into an arcade at night to steal a few thousand dollars, you realize you’re rooting for him to get away with it. Even when he attacks his boss and flees to Mexico, you know you won’t relax until he’s safely across the border.
Quicksand is one of those gritty black-and-white movies that makes you feel a bit grimy afterwards. There are not many glamourous scenes, and there are certainly no glamourous people. Almost all the characters (except for Rooney’s saintly but stupid ex-girlfriend) are as morally corrupt as Rooney.
Rooney plays a car mechanic whose boss (Art Smith) is a mean, cheap jerk. We are given a glimpse into both men’s characters early in the film: the boss gets angry about employees leaving the light on in the stockroom and, in a fit of pique, turns off the light above Rooney’s head as he works. As soon as the boss leaves, Rooney glares after him and snaps the light back on.
The film starts to pick up speed when Rooney, desperate for cash before payday, helps himself to a $20 bill from the company till. However, the bookkeeper arrives early to pick up the cash deposit, and Rooney scrambles to replace the money. One bad decision creates another and, before long, Rooney finds himself racing towards Mexico.
We won’t give you too many details because this film is best enjoyed when you’re unprepared. We will tell you, though, there are some very clever plot twists that will make you exclaim, in your out-loud voice, “No way!”
You couldn’t ask for a better cast in this film. Jeanne Cagney (sister of James) is the girl of Rooney’s dreams, a gal who would do anything to wear a mink coat. Rooney asks her, “Think you can handle me?” Cagney, with a smirk of contempt, says, “I can handle you easy.” We know how this will go.
Barbara Bates is Rooney’s dense ex-girlfriend, and we mean head-shakingly dense. But, as a girl who is loyal to a fault, Bates almost breaks your heart.
The most outstanding performance, in our opinion, is by Peter Lorre who plays a slimy arcade owner. Lorre is creepy and loathsome, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Rooney abhors Lorre and regards him as the worst type of human, even though Rooney proves himself just as capable of despicable behaviour.
The tension in Quicksand heightens with each new plot development. The movie starts to squeeze against you on all sides you until you feel as desperate as Rooney. How will Andy Hardy get out of this one!
If you’re keen to see a young-ish Mickey Rooney in a demanding dramatic role, we recommend Quicksand. Even with its flaws, it provides a hang-onto-your-hat ride.
Quicksand: starring Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney, Barbara Bates. Directed by Irving Pichel. Written by Robert Smith. United Artists Corp., 1950, B&W, 80 mins.