More than 55 years after the end of film noir's classic era, Charles McGraw, with his tough-as-nails screen image and unmistakable voice, has come to represent the quintessential noir tough guy. (One could also characterize Bogart or Mitchum in this way, but their household-name status excludes them from being identified as strictly noir performers. When Bogart’s name comes up in casual movie-buff conversation, it’s just as likely to be connected to The African Queen or Casablanca as it is for The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.)
The presence of McGraw has become something of a signpost for establishing a film’s "noir credibility"--seeing him in a fedora and trench coat has a similar effect as any shot of black and white prowl car gliding shark-like down a rain-soaked alley. Even when McGraw was miscast, as he was in 1951’s Roadblock, we still get that rush. And although he’s out of place, his presence alone makes any film worthy of our attention.
McGraw plays Joe Peters, a Walter Neff-like insurance detective who watches his life spiral down the drain after falling for an ambitious and money-hungry woman. The movie has strongly cinematic opening and closing sequences, but the film is sabotaged by the poorly developed characters and illogical story it serves up in a leaden "in-between."
Things start off with zip and a twist: a frightened man witnesses a murder on a dark city street, but is quickly spotted by the killer. Upon being cornered, he tries save his own skin by volunteering that he too is on the lam from the cops. As a show of good faith and in exchange for his life, he offers to share the spoils of his crime--a big-time heist--with the murderer. One rainy drive later, the pair enters a dark cemetery mausoleum where the cache of cash is hidden. But as soon as the loot is out in the open, in walks the apparent murder victim, risen like Lazarus from a nearby grave: we realize that the entire affair was an elaborate ruse meant to entrap the witness-thief. Joe Peters (McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) are the brains behind the stage-play.
Later, when Joe boards a plane to get home he meets Diane (Joan Dixon), who hustles a half-price fare by claiming to be his wife. (This seems to be the only time in all of film noir that this particular scam is pulled--it's clearly one for the noir trivia books.) Joe doesn’t like being made an accessory to Diane’s con jog, but he lives in a world where everyone has an angle: reluctantly, he plays along. When fate diverts their flight away from a fogged-in airport, the two are obligated to take a room together in a shabby motel.
Their conversation there is hardly romantic: he thinks she’s a gold digger; she thinks he’s a square. Before long she’s calling him "Honest Joe." It's a scene where director Harold Daniels is angling for some sexual chemistry to emerge, but McGraw is a bit challenged in the romance department, and Dixon's shrewish performance prevents her attractiveness from igniting into allure. The two go through the motions nonetheless, and the film gamely builds a picket fence around them.
The first act of the film ends with an impromptu airport kiss after the weather clears and the ersatz couple are obliged to go their separate ways. But Joe’s hooked: we see it later when he spies Diane at a nightclub with notorious fur thief Lowell Gilmore (Kendall Webb). She’s gotten her pelts, but from another man. It’s the jealous tipping point that nudges Joe to consider breaking the law.
Diane suffers from a brazen materialism that drives her to make immoral and ultimately destructive choices; Joe is so sex-starved that he’ll do anything to get into her pants. She has to have jewels and furs, he has to have her: crime is the only way for both to get what they want.
The middle of the film finds Joe jockeying with the racketeer for the girl, and eventually partnering with him in a daring train robbery. But we're not really convinced of McGraw's obsession--as things play out, we start to ask ourselves: is he really willing to throw away his career, self-respect, freedom, and long-time friendship with partner Harry for a girl he doesn’t appear to like or be able to get along with? (This ain’t Lancaster and DeCarlo in Criss Cross.)
Then, in the days leading up to the train heist, Roadblock becomes downright inexplicable. Diane pulls a bizarre switcheroo and gets religion: she no longer craves a life of luxury and material things. She’s suddenly ready to be a hausfrau on Joe’s insurance salary--forget about all those diamonds and rubies. With this new vision of domestic bliss in mind, Joe meets Gilmore and tries to beg off, but...no dice Joe, you’re in too deep!
So the lovebirds get hitched and head off to their perfect alibi honeymoon. The train heist comes off as planned: all’s well until Harry finally gets wise and the thieves start to turn on each other. Deadly mayhem ensues, until eventually Joe and Diane find themselves trapped in a sedan trying to leadfoot it out of Los Angeles. We've been here before, but we've never gotten there this way...
With the nonsense of contriving the final sequence out of the way, Roadblock gamely attempts to redeem itself at the closing curtain. After a crackerjack car chase through a maze of L.A. side streets, Joe hastens into the concrete prison of the L.A. River basin. The camerawork and editing are excellent as Joe, finally recognizing the futility of his situation, shoos bad-girl-turned-good-girl Diane out of the car, telling her to forget him.
He speeds away, but a mere moment later destiny shunts him toward Harry and a mob of blue uniforms hiding beneath a nearby underpass. Out of his car and looking to make a break up the embankment, Joe is gunned down by a patrolman just as Harry draws a bead on him. Diane sprints to the scene and Joe tumbles down into in her arms. The film closes with a beautiful wide shot of the jilted femme fatale staggering away down the basin, as a train whistle sounds in the distance.
But that bravura finish couldn't erase the muddle that preceded it, and Dixon's silent, reeling shock at the curtain wasn't enough to fashion an acting reel to put her career back on a sure footing. She made just two more pictures for RKO, drifted off into television, and was off-screen forever before the age of thirty.