Iím beginning to appreciate the inventive ways that George Blair uses his camera so much that I find myself paying more attention to his technique than I am to the story heís trying to tell. Thatís not to say that Blairís films are bad, because they certainly arenít. His crime programmers for Republic Pictures are undeniably cheap, inarguably brief, and patently unbelievable, but my journey through his filmography has introduced me to several enjoyable films that, while broadly forgotten by (or unknown to) most film noir enthusiasts, undoubtedly deserve a place in the noir conversation. 1944ís End of the Road is an excellent example of his work.
Edward Norris plays Bob Kirby, a reporter for Living Crime magazine. Serious noirists will best remember Norris from the spectacular and outrageous 1946 B movie Decoy. In this film, Kirbyís grumpy, cynical editor dispatches him north to the Q to get an interview with one Walter Gribbon, recently convicted and sentenced to the death house for the murder of his girlfriend Nora. After their meeting Kirby becomes convinced of Gribbonís innocence and launches his own investigation, even though his refusal to smear the condemned man costs him his job. He quickly comes to suspect Chris Martin (John Abbott), one of the Noraís coworkers, and orchestrates a complicated plan to get him to confess. Kirbyís scheme eventually pays off, and in pure throwback fashion he gets his job back with a big raise. Oh, he gets the girl too. After all, thereís always a girl.
We are in film noir territory here, even though the movie ends well and Kirby is a completely cardboard good guy. The visuals are solid: black, moody, and stylish. Shadows from venetian blinds striate practically every wall. In an important scene that takes place in Martinís room, the neon light of the hotelís sign throbs incessantly through the window, disturbing the murdererís sleep. This visual device was still years away from being a clichť, and Martin actually takes a moment to lament the lightís debilitating effect on his state of mind. This sort of neurotic fixation is heady stuff for a 51-minute Poverty Row program picture from 1944--film noir was everywhere.
More on Abbott, who really makes this thing work. Where Edward Norris falls short as a noir protagonist, Abbott totally delivers, and actually manages to wring a great deal of pathos out of his limited screen time. His mounting sense of desperation and alienation is compelling, particularly when he is unable to find a job after quitting the florist shop in the wake of his crime. His motivation for strangling Nora had been entirely financial: she refused to loan him money. The notion of a man being unable to find work in the peak wartime economy of 1944 would not have gone unnoticed by End of the Roadís theatrical audience. Even a little picture such as this one portends the labor uncertainties to come when the boys returned home.
One key sequence is also critical in establishing the filmís noir credibility. In it, Kirby attempts to unsettle Martin with the help of the German shepherd that was in the flower shop at the time of the killing. Night after night, Kirby stands vigil with the keening, forlorn dog outside Martinís window. Martin becomes so unraveled at its wailing that he abandons his apartment and flees to Los Angeles. The dog functions as a reminder of Martinís crime, returning from ďout of the pastĒ to terrify him.
This acknowledgment of the psychological underpinnings of a murder is impressive for an early-cycle film noir, and plays clearly towards 1940s audiencesí armchair fascination with Freudian psychology. Abbottís performance is strong enough that we empathize with him and begin to believe that Kirbyís persecution is cruel. The British-born actorís work here ample proof that in spite of whatever else might be wrong with a film, when the actors give honest, committed performances, itís awfully difficult not to like the final product. Unfortunately for me, the print of the movie that I watched was so dark through this section of the movie that I was essentially only able to listen to Martinís flight from the grieving animal to the train station. Iím certain that had the quality of the print been a little better, Blair would have made it well worth paying attention to.
Iím usually not that interested in the more technical aspects of filmmaking, but much of what Blair does is difficult to ignore. In my essay on Federal Agent at Large I suggested that Blair reminded me of Otto Preminger, though Iím beginning to reconsider whether or not the resemblance isnít to the Jaws-era Steven Spielberg. Blair and cinematographer William Bradford--an Oscar nominee for the very rare film Women in War--keep the camera moving (though not usually on a crane like Preminger or on tracks like OphŁls). Instead we get a steady combination of pans and zooms, along with several brief tracking shots. Itís a fine exercise in low-budget filmmaking: Blair gets through several scenes with just a single camera, using a prizefighterís mix of combination shots to keep our eyes in motion. And his scene transitions are marvelous: wipes, extreme close-ups, and a rapid 180į pan that might make your head spin.
Unbelievable story. Darn good B-moviemaking. Give End of the Road a chance, if you get the chance.
And you can give it a chance, though you'll have to literally do so since the print available at the Internet Archive is quite likely the same sub-standard one that Mark referred to in the text. A great deal of restoration work was undertaken on Republic Studios films by a consortium that included Scorsese's Film Foundation, but it is unclear how many of the "true B" films were included in that work.