There’s this down-and-out loser, see, staring into his glass of rye whiskey (okay, a Coke, actually, in a two-bit diner in Reno), thinking back on how his life has gone off the tracks. He’s a piano player, and he tickles the ivories pretty good, but he’s never had that Big Break. He sets out to ride his thumb from Gotham to Tinseltown to see his doll singer, with nothing in his pockets but moth holes. He gets a ride from a traveling hustler, who ends up falling out of the jalopy and bouncing his bean on the asphalt. Fearing John Law will pin the rap on him, he drags the stiff into the bushes and takes over his identity.
Then he picks up a swell tomato, who quickly fits him for a chump jacket for deep-sixing the guy. Before long the dame has him on a leash like a pet poodle-dog. (Can you imagine Mike Hammer putting up with this? He would have popped that jumped-up frail in the kisser, and made it crystal clear who was wearing the pants!) The floozie gets more and more demanding, and finally is going to drop a nickel on him. She grabs the blower and takes it into the bedroom. The chump pulls on the cord, and quicker than you can say unlikely plot development, the cord strangles her.
That’s it, except for a tacked-on ending to satisfy the blue-noses at the Hayes Office, showing a cop car picking the guy up. Even so, unlikely as it all is, we enjoyed it a bunch. The photography, the narration, the performances by Ann Savage (who at the end of her life, enjoyed a brief popularity based mostly on this film) and Tom Neal. It all clicked to make an unlikely classic.
Film noir doesn’t get much noirier than this. I’m not a great authority on the genre, but I was a little surprised to find that this one has been selected for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. It was produced by a Poverty Row studio, Producers Releasing Company, for much less than $100,000 (all PRC films cost less than that), in fourteen days. They used cost-cutting measures like flipping the negative for some of the few real outdoor scenes, which resulted in something that puzzled me: cars driving on the wrong side of the road, and a hitchhiker getting into the car on the “driver’s” side, as if it was a British car! There were only three sets, all of them cheap. But the director, Edward G. Ulmer, got the maximum use of his low budget, with really great, dark photography. Even when it was released the reviews were good, and this at a time when no one had ever heard the word “noir.”
Tom Neal’s subsequent story was interesting. He was a champion palooka in college at Harvard and Northwestern, with a 44-3 record with 41 kayos. At one point he got in a scrap with Franchot Tone and made him see the little birdies. Later, he put a roscoe to the back of his third ball-and-chain’s noodle and rearranged her gray matter. The heat wanted to send him to the Graybar Hotel for the Big Sleep, but he got off with involuntary manslaughter, and served six years in the hoosegow.
You ever notice how the “heroes” of film noir are often whining, sarcastic, disillusioned, easily manipulated by any skirt that comes along, and constantly bemoaning the cards Lady Luck has dealt them? This guy in this one is a classic example. It’s not always part of the formula, but a character like this appears in a lot of these films. Think Fred MacMurray being expertly jockeyed down the primrose path by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. What a patsy!