Saturday, September 1, 2018

PICKUP (1951)

Hugo Haas was classic noir’s goofiest auteur. His films were melodramatic, overwrought, and often funny when they were trying—ostensibly anyway—to be dramatic. As a producer/director/writer, Haas created films around himself as an actor, and he usually created variations on the same story: sweet Hugo Haas meets a beautiful young blonde who sets out to kill him and take all his money. In film after film, he seemed to be doing his best to tell THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE from the point of view of Nick Papadakis.

Now, everything I just wrote has often been said as a way to dismiss Haas as a cut-rate hack. But this is where I disagree with critics like Arthur Lyons (who called Haas “one of the world’s worst writer-director-actors”). Haas is a goofy auteur, but he is an auteur nevertheless. His films have a personality, a point of view, and they have their charms.

Look at PICKUP, his first American film. It stars Haas as a railroad worker named Jan “Hunky” Horak. An amiable widower who lives alone at a secluded railway post, his life changes when he meets a sexy tart named Betty—and by ‘sexy tart’ I mean that everything about her from the first moment she appears onscreen screams ‘This woman is a sexy tart.’

Haas is not subtle, but, then again, subtly is only one among many potential virtues. Hunky and
Betty get married and descend into a marital hell that only gets hotter when a younger, hunkier (sorry, I couldn’t resist) guy shows up. PICKUP ain’t trying to be subtle. It wants to be simmering adultery yarn, part morality tale, part potboiler—and that’s pretty much what it is. PICKUP—like most of Haas’s films—has an almost classically burlesque quality to it. I think Haas takes his material seriously in the sense that he wants to put it across, but I don’t think for a second that he has any interest in what we would call “realism.” He isn’t doing a bad version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. He’s doing a distinctly European caricature of the same kind of material—and I mean caricature here more in its 18th or 19th century sense of seriocomic grotesquery—and to understand this is to really enjoy Hugo Haas. More than most alleged auteurs, he actually was the controlling artistic influence on his films. There’s a certain Old World melancholy in his movies, like here when Betty asks if he got his American nickname because he’s Hungarian and he says, “No, I’m Czech, but to them it’s all the same.” There is real pathos in that line, and it comes straight from Hugo Haas.

But, god, he was goofy. PICKUP is the kind of movie that gets big laughs from audiences. As Betty, Haas cast the great Beverly Michaels. She chews the scenery from her first scene to her last. Our first view of her is a low-angle shot of her bouncing up and down on a Merry-Go-Round while a pack of men ogle her legs. This is sexuality-as-absurdity. You can’t not laugh.

There is, of course, a dark side to all of this. There’s an argument to be made that, goofy or not, this movie—like most Haas movies—has a misogynist heart. There are two women in this movie, Betty and her friend, Irma. Irma isn’t as big a floozy as Betty, but she’s cut from the same cloth and she’s only in the movie for a scene or two. After that, we’re left with Betty and Betty’s no damn good. Haas ends the movie on an ugly joke, with Hunky clutching a new puppy, saying “This is what I should have brought home in the first place.” With the bitch gone, in other words, now he has a good dog.

This hatred of the only real female character in the movie is ironic because, of course, as is so often the case, she’s the most interesting character in the film. PICKUP was the first starring role (after a scrappy supporting role in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE) for its leading lady, and it would define the rest of her short career. Beverly Michaels had a mouth made for snarling, and she did a lot of it in her brief time onscreen. She made only a handful of feature films, and notched a couple of television credits, before she retired from acting in 1956, and in most of her movies she’s the meanest thing onscreen. After ’56, she married filmmaker Russell Rouse (who had directed her in 1953’s fantastic WICKED WOMAN) and then she more or less disappeared from public life. Even when she became a cult figure among noir geeks, she evinced little interest in stepping back into the spotlight before her death in 2007. That mystery woman quality, of course, has only added to her legend. Among film noir goddesses, she’s something special. Other goddesses are sadder (Lizabeth Scott), sexier (Audrey Totter), or meaner (Marie Windsor). No one, however, is tougher. You want to sum up Beverly Michaels’ noir ethos? She was a broad. A glorious, hilarious, tough-as-nails broad.

All hail the hard ass.

P.S. I wrote about Beverly Michaels and Russell Rouse for the e-mag NOIR CITY. You can buy that issue here.

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