Monday, January 14, 2013

Hugo Haas: "B" Movie Auteur

Unless you're an aficionado of "B" movies, you've probably never heard of Hugo Haas. His films aren't considered underrated classics nor have they attracted cult followings among movie buffs. However, there are a handful of us who remember Haas with affection. Saddled with micro-budgets and typically low-wattage casts, Haas churned out a dozen films in the 1950s as producer, director, writer, actor, or some combination thereof. He even composed the score to one of his movies. The quality of his output was undeniably inconsistent, but personally I've always admired the man's determination to get his vision on the silver screen.

Hugo Haas in Pickup.
According to Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia, Hugo Haas was born in Czechoslovakia in 1901 and became a leading comedy star in his native country. He also directed a handful of films in the 1930s. However, when Hitler's forces occupied Czechoslovakia, Haas immigrated to the U.S. He made his American acting debut in Jacques Tourner's Days of Glory in 1944. Throughout the rest of the 1940s, Haas appeared as a supporting player in movies such as A Bell for Adano (1945), Merton of the Movies (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), and King Solomon's Mines (1950).

Beverly Michaels pouting as the femme fatale.
In 1951, Haas launched his career as a writer-director-star with Pickup, a tawdry tale reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Haas plays Jan "Hunky" Horak,  a middle-aged railroad dispatcher who meets Betty (Beverly Michaels), a blonde bombshell interested only in his life savings. After their marriage, Hunky goes deaf and Betty becomes interested in Steve, who is a hunk in more than just name. Meanwhile, Hunky miraculously regains his hearing--but decides not to tell Betty after overhearing her unpleasant plans.

A minor hit, Pickup earned a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for "Best Low-Budget Screenplay" (it lost to Samuel Fuller's The Steel Helmet). Alas, Pickup would be the high point of Haas's career as a film auteur. Several of his follow-ups featured similar plots with a middle-aged gentleman (played by Haas) getting involved with a younger, beautiful woman. One of his best efforts, Bait (1954) is a clever variation in which an old prospector (Haas, of course) pushes his younger, beautiful wife ("B" film goddess Cleo Moore) into the arms of his partner (John Agar). Why? So the old man can gain sole control of their gold mine!

Sultry Cleo Moore appeared in
seven Haas pictures.
My favorite Haas film is another Cleo Moore-John Agar pairing called Hold Back Tomorrow (1955). It tells the quietly effective tale of a death row inmate (Agar) granted one last wish before his execution. When he asks for the company of a woman, the only one available is a suicidal prostitute named Dora (Moore). After trading insults, the two begin to talk earnestly with one another and fall in love before the night is over. Essentially a two-character play, Hold Back Tomorrow is an interesting effort, marred only by Agar's ineffectual performance.

Not all of Haas's films featured "B" movie casts. Lizzie (1957), based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), starred Eleanor Parker, Richard Boone, and Joan Blondell. It also marked the only big screen acting appearance of Johnny Mathis, who plays a piano singer. One of Mathis's biggest pop hits, "It's Not for Me to Say," originated in this film (as did "Warm and Tender" written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David).

Hugo Haas directed his last film, Paradise Alley, in 1958, although it wasn't released until four years later. He made a few guest appearances in TV series such as Bonanza and Adventures in Paradise. His filmography seems to end there; he died in Austria in 1968 at the age of 67. Hugo Haas's legacy can be viewed as a series of average low-budget potboilers or as a testament to the spirit of independent filmmaking. I prefer the latter.


  1. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with Haas, although I could swear I saw "Hold Back Tomorrow" eons ago. I would really like to see "Lizzie." The Haunting of Hill House is a top favorite book and 1963 movie for me, and I would be most interested to see what Haas did with it. Also, I love Richard Boone and Joan Blondell (Parker is OK, not a great favorite). I can't believe "It's Not For Me To Say" was introduced in that movie, and I never heard of it before!

    Very interesting and affectionate tribute, Rick. Your last 2 sentences are very touching.

  2. Interesting profile Rick. PICKUP is a film that has been on see list for a long time if I can only find a opy of it. Blondell is one of my favorites and I could watch her in anything.

  3. I really enjoyed this profile of Hugo Haas, though I am not familiar with much of his work. I did notice that he seems to like blondes!

  4. Great photo of Cleo Moore. I forgot how stunning she was. As for Haas, he wasn't the best director or even a good one, though PICKUP was pretty decent.

  5. Thanks for introducing us to Hugo Haas. I will prefer to think of him as the independent filmmaker, too!