Formerly known as a director in his native Czechoslovakia and a character actor in the US (KING SOLOMON'S MINES), Hugo Haas makes his American debut as a director-writer-producer-star with PICKUP, an inept but oddly fascinating noir with a plot mirrored in nearly every one of Haas's
films to follow.
Following the death of his dog, lonely widower Jan (Hugo Haas), the overseer of a remote railroad pickup station, goes to town to buy a puppy. He brings home a different companion: trashy dame Betty (Beverly Michaels), an unemployed golddigger who fingers Jan as an easy mark--especially after she
peeks at his bank account records. After Betty is tossed out of her apartment, she marries Jan for his money.
Bored Betty longs for town life, but Jan refuses to give up his job until he receives his pension--in six years. Betty suggests Jan fake a disability and retire early, but honest Jan refuses. Following the stressful discussion, Jan experiences a spell of ringing in his ears--something which has
happened to him before. This time, however, Jan goes completely deaf. Handsome Steve (Allan Nixon) arrives to help out. Unbeknownst to Jan, Steve and Betty had dallied before her marriage, she spurned him because he was poor.
Jan goes to town to secure early retirement, where he's hit by a car. He's unhurt, and his hearing returns. Remembering Betty's plea, he lies so that he can receive his pension. He excitedly returns home to tell her, but Steve's presence forces him to play deaf. Unfortunately, he overhears Betty
tell Steve she plans to leave Jan as soon as she can get to his money. Betty and Steve begin having an affair behind Jan's back--literally--and Jan hears every word.
Conniving Betty tells Steve that Jan is beating her, leading Steve to threaten to kill Jan. Betty tells him how to do it--by pushing Jan off a bridge during a routine track inspection, but Steve can't go through with it. Disgusted, Betty lashes out at him; Steve strangles her. Jan intervenes, and
when a phone rings, Jan gets it. Steve and Betty are shocked to learn that Jan could hear all along. Betty leaves; Steve decides to go back to the girlfriend he'd dumped for Betty; Jan gets a puppy.
As a director, Haas's strangely masochistic-egomaniacal string of American films could launch a thousand theses. At the age of 50, he began directing film after film with virtually the same plot: old Czech meets trashy blond; old Czech attempts to educate/redeem trashy blond; trashy blond ruins
old Czech; old Czech suffers. The trashy blond in question here is leggy, toothsome 24-year-old Michaels (WICKED WOMAN), who made a (short-lived) career out of playing hard-boiled, down-on-her-luck dames. Her one-note performance will either infuriate or delight--she begins sentences with
sarcastic "ehh"s and "ahh"s, draws out her vowels for all they're worth ("Dooon't give me no smart answers."), spits her lines out like chewing tobacco, and smokes her cigarettes with great conviction.
Michaels's Betty is one spiteful piece of work, but it's difficult to feel sorry for her middle-aged target. Haas strains to play Jan as a naive, big-hearted soul, but the audience couldn't strain enough to consider Jan's intentions any less than tawdry--and his gleeful expressions as Steve slaps
and throttles Betty slather three inches of icing on his unlikability cake. A good portion of the film lingers upon scenes of Haas either hearing or not hearing (his spells of deafness are signaled to the audience by a high-pitched whistle) with pop-eyed, slackjawed confusion or rage--the reward
being a splendid verbal-humiliation montage ending with Betty drunkenly spouting off to Jan's face as he laughs to ward off tears.
PICKUP has a few points of visual interest--some Expressionist, deep depth-of-field compositions and gritty, high-contrast texture at suitable moments. Too bad this attention to detail and mood wasn't applied to the film's rushed climax. Mere moments after she's strangled, Betty's hustling out the
door--pausing not to deliver a pithy line or a withering look, but to girlishly stick out her tongue. The instant gift of a puppy by Jan's stumblebum pal (played for minimum comic relief by Howland Chamberlain) inspires Jan to joyfully exclaim "Dat's what I should have brought home in da first
place!" while the pup licks his face. Thus ends PICKUP--quite possibly the best noir ever made in which the entire plot hinges on stress-induced deafness. (Substance abuse, adult situations.)
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Formerly known as a director in his native Czechoslovakia and a character actor in the US (KING SOLOMON'S MINES), Hugo Haas makes his American debut as a director-writer-producer-star with PICKUP, an inept but oddly fascinating noir with a plot mirrored in… (more)