Hugo Haas (1901-1968) is the director and star of #BNoirDetour’s next film, Pickup. A Czech actor, director, and writer, he was a celebrated comic star in Czech films whose reputation and fame grew as he began to write, direct, and produce.
Like many European filmmakers, he fled to Hollywood when the Nazis invaded his homeland. But unlike some who found immediate acclaim or at least success, Haas had to begin again.
After the war, he made enough money in support roles (including seedy villains in costume dramas) to finance his own independent films in the 1950s, controlling every aspect of production.
His films were generally dismissed as lurid and sensationalistic, with poor production values and fixation on the theme of the (very) young blonde bombshell who seduces and ruins an older, respectable man. As you might guess, Haas himself played the latter role, while B stars such as Cleo Moore, Carol Morris, and Beverly Michaels played the trampy femme fatales. These formulaic, sexist films have left the once famous and prolific director/actor with the nickname of “the foreign Ed Wood.”
With an introduction like that, how can we not watch at least one of these very-B noir gems on #BNoirDetour?
Described as a “poor man’s Postman Always Rings Twice,” Pickup is the tale of Jan “Hunky” Horak (Haas), a railroad dispatcher with a strange (perhaps psychosomatic) hearing disorder who lives behind the station. Aging and lonely, he contemplates buying a dog, but ends up seduced by gold-digger Betty (Beverly Michaels), who is having an affair with Steve (Allan Nixon), another railroad employee. The two contemplate murder with increasing openness as Jan becomes fully deaf. But can Steve go through with killing such a nice old guy, even for Betty?
The heavy-handedness of the script denies viewers the likelihood of questioning why Jan doesn’t just get a dog instead of a far-too-young and flashy wife. And it treats its femme fatale as fresh meat on display in so obvious an employment of the male gaze that even Hitchcock’s Vertigo seems subtle by comparison.
Perhaps the best part of the film is the philosophical tramp who acts as a sort of one-man Greek chorus, played to glorious effect by Howland Chamberlain. And critics also praise its generosity to the femme fatale, who exits the film just as she entered — with casual acceptance of what life throws her way (not unlike Joan Crawford going back to the perfume counter at the end of The Women).
I must note that the copy of the film available on YouTube (and practically nowhere else, for rent or purchase) is pretty bad. But it’s so worth seeing, just the same. In fact, for such a truly B film, it’s probably the best way to watch it.
Join the live tweet on Sunday, 10/18 at 9pm ET. Hashtag, as always, is #BNoirDetour.