April 10, 2012
Edward L. Cahn directed 11 films in 1961, and You Have to Run Fast was one of them. MGM recently released it on their DVD burn-on-demand service in a crisp transfer, making it easy to appreciate the thriller’s tight construction and open-air location shooting. The AFI Catalog lists no production dates but it was undoubtedly completed in a week or two before Cahn and producer Robert E. Kent moved on to the next programmer (17 of which are now streaming on Netflix). I was tipped to Cahn’s work by Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in the November/December 2011 Film Comment, where he says, “Cahn…seemed to embrace the aesthetic of speed with a passion and personal commitment not always apparent in the work of his more feverishly productive Poverty Row peers.” Cahn reportedly filmed “an astonishing 40 setups a day”, but as You Have to Run Fast clearly shows, they flow with an ironclad visual logic, and establish a moral equivalency between a mob boss and the innocent he is tracking down.
Dr. Roger Condon (Craig Hill) is at the wrong place at the wrong time, although that tends to happen when you run a private “Day and Night” medical service. Two goons dump a pummeled detective at his feet, who then dies moments later. Condon is now the only eyewitness to the two killers, whom he IDs to the police. Unwilling to be put into protective custody and close down his practice, a guard is assigned to him, who is promptly gunned down in the next sequence (see top images). Accurately appraising the skill of the cops, Condon changes his identity and leaves town. Authorities rarely come off well in Cahn’s work – an entire city is for sale in Afraid to Talk (1932) – resulting in what Kehr describes as Cahn’s worlds of “cruelty and callousness”. Condon shaves his ‘stache and turns up as “Frank Harlow” in quiet Summit City, where he counts down the hours before killer kingpin Craven (Grant Richards) tracks him down.
Not as fatalist as the Depression-scarred Afraid to Talk, You Have to Run Fast offers the possibility of starting anew. In Summit City (shot somewhere in woodsy Northern California) Condon forms a makeshift family with wheelchair-bound Colonel Maitland (Willis Bouchey) and his smitten daughter Laurie (Elaine Edwards). The Colonel is a Korean war vet who lost his legs from a mine and is eager to be useful again, while Laurie is going stir crazy as a pacifist in a hunting town. Condon allows the Colonel to exercise his hibernating machismo (rifle lessons), while offering Laurie some much-needed intellectual (and the possibility of physical) stimulation. As Craven has trouble finding Condon, he notes matter-of-factly that, “there are a lot of guys hiding out in this country”. Condon is part of a nation of dissemblers hoping their next lie will lead them to the land of milk and honey, and he, for the moment, has found it.
As Craven hides from the police, Condon hides from Craven, and Cahn merges them closer together visually through match cuts. Both men are entrapped by events and enclosed in spartan accommodations. Cahn rhymes images of them pensively reading the paper and snapping at their respective lady friends, and Condon is shown spying on the thugs who spent the previous scene trailing him. Regardless of how they began on the moral spectrum, they become more and more alike. They are only “hero” and “villain” by the necessities of the plot; character-wise Cahn flattens their differences as much as possible, even having Craven apologize to Condon in the final shootout, in which they wear matching plaid hunting gear.
Cahn’s instinct for upending genre archetypes leads him to create the most entertaining characters in the film, Craven’s bumbling hired goons Bert (Shepherd Sanders) and “Toothpick Stan” (John Apone). Instead of sadistic mercenaries, they are an inquisitive if dense kind of comedy duo, with Bert playing the epicene straight man and Stan the mealy-mouthed punchline. Stan works his cheeks like a bellows before squeezing out lines like, “Why would the doc pick a jerkwater burg like this to hide out?” Bert then has to explain the whole concept of “hiding out”, his pinched gerbil face overactive at the effort. When they exchange their dunce parlance You Have to Run Fast becomes a downright light-hearted escapade, with Cahn’s dark worldview only peeking back in with the main narrative line.
The finale wraps up every little thematic nugget in resoundingly efficient fashion. The Colonel is tasked to return into action with his sniper rifle, Condon declares his love for Julie, and Craven is magnetically attracted to his double, arriving in Summit City and inevitably breaking down the door of the Maitland’s cabin, finally occupying the same diegetic space as Condon (who is hiding in the basement below). Obviously only one of these men can survive, now seeming like split parts of the same personality, and the big gunfight is framed in an abstracted long shot, the men dots in a pointillist frame. When they finally converge, in the backseat of a sports car, Condon is the one holding the gun, so he gets to play the hero, get the girl and occupy center stage. In Cahn’s universe though, a hero is just a villain with an assumed name (and vice versa), giving this black & white cheapie an unsettling worldview that is assuredly shades of grey.