Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
USA, 1945. Producers Releasing Corporation. Story and Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith. Cinematography by Benjamin H. Kline. Produced by Leon Fromkess. Music by Leo Erdody. Production Design by Edward C. Jewell. Costume Design by Mona Barry. Film Editing by George McGuire.
Tom Neal plays a New York City jazz musician whose girlfriend Claudia Drake is tired of their crummy life and decides to head out west to try her luck in Hollywood. He promises to follow her as soon as he can but eventually is so sick of his gin-soaked barroom and so lonely for his love that he decides to hitchhike across the country. One of his pick-ups is a friendly, seemingly successful businessman who up and dies during their ride and, in a panic, Neal switches clothes and identity with him. He thinks it’s an easy switch, but when he picks up Ann Savage, who is hitchhiking on the road, she turns out to have known the deceased and blackmails Neal into doing her bidding or else risk her telling the cops that he murdered the man. B-level film noirs of this era are frequently dark and morally shady but they’re rarely as relentlessly grim as this one, Savage in particular plays her femme fatale role with unapologetic venom. The low budget shows in the way that the film has very few locations, most of it is either in the car (with rear projections) or in the hotel that the would-be criminals shack up in, but that doesn’t get in the way of how impressively nasty the whole thing is. The American notion of moral superiority that was promoted after World War II is here shown as an obsession with accountability and judgment, even before you get to the Breen Office-mandated ending you have the very unlikely coincidence of a character hooking up with the one person who has any knowledge of his situation (in what is otherwise something he could very easily get out of): Hollywood can rarely make films that don’t slather on the guilt, and the audience shares it with its lead character throughout this short but potent experience.
The Criterion Collection: #966