“Madonna of the Desert” (1948)
The slightness of “Madonna of the Desert” might not be evident to those who have never seen a motion picture of any kind. However, those with even minimal exposure to the medium may be prone to experience a continuous sensation of what be most accurately described as a form of humdrum dramatic reincarnation.
Though the film is ostensibly a crime drama, its screenplay is disproportionately indistinguishable from the manufactured patchwork of spritely though substantively vacuous banter (especially between the figurative femme fatale and her ‘mark’) typical of Golden Age Hollywood assembly line creativity, with exchanges tonally consistent in manner of charming insubstantiality which makes a conversation between two housewives over coffee as interchangeable as a murderous gangster outlining his latest scheme with his moll. The homogenized artificiality of these exchanges, more concerned with adhering to the moral formality advanced by the Production Code rather than more complex human exchanges led to the featuring of dialogue passing for a cleverly stylized form of communication, where every utterance is a droll bon mot or a polemic designed a pseudo-Freudian analysis of either introspection or a critical analysis of the narrative itself (predating the curious art form that was television soap opera writing, where every line of dialogue is a barely disguised plot synopsis).
Nor does the dreary verisimilitude of everyday routine intrude upon this typical Studio System example of heightened representations of the commonplace, where selective actions are sufficiently strung together to give the illusion of expeditious purposefulness. No one ever washes a dish without this simple act becoming a portent of often incongruous narrative development. Yet, rather than enhancing the storytelling experience, this brand of authorial artifice encourages a formulaic blandness; one in which the scenarios are preposterously ignorant of logic and populated by characters whose primary preoccupation is, inexplicably, in the avoidance of logical action.
And so it goes with “Madonna of the Desert”, whose plot is constructed around the most uncomplicated of premises: the attempt to steal a rare and valuable statue of a Madonna that has somehow become a family heirloom in the possession of a fruit farmer. It is a vaporous premise whose simplicity of conception might anticipate a brisk if unhurried melodramatic unfolding, but instead emerges as a brief though cluttered mélange of underworld shenanigans of such ridiculously unlikely convolution that in tying up all of its unharmonious elements, the film swerves to an uncharacteristic narrative road less traveled in the form of an abrupt cathartic intrusion of a spiritually transformative epiphany. Taken at face value, the narrative threads converge with a particularly awkward struggling of forced interjection of Production Code breast beating, resulting in an insoluble mixture of cornpone James M. Cain by way of Cardinal Spelling.
From the start, the simplicity of plotting affords little camouflage to the chasms of illogic over which the cast is forced to leap. Initiating the plot is a referencing by hoodlum Nick Julian (career toughie Sheldon Leonard, already an archetypal parody) who discovers the object of his larcenous desires in the pages of an arts magazine, proffering the amusing notion that the bulk of subscription patrons for obscure cultural journals are charter members of the underworld. Nick consults with an antique dealing acquaintance who happily doubles as an art forger who is able to miraculously manufacture an undetectable counterfeit of a three dimensional sculpture by merely sourcing the original from a magazine photograph. Given that no movie criminal enterprise is complete without the participation of several unreliable compatriots, the film wastes no time in introducing a pair of Nick’s conveniently untrustworthy associates: Tony French, a hot-headed gunsel (played without a trace of subtlety by perpetual low budget Jimmy Cagney wannabe Donald Barry) and Monica Dale (Lynne Roberts), a soft-at-the-core gangster Girl Friday to whom Nick entrusts with the execution of his rather elementary heist strategy: a bait and switch plan, with Monica portraying a highway damsel in distress to attract the chivalrous attention of fruit farmer Joe Salinas (Don Castle), a good-natured dope who happens to be the owner of the much-desired Madonna statuette.
