It starts off with that noir paradigm of a working class everyman who, desperate for money to survive (in this case an unemployed man with a wife, son, and child on the way) ends up getting involved with a criminal. What starts off as petty larceny leads to kidnapping, murder, and then the story takes a real turn. An angry, misguided mob becomes an indictment of human foibles, raising moral, societal and existential questions beyond simply these two individuals' misdeeds.
Points of interest:
- Based on a novel, The Condemned, by Jo Pagano, who also wrote the screenplay.
- The novel, film, and Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) were all inspired by the same true story. Scary stuff when you see the film's finale and what leads up to it.
- Director Cy Enfield proved not only a master craftsman, but stirred things up; this picture was seen as anti-american, and his slight involvement with communism led him to leave the states for England, where he made some pictures including another noir called Hell Drivers. The anti-American thing is like Howard Hawks making Rio Bravo as a reaction to High Noon. Real interesting guy this Enfield, from Yale scholar, to avant garde theater director, to workingman/auteur with something to say in his pictures.
What struck me:
- Certainly the aforementioned preacher opening grabs you, and the jarring camera angles, swift editing, all the techniques a director has to keep your attention, and the metaphorical power imbued within.
- The neo-realist, documentary-like approach. It's gritty and you identify a real world here. The story starts as the everyman hitches a ride with a truck driver at a truck stop in the dark of night and the tone is set. The atmosphere is surprisingly intoxicating, not in a fantastic manner, but because the time and locations feel so real that all the emotions, from hope to desperation, are made even more palpable; from truck stop to diner, bowling alley, gas station, highway shacks and pre-fab homes, this is a disarmingly sinister kind of Americana.
- Frank Lovejoy as the main character, the everyman who wants to do good by his family, but ends up wrong, real wrong. His roundish, sad sack, good Joe face suits the role to a tee, and he plays it to a perfect picth, if not sometimes bordering slightly on the maudlin, but just barely. It's forgivable because of the pathos he brings to the picture. His soul is a redeemable one because he has a conscious.
- Lloyd Bridges was really good at playing bad guys and here he's spot on as a psychopath. Yes, in perfect juxtaposition to Lovejoy's character, his evil criminal has no emotions; he is motivated purely by id. He takes what he wants whether by charm, trickery, or force. I suppose his turn could be called scenery chewing to a certain degree, but this sort of character calls for that. You should also check out another inspired bad guy performance by Bridges in Richard Fleischer's Trapped (1949). This is all way before...
- The film is decidedly noir, especially for the first half, often evidenced by the use of shadows. Lots of darkness, from the nighttime truck drives, and small time heists. Check out the convicts in cells towards the end of the picture for some nice shadowplay. This is nicely contrasted by the everyday working class struggle, portrayed in the California daytime and its working class families.
- The moral and existential commentary in the third act, when the whole town, up in arms about these men's crime, rally in an all out assault against them. A tip of the hat to Enfield for conducting the finale to a well balance dramatic crescendo. Skillful in the way of Dassin's ending to Brute Force.
Suggested film pairing: Maybe on the bottom bill with Thieve's Highway or as a warm up to or cool down from After Dark My Sweet.
Suggested drinks: Basic American beers, and eventually some boiler makers where you pour the bourbon (Jim Beam should be appropriate) right into the beer, as Bridges does to Lovejoy.