My notes on the terrific B picture noir.
It had always seemed that Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, made in 1945 for PRC, was unique in the annals of B film noir … but that was because this Monogram movie, made a year later, was so obscure until recently. It doesn’t even have the auteur frisson of an Ulmer credit, since director Jack Bernhard made few and little-seen films (his most famous credit is probably the dinosaur movie Unknown Island), and the leading lady who gets an ‘introducing Miss Jean Gillie’ credit didn’t follow this extraordinary debut with anything (she’d been in a bunch of minor British films I now want to track down just because she’s in them). It has several standout sequences, but the shot-in-a-week haste does show in some cramped, chatty mid-film scenes (this is a 76 minute movie which would play better at 65) and a few moments which suggest an ambition (a monologue about the mill town the monster is supposed to have come from) that Bernhard probably nurtured for bigger things. However, Gillie’s Margot Shelby is among the most unrepentantly monstrous femmes fatales in noir (because of her British accent, she’s a precedent for Peggy Cummins and Jean Simmons in later roles) and this boasts one of the wildest, strangest scripts (by Nedrick Young, from a story by Stanley Rubin) in the genre.
In a terrific opening shot, we see a dirty sink and foul mirror in a gas station washroom and then a bloody-handed, zombie-eyed man (Herbert Rudley) in a dishevelled suit looms into view. He staggers out and hitches a ride to San Francisco, then goes up to the suite of the glamorous Margot and shoots her even as she kills him (it’s as if he’s already dead but needs killing again, which is a theme in the film). In walks a snappily-dressed, shady character (Sheldon Leonard) we take for a gangster (Leonard seldom played anything else) but turns out to be cop Sergeant JoJo Portugal, who gets the dying woman to recount her story. In Double Indemnity and other noirs, it’s the man ensared by the killer dame who provides the narrative – but here we’re with the monster as she runs through a series of disposable guys in her attempt to get rich. Margot is the girlfriend of Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong), a convicted murderer who is going to the gas chamber without revealing where he’s stashed the loot from a heist, and he’s too smart to tell her where it is, so she’s scored funding from another gangster (Edward Norris) to pull off a daring rescue … by seducing the prison doctor, Craig (Rudley), she gets the corpse smuggled out, fresh from the execution, and revives him with the magic-sounding (but real) drug ‘methyl blue’. Olins draws a map and gets killed permanently, and Margot goes after the loot, leaving dead, broken and damned men in her wake. In an amazing finish, we return to the storytelling and Margot askes the cop to come ‘down to my level for a change’ … perhaps as spellbound as everyone else, JoJo lowers himself (for a kiss?) and she laughs in his face.
In the words (later) of Billy Wilder, ‘I’ve met some hardboiled eggs in my time, but you – you’re twenty minutes’. Like Detour, this makes a virtue of low budget – the sets all seem made of chipboard, and even Margot’s prized furs look ratty. It has a few familiar faces, but no one with a lasting cult – and yet everyone is perfect. Gillie is blankly beautiful, with her hair up or down, and her line readings vary (to suggest her duplicity or just the limits of her acting talent?) but she’s devastating (that laugh is among the most chilling gotchas in the movies). It has its great minor grotesques: the whore’s maid who keeps a wary eye on the parade of stupid men, the prison morgue attendants bickering about big words (the seeming dummy corrects his smarter pal on the pronounciation of ‘dichotomy’). The punchline, inevitably, is that the twice-dead Ollins has the last laugh – he’s given his killers directions to a box containing one single dollar (‘to you who double-crossed me … I leave this dollar for your trouble. The rest of the dough, I leave to the worms’).
Grace Ker My dear Kim; where did you get to watch all these cool stuff?! And don’t say cinemas, DO NOT say cinemas! I know that half the time cinemas don’t show anything nearly half as cool as these!!
Kim Newman Grace – a lot of the coolest stuff I get is sent to me by nice people like you (and other wonderful, helpful DVD industry PRs). But I still buy in some things (especially from the US). Decoy and Crime Wave are in the ten-film Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4 – I suspect their coolness factor has a lot to do with the fact that the earlier volumes included most of the famous film noir titles in the Warners vaults, and this one had to look further for less well-known and thus more surprising films. I’ve had the set for a couple of years, and it’s the sort of thing I get out when I’m feeling poorly and can’t look at another zombie torture movie for my column. I’m feeling better now, so am able to face Zombies of Mass Destruction (yesterday), Samurai Zombie (today), Siege of the Dead (tomorrow) and Big Tits Zombie 3D (Friday).
Grace Ker I just bought the whole Saw thing called something like Goreology or something. The only one that I have seen is Saw One… Very, very ashamed to admit this…
David Hyman I agree that this is a great and previously obscure film noir and it’s good to finally get to see a proper DVD release rather than the muddy bootleg with Russian (?!) subtitles that occasionally used to turn up prior to this release. Unfortunately, the impressive Jean Gillie (who certainly gives Detour’s Ann Savage a run for her money in this one) only made one more film after ‘Decoy’ before she died in 1949.
Carl Ford Thanks for the heads up on this one – must check it out!
Kim Newman I watched all six Saws back to back while working on Nightmare Movies. I have to say they make more sense that way.
Nigel Dungan I watch all the Saws back to back every year before the new one comes out.