Ian Thomas Malone

criterion channel Archive



December 2023



Classic Film: Roadblock

Written by , Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The American Dream has never really been able to shake its problematic relationship to the never-ending wheels of capitalism. A happy, content life, is never enough. The accumulation of wealth, flashy goods, and above all else, status, is the ugly reality of our nation’s most treasured ideals.

The 1951 film Roadblock examines a previously content life shaken off the straight and narrow path. Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) is a skilled insurance detective, working in tandem with his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Haydt) to track the loot stolen from a bank robbery. On his way home to Los Angeles, Peters makes the acquaintance of Diane (Joan Dixon), who pretends to be his wife in order to secure a discounted rate on her plane ticket.

Peters and Diane have an innate chemistry fueled by the former’s insecurities toward his middle-class life, and the latter’s unabashed gold-digging. Diane enjoys the finer things society has to offer, and doesn’t care what shady men she associates with on the path to riches. Peters’ monthly $350 income simply can’t sustain the life she’s accustomed to, throwing him off the straight-and-narrow path. Peters makes a deal with known criminal Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) to rob a mail train, his share of the potential haul being more than enough to keep Diane happy for the rest of their lives.

Director Harold Daniels assembles all the pieces of a rich noir thriller, but Roadblock never really builds on its compelling deconstruction of American capitalism. The mechanics of the plot eat up much of the film’s brisk 73-minute runtime, leaving little space to explore the film’s interesting themes. The transformation of Diane from status-obsessed to a voice of reason within Peters’ life is handled far too haphazardly to be believable.

McGraw is a serviceable lead, but most of Roadblock’s best scenes feature Peters acting as a foil to the supporting cast. Dixon and Gilmore put forth performances that far exceed the stock nature of their characters. Haydt in particular is easily the most underutilized, bringing an edge to Miller that is never adequately explored. Too much of Daniels works feels paint-by-numbers, an unfortunate state of affairs for the substantive core of the narrative.

The film features an interesting chase scene along the LA River toward the end, perhaps the best encapsulation of the narrative’s wasted potential. B-movies don’t necessarily need to shoot for the moon, but it’s hard to forgive Roadblock’s many shortcomings when a talented cast and compelling themes are so terribly wasted in service to nothing at all.



April 2023



Classic Film: All I Desire

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The allure of the American dream has never been super compatible with the realities of agency. The charm of 1950s suburbia, with its white picket fences and heteronormativity, pushed women into their preordained roles, with little concern for any desires contrary to the picturesque image of a happy life. For many, their only true choice was conformity or exile.

The 1953 film All I Desire centers its narrative on a woman stifled by her lack of agency over the course of her life. Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) is a vaudeville actress barely scrapping by in her career. Having abandoned her husband and three kids for a life in the theatre, Naomi faces her dwindling prospects with an understandable disdain for the cards she’s been dealt. A letter from her middle child Lilly (Lori Nelson) requesting her presence at a high school play gives Naomi the chance to go back home, to see all that she left behind for a chance at fame that never panned out.

Based on the 1951 novel Stopover, director Douglas Sirk crafts a subversive family drama that challenges the idealism of suburbia. Naomi’s abandonment of her family put a great strain on her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and eldest child Joyce (Marcia Henderson) to keep their household together. The close-knit town of Riverdale, Wisconsin is too small for secrets, the ramifications of Naomi’s old affair with Dutch Heinemann (Lyle Bettger) resurfacing a decade later like no time had passed at all.

Stanwyck largely carries the narrative through its brisk 80-minute runtime, bringing a much-needed natural degree of sympathy to the complex protagonist. Naomi is not a very likable person, but Stanwyck never tries to endear her to the audience, instead focusing on the carnage that ensues when people are forced to grapple with pre-programmed existences. You don’t need to like Naomi to understand why she did what she did or feel the pain of someone forced to retrace their steps through hostile territory.

The narrative itself leaves a lot to be desired. Henry and Joyce are both fascinating characters who don’t get much of a chance to shine. Henry’s relationship with Sara (Maureen O’Sullivan), Lily’s drama teacher, plays second fiddle to a more predictable pairing, refusing to muddy the waters of interpersonal conflict. All I Desire could have been a damning indictment on the forced idealism of suburbia, instead conforming to a 1950s audience who weren’t ready to see the dream of the middle class crushed before their eyes.

The film’s overwhelming desire to play it safe undercut what could have been a masterpiece. Instead, All I Desire rests comfortably as a lesser entry in Sirk and Stanwyck’s storied canon. There is some staying power in the themes presented, a contemporaneous indictment against the idealism that is still hoisted up nostalgically as peak Americana. Everyone would be well to remember that the 1950s had plenty of problems too.