Free Noir is a new short-run series here at 4:3, releasing weekly, wherein our contributors look at film noirs (films noir?) which have fallen into the public domain.
The Hitch-Hiker (dir. Ida Lupino, 1953) – Watch
Kenneth Kriheli: The last film that actress-turned-director Ida Lupino made for her former flame Howard Hughes at RKO is both her best known as well as one of her strangest and most prestigious efforts. After striving to make films that addressed the underbelly of socioeconomic issues for American women, Lupino made The Hitch-Hiker and did gender politics one better with a brawny roadtrip scenario laced with homoeroticism. Even for a film with neither supporting nor lead women characters, sexual tension abounds in this taut cat-and-mouse thriller. As a docudrama based on the killing spree of Billy Cook in the early 1950s, the film puts up a pseudo-cautionary front in its opening titles and 4-minute montage, and Lupino depicts the randomness of her drifting ex-con villain Emmett Myers (William Talman) in these first few minutes by framing his revolver and following his feet as he carries out his initial roadside murders. Yet this sequence also become’s the film’s most clean and efficient: there is no dialogue, and Myers’ crimes are so closely followed by highway patrolmen with flashlights on the scene—which are followed by front page alerts with his mugshot that don’t stop drivers from giving him lifts—that you can’t help but feel as though this is a part of some vicious cycle.
The protagonists Gilbert Bowen and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), two bored family men and war veterans that have snuck across the U.S.-Mexican border for a fishing trip (and other things), suggest why this may be. The stationary, minute-long take that introduces them as they drive across the California desert highlights their inactive slouching, their conversation, expositional but extremely well written as it starts to characterize them immediately, and their setting, a car that they don’t leave until after they pick up Myers. As Myers later claims, they’re not only his hostages but prisoners of their own lifestyles and of their own bromantic friendship—they stick side by side and mute their desires to others unless Myers temporarily tears them apart.
The journey, then, is as cathartic as it is masochistic for them, most evidently through its progression of POV shots from the more recessive Roy’s gazing excitedly at neon cabaret signs to Gil and Roy being stared down by Myers and his pistol. A scene of deadly target practice makes this conversion of male gaze complete and obvious, with Myers’ postcoital joke that they “worked up quite a sweat.” An even blunter detail is Myers’ paralyzed eye that remains open as he sleeps, but it works on its level of sheer ambiguity. The only faults in the film are its lackluster climax and its badly-acted police office scene inserts that track Myers via maps and ensure audiences of the narrative’s trajectory (justice and authority always prevail). In this manner Myers is sloppily diminished as a character over the last third of the film, even making him believe a thinly-veiled false report on the radio so that he doesn’t resort to killing his hostages. Talman’s performance, however, is riveting and consistently on edge, and if we’re assured of anything, it’s of the damage he reveals in the postwar American psyche, where masculinity is reduced to almost nothing on the verge of death.
Lady in the Death House (dir. Steve Szekely, 1944) – Watch
Jake Moody: First things first – Lady in the Death House is not a great addition to the noir canon. It also isn’t, however, the kind of campy microbudget oddity that I’ll admit I secretly hoped for. A 55-minute runtime, cast poached from various ’40s horror and crime genre pictures, and a tackily brilliant title and tagline – “CONDEMNED TO DIE BY THE HAND OF THE MAN I LOVE” screams the poster – suggested an Ed Wood-style car crash, when in fact the film truthfully turns out to be a tense drama with a few nice touches, despite its slightness and silliness. Starring Jean Parker as the eponymous lady, who is indeed in the death house (that’s what you have to call death row if you’re a bourbon-swillin’ journalist), and the mad-scientist horror stalwart Lionel Atwill as the criminologist narrating his success in saving her from the electric chair to some colleagues (which makes him seem like an incredible egomaniac, but whatever), the film is steadied somewhat by the able direction of Steve Szekely. Szekely’s foray into noir was a passing phase in a career which began with post-impressionist early European sound films in his native Hungary and concluded in the UK with the cult legend Day of the Triffids, and his journeyman ability does come through here, with framing which allows gentle camera movement to emphasise characters and dialogue, and some superimposition and scene transitions which avoid the cheesiness of much of the dime-a-dozen B-noir subgenre.
The film also has a surprisingly dense plot for such a short one, probably motivated by its 1944 production: the trend for twisty Raymond Chandler adaptations was well under way, buoyed by the release of Double Indemnity a few months after that of this film, and culminating in The Big Sleep a couple of years later, which remains one of the least comprehensible classic genre films ever. As such, in less than an hour screenwriter Harry O. Hoyt melds plots involving a good-for-nothing teenaged sister, her various sketchy lovers, and the story of the conviction of Parker’s character, Mary Kirk Logan, into a generally cohesive whole. Some of that promised absurdity does derail the whole thing a bit, though; the main romantic foil, Logan’s fiancé Dr. Bradford, played by Douglas Fowley, is both a scientist and the state executioner. The main emotional impetus of the whole plot is the irony that Mary begged him to leave this job, and that now he is the one required to flick the switch to kill her. I don’t know what Fair Work would have to say about getting people to fry their own loved ones, but it is the kind of overreaching ‘shock value’ plot point which tends to mar films like these, and certainly condemns Lady in the Death House to becoming an interesting diversion along the noir theme rather than an attraction in itself.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (dir. Felix E. Feist, 1950) – Watch
Dominic Barlow: While I always have hope of finding a gem or two in this article-length jaunt through the public domain (I already got one last week, after all), I’m also resigned to the fact that a lot of the films we’re due to trawl through are going to be undersung for a reason. It’s not even that they’re terrible, but that they hit exactly the rational expectations one should have for a free-to-watch film that runs an hour and change. Casually strolling off the ranks in that category is The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), a light thriller that puts a seasoned vet of the homicide department (Lee J. Cobb) in a race to cover up a murder committed by his girlfriend (Jane Wyatt) before his own rookie investigator brother (John Dall) exposes the two of them.
Cobb’s presence is the only real source of prestige in an otherwise patly staged affair, starting right from the moment his character strolls through the interior set of his girlfriend’s house, nonchalantly cleaning up the mess she’s made of her estranged husband. Lord knows she can’t do it herself, being that frazzled and swooning dame-in-distress archetype, nor does Wyatt get to flex any other acting muscle before the end. She and Dall’s own partner Lisa Howard are pawns to be moved around while Cobb and Dall match wits, although even that is a fairly straightforward exchange given how Dall comes across less of a badge-wielding hero and more like Dudley Do-Right by way of John Mulaney, which is amusing but pales when placed under Cobb’s inimitable gaze. He entirely sells the look of a man who’s had to keep secrets before, and doesn’t even know he’s failing this time, so what pull exists amid the simple cinematography and editing can be attributed entirely to him.
As the chase whirs on, he and his supports waltz through some orderly set pieces, the highlight being a conspicuously quiet stealth climax in San Francisco’s Fort Point. It feels parachuted in to save what would otherwise be a drab affair, and nowhere is such a flake of gold going to be better appreciated than in a free video stream, so you could argue that this is in that way a quintessential text of this particular Free Noir canon we’re making, gem/not-gem categorisers be damned. In the end, the only thing to lose with The Man Who Cheated Himself is the memory of at least half of it, and there’s far worse deals to buy into.