A man in one of those huge ‘50s cars, the kind you can use as a storage unit, drives to a motel. He sneaks up to a window, gazes in upon the fellow reclining wearily with a scar under his eye, draws a gun, and breaks in the door. They tussle for a few moments on the floor (conveyed by intercutting shots from a couple of listless angles) before they recognize each other as former police colleagues. Now that he’s been tracked down, the weary one (Paul Langton) tells his pursuer (Robert Shayne) his story in flashback.
He’d been investigating the murder of a man whose upper body was burned in a fireplace (as seen in a couple of quick gruesome shots) and, by interviewing one Patsy Flint (Tracey Roberts) and following leads to a snowy mountain retreat, he’d apprehended the curvaceous blonde Eden Lane (Barbara Payton), she of the blank, defeated air. What happens then is riddled with classic existential noir motifs: obsession, ambiguity, transgression, desperation, and above all a sense of paranoia and hopelessness.
So much for the flashback. The last third of the picture, as written and produced by Aubrey Wisberg, settles into a routine procedural and whodunit, complete with redemptive wrap-up and a ribbon on top. Perhaps that makes it a disappointment in comparison with director Edgar Ulmer’s no-budget masterpiece Detour, but isn’t it a shame that anything should be expected to live up to that?
On its own terms, this is a highly watchable now available on demand from Warner Archive, and we don’t think it’s delusional auteurism to notice that just about every composition and movement is arty as well as economical. The budget is revealed in the rear projections, in the use of stock train footage that can’t decide if it’s night or day, and more positively in some intriguing location work. Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward’s book Film Noir credits all those disorienting edits as “discontinuous mise-en-scene; wish I’d thought of it.