Joe’s decidedly amorous accommodation to Monica’s feeble display of discomfort (somehow presciently anticipated by Nick) results in an overnight occupancy of his ranch providing ample opportunity to steal the statue (incautiously displayed on a living room shelf), though Monica is suddenly transfixed by the type of moral hesitancy which derives solely from the necessity to keep the rusty gears of the plot extending for several more reels. The next day, Monica accompanies Joe to an extended and needless wedding sequence where she finally attempts to steal the statue in earnest, only to brazenly display her balletic criminal deftness by setting her sleeve on fire. Unsinged, she is seized by what Joe has previously described as the protective and redemptive power of the Madonna, and experiences a moral backflip in which her efforts to thwart Nick’s (and now Tony’s) continued efforts to possess the statue are as lacking in competence as her earlier delinquent actions. Also, refusing to be waylaid by such unconvincing sanctimony in trading to God’s holy team, the film’s last half is inharmoniously packed with enough breezy and inconsequential double crosses and fisticuffs to power several chapters of a serial.
That being said, the film’s only point of genuine interest is in the performance of Paul Hurst as Joe’s cranky sidekick Pete. Reminiscent of so many similar characters portrayed by the likes of Walter Brennan and William Demerest in far better films such as those by Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, who were wise enough to realize the necessity of small doses of hard-bitten sarcasm to offset the cloying naivete of the “hero”. In “Madonna of the Desert”, Pete is the dispenser of much needed sardonic wisdom to an entire surrounding cast of characters whose softness collectively resides not in their hearts but in their heads.
“The Price of Fear” (1956)
There’s enough nervous fidgeting going on in Abner Biberman’s “The Price of Fear” to replicate seismic tremors, yet such an abundance of consternation seems unmerited in this slight but admittedly energetic crime drama in which the most forgiving police dragnet in memory surrounds good guy Dave Barrett (Lex Barker), co-owner of a dog track which is being muscled in on by local crime kingpin Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens) and his squirrely henchman Victor (Phillip Pine). It’s the kind of film which telegraphs the seriousness of the hoods by how low they wear their fedora brims or how high they arch one eyebrow in any particular scene.
Successful bank executive Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon) ends an evening of drunken celebration by striking down an elderly professor with her car. Fleeing the scene in a panic, she stops to telephone the police, and while dialing, Dave Barrett grabs her idling car in order to escape a deadly ambush by Victor. Seizing upon the opportunity to not let a passing crime wave go to waste, Jessica calmly informs the police that her car was stolen, thus providing her with a scapegoat for her accident. Meanwhile, with Vince having mislaid his quarry, Frankie sets up Dave’s former partner for a shotgun killing, setting up Dave- who had earlier threatened the man -as the convenient patsy.
If all of this isn’t convoluted enough, the film opens at a dog track with a particularly circuitous narration which relates that, “this dog track has nothing to do with the story, but without it there wouldn’t be any story”; a quotation that may suggest the film is either meant as a parody of the film noir genre (though later dramatic events cast reliable doubt on that theory) or that screenwriter Robert Tallman was unsuccessfully straining, in the course of emulating his betters, to reach some sort of stylish though narrative incomprehensible plateau achieved in many of the best works of the genre (i.e., “The Big Sleep”, “Out of the Past”).
While director Biberman manages to keep the film briskly moving without concession to undo incomprehension, the film’s suspect romantic relationship between Jessica and Dave- a coupling meant to mirror the many doomed pairings so key to the success of the moral pessimism of the genre, -is based solely on the most unlikely of plot contrivances; with Jessica’s increasing duplicity so openly transparent that it dampens any legitimate romantic tension between the two (and forces the viewer to consider the apparent low level of intelligence suffered by the film’s hero/victim). Merle Oberon’s lackluster performance is of little help; playing the role as a fashion conscious mannequin- much of her screen time is spent oddly posing rather than engaging her fellow actors -as if she weren’t conscious they weren’t shooting make-up test shots. Lex Barker fares little better though he wears a suit with great distinction. On the other side of the thespian midway, both Warren Stevens and Phillip Pine overplay their roles (abetted by dialogue whose only function is to advance entirely new boundaries for the word “obnoxious”) to the point where even the investigating police sergeant, played with a reliably sensible, but sleepy headed placidity one can take to the bank when casting Charles Drake, would notice the “We’re Guilty!” signs flashing over their heads like comic strip word balloons.
