Aug 2, 2012

Edge of Hell (1956)

Writer-Producer-Director: Hugo Haas
Music: Ernest Gold
Cinematographer: Eddie Fitzgerald
Universal; 78 min; B&W

Hugo Hass (Valentine), Francesca De Scaffa (Jenette), June Hammerstein (Helen), Jeffrey Stone (Freddie), John Vosper (Mr. Hawkins), Ken Carlton (Billy)

The Czech-born Hugo Haas (1901-1968) was a highly regarded actor-writer-director in his native land [one of his indigenous directorial efforts, Skeleton on Horseback (1937), received raves at a recent one-shot New York screening], who like many filmmakers fled to America when World War 2 broke out.  Because he didn’t have conventional movie idol looks, the brawny Haas was instead given supporting character parts, often as villains or exotic roles (namely in such classics as Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Summer Storm, or the 1950 adventure film King Solomon’s Mines).  As the 1950’s began, Hugo Haas instead turned his attention to writing, producing, directing and co-starring in B-budgeted potboilers.  The tantalizing titles of these films evoke those of trashy drugstore paperbacks, or at least the magazines at the checkouts (The Other Woman; Pickup; One Girl’s Confession; Bait).  According to his fellow countrymen, his foray into such sensationalist fare, with tawdry budgets and lurid plots, was a long way from his work in his native land.  Also, because his work has been out of proper circulation for decades, it has been largely misrepresented as camp, or “so bad they’re good”, ironically due to the very scraps of cult film writings have kept his name alive for new generations.

One could call Hugo Haas a B-level Orson Welles: both would appear before and behind the camera in their pet projects and make the best with whatever resources they had.  Many filmmakers have successfully created an identifiable body of work within B-budgeted genre fare.  In truth, Hugo Haas’ films lack the innovative cinematic devices of poverty row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer, or for that matter, even the spacey literary visions of Edward D. Wood (to whom Haas has sometimes stupidly been compared by so-called cult film writers who should know better).  Yet they do have a unique personality: these modest pictures somehow belie their tawdry, lurid elements and become fascinating morality plays with surprising turns of redemption, sentimentality, and old world values.

The major criticism of Haas’ films is however well founded.  The writer-director would often cast himself in as the unlikely lead, who would have a doomed affair with a deceitful blonde woman who often had a young beau on a string to form a torrid love triangle.  And after seeing several of his films in a short time period, this formula becomes tiresome.  He would most commonly hire Cleo Moore as the female lead, but each of the lead actresses in his Hollywood epics is typically given ingĂ©nue roles taken under the wings of Haas’ own characters, suggesting a Svengali-Trilby plot device that further aggrandizes his own roles.  (To his credit though, Haas always gave good performances.)

Hugo Haas never shied away from outrageous symbols or heavy-handedness to make his point- and one of the definitive examples of that is in the deceptively titled Edge of Hell (1956), which may be the masterpiece of his thirteen American films as director.  It is a departure from his usual “deceitful femme fatale” formula: a Damon Runyon-esque fable that is by turns hilarious and tragic, culminating into a finale, which is outrageous, but not logically wrong.

Haas stars as Valentine (rhymes with “teen”), a vagrant who lives in the basement of an apartment house, and makes a meager living by performing on street corners with his dog Flip, and always within one step ahead of the law.  Like many of Haas’ characters, Valentine has fallen from the grace of his former glory days: he was once an actor and vaudevillian.  As the story progresses, he redeems himself upon being hired to perform with his dog at a child’s birthday party in the estate of wealthy Mr. Hawkins, arranged by Valentine’s neighbour Helen through her chauffeur boyfriend Freddie.  The refined Hawkins takes an instant liking to the earthy Valentine.  A delightful sequence in which the tramp performer entertains Hawkins with stories while the men share cigars and drinks is reminiscent of the moments in Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), where the Little Tramp is invited out by a drunk millionaire.  Thankfully, there is no scene where Valentine is turned out on his ear.  However, Hawkins exercises his rich person’s belief that money can buy anything when he offers an absurd amount of money to purchase Flip, since his kid won’t stop crying about wanting the dog.  Of course, Valentine turns down the proposition.  With the money that he made from the birthday party engagement, however, Valentine decides to share his wealth by throwing a party in his basement flat, in a truly wonderful scene that recalls the Frank Capra films of another era.  Indeed, the sentimental movies that Haas would make in the twilight of his career would seem out of the time in which they were made- more married to the tradition of 40s programmers than those of the late 1950’s.

