In a review of the standout William Castle film When Strangers Marry (1944) first published on December 4, 1944, the legendary critic Manny Farber quite favorably compared that particular B-movie with some other films that back then were considered A-features, even noting that the cliches in Castle’s film seemed “fresher and less annoying” than those of its more healthily budgeted peers. “In fact the whole thing seemed original to me,” Farber wrote of Castle’s film, “compared to movies like Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), or Phantom Lady (1944). Though it has certain unsuccessful embellishments that are mainly snatched from German expressionism… it is the least arty of the films mentioned above”—and those who are familiar with the work of Farber, coiner of that everlasting phrase “termite art”, surely know that statement was meant only as high compliment. When Strangers Marry will play at the Harvard Film Archive in a few months time (11.24, 4pm), on the second-to-last night of the theater’s extraordinarily ambitious new repertory program, “The B-Film: Low-budget Hollywood Cinema 1938-1959”, which brings together 48 movies, nearly all playing via either 16 or 35mm prints, most of which not only exemplify but literally qualify for the designation of “B-movie”—a distinction that’s usually overlooked in the here and now, when even the blockbusters are just B-movie serials, but is rather essential within the context of the program itself.
Because while B-movie grew into a catch-all term pretty much from the moment it was coined—one that depending on the circumstances might be used to describe a film’s production value, or its genre, or any other element which on some level designates it as disreputable—the phrase initially had very specific meaning tied into various business procedures within the film industry. Those market factors, beginning in the early 1930s and lasting for the most part until a 1948 ruling which compelled the major studios to divest of their holdings in movie theater chains, led both the majors and the “poverty row” studios to dedicate whole filmmaking units to the production of B-films, which were made specifically to play on the bottom half of double features (or at second-run and lesser-trafficked theaters, sometimes in double-features there too, where they might even be paired with other B-movies—in a manner that is on some level replicated here in the Harvard program, which pairs many of its 48 films in double-bills sold under the same showtime). Therefore an integral part of the factory-line model of Hollywood studios both large and small during the “Golden Era”, these B-films, which were often sold to those in-the-pocket exhibitors sight-unseen, allowed the studios, for better or worse, to produce films based on subjects or scripts that were too lurid, provocative, or simply weird to pass muster as an A-feature, while also allowing them to cast those films with actors who, again for better or worse, would not be suitable, in terms of either their talent or their “draw” or both, for placement in those A-movies either.
As a result “the B-film” is at once a large tent—counting under it movies of innumerable genres made by major studios and independent production houses alike—yet also simultaneously quite tight in terms: The movies in question almost never run for more than 75 minutes, nor do they feature actors that would’ve been considered A-list stars in the year the film was made, nor are they ever based on top-shelf source materials. In exchange, a relatively large number of B-movies (though hardly all), including a majority of those screening in the Harvard program, utilize wildly experimental techniques—both visual and auditory—for the sake of papering over their inherent limitations. Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive (who curated this program, first for the Vienna International Film Festival and now again in a slightly altered form at the HFA), writes on that subject in his introduction for the program: “During its heyday, the B-film embraced to the fullest degree that paradoxical ideal of the studio system as ‘art factory’”, he notes, “by realizing a remarkably efficient mode of pure cinema that simultaneously returned to cinema’s vaudevillian and ‘attraction’ origins while embracing diverse avant-garde currents, from Surrealism to photogénie to Soviet montage.”
Exactly three-fourths of “The B-Film” is comprised of films made before the 1948 decree, with the other 12 made in the ten years that followed—when the shape and style of the traditional b-movie remained somewhat constant even as its purpose began to die out. Guest explains that particular curatorial decision at the end of his essay “An Archeology of the B-film”, which expands on his introductory notes, and is featured in a book about the program : “The further legacy of the B-film is suggested by films by maverick director-producer Roger Corman, the legendary Ed Wood Jr., and independent directors Hubert Cornfield and Irving Lerner,” he writes in reference to a few screenings in the program—Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959, 10.26 @ 10pm), Cornfield’s Plunder Road (1957, 9.14 @ 7pm and 9.22 @ 3:30pm), and Lerner’s Murder by Contract (1958, 9.28 @ 9pm)—before further clarifying the distinction between the pre- and post-decree films. “While these later branches, or tributaries, of the B-film share a subversive force and termite energy, to borrow Manny Farber’s phrase, they need to be marked as distinct from the studio-era B-film whose symbiotic and dialogic relationship with the A-feature and with the individual studios’ different house styles and rosters of contract players gave the classic B-films their imitable yet ineluctable qualities”. We plan to publish an interview with Guest about this program online in the near future, and beyond that, hope to cover specific weekends of the program in other articles, given that the lineup is far too expansive to consider within the space of a single essay—also because the lineups for some of the single weekends offer fulfilling (mini-)programs of their own, showcasing extremely diverse selections of movies across stretches of just three or four days.
