A gritty, ultra-low-budget film noir, “Bullet on a Wire” successfully revisits the genre and effectively touches on familiar themes of urban corruption, moral ambiguity and inescapable fatalism. While it adds little new to the formula, the story of a prank call with deadly consequences combines the B-grade sensibilities of an Edgar G. Ulmer film with affecting and unpredictable performances. It’s an entertaining ride that will attract noir fans in a limited West Coast run and should yield more work for its director, Jim Sikora.
A loser with a rap sheet, Raymond Brody (Jeff Strong) makes a living selling insurance and sleeps on his couch in a dumpy one-room apartment. Portly, bald and socially awkward, Brody can’t score with the dames and doesn’t understand why. Dejected, he goes to see his sister (Paula Killen), who works at a health clinic. After he copies down the phone number of her patient Tanya Strickland (Lara Phillips), Brody furtively calls the girl’s parents and informs them that her HIV and pregnancy tests came back positive. That call precipitates a violent family argument that causes Tanya to shoot her abusive stepfather and lands her in prison.
The lethal chain of events that Brody unwittingly sets into motion takes an even stranger turn when he visits Tanya in prison posing as a concerned stranger. Though Brody strikes most people as odd, he and Tanya are social outcasts, and the kindred spirits strike up a friendship. Brody also seems to be an improvement over her lowlife boyfriend (David Yow), who wants to cash in on her story.
Thesping is impressive all around. As the trench-coated Brody, Strong effectively embodies a misunderstood loser whose pent-up sexual frustration finds expression in his prank call. With the subtlest variations in his vocal and physical delivery, Strong gives an understated performance that fits perfectly into the muted grays of Sikora’s film. As the hapless Tanya, Phillips is, thankfully, neither self-pitying nor sentimental, giving her best line a cynical, been-there-done-that quality that ranks with the best noir dialogue: “If you ask me,” she shrugs, “any man you don’t have to shoot is OK.”
The narrative and visual economy work well in Sikora’s first feature. The helmer shows a respect for noir conventions that goes hand in hand with his background in low-tech Super-8 shorts. He makes compelling use of such staple elements as bars, alleys, cars, jails and telephones as well as assorted locales that evoke a 1950s sensibility. And in true noir fashion, he occasionally shoots scenes from destabilizing high and low angles that underscore the precariousness of his characters’ world. On the negative side, pacing is sometimes off. Music, especially the jazzy riffs of the Denison-Kimball trio, doesn’t especially generate an atmosphere of tension or fatalism.