Give The Devil His Due: Hugo Haas’s BAIT (Columbia 1954)

cracked rear viewer

Every Tuesday during the month of “Noirvember”, I’ll be spotlighting some dark genre gems. Enjoy wandering down the crooked path of film noir!

Welcome to the world of Hugo Haas, King of Low-Budget 50’s Film Noir. I’d heard about producer/director/writer/actor Haas’s films for years through Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide, usually accompanied by a *1/2 to ** (or less!) rating. Of course, being a connoisseur of bad cinema, I was interested, but it wasn’t until recently I viewed my first Hugo Haas epic, 1954’s BAIT, starring Hugo’s screen muse Cleo Moore, who was featured in seven of the  maestro’s movies.

BAIT starts with a unique introduction (and some nice camerawork from DP Eddie Fitzgerald), as an elegantly dressed Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays The Devil Himself delivering a monologue expounding on his evil machinations. Then we get into the story itself (written by Samuel W. Taylor, with “additional dialog”…

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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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: King Solomon’s Mines (dir by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton)


So, this is a weird one.

As we all know, today is Oscar Sunday!  As I wait for the big show to begin, I’ve been watching some of the Oscar-nominated films that I have collected on the DVR over the past month.  For instance, this morning, I watched 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines.

King Solomon’s Mines was nominated for best picture of the year and watching it … well, you really have to wonder why.  It’s an adventure film, one that was shot on location in Africa and it features a lot of footage of wild animals.  It also features several scenes that were shot in actual African villages and a good deal of time is devoted to documenting tribal rituals.  It’s true that the film has a plot but, for the most part, it’s a travelogue.  One gets the feeling that it was mostly sold as a chance for American and European audiences to see a part of the world that, up until that point, they had only read about.  Not only would they get to experience Africa from the safety of the neighborhood movie theater but they’d get to see it in a color as well!

(Seriously, it’s difficult to watch the nature footage in King Solomon’s Mines without imagining a serious voiced narrator saying, “However, one gazelle has strayed too far from its mother.  The lion cubs will eat tonight…”)

As for the plot, King Solomon’s Mines is based on a novel by British adventure enthusiast H. Rider Haggard.  Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger) is an experienced guide and hunter.  When we first meet him, he’s helping two rich Englishmen hunt an elephant.  It’s a disturbing scene, largely because it’s obvious the footage of the elephant dying is real.  Allan prevents his clients from killing more than one elephant and later talks about how much he hates his job but still, it’s pretty much to impossible to really like him after watching that elephant die.

Anyway, Allan gets hired by Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother John (Richard Carlson).  It seems that Elizabeth’s husband disappeared in Africa while searching for a legendary treasure.  Allan tells Elizabeth that her husband is probably dead.  Elizabeth still insists on searching for him…

…and, from that point on, you can pretty much predict everything that is going to happen.  Though the footage of Africa looks great, it’s just not a very interesting film.  Playing the type of role that would probably be played by Gerard Butler if the movie was made today, Stewart Granger comes across as being bored with it all.  For that matter, even the great Deborah Kerr seems as if she’d rather be hanging out with Robert Mitchum.

Still, it is interesting to note that Hugo Haas shows up as a villain.  Who is Hugo Haas?  He was a Hungarian actor who, after playing a bad guy here, went on to direct several idiosyncratic B-movies, like Hold Back Tomorrow, The Girl On The Bridge, Bait, and One Girl’s Confession.  If nothing else, watching King Solomon’s Mines has inspired me to, someday, do a little Hugo Haas film festival here on the Lens.

King Solomon’s Mines seems like an odd best picture nominee.  Its triumphs are largely technical and even those successes no longer seem that special.  It was, however, a big hit at the box office and I imagine that probably has something to do with its nomination.  However, when the Oscars were awarded, best picture went to All About Eve.

Stewart Granger was no match for Bette Davis.