5 August 2019 | friedlandea
Unique. A classic. Why is Hugo Haas' work so consistently underrated?
I admit it. I feel a strange fascination (to borrow one of his titles) for the films of Hugo Haas, written, produced and directed by, and starring. I know. They are B movies. He could not command Hollywood's elite. But he had his stock company - Cleo Moore, Beverly Michaels, Jan Englund, Anthony Jochim - just as John Ford had his. His cinematographers, Paul Ivano, Edward Fitzgerald, were craftsmen. His work is idiosyncratic. At its best it is unique and memorable. He was a Jew who escaped the Holocaust while his brother, left behind, disappeared into Auschwitz. He was a man of European sensibility floundering in America. His stories are studies in irony. Some bear the bitter irony of Guy de Maupassant, others the tender twists of O. Henry. He puts his character, a lonely middle-aged man on the downside of life, in the way of his passionate women. He sounds a pervasive note of sadness. The devastating ending of "The Girl on the Bridge" remains for me second only, in its crushing irony, to Vincent Sherman's "The Hard Way." I don't know why, of all the independent filmmakers of the classic era, he gets the least respect.
"Hold Back Tomorrow" is one of the best and certainly the strangest of Hugo Haas' films. Who else would fashion a film almost all of which consists of two people, a man and a woman, talking? They are alone, locked in a death row cell during his last hours on earth. It is a two-person play. The camera just happens to be there. She is weary of a futile and friendless existence. He awaits an unjust fate. They contemplate death. Twenty years earlier Jean Cocteau wrote a one-person play, "The Human Voice," a monologue of despair. One actress, a suicidal woman, talks into a telephone. Francis Poulenc made it into an opera. OK. Hugo Haas was not Cocteau. But he knew the play. In "Hold Back Tomorrow" he wrote a dialogue of despair. Joe has never been able to cry. He cries. Dora has never been able to smile. She smiles. Myself, my eyes are seldom able to drop tears. They were moist.
Neither not-quite-Marilyn-Monroe Cleo Moore nor post-Shirley-Temple John Agar rose to the heights of stardom. Sometimes artists rise to the heights of artistry if they are given the material to inspire it. This material inspired artistry in Cleo Moore and John Agar. Everything, the story, the emotions, must come from them, their actions and reactions. Singers sometimes talk of being naked in the music. That is, they have only bare accompaniment that leaves them exposed. "Hold Back Tomorrow" leaves its actors exposed. They are alone before the camera. Cleo Moore never got the appreciation she deserved. She is heartbreaking when she delivers, at his request, in sadness a wan smile. John Agar makes us feel his emotional release, his catharsis, when he finally weeps after having vowed fiercely that he would never cry. In the end, Dora and Clara pray for a miracle. Hold back tomorrow is the title and the song. It is also the prayer: the hangman's rope will break; Joe will live. It won't break. We know. But maybe God will grant Joe the mercy of an illusion. Will he, in his last instant of consciousness, feel it break,dream that it has broken, and he has returned to Dora? He has already imagined it. He tells her. He has imagined the breaking of the rope. Hugo Haas hints at another ironic storyteller, Ambrose Bierce, and a cruelly ironic tale, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce's hero feels the rope break, though it doesn't. He dreams, in a last instant, that he is free. Joe enters the death chamber. The clock chimes. The dream could be another movie. If I am guilty of overthinking and overpraising a Hollywood B picture, so be it.
Hugo Haas and Cleo Moore, who played in seven of his films, came, I am sure, to form a bond - she a struggling actress from Louisiana who never made it to the A list, he a major artist in his native country now relegated to petty parts in forgettable movies. They shared a complicity born of sympathy and frustration. In "The Other Woman," their fifth collaboration, Haas played what he was, a luckless actor turned director, Cleo a struggling actress under his direction. He wrote these lines of himself: "He was a big star in Europe. Here he played bit parts, just nothing." He wrote these lines for her: "I've got more talent than all those overpublicized dames ... What did you expect, to pay my way back to Louisiana and give me five bucks for expenses?" In "Hit and Run," her last film for him, her last film for anyone, she addresses her last line to his character: "Goodbye, Gus."