One day I’ll write a great essay on the theme of hypnagogic noir, a subgenre sort of my own creation and one of which I am slowly but surely beginning to trace the important defining features and themes. A few of these features and themes, ones I have already discovered, I’ll write about now in relation to this work half-forgotten by all but us dedicated auteurists.
Murder Is My Beat is a film by a king of hypnagogic noir, Edgar G Ulmer, and it fits nicely, snugly, definitively in to this tradition. Like a lot of Ulmer it is a cheap-as-they-come picture shot mainly in blank rooms or in stand-in-disguising long shot and featuring actors seemingly at the end of their rope (not least the already damaged icon of Hollywood tragedy Barbara Payton), and it draw its impact from the most common and yet slippery trick of the hypnagogic noir; the shrinking of the breadth and possibility of the world into the tight limits of this story and the frame of this camera, the world now existing only to furnish, guide, obstruct and reorient the character’s movements ; dream logic replaces the standard logic of the Hollywood narrative, and the tight, self-contained universe seems to run on powerlines of casual yet eerie and sinister coincidence, seemingly pre-ordained accident, the fatalistic premonitions of characters “coming apart at the seams”. The plot in Murder is My Beat is almost un-recountable, so elliptical, poorly-explained and temporarily abandoned is throughout the film, but this is an important quality and not a defect; in a hypnagogic noir the characters must be as adrift, alone, plagued by simultaneous embracing ecstasies and horrors as the troubled sleeper on the edge of drifting off or awaking. They must be doubtful victims and tragic loner dreamers, for hypnagogia is not a time for communion or certainty, and the power of the film is drawn from their semi-paralysed wanderings and wonderings, unmoored in the expanse of the subconscious and the troubling void that is the world of the film, and near-ready to surrender to their hallucinations.
Ulmer is one of the key film-makers of the hypnagogic noir for various reasons; the limitations placed upon his work by the poverty-row studio economics meant that he was forced to draw and create his mise-en-scene from the blankest and blandest of surfaces and sets, to essentially find what was troubling, wondrous, unsettling and open to poetry in a visual world cast halfway between sanitised greyness and eccentric, cheap decay. Ulmer was always able to pinpoint and draw out the queasiness of this environment and the stories he was handed, to turn morality into a tremulous and liquidly shifting thing, to disorientate the viewer as much as the character. Spaces in Ulmer’ works almost always become pregnant with hostility and a feeling of the occult, no matter their outward appearance. Murder is My Beat is no exception; this mess of cheap hotel rooms, holiday cabins, train compartments, isolated snowy mountains (recalling Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground) and dismal offices begins to feel like a sort of phantasmagorical labyrinth, a chimera from the troubled mind of this cop who finds he is not quite the detective or the man he thought he was without the power of the whole force behind him. Murder is My Beat joins Detour, Bluebeard (a sort of historical noir) and Strange Illusion, amongst others, as an important exemplar both of Ulmer’s skill and nocturnal poetry, and of the sort of noir that gestated and blossomed in the back alleys of Hollywood.
So this is an absolute b-movie gem, which is soiled slightly by the exposition rush of the last ten-fifteen minutes (while still thankfully managing to maintain its hypnagogic undertone and swells), but which blooms in the long stretches of solitude and escape between the detective and the girl on the run.
- (Note that throughout the film conversations are usually shot with the listener looming in the foreground of the shot and over the speaker, a choice which only adds a greater feeling of threat and inevitability to the action and the world inhabited by the characters)