Give The Devil His Due: Hugo Haas’s BAIT (Columbia 1954)

Every Tuesday during the month of “Noirvember”, I’ll be spotlighting some dark genre gems. Enjoy wandering down the crooked path of film noir!

Welcome to the world of Hugo Haas, King of Low-Budget 50’s Film Noir. I’d heard about producer/director/writer/actor Haas’s films for years through Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide, usually accompanied by a *1/2 to ** (or less!) rating. Of course, being a connoisseur of bad cinema, I was interested, but it wasn’t until recently I viewed my first Hugo Haas epic, 1954’s BAIT, starring Hugo’s screen muse Cleo Moore, who was featured in seven of the  maestro’s movies.

BAIT starts with a unique introduction (and some nice camerawork from DP Eddie Fitzgerald), as an elegantly dressed Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays The Devil Himself delivering a monologue expounding on his evil machinations. Then we get into the story itself (written by Samuel W. Taylor, with “additional dialog” by Haas): Young Ray Brighton meets older Serbian gypsy Marko at a local diner; the two have a deal to find a lost gold mine. The proprietor warns Ray that Marko’s “a lunatic”, with rumors he killed his last partner. Stopping at the general store for supplies, they encounter the beautiful but hardened young Peggy scrubbing floors. Ray’s attracted, but Marko warns him off (“She’s no good, got a baby already and is never married”).

The pair head for the rugged mountain terrain, and Peggy shows up to deliver supplies. Ray tries flirting, but again Marko warns him off (“The devil sent her to stir up your blood and make trouble”). The men stumble onto the lost mine, and gold fever strikes both inside their heads – and souls! The Devil whispers inside Marko’s ear, giving him an idea to get rid of Ray… by marrying Peggy and bringing her to the cabin, hoping to stir their loins so Marko will have an excuse to kill them both and keep the gold for himself…

Okay, it’s not the greatest of noirs ever made, and is hampered by the ultra-low budget, but it did manage to hold my interest. Haas, Cleo, and John Agar form the eternal triangle, with Agar beginning his downward career slide because of his drinking and an acrimonious divorce from America’s Sweetheart, Shirley Temple. Haas, who fled Europe after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, had become a character actor in America, co-starring in films like DAKOTA, NORTHWEST OUTPOST, THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN, and KING SOLOMON’S MINES before becoming the Orson Welles of ‘B’ noir, making tawdry little tales of men enticed by femme fatales. BAIT shows brief  flashes of good filmmaking, but again the budget holds it back from becoming anything more than a second-feature programmer.

B-Movie Bad Girl Cleo Moore was once married to Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s son (for six whole weeks!) before coming to Hollywood. Cleo had roles in the serial CONGO BILL and some Tim Holt Westerns before getting noticed in a small role in Nicholas Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Signed by Columbia as an answer to Fox’s Marilyn Monroe (only with a much harder edge), she became the low-budget Dietrich to Hass’s Von Sternberg , appearing in the auteur’s STRANGE FASCINATION, ONE GIRL’S CONFESSION, THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE, THE OTHER WOMAN, HOLD BACK TOMORROW, and HIT AND RUN. Cleo never quite hit it big, but a cult has formed around her B-film performances. She left the screen to become a success in real estate and a Beverly Hills socialite before dying of a heart attack in 1973.

My take on Hugo Haas after viewing BAIT? The film was certainly competent enough to hold my interest; I’ve sat through much, much worse. I’m not going to go as far as saying this is a great movie, but it’s good for what it is, and I’d watch other Haas films on that basis alone. He may not be a Ford or Welles, but he’s no Ed Wood , either. And I like Ed. As for Cleo Moore, the scene where she licks that cigarette paper alone is enough to make me want more!!

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