Hapless nightclub pianist Al Roberts (ably played to the antsy hilt by Tom Neal) decides to hitchhike across the country from New York to California. Complications ensue after Roberts makes the bad decision to assume the identity of amiable gambler Charles Haskell Jr. (a solid and likeable performance by Edmund MacDonald) after Haskell suddenly dies. Things get even worse when Roberts crosses the toxic path of the bitter, vengeful, and manipulative Vera (an awesomely forceful and intimidating portrayal by Ann Savage).
Director Edgar G. Ulmer does a masterful job of crafting and sustaining a potently unsettling feeling of pure dread and despair that never lets up for a minute; the exceptionally bleak fatalistic and nihilistic tone stays fiercely true to itself right to the unflinching grim end. The terrific acting by the three leads keeps this movie humming: Neal astutely nails the raw sweaty desperation of his hard-luck chump character, Claudia Drake registers well as Al's sweet gal pal Sue Harvey, and, most astonishing of all, Savage leaves a strong lasting impression as one of the single most nasty and formidable femme fatales to ever connive her way across the screen. Martin Goldsmith's clever and compact script boasts lots of snappy dialogue and a serpentine narrative that winds towards an inevitable downbeat conclusion with the insidious stealth and unavoidability of a terminal disease. The spare stripped-down two-cent production values further enhance the overall feeling of absolute unease and desolation. Essential viewing.
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