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Edgar G. Ulmer’s ultra-low-budget 1945 road movie, whose off-center look and edgy obsessiveness have long made it a cult classic, offers at its heart an intense vision of a man disintegrating into madness. Musician Al Roberts (Tom Neal) starts hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles to marry his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), but his plans are derailed when he meets up with the evil, almost bestial Vera (portrayed with a wild quirkiness by Ann Savage), who blackmails him into submission. Small cues throughout the film–an oversize coffee cup, a close-up of scratches on a man’s hand–suggest a kind of dissociation in which objects lose their established meanings, becoming almost absurdly threatening. When Ulmer shows Vera in profile, oddly isolated from the road landscape as she sleeps, it becomes clear that he’s applying the same technique to the characters, who by now are spiraling irreversibly downward. There’s a peculiar pleasure, too, in the dime-store philosophy of the narration (“Fate, or some mysterious force, will put the finger on you, or me…”). The film’s culminating vision of madness is a long pan in which a room’s objects move in and out of focus, losing all meaning just as they lose all spatial connection to each other; few films before or since have achieved this level of ecstatic delirium. On the same program, Hot Ice (1955), a late two-reeler from the Three Stooges. LaSalle Theatre, 4901 W. Irving Park, Chicago, Saturday, December 20, 8:00, 312-904-2507.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.