I happened to see this in one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” anthologies that I picked up for a cool $1.99 at Amazon. I also noticed it was streaming on Amazon. But mostly I noticed it was only 68 minutes.
Even from the opening title card, cheap, low-budget B-movie is written all over this black & white noir. And yet it made the cut as a “Great Movie”. Well, I always appreciated Ebert’s open mind.
Shabbily dressed Al Roberts gets a lift from a man who drops him at a diner. A song on the jukebox flashes him back to better times when he was the piano man in a bar and the microphone disgustingly smelled like a beer. The singer was his fiance Sue.
On the walk back to Sue’s apartment, the fog is sometimes so thick that they are barely visible (i.e. the budget was so low that this scene was probably filmed in the director’s garage). Sue has decided to postpone their wedding so she can try to make it in Hollywood. Al just kind of pouts and let’s her go without much of an argument.
Even at 68 minutes, you get the feeling this movie was padded out. Al decides to give Sue a call, and we are treated (and 70 years later, it is kind of a treat) to literally see stock footage of switchboard operators, and wires along the countryside as they are transmitting his call. Making that mechanical, labor-intensive system work was actually a more amazing creation than the actual phone. That was like moon-shot level (and just as extinct).
Maybe this was a way of making up for Al’s method of speaking on the phone. As he talks to Sue, we see only his side. He is frequently answering questions she must have asked, but could not possibly have had the time given his motormouth, non-stop acting style. We get only one brief non-speaking glimpse of Sue during the conversation.
Al hitches rides across the country lamenting his lack on money, “the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented.” Well, except religion.
One day in Arizona, he gets a lift from a man named Haskell in a nice convertible who is going all the way to Los Angeles. A few days later, Al is doing the driving, but Haskell isn’t responding. Al opens the door, but Haskell falls out dead of a heart attack, bashing his head on a rock. Afraid of being accused of murder, he pulls a Don Draper and steals the man’s identity; although, to be fair, he didn’t blow the man up like Don Draper, he just hid him in some bushes.
When he pulls over for gas the next day, he picks up a woman hitchhiking — this guy is Don Draper. Turns out — what are the odds — she had actually also gotten a ride with Haskell earlier, so she knew Al was pretending to be Haskell. Vera is quite a piece of fast-talking work. She blackmails Al and begins ordering him around. Before he knows it, he is in Los Angles, but instead of reuniting with Sue, he and the hitchhiking blackmailer Vera are shacking up.
This could almost be a parody of noir if it had any laughs; lacking laughs, maybe they could add to the series and call it Noiry Movie. Al is such a poor actor, it is comical. He is grossly miscast, and acts like this was his first talkie after a career in silents.
The dialogue lacks all the crackle you expect from a flick like this. I don’t know if I should say they were trying too hard or not trying at all. When they are sharing the room, Vera shows him a Murphy Bed and asks, “Do you know how to work it?” He says, “I invented it.” Hunh? Does that have some double entendre that I’m missing?
She says, “I’m first in the bathtub. He dully responds, “I don’t know why, but I figured you would be.” Hunh? Set ups like these should be gold, Jerry, gold!
After Vera goes into the bathroom, Al is able to quietly call Sue. She is sitting in exactly the same chair, clothes and bracelet as when he speed-called her days before. This time, he says nothing, and she just says, “Hello? Hello? Hello?” But Al decides to put the call off for a day, thinking of Vera. Sue’s role is every Doonesbury strip ever printed. Except funnier and more politically insightful.
But Vera is still a bitch in the morning (or “rotten” as potty-mouth Al crudely puts it). They decide to sell Haskell’s car. While Al is about to sign the papers, Vera rushes in and stops the sale. Her new plan is for Al to impersonate Haskell’s son and steal the inheritance.
I must admit, the ending did take me completely by surprise. But it was a rough ride to get there. Al was terrible, he had too many voice-overs, Vera just had me wondering what Barbara Stanwyk was doing while this was filmed.
I have to read that Great Movies chapter again to see what I missed. Or just go watch Double Indemnity again.
-  Great writer, but holy shit can we stop with the canonization? Not since the funny days of SNL have we seen such worship of a guy who was just good at his meaningless-in-the-big-scheme-of-things job (just to be clear, referring to Giamatti, not Hartman).
-  Well, I did miss that the first few vehicles that pick Al up seem to have the steering wheels on the wrong side. Ebert suggests the negative was flipped.
-  It also bugs me when actors on film take a drink and they keep they don’t keep the clearly empty glass at their mouth long enough for a molecule to spill out.