Alan Ladd is a hardened inspector looking to bust up a mob that includes a pre-Dragnet Jack Webb.
Appointment with Danger (1951) is a noir that has the fun feature of seeing Jack Webb partnered with Harry Morgan as criminals, before they were partnered on TV’s Dragnet. Here Webb also plays a “Joe,” only this Joe is the very opposite of law-abiding; he’s a cold, effective thug and dogged nemesis of star Alan Ladd. After a preamble showing us the vast operations of the US Postal Service, we watch as Morgan and Webb do away with a Postal Inspector. As they dump the body in an alley, in the middle of a downpour, they are spotted by a Nun with a malfunctioning umbrella, played by Phyllis Calvert.
Alan Ladd, the dead inspector’s fellow agent tasked with solving the murder, is a brusque, tenacious cop, but not very human; he admits to not even liking his late colleague very much. He trusts no-one, sees being nice as incompatible to doing good investigative work, believes the only dependable relationship is between a man and his gun, and is constantly told he has neither heart nor feelings. When he follows the nun’s trail into another city, and in their first encounter surprises her with an obscure Martin Luther quote she doesn’t recognize, he’s revealed as a man with a reasonable facsimile of feelings buried deep within the hardboiled exterior, which you guess correctly will be cracked open over the course of his interaction with and protection of Calvert. As Calvert is taken to a location to spot and identify Morgan, she’s also spotted by Webb, who, despite all instruction to the contrary, will not let go of his obsession with killing her. Meanwhile Ladd discovers a planned heist at a weak point in the money shipment, a 7-minute truck transfer between trains, and pretending to be a corrupt lawman, joins the mob to bust it up, and ends up butting heads with Webb.
This Jack Webb is lean, young and intensely focused killer, starting with an improvised church scaffold collapse that just misses Calvert. He’s also ruthless when it comes to shutting up Morgan, pounding him dead with a brass baby boot he cherishes as the only memento left of the son his wife has taken from him. As if being a stone cold killer isn’t enough, Webb’s rude, insulting and dour, and even reads the funnies with an laser stare and a frown. He’s a menacing bully who plays dirty at handball too, no surprise, so when Ladd has that great moment on the court where he socks Webb cold and drops a towel full of ice on his face (and later when he stomps on Webb’s foot and throws him some funnies), feel free to cheer. In the end it’s Webb’s kidnapping of Calvert that throws the heist off schedule and blows Ladd’s cover, leading to a climactic brawl between the two men. As Webb is defeated, the mob wiped out and Calvert saved, so Ladd is softened and humanized, likable for the first time.
Ladd vs. Webb battles aside, Appointment with Danger has a fine cast that includes Paul Stewart as the head honcho of the heist, a slick and solid but ultimately nervous sort who’s rattled by a school bus full of juvenile witnesses. Jan Sterling has a fun role as the vinyl-collecting moll who knows her way around the law. She could easily doom Ladd when she overhears him passing info to the authorities, but surprises him by quickly assessing where she’d stand in the aftermath, and deciding to keep quiet.
Director Lewis Allen (The Uninvited, Desert Fury) gets the most out of steel mills and railyards to show us the grit os industrial Indiana and keeps the pace fast with action and a number of twists and near-exposures that Ladd has to think fast in order to avoid. Appointment with Danger is a movie with the basic undercover lawman/heist plot boosted by great actors, including the one spotlighted in this event, Jack Webb.