An oddball little movie directed by and starring Hugo Haas, a bush-league Orson Welles who nonetheless helmed 20 features between 1933-62, Bait (1954) reflects most of Haas's directorial quirks and, though not without interest and entertainment value for seekers of the outré like this reviewer, is justifiably minor and forgotten. Blonde bombshell Cleo Moore and John Agar, the latter in an amusingly awful performance, co-star in this cut-rate reworking of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Bait looks like it was shot 1.37:1 full frame but its roomy title cards suggest it may have been released in cropped widescreen, possibly 1.66:1 according to Bob Furmanek's superb article on the first year of widescreen studio releases. The transfer, from Sony's manufactured-on-demand line, is excellent.
The movie opens with a strange prologue. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, lit by a single spotlight, ascends a long flight of stairs that resemble what it probably actually was, a stairway hugging a barren soundstage wall leading up to where the studio lights are worked. At the top of the stairs, however, the actor signs a bunch of autographs for admirers and introduces himself to the movie audience as the Devil, here taking the form of a famous actor. "A rather good one," he adds, which no doubt amused Hardwicke's family. He then leads the movie audience into a rather run-down screening room where he introduces the story.
Unemployed farmhand Ray Brighton (John Agar) throws in with middle-aged Serbian Marko (Hugo Haas), who claims to have discovered and misplaced a rich gold mine deep in the mountains. For a 50% stake, Ray, accompanied by his dog, Mike, agrees to help Marko look for the mine.
After several fruitless weeks Ray is exhausted, loses his temper and is ready to pack it in when abruptly he finds the lost mine near the simple cabin they inhabit. (The location scenes were filmed in overworked Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park. It's a bit odd to see a cabin, outhouse, and water pump in the thick of it.) Marko immediately blurts out that the gold is his and his alone, and tries to renege on the deal, but changes his tune when he realizes that he's going to need Ray's help to get it all out.
Instead, Marko plots an elaborate scheme, though it's not clear if Haas intended for the audience to understand Marko's plotting all along or rather have his actions remain mysterious until the climax. In any case Marko, noting Ray's attraction to waitress Peggy (Cleo Moore), regarded as a slut around town because of a seemingly illegitimate son (she claims, and the film clearly expects the audience to believe her, that she was married but the paperwork was lost and her husband died in the Korean War soon thereafter), sets the plot into motion. Marko, feigning kindness toward Peggy, surprises her with a marriage proposal and she, with no place else to go after being harassed by her boss (Emmett Lynn), reluctantly agrees.
From there Marko begins playing mind games with Ray and Peggy, all but pushing the mutually attracted pair into each others arms while expressing jealous outrage at their actions the next. As winter sets in the three find themselves virtually cut off from the rest of the world until the spring thaw.
Bait is an eccentric movie. The prologue with Hardwicke (also heard later in the film as the little voice putting thoughts into Marko's head) adds nothing though it's a visually interesting little vignette, possibly included because Hardwicke had provided the prologue and other narration to George Pal's popular The War of the Worlds the year before.
Hugo Haas had been a star of Prague's National Theater and a rising film comedian-director there in films of the middle-1930s until the rise of Nazism forced the Jewish jack-of-all-trades to flee to America. He found success in character parts, usually playing villains, and with that income began financing modest little B's like Bait, which he also co-wrote. Most of these films, though moderately successful, were not well regarded then as now, to the point where Haas is sometimes likened to a foreign Ed Wood. That's not entirely fair, as Haas was a generally good actor, and his directorial style is at least competent if full of pointless little flourishes that are more distracting than effective.
Partly Haas's reputation was damaged by his decision to spice up these ‘50s productions with as much sex as he could get away with. Several of his films star Cleo Moore, a sultry, sexy blonde Columbia briefly tried to build up until Kim Novak came along, with Haas copiously showing off her curvy body yet somehow avoiding the ire of the Production Code. For much of the film she's wearing only a slip or seen in various states of semi-undress. In one sequence Ray gazes at Peggy's shadow as she strips, and in Moore's most revealing scene, quite daring for 1954, Peggy asks Marko to wash her bare, suds-soaked back as she sits in a tub, with much of her lower waist exposed.
Oddly though, Haas undermines these scenes with peculiar choices. One supposedly alluring scene has her sprawled across a bed while cutting her toenails (sex-y!) while a later seduction with Agar occurs while he's teaching her how to roll cigarettes.
Other strange choices: To set up the story, Ray explains his decision to help Marko to a bartender named Webb (Bruno VeSota), in which Marko is described as heavy-set. VeSota at the time probably weighed 400 pounds while Haas was probably less than half that weight, which is a little like Oliver Hardy describing pal Stan Laurel as chubby.
Peggy decides to give Ray a haircut, but during this long dialogue it's painfully obvious that not a single hair on John Agar's head is harmed, despite her lively snipping.
As for the acting, Haas isn't bad and neither is Cleo Moore, who as the saying goes is easy on the eyes. But John Agar is hilariously awful. In the introductory scenes, Agar falls back on that toothy, dimple-faced grin he often used when trying to appear genial, but which instead actually made him appear rather demented. (This works to Agar's advantage in 1958's The Brain from Planet Arous, when his character is possessed by a maniacal floating brain from outer space and thus is supposed to be demented.) Then he's alternately despondent and short-tempered, later consumed with gold fever, and his grotesque overacting only makes one long for Tim Holt. He's a bit better later in the film, confused and impatient by Marko's pussyfooting and contradictory behavior regarding Peggy, but for the most part Agar's acting in Bait is among his very worst.
Video & Audio
As noted above, Bait is framed as if it were shot for 1.37:1 full-frame (and it may have been, if Haas had shot it earlier in 1953 and Columbia sat on it until its February 1954 release). Assuming this is correct, Sony was right in presenting it full-frame even though the titles seem positioned for widescreen cropping. The image otherwise looks great, like nearly all Sony Choice Collection releases. The mono audio, English-only with no accompanying English or other subtitles, is also fine. No Extra Features.
Bait isn't terrible, and would have worked okay as an hour-long television anthology drama. But, as a feature, it's a bit too awkward and eccentric to really play as the near-noir it shoots for, though this awkwardness and eccentricity are the only reasons to watch it today. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.