Honestly, I love it for a whole lot of reasons but only one in particular that I often share with readers here: I see film noir as a black-and-white existence most often populated with broken people making broken choices, and I like to call these characters ‘monsters of a sort.’ That’s why I’ll occasionally cover noirs in this space – along with the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror features – when I get the inkling, and that happens a lot when I can squeeze in the screenings.
Such is the case today as I was graciously provided a complimentary Blu-ray set by Kino Lorber: Film Noir – The Dark Side Of Cinema, Volume XIII.
Today’s viewing: a late 1950’s melodrama that never quite feels noir enough – so far as I’m concerned – but goes by the name of Step Down To Terror.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A killer on the lam takes refuge in his childhood home where his mother and widowed sister-in-law are ignorant of his criminal past.”
Though I’ve always been a fan of noir, I’ll admit to failing to understand precisely why some films get christened with the genre heading while others don’t.
Some of this is owed to the ongoing debate about what truly qualifies a title as noir. Factually, there are some ‘in the know’ who insist on only allowing films of a certain chronology to fit into consideration, while others insist upon allowing a wider set of filters, perhaps even extending noir ownership to flicks well outside of the normally accepted windows. Me? Well, I’ve always tried to thematically stick to – as I said above – broken people making broken decisions as a foundation and then enforcing the post World War II timeframe, but even this doesn’t always make for perfect solutions.
Still, pictures like Step Down To Terror (1958) almost befuddle me as to why they’re part and parcel of what purists argue to be representative of authentic noir.
Charles Drake stars as Johnny Walters, the elusive killer on the lam who decides that his life of crime has finally given him enough extra scratch to head back home and settle down with his surreptitiously acquired wealth, start a business, and maybe raise a family. It isn’t long before the audience (and Johnny) realize that his escapades are bound to catch up with him – this is noir, after all – and a chance newspaper article fairly quickly shows that he’s still caught up on police radar to the point that investigators have shown up in town with hopes of nabbing him once and for all. Because his natural instinct is ‘flight’ over ‘fight,’ it becomes clear that Johnny might have to resort to his old ways if he’s seriously going to reach his golden years at this local.
So … sure. Step Down arguably has some of the attributes normally ascribed to film’s in the noir era, but all too much of it just feels more like a dirty small-town melodrama than it does anything else. Johnny’s motives occasionally have modest appeal; though he’s clearly built his small fortune on some bad, bad deeds, his heart is in the right place socially in trying to use it to the betterment of his family. While the script (from Gordon McDonnell, Mel Dinelli, and Czenzi Ormonde) works hard to suggest that our lead agitator hasn’t quite committed to a clean life – there are suggestions he’s suddenly turned his eyes on Lily Kirby (Jocelyn Brando) and what might be her small-town savings account – not enough of these smaller moments connect. When doors are left wide open to interpretation, audiences might not see evil as being evil enough, and that waters down an otherwise tempting potboiler by cheapening the stew.
Still, Miller is more than a bit fetching here as the lass with a kinda/sorta heart of gold who, at first, fights against the obvious temptation to condemn Johnny before diving in at the risk of her own life; and that strengthens an otherwise routine performance in a few spots. While she doesn’t quite smolder – her character is far too pure for that – there’s still a hint of intrigue that makes her a sexy proposition – the ‘would she / wouldn’t she’ conundrum, up to a point – and it makes for an occasionally compelling back-and-forth between her and Drake.
Step Down To Terror (1958) was produced by Universal International Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good folks at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, this brand new 2K remaster looks and sound very solid from start-to-finish. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc boasts a commentary from authors Bryan Reesman and Maxy Evry along with the usual theatrical trailer to enjoy.
Alas, this one is only Mildly Recommended.
It’s hard to make too much of Step Down To Terror, mostly because it really only rises to the level of feeling noirish in a few small notches. Drake’s performance is good, but it lacks the teeth to show that he’s truly all bad when stacked up against the angelic do-gooder sister-in-law played to near pitch perfection by Miller. Though the two have a solid repartee, this one just needed a bit more – more suggested skullduggery, perhaps even more of an exploration of Johnny’s bad dealings – to register. Instead of matching wits with great noirs like 1947’s Out Of The Past or 1949’s The Third Man, Step Down To Terror feels more like a very dark episode of Leave It To Beaver.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Step Down To Terror (1958) – as part of their Film Noir: The Dark Side Of Cinema XIII collection – by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.