Movie: One Way Street (1950)

Many movies stumble to some extent in their second acts.  On rare occasions, a picture might hit its stride in the second half, only for me to be let down by the third.  Such is the case with 1950’s One Way Street.

This curious noir stars James Mason as a doctor who flees gangster Dan Duryea and this thugs, taking a large sum of stolen loot with him.  He also has Märta Torén, as Duryea’s moll, in tow.  Curiously, these two aren’t lovers, though she seems to have designs on Mason.  At this opening of the picture, he is doing nothing more than reluctantly letting her tagalong.

This is a motion picture with an opening that puts the emphasis on “motion”.  It throws us in the deep end right after the opening credits wrap.  I initially felt I was watching a sequel to a film that doesn’t exist.  This would have originally been shown in theatres back when films would be ran over and over again and people could come and go from the auditorium at any time.  Pity the viewer who came in just after the credit sequence and thought they had missed half the film.

I had questions from the first couple of minutes which still weren’t answered by the time the film ends.  A big one for me was wondering what Mason had done to end up in the services of a gangster.  This didn’t diminish the film in my esteem–it was just something to muse over.  Really, it made the viewing experience feel that much richer because there felt like so much history had transpired before.

The couple tries to flee to Mexico City via a single-propeller plane, only to have to make an emergency landing in a remote part of Mexico.  It is here, in the second act, that the movie seriously shifts down a gear or two.

Initially, there is danger around them, though some figures who are mysterious at first will prove to be very helpful.  I especially liked Basil Ruysdael as a village priest.  This is a subtle performance, where a character clearly knows more than they are telling at any given time, and who is careful as to what information they will reveal.

The priest sees an opportunity for the doctor to aid the village.  Mason is reluctant to get involved at first, especially since he is so desperate to get to Mexico City.  He’s even willing to go without Torén, which made me want to reach into the screen and slap him upside the head.  She sums up their life at this point beautifully as “the first place I’ve ever been where I felt the past is past and the future was giving me a break”.

Also, I was baffled as to why he would want to go to a large city where Duryea and company would be more likely to find him, instead of…um, literally anywhere else in Mexico.

Still, Mason treats the village’s ill horse and the people are overwhelmed with joy.  Might this be the redemption he didn’t even know he was looking for?  Then there’s Robert Espinoza, as a boy who idolizes him and has a dream of being a doctor one day.

There are a couple of obstacles to complete happiness in the village, the greatest of which are local bandits.  Though intimidating, they are handled through less effort from the villagers than I would have expected.  There’s also the local practitioner of traditional medicine, who might have turned the locals against the doctor if he hadn’t dispatched her in a humorous, though rather condescending, takedown.

I wish the movie could have stayed in the village for the remainder of the runtime.  I wouldn’t even care if no real conflict happened.  What started as solidly noir had been transformed into something else, and I just wanted to spend more time in this place with these characters.

Alas, a postcard sent by Torén is intercepted by Duryea.  When he marks it as “return to sender”, it is delivered to the village.  Mason correctly assumes that, if the mail could find them, then their pursuers could just as easily.

And so One Way Street ends with Mason choosing to do something I wish he hadn’t.  This action will also have unexpected consequences that seem to be incidental to that decision.  In my mind, I have decided to pretend this third act never happened.  What’s even stranger about that final portion of the film is it is so disproportionately short when compared to the other acts, making it feel more like a “final fifth”.  A strange and unfortunate ending for a film that transcends its noir origins.

Dir: Hugo Fregonesse

Starring James Mason, Märta Torén, Dan Duryea

Watched as part of Kino Lorber’s blu-ray box set Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XIV