March 13, 2010
THE OTHER WOMAN (1954)
One of the joys of cultivating an interest in film history is in discovering a marvelous yet forgotten film or filmmaker, such as Hugo Haas and his 1954 film noir The Other Woman. The Jewish-born Haas was an established comedic actor in his native Czechoslovakia who also successfully wrote, produced, and directed his own films. In 1938 he fled the Nazis for France, then finally settled in America and spent the war years doing stateside radio broadcasts in his native language. (Haas’ brother Pavel, a well-known composer, would die in Auschwitz.) Haas worked to improve his English and resumed acting in the mid-forties, and although he worked regularly in Hollywood, and even gave acting lessons, he couldn’t achieve the fame he had enjoyed in Europe. He was an ardent admirer of Chaplin, and envisioned himself succeeding in the same writer-director-star mold as the famous comedian. Wanting desperately to regain his status as a filmmaker, he used his life savings to launch his own company, Hugo Haas Productions, through which he brought to the screen a fascinating string of ultra low budget crime pictures. From 1951 – 62 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in a dozen features, many based on Czech source material, which he considered cinematic calling cards. The “written, produced, and directed by” title board of most are emblazoned with his signature. Yet in the case of The Other Woman, ostensibly a crime thriller but really a movie about the movie business, Haas’ deep-rooted frustration with his status (or lack thereof) in Hollywood bubbles to the surface in moments where he castigates the industry establishment and its collective failure to embrace his talents.
Haas’ American films are remembered today primarily for his R. Crumb-like obsession with casting buxom blonde bombshells. He directed and starred alongside Cleo Moore in seven pictures, including The Other Woman. Moore was a Louisiana girl of epic proportions who worked as a cover model for men’s magazines and, in the wake of Marilyn Monroe’s success, made her mark as a B-Movie vixen. She and Haas are inexorably linked in collective memory, and while Moore wasn’t a terrible actress she also wasn’t a strong lead, and it’s worth considering how differently Haas’ films might be received today if he hadn’t so slavishly cast her in them. In Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s brief analysis of The Other Woman they actually claim, quite erroneously, the pair were married. Yet surely it’s unfair to dismiss Haas as a from-hunger purveyor of drive-in cheesecake. The Other Woman demands otherwise. Despite its obviously low budget production values and cast, it’s a polished, highly personal film with a nuanced, clever script that doesn’t compromise its own dark underpinnings — even if the story of blackmail and murder is hackneyed. What elevates The Other Woman over similar potboilers is how Haas uses the story and visual tropes of film noir to comment about his personal life in Hollywood.
The story is routine: Sherry Steward (Moore) is working on a film set when she gets a shot at a fill-in part. Although the role only calls for three lines, she blows it. Humiliated and seething, she blames her failure on director Walter Darman (Haas), and decides to gets revenge. Sherry eventually drugs Walter and convinces him they enjoyed a night of raucous sex, which resulted in a pregnancy. He never believes her, but is terrified that a scandal will ruin him. Sherry demands $50,000 to stay mum, but doesn’t realize Walter hasn’t got the money — his career is in a shambles. His pictures are deemed too hopelessly “artistic” to make a profit and his studio chief father-in-law wants to cut him loose. Walter reckons it makes more sense to simply murder Sherry, and does. The police see right through his alibi, and Walter soon confesses.
While there’s nothing outwardly special about the premise, it allows Haas essentially to play himself on screen — a struggling émigré film director trying to create art in a shallow town where the bottom line is all that matters. The cleverest aspect of the setup is Walter’s marriage to the boss’ daughter. The relationship allows Haas to not-so-subtly allude to the nepotism inherent in Hollywood (don’t forget David O. Selznick’s marriage to Irene Mayer), while at the same time creating a filmic relationship that allows for on-screen arguments about the nature of the movie business. The entire arc of the film, in which Haas’ character moves from one sort of prison to another, is also telling. Along the way he falls prey to Sherry, who symbolizes everything bad about Hollywood. In spite of Walter’s efforts to appease her, he never fully understands why she is trying to destroy him — and because of this he eventually finds himself in a prison that he desperately wants us to believe is not of his own making.
Hugo Haas intended The Other Woman to serve as a parable of his own life. The first scene sets the stage as Sherry and a coworker watch Darman coaching an actor on how to properly play a crucial prison scene. Sherry remarks about the harried director, “He’s quite a ham.” The savvy coworker expresses surprise that she isn’t hip to Darman’s background: “Are you kidding? He was a big star in Europe. Here he played bits — just nothing — guess you have to know the right people.”
Yet Darman does know the right people. He’s the producer and director of the film only because of his marriage to the daughter of studio production chief, Charles Lester (Jack Macy). He remains in perpetual disagreement with his father-in-law about what constitutes good filmmaking however — the older man is emblematic of the cookie cutter efficiency of the studio system, while Darman is portrayed as the intellectualized ‘continental,’ more interested in art than profits. The pair tangles over the status of Darman’s current directorial project: “Look Walter, I ran the whole picture twice … I even talked it over with the projectionist — everybody’s opinion is valuable. I admit, there are some artistic shots, but in general it’s a dull picture. I’m sorry, but there’s no beating about the bush when big money is involved. Every time we have these arguments Walter, you put on the expression of a martyr; you’ve been in America long enough to catch onto the public’s tastes.” Offended, Walter lashes out at Lester, at the same time suggesting how Haas really feels about the movie industry’s pandering status quo: “The public’s taste is much higher than you might expect … but it seems to be easier to make pictures for kids and imbeciles — making little delinquents of a whole generation, and the poor adults have to sit through it and suffer. Always the same story, the same characters, the same happy endings, it’s just ridiculous.”
Later, after Walter’s film fails dismally with a sneak preview audience, the two men’s relationship implodes and Lester berates Darman: “In all my thirty years of picture-making I never saw anything like it … I never felt so terrible in my life — I should’ve taken the scissors myself, instead of arguing with a stubborn, art-stricken genius — and cut all the dragging meditations and psychological nonsense … and deep ideas.” When Walter accuses the older man of sabotaging the preview, Lester storms out, telling his son-in-law, “I’m through with you.”
In The Other Woman’s final moments, as Darman finds himself behind a real set of bars, he laments his situation, putting a new spin on Lester’s formula for profitable moviemaking: “How did it happen? How did it happen? Movies. Take a handful of sex, mix it with violence, give it some comedy relief … and a happy ending.” Then, as the end music begins to swell, he lifts his eyes, stares directly into the camera and says, “I’m sorry, no happy ending for this one.” It’s a wonderful moment in the film, and a slickly layered piece of cinema that bookends the opening, when Darman naïvely advised the young actor how to play the very scene he is now relegated to. One is left with the overwhelming conviction that the pretense between fiction and reality has been dropped, and we are no longer certain whether the spoken lines and the prison setting are more relevant to the character, the actor playing him, or the director of the film — all of whom represent different parts of Hugo Haas.
It’s clear that Haas indeed envisions himself as a tragically exiled and underappreciated artist — which he was. It also seems that he suffered, as most artists do, from self-loathing and guilt — it’s essential to remember that he was also a survivor horribly affected by the War. In spite of his personal demons, or maybe because of them, what he accomplished in The Other Woman is meaningful: he gives us an enthralling low-budget film that is part crime thriller, part Hollywood expose, and part anguished parable of his perplexing Tinseltown odyssey.
The Other Woman is Hollywood.
The Other Woman (1954)
Director: Hugo Haas
Cinematographer: Eddie Fitzgerald
Screenplay: Hugo Haas
Starring: Hugo Haas, Cleo Moore
Released by: Twentieth Century Fox
Running time: 81 minutes