This opening weekend, for instance, features six films, spanning both the pre- and post-’48 periods, which together include and introduce many of the studios, genres, and subgenres that are further represented and expanded upon by other films in the program. During the first four days, playing from the crime/noir subgenre, there is Detour (1945, 9.13 and 9.15, 7pm), Crime Wave (1954, 9.14, 7pm and 9.22, 3:30pm,) and Plunder Road (playing as B-film to Crime Wave during its showtimes); from the disaster movie/deserted island subgenre, there is Five Came Back (1939, playing with Detour); from the “mad doctor” subgenre, there is Donovan’s Brain (1953, 9.13, 9:15pm); and finally there is the relatively unclassifiable Island of Doomed Men (1940, 9.14, 9:45pm), a Peter Lorre picture the genre of which takes more than a few words to describe (but more on that in a moment).
Just restored on behalf of a number of different archives and foundations, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is among the small group of films in this program that are credibly “in the canon” already, along with Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943, 9.23, 7pm), Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950, 10.11, 7pm and 10.13, 4:30pm), Samuel Fuller’s early masterpiece The Steel Helmet (1951, 10.12, 9pm), and Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959, 10.26, 7pm and 11.10, 4pm). But for me the movie, which depicts a story told in voiceover by hitchhiker Al Roberts (Tom Neal) recounting a trip cross-country that got him mixed up in potential murder charges, has never quite lived up to its reputation. The dialogue is functional at best, stodgy at worst. And its performances often verge on the hysterical to an extent which doesn’t quite jive with the material. Yet the film is nonetheless formidable, strong, and scarring in its detail, enough to compel me to return to it once every few years anyway. Early on, Ulmer utilizes stark lighting changes and camera movements to shift us from one reality (where Roberts is sitting in a bar, ostensibly being filmed in an objective manner) to another (where the film depicts a story being told by Roberts, its reality thus less trustworthy), establishing the film’s key concept—that its drama is essentially akin to a criminal’s alibi. Other structural gambits are successfully executed by the film (which has its screenplay credited to Martin Goldsmith, who adapted his own 1939 crime novel), most of which are for the sake of moving emphasis away from Al and onto other characters. At one point, it’s a violent gambler who picks up Al for a ride; at yet another, it’s Vera, played by Ann Savage, whose ruthless, shrieky, take-no-prisoners energy convinces right where all the other performances falter. Her character eventually leads us to a motel room, just one example of fantastically-banal Americana in a film rather full of them—and in a program which shows off curdled depictions of such within a very high percentage of its offerings, including most of the other “masterpieces” listed above.
The film Detour plays with, Five Came Back, has less of a reputation, and frankly deserves as much. As directed by John Farrow, the picture is something of a proto-disaster film, mixed with some elements that line right up with the script for Stagecoach (1939), which had been released just a few months prior: Here a group of characters representing various different subcultures and class positions are brought together on a plane—they include a respectable older couple (C. Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon), a child and his gangster-guardian (Allen Jenkins), a convicted anarchist (Joseph Calleia), and one oft-sneered-at young woman (Lucille Ball!)—only for that plane to crash-land in the jungle, leaving them all to search for a solution which might get them home, though as the title makes tantalizingly clear they can’t all make it back. Like many other movies in this program, the occasionally-inventive filmmaking of Five Came Back covers for its much-lesser acting—for example in the opening sequences, which use far-off compositions, long-takes filled with camera movements, and inventive transitions between them to provide some distance from the staid performances and banal dialogue that dominate the opening 15 or 20 minutes, which is all interminable plot setup. The segments in the jungle that follow, one part-Lord of the Flies and one part-Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), are perhaps no less cliche, but are at least more dramatic, setting up a relatively complex web of character-specific conflicts before eventually reaching a fatalistic, cold-blooded finale.