However, I doubt that even Capra had concocted such a fascinating collusion of social class than this affair.  Throughout the film, Valentine’s hobo friends who live under the bridge are seen as aristocrats in tattered clothing.  They discuss their panhandling earnings in a patter similar to tycoons’ discussing stocks.  It is a joy to see these disparate characters thrown together in this party sequence—even the swarthy characters, like the slinky French girl Jenette and her shifty boyfriend Billy are equally welcome to share in Valentine’s good fortune.  Even at this soiree, the tramps (doubling as doormen) talk business like oil magnates, while the others drink and dance to phonograph records.  Still, the jibes against power and capital pervade the conversation.  (“Are you proud of your grandson?”  “He could be worse- he could be a politician.”)

Up until this moment, one wonders why the film is called Edge of Hell.  The title is justly earned after this wonderful scene, as the movie quickly changes in tone (even the overall look of the film, shot by Eddie Fitzgerald, becomes darker).  Some time has passed since the party, and we learn that Valentine has asthma (ironically, Hugo Haas would die of complications with asthma in 1968), and hasn’t been able to earn money on the streets.  He is eventually forced out of his home for non-payment of rent, and takes residence under the bridge with his hobo friends.  Meanwhile, Flip becomes ill, and Valentine realizes he is no longer able to take care of the dog properly, so he reconsiders selling the canine to Hawkins.  However, since Valentine is so desperate to get Flip a good home, he leaves with whatever small amount of money the butler had on hand at the moment.  Once Billy discovers that Valentine has sold the dog (knowing that he was once offered a tidy sum for Flip), he assumes that Valentine is loaded with money, and plots to rob him.  Helen and Jenette learn of his plan, and race to save Valentine in time.
ABOVE: Hugo Haas, June Hammerstein

The progression from light-hearted whimsy to tragedy is expertly maintained, culminating into a climax that is truly heartpounding.  Throughout the film, Valentine often associates his panhandling routines with acting.  Even in his final moments, he utters: “Don’t cry darling, I’ve been an old ham all my life; what can be greater for an actor than a death scene, don’t spoil it”.  The film however ends on an outrageous turn, smacking of “writer’s convenience” that would cause uproar in Screenwriting 101, as Valentine and Flip die at exactly the same moment.  While obviously contrived, this moment summarizes how Valentine and Flip are meant to be together for eternity.  Further still, Haas adds a bizarre finale, in which the man and his dog appear in front of a starry background, with liberal use of dry ice in the frame.  “Lord, can I show you some tricks?”  Roll of thunder. “Eternal life contract with no options.”  The background lights up, the music swells, THE END.

Haas was never so blatant with his spiritual overtones.  His supporters and detractors alike would have to agree, upon viewing this finale, that Hugo Haas was absolutely fearless in his pursuits.  Not only was he successful in making commercially viable movies while still filling them with his personal themes, no device was too heavy-handed enough to communicate his ideas.

Edge of Hell charts the path the Haas would take in the latter half of his career. He would gradually progress from noirish melodrama into more sentimental projects: Born to Be Loved (1959) and Paradise Alley (1962) are old-fashioned delights that deserve posts of their own. Hugo Haas would return to Europe and occasionally appear on television. Apparently, his star never diminished in Czechoslovakia: the works he made in his homeland during the 1930’s still draw an audience whenever they are played.

His Hollywood filmmaking career, however, is all but forgotten, and if one were to believe historians, justly so. Because Hugo Haas’ work has been out of circulation for so many years (save for scattered television play dates), a lot of misconceptions about his work have grown, and the inability to see his work in proper channels has allowed its unfairly negative reputation to grow.

In this age of information, it is astonishing how much Hugo Haas continues to be out of the public eye.  If one allows oneself to look beyond the poor production values, there is a genuine personality and richness to be found in his art.  Then as now, with so many movies being anonymously cranked out on the assembly line, Hugo Haas succeeded in being an auteur in the most subterranean antechamber of the Hollywood studio system.  Imperfect though they may be, the American films of Hugo Haas are worthy of re-discovery.

(Note: the above review is excerpted and abridged from an article on Hugo Haas, reviewing twelve of his American films, appearing in ESR #23, which is available at our store.)

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