It’s a road picture, a spy chase and an oddball romance all in one. A casual highway hitch-hike leads to intrigues with shady doctors, guided missile secrets and espionage intrigues. Possible escaped nut case Ruth Roman enlists nice guy Sterling Hayden’s help, and before you can say Alfred Hitchcock they’re handcuffed together and on the run. It’s a B-picture gem from the mid-fifties, all the more amusing for its awkwardness.
Five Steps to Danger
1957 / Color / 2:35 1:85 widescreen 1:37 flat full frame / 81 min. / Street Date April 24, 2018 / 29.99
Starring: Ruth Roman, Sterling Hayden, Werner Klemperer, Richard Gaines, Charles Davis, Jeanne Cooper, Peter Hansen, Ken Curtis.
Cinematography: Kenneth Peach
Film Editor: Aaron Stell
Original Music: Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter
Written by Henry S. Kesler, from a book by Donald Hamilton
Produced and Directed by Henry S. Kesler
Celebrity business agent Henry S. Kesler became a production manager, then an assistant director and associate producer on various studio films and TV shows; he associate-produced Humphrey Bogart’s Santana pictures, and received a writing credit on Tokyo Joe. The busy guy didn’t stop there. At ZIV TV he then produced and finally directed episodes of Highway Patrol, Science Fiction Theater and I Led Three Lives.
Kesler made his bid for big screen fame in 1957’s Five Steps to Danger, which he personally wrote, produced and directed. It was a one-shot effort, as he went back to directing TV for a few more years. But as low-budget United Artists programmers go, it’s not at all bad. It compares very favorably to an earlier ‘drive across the desert’ crime thriller, Highway Dragnet. Kesler lined up Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden to star, and his film is technically sound as well.
The story sounds like a blend of Highway Patrol and I Led Three Lives, but it comes from the 1948 book The Steel Mirror by Donald Hamilton, a sober Cold War fantasy with dark psychological complications. Its heroine’s traumatic amnesia is due to being interrogated by the Gestapo in occupied France. Author Hamilton later wrote scores of Matt Helm spy novels. The Santa Fe, New Mexico setting in Five Steps to Danger happens also to be Matt Helm’s natural habitat, and the action is a road trip that leads eventually to a secret experimental rocket base, a setup Hamilton duplicated in his later The Silencers.
Henry Kesler’s film adaptation distills the story down to a The 39 Steps- like pursuit on the highways of the Southwest, with dastardly spies seeking rocket secrets. Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman) asks a stranded motorist, the vacationing John Emmett (Sterling Hayden) to help her drive non-stop to Santa Fe. At a pit stop John is approached by nurse Helen Bethke (Jeanne Cooper), who tells him that Ann is a mental patient on the run. Rather than cause an emotional scene, she asks John to help deliver Ann to her doctor, Frederick Simmons (Werner Klemperer), once she reaches Santa Fe. When they’re stopped by highway patrolmen that say Ann is wanted for murder back in Los Angeles, John helps Ann escape on pure instinct. Handcuffed together, they continue on their way with John curious as to why they haven’t been recaptured. Ann’s explanation sounds fantastic: a former German citizen, she’s on a secret mission to smuggle research documents needed by Dr. Kissel, a German rocket expert who escaped from the Russians and is now teaching in Santa Fe. She has a newspaper clipping noting Kissel’s joining the faculty. In Santa Fe, college dean William Brant (Richard Gaines) says that there’s no Dr. Kissel at his school, so John reluctantly hands Ann over to Dr. Simmons. Alone at a fishing lodge, John is approached by C.I.A. agent Kirk Kirkpatrick (Charles Davis). He learns enough to once again believe Ann’s story. They’re soon reunited and determined to complete her mission to find Dr. Kissel.
Escapes on the highway, a couple wanted by both spies and the police, a secret message and a conspiracy of foreign agents: Five Steps to Danger has real ambitions in the thriller stakes. Sterling Hayden and Ruth Roman make a good screen pair, as her ladylike distress and his gentlemanly deportment are a good fit. The low-key dialogue is believable and their tentative romance is credible as well. When not being forced to play femmes fatales Ms. Roman was a warm and earthy screen presence; her only flat scene here is an unnecessary flashback to East Germany, where a friend of her brother gives her a MacGuffin-like object in which is hidden the secret formulas that she must take to Dr. Kissel in America. Although Roman’s character is more than a little inconsistent, her performance is as satisfying as her turn in ClassicFlix’s previous UA release Down 3 Dark Streets.
Hayden’s character is an easygoing everyman on vacation, introduced in a tow-truck set piece identical to that of Kirk Douglas in 1951’s Ace in the Hole. John Emmett’s background is kept such a blank that we expect some big reveal down the line, disclosing that he’s really a G-Man or maybe even an enemy spy. Yet the actor is so appealing that we stay with him no matter how shaky the story gets.
