When I was a youngster as far as I was concerned anyone who did more than one thing on a film was a genius. For example, if you wrote and acted you were a genius. If you directed and acted in the same film you were a genius. If you produced and just acted, the same thing. We would often say “And he produced the film too, you know.” With a little bit of awe in our voices. Of course we had no idea what producing a film entailed but nevertheless we were impressed. But as you can see there were qualifications. If you wrote, produced and directed, maybe….The jury was still out. If you produced and directed forget it. What you did behind the camera didn’t count for much. You had to act. I had to be able to see you. Ida Lupino for example with a film like The Bigamist (1953) which she directed and starred qualified her as a bonafide genius. Jose Ferrer with films like The Shrike (1955), The Great Man (1956) and I, Accuse (1958) qualified as well. Now today everyone does it so as you can see, there aren’t any geniuses anymore. The minute everyone starts doing it genius goes out the window.
Orson Welles was of course everybody’s definition of a genius in motion pictures at the time. He wrote, he produced, he directed and he acted so I accepted him as one. Also I was being constantly told that he was by the media and the press, especially the fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen that I read with fanatical devotion. But secretly I didn’t buy it. I had seen Citizen Kane (1941) and it struck me as confusing. And a film like The Lady from Shanghai (1947) was incoherent to my fourteen year old mind. Still I accepted the fact that he was a genius because everybody said so. But in my heart of hearts he was just an overweight guy with a deep voice. Looking at the situation over from every possible angle I ultimately figured out that one of the prerequisites of being a genius was that you had to be fat. Of course you also had to act, direct, produce and write etc. But first you had to be fat or at least overweight. So Peter Ustinov who did all three sometimes qualified.
Now to me at the time the real genius in films was a guy nobody in the press or even in my circle of acquaintances was calling a genius. His name was Hugo Haas (1901-1968). No one remembers Hugo Haas today but he made films in the 1950s mostly with an actress named Cleo Moore (1928-1973). He was fat, had a mustache and sat most of the time in his pictures. But the credits always read: written, directed and produced by Hugo Haas. And somewhere else it would also say: Starring Hugo Haas and Cleo Moore.
Cleo Moore was blonde, well endowed and kind of pouty looking. She projected a cheap, available aura that us boys found so exciting that we would talk about climbing up on the screen and doing things to her. At the time she looked to be about twenty six in those films. Hugo Haas was somewhere in his mid to late forties, maybe even fifty, which to our young minds meant that he was disgustingly old. He was also fat, ugly and I think he may have even had bad teeth. I know that on the sound track you could hear him breathe all the time. That made him extremely dirty and perverse. We liked that a lot…Here was this filthy, dirty old man and he was always trying to get himself intimately, sexually involved with this young, pretty and obviously tarnished woman. All his films revolved around plots like that. He was always the old guy with a good job like a banking official of some kind. A job where he had access to money. Big money that belonged to some government agency or some large corporation. Along Cleo would come to tempt him with her curvy body and her “sly come hither” smile. The woman was clearly a strumpet but he didn’t know it although we, experienced teenagers that we were, could’ve told him so. Still he would fall for her, leave his plain older wife, steal the bank or corporation’s money and make plans to run away with her to Mexico or some island in the Pacific. But of course she had other things on her mind. She would have a young muscular guy that she loved in the background. These guys always wore jeans and a black T-shirt. And they would always be photographed standing or leaning in some doorway. When Cleo passed the guy would just grab her arm, pull her to his chest and kiss her. If she balked at being handled like that the guy would slap her and she would beg him to kiss her some more…The plan naturally was to kill the old man, take the money and live happily ever after. But something would go wrong; the old man would find out about their plans and turn the tables on them. He would call the police and confess but they never believed him, so he would have to go after the couple himself and more often than not, kill them. Sometimes he would get killed himself in the process. The pictures always ended with some biblical quote printed on the screen pointing out the moral of the story.
My friends and I absolutely loved these films. They were the closest things we could get to genuine pornography. The unspoken possibilities of the plots and the possibilities of Cleo Moore sent our teenage minds searching into all kinds of forbidden corners. And the best part of it was the fact that we weren’t restricted from seeing these films by the Catholic Legion of Decency, an organization that rated the films that we could and couldn’t see. But they didn’t know from Hugo Haas. I think it was because the budgets of his films were generally so low, and the production quality across the board (acting, sound, photography etc.) was so miniscule that they didn’t even look at them for rating. Subsequently the films got a general release, mostly on double or triple bills and disappeared from view right after. That was great for us because we went to see them searching every inch of the screen and listening to every line of dialogue for something prurient that we could expand on. We were never disappointed.
One particular favorite was a film whose title I don’t recall anymore. Anyway, in that one Hugo owns a bar and is married to Cleo. Imagine the obscene possibilities of that. Periodically he would demand his marital rights and she would go into the bedroom with him. But it was always clear that she didn’t want to and was doing it with great reluctance. Now these films never showed any sex scenes or anything even near that. I don’t think I ever saw young Cleo Moore kiss old Hugo Haas on screen. Her kissing stuff was saved for the young guys. With the old guy she would go into the room and the scene would fade. Our imaginations did the rest.
Now working behind the bar was another dirty old guy. This guy was skinny but he also had bad teeth and didn’t seem to like shaving. He would make suggestive remarks to Cleo who was working as a waitress. She would tell him off; Hugh would find out and run the dirty bastard off the premises at gunpoint. In comes a new bartender played by either Richard Egan or Vince Edwards, who later became Dr. Ben Casey on the TV series Ben Casey or some other low rent hunk of the time. But he’s young, good looking and oh yes, muscular. They fall in love but decide to be moral and not touch each other although we know that they’re dying to. Hugo seeing them together, suspicious bastard that he was becomes paranoid and jealous and starts accusing her of things she hasn’t done and even starts beating her too. Of course the stud bartender comes to her rescue and in a fight on a rooftop Hugo misses with a club he’s wielding to bash the bartender with and falls to the ground breaking his neck. But just before dying he looks up at Cleo and says something like: “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” The camera then moves to an overhead shot of the street as the police and the emergency people converge on the scene. The biblical quote comes up and then: The End.
An incredible film! Incredible philosophical observations about life, love and morality. A masterpiece of motion picture art and no one was recognizing it. I was outraged, really outraged that they were calling Orson Welles a genius when the real genius of the cinema was there for all to see. Didn’t they know that? Couldn’t they read? The credits said: Written, Produced, Acted and Directed by Hugo Haas.
I thought the world a truly unfair place and I still do. If it wasn’t Hugo Haas would be listed among the giants of motion picture masters. Retrospectives and festivals of his work would be annual events worldwide. Books and thesis projects would constantly be on display, and his name would be synonymous with a certain kind of high quality achievement in cinema. This hasn’t happened yet. But I’m sure it will when the critical assessment of film appreciation deepens and matures. Hugo will be right up there with Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock, Ford and the others. But until then, Hugo Haas, wherever you are know that you have one fan. And he’s sitting right here singing your praises.