Film Noir Friday: Pickup (1951)



A shoestring film noir by Hugo Haas, Pickup isn’t really anybody’s idea of a classic. This 1951 motion picture is based on Josef Kopta’s novel Guard No. 47 and features a screenplay by Haas and Arnold Phillips. Larry Langman, in his book Destination Hollywood: The Influence of Europeans on American Filmmaking, describes it as a “poor man’s version” of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

In essence, Langman’s description is about as accurate as it gets. Pickup has the sordid and twisted foundation of Tay Garnett’s 1946 noir and feels just as bitter, even if does lack the production values and general quality. Paul Ivano’s cinematography is often unsteady, but Haas does try to set up some familiar noir tropes and aesthetics.

Haas stars as Hunky, a Czech-born railroad dispatcher and widower. He lives in a small dispatch booth close to the tracks and spends time with the “professor” (Howland Chamberlain), who reads poetry aloud. Hunky decides to head to the fair to procure a dog, but he can’t make up his mind. His world is spent spiralling when he spots the blonde bombshell Betty (Beverly Michaels) on the merry-go-round.

Unfortunately for Hunky, Betty has designs on his wallet. She parlays herself into his life and they get married. Hunky loses his hearing and Betty develops eyes for Steve (Allan Nixon), who also works as a dispatcher, and can’t stand hanging around with her bland new husband. She concocts a plan to off Hunky and presses Steve to help her, but there’s a catch.

Haas’ mitts are all over Pickup and that gives the film focus. It doesn’t suffer from too many ideas and the femme fatale storyline is in full effect. Haas communicates her depravity and greed without adornments and Michaels is just the sort of actress to pull it off.

From the moment Pickup introduces the woman, her assets are obvious. Ivano’s lens settles on her gams and she knows she’s displaying herself to a crowd. Later, she chats with a girlfriend (Jo-Caroll Dennison) about how she plans on hooking Hunky and she spits out her gum. Her intentions are bare and it’s easy to see how she wound up in Russell Rouse’s crude 1953 noir Wicked Woman.

Michaels’ Betty travels the traditional genre trail in that she manipulates every single man she comes in contact with. She doesn’t know how to live without an angle. When it comes to Steve, her second victim, his gullibility makes perfect soil for her demon flowers. She convinces the poor dope that Hunky’s been rattling her around, but she’s not about to let him take the shine off her apple.

Notwithstanding the terrifically tawdry tale of Betty, the rest of Pickup is less than enthralling. Haas’ picture employs a bizarrely convenient hearing loss gambit, with Hunky losing range abruptly and getting it back just as quickly. This causes Steve and Betty to behave like total morons, resulting in several laughable scenes.

While the deafness plot falters in terms of pragmatism, it accomplishes the goal of reinforcing Pickup as an almost masochistic affair. Hunky has to listen to reams of abuse on behalf of his nerve-wracking blonde bride and he has to pretend he doesn’t hear the sounds of Steve and Betty going gaga for each other.

Pickup is not without allegory – there’s a great Adam and Eve bit in the car – or austerity and it fits the bill as potent film noir. The trouble is in terms of quality, as the performances are uninspiring and the dialogue is a touch on the wooden side. Despite these shortcomings, Haas’ effort is still worth sifting through for aficionados of cheap, dirty pulp and legs that go all the way up.


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