Glauber Rocha has nothing on Edgar G. Ulmer’s aesthetics of hunger. The chump (Tom Neal) slumps in a greasy diner, a song triggers the flashback, the lights dim and a flashlight barely illuminates his eyes. He was a piano virtuoso at a nightclub, turning Brahms into boogie-woogie for zombified patrons; "all in all, a pretty lucky guy," though there’s no mistaking the self-loathing as he accepts a tip ("a piece of paper crawling with germs"). His girlfriend (Claudia Drake) goes to Hollywood, on his way west he hitches a ride with a chiseler (Edmund MacDonald) and is left with a corpse, a car, and a new identity. The road is a purgatory of losers, runaways, patsies, and predators -- the hero is just an ameba, the fiercest creature is the broad (Ann Savage) he unwisely picks up, a vulturette who looks "as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world." Ulmer’s threadbare bondage-noir masterpiece grinds Double Indemnity into powdered milk, moving from one magnificently decomposing shot to another until its circular roadside desert becomes the stuff of nightmares. He floods bare sets with fog, projects stock-footage wastelands behind a stationary car, and, denied a cabaret, creates one using shadows on a wall: Poverty merely enhances the film's splendor, even the cracks in the celluloid are like the lines of a hand. The doomed protagonist spits at the audience watching his suffering (with "that don’t-make-me-laugh expression on your smug faces") yet acquiesces to Savage, who, in one of cinema’s truly unforgettable performances, reigns sadistically over a travesty of male-female domesticity. Kafka’s watch chain (Das Urteil) becomes a telephone wire in a squalid hotel room, the camera contemplates the distressing tableau, in and out of focus. "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." "Your philosophy stinks, pal!" A haunted film, a whirlpool in a shoebox, a trance. Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith. With Tim Ryan, Esther Howard, and Pat Gleason. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce