I’m 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 he’s trying to tell. That’s not to say that Blair’s films are bad, because they certainly aren’t. 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. 1944’s 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, Kirby’s 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 Gribbon’s 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 Nora’s coworkers, and orchestrates a complicated plan to get him to confess. Kirby’s 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, there’s 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 Martin’s room, the neon light of the hotel’s sign throbs incessantly through the window, disturbing the murderer’s sleep. This visual device was still years away from being a cliché, and Martin actually takes a moment to lament the light’s 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, he 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 Road’s 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 film’s 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 Martin’s 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 Martin’s crime, returning from “out of the past” 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 audiences’ armchair fascination with Freudian psychology. Abbott’s performance is strong enough that we empathize with him and begin to believe that Kirby’s persecution is cruel. The British-born actor’s work here ample proof that in spite of whatever else might be wrong with a film, when the actors give honest, committed performances, it’s 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 Martin’s flight from the grieving animal to the train station. I’m certain that had the quality of the print been a little better, Blair would have made it well worth paying attention to.
I’m 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 I’m beginning to reconsider whether or not the resemblance isn’t 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 tracks like Ophüls. Instead we get a steady combination of pans and zooms, along with several brief tracking shots. It’s a fine exercise in low-budget filmmaking—Blair gets through several scenes with just a single camera, using a prizefighter’s mix of combination shots to keep our eyes in motion. And his scene transitions are marvelous: wipes, extreme close-ups, and a rapid 180° 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.
End of the Road (1944)
Directed and produced by George Blair
Screenplay by Denison Clift and Gertrude Walker
Cinematography by William Bradford
Starring Edward Norris, John Abbott, and June Storey
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time: 51 minutes