Although it benefits greatly from a straightforward, no-gimmicks presentation, the story goes indeed get pretty shaky. John and Ann are able to shake two armed highway cops, and are only partly confused by the absence of any follow-up law enforcement action. The second instance of spy-like intrigue involves a particularly incompetent assassin, who looks great but doesn’t appear in the cast list. John and Ann’s unannounced visit to what we’re told is an ultra-top-secret missile base is a security nightmare: they just drive up to the gate and say hi. The guards don’t check them or their car for weapons.
Writer-producer-director Kesler should have simplified one more complication from the book. Convinced that Ann needs help, John talks her into marrying him just so that Dr. Simmons can’t have her committed. It has to be the least credible ‘let’s get married’ idea in film history, as they aren’t really even an item yet. Their sudden lighthearted attitude undermines the tension. Killers may find us at any minute . . . is there a Justice of the Peace around?
The lumpy, murky screenplay brings up Henry Kesler’s main failing as a director — the tone keeps rising and falling between scenes, and when the characters’ reactions to events stop feeling ‘real’ the story begins to lose its grip. The character of the nurse played by Jeanne Cooper (great in Plunder Road) is intriguingly ambivalent, but just when we expect her character to pay off, she exits the story. We wonder if she might originally have had an appointment with the assassin, in a scene since deleted.
Yes, wanted murderers John and Ann sometimes act awfully casual. Neither panics when they’re handcuffed together. John is given plenty of evidence that Ann is an escaped looney, and then more evidence of a shady conspiracy. His reaction is to just go fishin’ to think things over — and then to propose that fully flaky marriage. Enforcing a continuity of dramatic tension and character consistency across a full film has to be a director’s nightmare. I have a feeling that the seasoned stars Roman and Hayden didn’t get much help with this problem.
When the C.I.A. agents enter the picture things pick up considerably. It’s rather progressive that they allow Ann and John to continue, to see how things play out — if trouble breaks out, who knows how many civilians might get hurt? The attempted arrests and killings on the road, plus a tricky surprise identity swap, make Five Steps to Danger seem like a dry run for both the book and screenplay of the later spy chase picture The Satan Bug . . . getting more specific would be a spoiler.
Jeff Stafford’s old Movie Morlocks article on Five Steps to Danger is equally charmed by the movie’s appealing inconsistencies. A few years later, many a ‘superspy’ film would plaster over brainless plot potholes with violence, flashy visuals and loud music. We like spy thrillers of all stripes.
With his later TV associations Werner Klemperer’s well-acted doctor is an obvious bad guy. The same goes for Richard Gaines, whose best-known roles are jerks of all persuasions, in The More the Merrier, Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole. With his production background Kesler had a pick of character actors, which gives him an edge on other low-budget producers. The C.I.A. men Charles Davis and Ken Curtis underplay rather well, giving the impression that our spy agencies have space age spy skullduggery well under control.
We can imagine Five Steps to Danger being sold on the pulp fantasy of an available guy being picked up by a sexy babe in a big white car, a scenario that William Holden’s Hal Carter turned into a bragging story in Picnic: “Hey you, beefcake!” In this case the convertible is a solid 1956 Lincoln Premiere that must have gotten at least eight miles to the gallon. Of course, a gallon of gasoline back then cost maybe twenty cents. United Artists’ ad campaign stressed the sex angle for this completely chaste picture, misrepresenting Ann Nicholson as a femme fatale dee-luxe:
“First she lured him into her car … then she let him taste her lips … and then … the Terror Began!”
The guided missile on the poster suggests some kind of military or science fiction payoff, but all we see of the rocket base are three or four blank rooms. Why does one room contains a fully assembled missile mockup? Maybe it’s too big to move through the door.
ClassicFlix’s Blu-ray of Five Steps to Danger is a clean and sharp encoding of a picture that in 1957 likely graced the bottom half of a lot of United Artists’ double bills. Kenneth Peach’s unfussy B&W images look quite good, especially when matted off to the correct 1:85 aspect ratio. Interiors tend to be generic but all of the location work is very good, especially the midnight stop at the diner. More than anything this is a ‘road picture;’ the rear projection used for dialogue scenes in the car doesn’t subtract from the feeling of being out on the open highway, stopping at gas stations, diners and repair garages.
Although set in Arizona and New Mexico Five Steps looks to have been filmed around Los Angeles and the deserts of Southern California. Some of those far-off hills look familiar from repeated drives to the Colorado River. A neighborhood in Santa Fe could be L.A.’s Hancock Park or Westwood. The single angle seen of John’s fishing destination is I think on Fox’s Malibu ranch. It has a distinctive pond and rock that can be seen in Our Man Flint and M.A.S.H..
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Five Steps to Danger
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson