I'm sure that like me, you're fascinated by sandwiches and their evolutionary history. Wikipedia defines the sandwich as "a food item, typically consisting of two or more slices of bread with one or more fillings between them, or one slice of bread with a topping or toppings, commonly called an open sandwich". Indeed, there are "open sandwiches" and there are also variations with three slices, most notably the club sandwich. But for the purpose of this film review, I'd like to dispense with the less common variations and focus primarily on the classic configuration consisting of no more and no less than two pieces of bread, be they slices or halves of something more substantive, such as a kaiser roll. Furthermore, I would ask that we temporarily defer any debate about wraps and burritos vis-à-vis whether they constitute sandwiches until a future review of 70s soft core Italian pornography.
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, asserting that the evolution of species toddles along at a fairly boring clip most of the time, only to be interrupted by chronologically brief eruptions of new branches in the evolutionary tree. I would argue that Gould's observation also holds true for sandwiches, and that we are currently living in a period of punctuated sandwich equilibrium. As with evolution, I make no claims to the "worthiness" of a given sandwich, any more than I would attempt to predict which biological species will survive the imminent scourges of influenza mutations, climate change, solar flares, or Jennifer Aniston films. But I do argue that today, whether we find ourselves in Boston or Topeka, the number and diversity of available sandwiches towers majestically over our options from days of yore, like a smoky pile of black pepper turkey breast, grilled vegetables and swiss cheese ensconced within freshly baked herb ciabatta, slathered with chipotle mayonnaise and olive tapenade.
Consider the sandwich consumed by Edmond O'Brien in Shield For Murder. Very little information is provided about it, aside from the fact that he must pay a $10 extortion fee to Richard Deacon in order to purchase it. But from all appearances, it seems to be a distasteful offering of cheap cold cuts inside two slices of Wonder Bread. So we see that in 1954, the sandwich had not evolved much beyond its state in the late 1700s, when Earl John Montagu of Sandwich first placed his meat within the staff of life. If the truth be told, the sandwich presented by Richard Deacon to Edmond O'Brien could represent a genuine regression from its distant ancestor, given its inferior ingredients. But since O'Brien is on the lam from multiple murder charges, Richard Deacon understands all too well O'Brien's vulnerability and the ease with which he can demand top dollar for a mediocre sandwich. Even so, had Deacon been inclined to do business in a more equitable manner, I remain skeptical that a sandwich purchased at any price in 1954 Los Angeles would have impressed today's sophisticated sandwich aficionados.
Surrounded by a stellar cast that includes John Agar, Stafford Repp, William Schallert, and Claude Akins, O'Brien and Deacon masterfully render the wistful plight of a 1950s sandwich scenario, drawing us into the stale muskiness of Richard Deacon's pedestrian and unkempt bachelor apartment. It is a stark realism that left this viewer feeling as if I myself were eating the wretched meal comprised of the two limp slices of bread flopping unappetizingly from O'Brien's fist, along with their indeterminate filling. While the rest of the film is not quite as compelling, it does provide a tightly paced police narrative winding inexorably toward the defining juncture of the existential sandwich. Notably, there is also a scene involving Carolyn Jones and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, but I will postpone that discussion to a future review of industrial employment training films.