The 1945 film Detour is the stuff of Hollywood legend; produced for peanuts and stripped-down to the point that it barely qualifies as feature length, the Edgar G. Ulmer-directed B-movie nevertheless stands as one of the purest and most uncompromising examples of film noir to ever hit the screen. While it’s pointless to speculate as to whether Armin Siljkovic, the first-time feature director behind Death Waits for No Man, has even seen Detour, it’s nevertheless obvious that whatever lessons that film had to teach about what’s really essential to film noir – and how to achieve those things with a minimum of resources – Siljkovic has fully absorbed.
Much like Ulmer’s film, Siljkovic’s uses its small cast and very limited locations to amplify the tension – its characters are trapped together in both a physical and metaphorical sense – and wrings a lot of twisted thrills from the interactions of a desperate man and a devious woman. The former is Uzal (Bradley Snedeker), an Iraq war veteran dealing with PTSD and drifting aimlessly around small-town America; the latter is Lily (Angelique Pretorius), a self-described art collector with a plan to murder her abusive husband Sinclair (Corey Rieger), who also happens to be an Iraq vet, and run off with the life insurance payout. Lily and Uzal meet in typically noir-ish fashion – she provides him a place to hide from the police when he finds himself wanted after an altercation at a sleazy bar – and, soon enough, she’s Barbara Stanwyck-ing her way toward convincing him to help her bump Sinclair off.
“A striking and well-crafted feature debut, compelling in the same ways that many of the best films of its type are.”
The majority of Death Waits for No Man takes place in Lily’s apartment, lit by the garish neon sculptures she’s littered the place with (she claims her inspiration is the Paris art world, but the aesthetic recalls nothing so much as a Nicolas Winding Refn nightmare). When the unhinged Sinclair shows up, he’s immediately – and, in some ways, justifiably – suspicious of the houseguest, and the murder plot quickly becomes a lot more complicated than either of the potential perpetrators could have imagined.
Death Waits for No Man captures the spirit of 40s-era Poverty Row noir classics not only with its brisk running time, seedy atmosphere, and minimalist setup, but especially in its portrayal of deceitful characters who all seem capable of crossing any lines of acceptable human behavior – those old films might have been black-and-white, but their characters’ morality never was. The movie’s only real nods to modernity are its references to recent U.S. military conflicts and to kinky sex (Lily plans to have Uzal do the deed to Sinclair during a voyeuristic three-way), but, in a very positive way, Siljkovic has a foot planted firmly in the American cinema’s past.
From a directorial standpoint, Death Waits for No Man is accomplished for a first feature, with clean, stark framings (set against woozy neon backdrops) and a good sense of how to really milk a tense interaction via editing and staging. Writing-wise, Siljkovic displays a flair for frank, hard-boiled dialogue, but the screenplay isn’t quite as airtight as it could be; some logically questionable decisions on the characters’ parts, particularly as the film heads into its third act, detract from what is, ultimately, an appropriate but not entirely satisfying resolution.
“…wrings a lot of twisted thrills from the interactions of a desperate man and a devious woman.”
Of the trio of lead performances, Rieger’s is the really memorable one, and the slippery, often flat-out menacing Sinclair is a terrific villain-cum-victim, responsible for the film’s most lump-in-throat intense moments. Top-billed Pretorius does fairly well in following the cinematic femme fatale playbook, alternately the subject of desire, sympathy, and distrust, but the underlying emotional reality of the character doesn’t always entirely ring true – sometimes she seems to be more of an archetype than a fully realized human. Snedeker, who spends the most time on-screen, plays Uzal as so gruff and growly that it occasionally borders on the ridiculous; that might possibly be a near-brilliant choice, however, revealing that Uzal isn’t nearly as smart or in control as he purports to be. This is, after all, a guy who’s forward-thinking enough to sneak a steak knife into his back pocket for self-defense, but dumb enough not to anticipate that he might eventually be pressured into sitting down (which he is, literally seconds of screen time later, and the viewer winces uncomfortably at the thought of what that blade will likely do to his rear end).
If not all of its decisions behind and in front of the camera fully pan out, though, Death Waits for No Man remains a striking and well-crafted feature debut, compelling in the same ways that many of the best films of its type are. Noir, much like horror, is a genre in which less is often more, and it’s an arena in which resource-strapped but resourceful filmmakers can make a strong impression by sticking to the fundamentals. Directors like Edgar G. Ulmer would be proud to see their legacy kept alive; cinephiles who’ve come to love the genre’s twisted morals, kinky kicks, and fatalistic narratives should appreciate this, too.
Death Waits for No Man (2017) Written and directed by Armin Siljkovic. Starring Angelique Pretorius, Bradley Snedeker, Corey Rieger, Bill Meyer, Travis Myers.
3 ½ out of 5