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Tag Archives: Tom Neal

The Brute Man (Oct. 1, 1946)

Actor Rondo Hatton, whose face was so unique that it has been immortalized in bust form as a series of horror awards, was reportedly voted the best-looking boy in his class at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Florida.

Whether or not this story is apocryphal, we do know that Hatton didn’t always look the way he did when he starred as the hideous “Creeper” in a series of low-budget horror films in the 1940s.

Born on April 22, 1894, Hatton worked as a sportswriter and served in World War I, after which acromegaly began to change his facial features. Acromegaly is a syndrome often associated with gigantism. It usually manifests in adulthood or middle age, and its progression is slow. It involves swelling of the soft tissues — particularly the hands, feet, nose, lips, and ears — general thickening of the skin, the swelling of internal organs, and the pronounced protrusion of the brow and lower jaw.

While working as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, he was spotted by director Henry King, who was in Florida to make Hell Harbor (1930). King hired Hatton for a bit part, and Hatton eventually moved to Hollywood, where he appeared in a series of small roles, most notably as a contestant in an “ugly man competition” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and as a member of the lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). He first appeared as a character called “The Creeper” in the Sherlock Holmes thriller The Pearl of Death (1944), and then twice more in two horror films that were unrelated to the Sherlock Holmes series, House of Horrors and The Brute Man, both of which were directed by Jean Yarbrough.

In House of Horrors, which was released on March 29, 1946, an unsuccessful sculptor saves the Creeper from drowning, and gets him to murder all the critics who have written unfavorably about his cubist “tripe.”

In The Brute Man, a once-handsome B.M.O.C. (big man on campus) who was disfigured in a lab accident prowls the city, killing for revenge. Spinning newspapers with headlines like “Back Breaker Claims Second Victim” fill in the missing details, as the viewer wonders why police can’t find the most unique and strange-looking person in the city, who is spotted in public plenty of times.

After one of his murders, the Creeper takes refuge in the home of a blind piano teacher named Helen Paige (Jane Adams, who unfortunately never appears in that pink satin and white ermine number we see her wearing on the lobby card above). For no reason I could discern, she lies to the police about someone being in her apartment, and the Creeper climbs out her window and makes his escape.

We eventually learn that the Creeper used to be a boy named Hal Moffet, a football star at Hampton University, who was popular and handsome, although his temper made him some enemies. He and his friend Clifford Scott (Tom Neal) were in love with the same girl, Virginia (Jan Wiley). The night before an oral exam in chemistry, Cliff fed the academically impatient Hal the wrong answers so he’d be kept after class and not be able to score with Virginia. Naturally, the professor did what any professor would do with a student who bungled a quiz; he kept him after class working on a complicated and dangerous experiment. After seeing Cliff and Virginia through the window, Hal realized he’d been deliberately crossed up, and smashed a flask of chemicals on the floor. Unfortunately, the cloud of caustic smoke damaged his face, and he’s now hell-bent on getting revenge on everyone he thinks wronged him. Last on his list are Cliff and Virginia, who are now married.

This story is, of course, a burlesque version of reality. Acromegaly, not a lab accident, was responsible for Hatton’s appearance, but he was a football player and handsome young man whose appearance gradually became monstrous. (The publicity department of Universal Studios actually claimed that Hatton’s facial deformities were the result of a mustard gas attack in World War I.)

Hatton died on February 1, 1946, before either House of Horrors or The Brute Man were released. He was 51 years old, and his death was caused by a heart attack that was directly related to his disorder. He wasn’t much of an actor, but his appearance alone telegraphed pathos, and the renewed interest in Universal’s horror films in the ’60s and ’70s eventually turned him into a horror icon.

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Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

Detour
Detour (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
P.R.C.

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.