30 Days of Noir #9: Pickup (dir by Hugo Haas)

Once upon a time, there was a man who lived by the railroad tracks.  He was a station agent and his name was Jan Horak (Hugo Haas) but everyone just called him “Hunky.”  He was a middle-aged man, originally from Eastern Europe.  He lived in a little house and basically kept to himself.  His only friends were a slang-spouting hobo known as The Professor (Howland Chamberlain) and his assistant, the young and handsome Steve (Allan Nixon).  With no family in the United States, Hunky was frequently lonely so he decided to go to the town carnival and buy a puppy.  Instead, he ended up meeting the woman who will not only become his wife but who would also eventually plot his murder.

And so begins the low-budget 1951 film, Pickup.

The woman who Hunky meets is Betty (Beverly Michaels).  When we first see Betty, she’s riding on a miracle-go-round with a rather bored look on her face.  (The camera lingers on her legs, which was the traditional way that films introduced “dangerous” women in the late 40s and 50s.)  We know that Betty is probably bad news because she chews gum with her mouth open and she smirks as soon as she sees Hunky stumbling around the carnival.  She approaches him and starts to flirt with him.  Hunky is so smitten that he forgets about buying a puppy.

Instead, he returns home and prepares for a wedding.  However, what Hunky doesn’t know is that Betty is in desperate need of money and the only reason that she’s showing any interest in him is because she’s under the impression that he’s rich.  As soon as they get married, Betty starts planning for a way to lose a husband while still getting to keep his money.  Not surprisingly, it involves Steve….

It also involves a sudden case of deafness.  Even before Hunky marries Betty, he suffers from a persistent ringing in his ears.  It only gets worse as it becomes more and more obvious just how unhappy Betty is in their marriage.  One day, while standing on the railroad tracks, Hunky loses his hearing all together.

He screams at the sky and hears nothing.

He grabs a sledgehammer and starts pounding it against the tracks and, again, he hears nothing.

He tells Betty and Steve that he can’t hear and, when they reply, he can see their lips move but he can’t hear a word that they say.

Hunky’s gone deaf!  Steve moves in to help Betty take care of her husband.  He also moves in because he’s been having an affair with Betty for quite some time.  They openly discuss murdering Hunky in front of him, confident that he can’t hear a word that they’re saying.  What they don’t realize, though, is that Hunky’s deafness was only temporary and he knows exactly what they’re planning to do….

I really liked Pickup.  Plotwise, it’s not the most original film ever made.  In fact, the film is often described as being an unofficial remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (this despite the fact that Pickup is based on a novel that was published before James Cain’s famous story).  But that said, the film has enough odd and quirky moments to make it stand out.

For instance, there’s the character of the Professor, who comes across like some sort of early beatnik who has somehow found himself in a hard-boiled crime film.  There’s the scenes of Hunky not only losing his hearing but also slowly recovering it, with dialogue fading in and out as if it was recorded underwater.  And then there’s Beverly Michaels, giving an absolutely wonderful performance as Betty.  As played by Michaels, Betty is someone who is very much aware that she’s playing a role.  She delivers every sarcastic put-down with confidence and style but, throughout the film, there are hints that Betty is not quite as sure-of-herself as she seems to be.  (Just watch the scene where she nervously tries to light a cigarette.)

There’s a profound sense of melancholy running through Pickup, one that only really becomes clear after the film ends. For that, we must credit director and star Hugo Haas.  Originally hailing from what is now the Czech Republic, Hugo Haas came to Hollywood to escape the Nazis and he plays Hunky with the sad weariness of a man who understands that the world can be a dark place.  As written, Hunky seems incredibly naive but, as played by Haas, he’s just a man so desperate to believe in love and kindness that he allows himself to tricked.  However, as the film makes clear, he’s never as much of a fool as the people around him believe him to be.  Before eventually returning to Europe, Haas made a handful of successful (if not quite critically acclaimed) films in America.  Almost all of them seemed to return to the same theme of outsiders searching for love.

Personally, I recommend picking up Pickup.  It’s a classic B-noir, worth seeing for both Beverly Michaels and Hugo Haas.

Familiar Faces #9: Stooges, Chorus Lines, and Ethelreda Leopold!

cracked rear viewer

She may not have been as prolific as Hollywood’s “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers, but once you’ve discovered Ethelreda Leopold, you’ll find the blonde beauty popping up everywhere, mainly in uncredited roles. Three Stooges fans certainly know of her work, as she appeared in eleven of their Columbia shorts, but there’s a whole lot more Ethelreda out there in classic film land!

Ethelreda (3rd from right) in 1934’s “Dames”

The girl with the unique name (‘Ethelreda’ is from Olde English, meaning ‘of noble strength’) was born in Chicago on July 7, 1914. She was working as a teenage model, and doing very well, when she was discovered by a Warner Brothers talent scout and brought out to Hollywood. Ethelreda made her debut as one of the chorus girls in Busby Berkeley’s 1934 extravaganza DAMES, and became one of Busby’s busiest girls. She can be seen in the chorus in…

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Music Video of the Day: And She Was by Talking Heads (1984, directed by Jim Blashfield)

What And She Was is about depends on which member of the Talking Heads you ask.

In an interview with WCNX, drummer Chris Frantz interpreted the song literally, explaining that “It’s a story about a woman who has the power to levitate above the ground and to check out all her neighbors from a kind of bird’s eye view. And the guy who’s writing the song is in love with her and he kinda wishes she would just be more normal and, like, come on back down to the ground, but she doesn’t. She goes floating over the backyard and past the buildings and the schools and stuff and is absolutely superior to him in every way.”

David Byrne, on the other hand, said that it was a song about a “blissed-out hippie chick” that he knew in Baltimore who once told him about an acid trip that she had while lying in a field next to a Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory.  Byrne explained, “Flying out of her body, etc etc. It seemed like such a tacky kind of transcendence… but it was real! A new kind of religion being born out of heaps of rusted cars and fast food joints. And this girl was flying above it all, but in it too.”

As for the video, it was created by experimental filmmaker, Jim Blashfield.  Blashfield previously pioneered collage-animation style with his short film, Suspicious Circumstances.  The members of Talking Heads were fans of the film and asked Blashfield to create a similar video for their song.  Blashfield, who cited Terry Gilliam as being his number one influence, went on to direct similar videos for Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, Tears For Fears, and Weird Al Yankovic.