“That’s life: whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
While on his way to Los Angeles to meet his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a pianist (Tom Neal) hitches a ride with a gambler (Edmund MacDonald) who drops dead during the middle of the night. Deciding that no one will believe him if he tells the truth, Al (Neal) adopts MacDonald’s persona — but a sullen hitchhiker (Ann Savage) calls Al’s bluff, and soon has him embroiled in more trouble than he could ever have imagined.
Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “near-legendary work” by Edgar G. Ulmer is “regarded by many critics as the greatest ‘B’ film ever made”, and is “truly an unusual film”. Featuring “one of the screen’s all-time great losers” (Neal) and noir‘s most unabashedly shrewish femme fatale (Savage), viewers can’t help but stay hooked even while wishing they could divert their eyes from the disaster unfolding in front of them. As a flashback film told exclusively from the perspective of an anti-hero (“a sourpuss, doom-sayer weakling”), the entire story smacks of self-indulgent pitying: one never knows whether Al’s version of events is truth or fantasy, and the film’s notoriously ultra low-budget (“it uses only six minimally furnished indoor sets”) simply adds to its overall air of nightmarish surreality.
Critics have long debated the role of Fate in “pessimistic Neal’s” downward spiral, with Peary pointing out that “in truth he does nothing to ward it off”, instead using “Fate as an alibi… when [it was] his own foolishness [which] caused him to dump MacDonald and steal his possessions… [and] to pick up Savage when he should have been keeping a low profile.” Regardless of Al’s personal culpability, however, few would wish a vulturous harridan like Savage on him or any man; as Peary notes, “she looks as if she wants to rip you apart with her teeth and devour you piece by piece”, but “even more terrifying than her face is her voice, which is loud, scratchy, vulgar, [and] intolerable” — a femme fatale, indeed!
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Tom Neal as Al
- Ann Savage as Vera — as Peary notes, her no-holds-barred performance here is ultimately “what makes the film special”
- Effective, stylish use of an extremely low budget
- Martin Goldsmith’s pulpy script: “When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.”
Yes, as perhaps the most celebrated B-noir of all time. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)