Nathan Juran directs this Poverty Row noir about a wrongly accused ex-Marine on the run. Decorated Korean War vet Jim (Richard Conte) meets a drunken former model (Mary Beth Hughes) in a Las Vegas bar, has a fling with her, and the next morning she’s found murdered. Witnesses saw Jim argue with her, and the Army engineer buddy who’s Jim’s alibi is on a secret assignment using an alias Jim doesn’t know. With all the evidence making Jim look guilty, he bolts, steals a police car, ditches it in the desert and hitches a ride with famous photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and her model/assistant Susan (Wanda Hendrix). The rest of the movie is the chase, during which it dawns on the ladies that Jim is the wanted “Strap Killer,” Jim uses them to get through roadblocks and to his Army buddy/alibi, and Jim learns he has come in contact with the real Strap Killer.
The story (Roger Corman is one of six credited writers) depends a lot on coincidence, absurdly close calls and ridiculously frequent and frustrating obstacles. There are lots of plot holes, like an investigator who isn’t anywhere to be found when Cummings outs Jim, even though he was there only moments before. Jim is found the morning after the murder with a bloody shirt in his suitcase and that’s never explained. People get shot up close, drop as if dead and then walk into the next scene with a smile. The false alarms become comical; just when Jim and the ladies think they’ve cleared a state line inspection, an officer stops their car again, and, after a tense pause, smiles: “don’t forget your temporary permit!” They stop to get gas with police only minutes away, and happen to pick the oldest, slowest manual pump station in the country, manned by the oldest, slowest, chattiest pump operator in history (the new pumps will be here tomorrow, he says). Complications meant to stretch suspense become so excruciating that even Jim laments, “I was born on the wrong side of the planet!” Joan Bennett scowls and glares and stews, while Hendrix’s character goes from suspecting and fearing Jim to believing he’s innocent. The script gives away the killer’s identity way too early, and connects the clue to a wrenching scene involving the death of a pet.
Even with all these flaws, this movie was still a fun time, a fast, short and satisfying adventure with enjoyable actors. It was amusing to watch Cummings’ failed attempts to rat Jim out, dump him, run him over and shoot him. Some of the hardboiled dialogue is laughable but Conte delivers it like he takes all the implausible setbacks, with a mix of determination, disbelief and weariness. The scenery is great, whether it’s the casino, desert, cute resort where Cummings does a photo shoot, or Jim’s final destination, his childhood home flooded by the Salton Sea. That’s an imaginative and atmospheric setting where Jim and Susan admit they love each other, save the cop pursuing them (Reed Hadley–just listening to him talk gets bonus points from me), and have a showdown with the real killer, who makes a confession while stuck in quicksand.
Mary Beth Hughes does wonders with her scene and other familiar faces here are Frank Jenks, Harry Harvey and Tom Hubbard. Iris Adrian (link to my bio of the sassy character actress) plays a diner waitress who has better things to do than serve anybody. She throws menus at the trio when they sit down and trades put-downs with the troopers who come in talking about the Strap Killer and how bad the diner’s burgers are.