The last film slated for night one, Donovan’s Brain, is perhaps more interesting for the sociocultural archetypes it sets up than for anything it achieves cinematically. Starring Lew Ayres as a calm-mannered but psychologically-crazed doctor who’s dedicated his studies towards re-animating brains (see above), and Nancy Davis (later Reagan) as his overly-dedicated partner, the film eventually contorts its story towards a position where the doctor is being controlled by the sentient brain of a dead Hughesian billionaire, thus shifting this supposedly-normal guy into an American oligarch with a furious attitude to match (almost like a money-minded twist on the family dynamics of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film Bigger Than Life). It’s those dynamics which have to carry the movie, because the special effects, which are comprised of a fake brain that lights up and shakes when it’s “controlling” someone (again, see above), do little to sell the scenario. But in setting the stage for the Cinematic American 50s where ¼ of this program takes place—the idealized suburban portraiture, the conflicted attitude towards upper classes and wealth, and of course the neverending back-and-forth on the very concept of “transgression”, be it social, criminal, or sexual, which these films consistently approach with a contradictory perspective, both lurid attraction and authoritarian condemnation—Donovan’s Brain does its part.
Certainly more worthy of recommendation is director Charles Barton’s Island of Doomed Men, which is also slow getting off the starting blocks, and is admittedly directed with a rather bland eye, yet still reaches a fever pitch thanks to its richly conceived split-genre scenario: A government agent (Robert Wilcox) sets out to investigate an island operated by the mysterious Stephan Danel (Lorre), because it has been said that Danel use parolees as slave labor; however, Danel turns the tables on him, and the agent ends up on the island himself (the text and subtext of the film, which concern the exploitation of both prison labor and parolees, are of course sadly relevant to date). From there our hero essentially works to incite a prison riot, a process that ends up constantly derailed by double-crosses from guards and fellow enslaved workers alike, eventually conjuring a true sense of specific physical danger and real human menace—qualities rarely seen in the prestige American film productions of any era, but that are constant in the B-films of the HFA program, brought to the fore with a ramshackle fury.
With all that said, the top choice of the weekend is the double feature of Crime Wave and Plunder Road, two ’50s cops-and-robbers procedurals (with the emphasis placed on the robbers, in line with the crime-fiction of the decade—that of course being yet another integral tradition of B-level American commercial art). Andre de Toth is the director on Crime Wave, which depicts a case where an overbearing detective (Sterling Hayden) violently leans on an innocent ex-con (Gene Nelson) after correctly surmising that some of the former criminal’s old friends are going to stop at his place while on the lam. And the director brings to it that just aforementioned quality—specific physical danger and real human menace—supremely boosted by performances from actors long-storied for their intimidating nature (among them Hayden and Charles Bronson). Though saddled with a few too many dramatic contrivances and an unconvincing ending, the film is also notable for its high level of surface texture, which de Toth and cinematographer Bert Glennon capture by spending plenty of time on the roads between scenes (sometimes literally), their frames always panning and moving to depict background action by unnamed characters during both the set-based and on-location scenes.
Yet the real gem among these six, for me at least, is director Hubert Cornfield’s Plunder Road, a heist film stripped nearly to its bone, featuring almost no characterization or action that isn’t directly related to the heist that begins the movie—one which takes up about 15 minutes of screentime during its first stage alone. Following that initial truck robbery, which is covered with immense attention to detail and depicted under a beautiful illusion of heavy rain, the film stays with the five criminals as they split into three trucks, each loaded with one-third of their golden take, then dramatizes their long-range trip across highways to their hideaway, with danger lurking at every turn and roadblock. Cornfield’s direction is often exhilarating, finding smart organic solutions to challenges which come along with the plot, for instance creating a sense of time-based continuity across all three trucks by letting the radio continue on the soundtrack even as we cut from a scene in one truck into a scene in another. Formally rigorous to the end, constantly staying on long windshield shots of its characters talking about their plan and very little else, the feature plays out almost like a sanded-down B-movie knock-off of The Wages of Fear (1953), in the process marking itself as something of a predecessor to a number of other movies, including Sorcerer (1977), films by Jean-Pierre Melville, and even one of this year’s notable pictures, S. Craig Zahler’s similarly windshield-heavy Dragged Across Concrete (2019). Perhaps now taking its rightful place within the lineage of crime-fiction cinema, Plunder Road emerged as the first revelatory discovery in a repertory program that seems absolutely certain to deliver more.
THE B-FILM: LOW-BUDGET HOLLYWOOD CINEMA 1935-1959 TAKES PLACE AT THE HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE 9.13–11.25. FOR A COMPLETE LISTING OF TITLES AND SHOWTIMES, SEE HARVARDFILMARCHIVE.ORG. REGULAR ADMISSION TICKETS ARE $9, WHICH FOR DOUBLE FEATURES COVERS BOTH MOVIES. THE BOOK ABOUT THE PROGRAM IS AVAILABLE AT THE HFA BOX OFFICE AND THE CARPENTER CENTER BOOKSTORE.