“The Climax” (1944)
Based upon the 1909 play by Edward Locke, George Waggner’s “The Climax” is a film with obvious pretensions toward elevating the Universal horror film to a more sophisticated and urbane level rather than the usual bogeyman programmers in which star Boris Karloff found himself frequently unchallenged as an actor.
Originally intended as a sequel to the studio’s 1943 remake of “Phantom of the Opera”, “The Climax” makes the same mistakes as its intended antecedent with its meritless surfeit of gaudily staged musical sequences that distract from the central antagonist of the piece; manifested here in the figure of house physician Dr. Friedrich Hohner (Karloff), a man dangerously obsessed with possessing the celebrated operatic diva Marcellina (June Vincent), who vanished mysteriously (though the film reveals the secret of her disappearance in the first minutes of the film with the aid of a clumsily inserted flashback) ten years prior to the central narrative involving the overnight rise of new operetta star Angela Klatt (Susanna Foster). For reasons left best to the plot mechanics left abandoned in unused script drafts, Hohner becomes obsessed with Angela’s voice and its resemblance to Marcellina’s and sets upon a scheme to sabotage the budding star’s career through hypnotic suggestion.
With the narrative hanging on such strained contrivance (the source play, virtually unrecognizable in its direct ancestry to the film, contained its own special problems with preposterous implausibility), the resulting film is not especially helped by the casting of Turhan Bey as Angela’s defender and paramour Franz, whose penchant toward playing the role with entirely resistible boyish charm borders on stunted adolescence. Entirely ineffective as a figure to whom the fate of the heroine may hinge (his reaction in times of stress seems limited to a pathetically helpless whininess), it is probably fortunate that the role occupied by Hohner as the villain of the piece is approached, by the script, with a casual deference that strongly suggests irrelevance, since any climactic showdown between the two male antagonists could surely result in nothing more severe than a spanking. As Hohner, Karloff is given little to do except to look dapper in white tie and tails as he lumbers about, looking understandably grouchy while in search of a plot amid the ostentatious density of the production design; visually staggering settings which, more often than not, overwhelm the shamelessly featherweight homunculus of a drama unfolding.
“The Climax”, for all of its surface pretention, is firmly content in being little more than a lurid melodrama with the gaudier aspects of the production not deriving from the most tepid concessions to the horror genre, but in the florid Technicolor in which it is shot. The melodrama derives, most assuredly, from its theatrical roots, though in adapting the play, it is clear that there was a great deal that was insoluble in moving the plot and characters from their initial incarnation to the ill-fitting continuity with an entirely extrinsic production intended by scenarists Curt Siodmak and Lynn Starling; a situation all too common when the easy acquisition of theatrical properties was seen (and devalued) by the studios as a convenient clearinghouse fodder of ready-made ideas (regardless of their artistic merit). Theatrical vehicles were desirable and easily adaptable for the screen; the play being an excellent resource for cinematic translation as the material has both a proven running time and a dearth of those elements which most plagued the studio writers in easing a competing medium’s work into onscreen translations (i.e., internal monologues); often, as in the case of “The Climax”, with little regard for the integrity of the material.
“Casanova Brown” (1944)
“Casanova Brown” is an example of the importance of the use of what might be best described as the pixilated lilt in filming humorous materials. A romantic comedy in which a chronic convenience of miscommunication is once again the scapegoat for the confusion which inevitably leads to what are intended as uproarious results, the film is, in reality, a flimsy house of cards which, due to the disharmony of an anemic comedic tone born of the collision of inconsistent and sloppy plotting by Nunnally Johnson and the leaden, spiritless direction by Sam Wood, inevitably implodes on itself.
The third film version of the 1928 play Little Accident by Floyd Dell and Thomas Mitchell, it features Gary Cooper as Casanova (“Cass”) Q. Brown, a mild-mannered college professor who upon the eve of his wedding also finds himself on the threshold of fatherhood with a different woman. In deference to the scrupulously sin sniffing antennae of the Production Code, the script goes through great convoluted lengths to explain how such a venerable public icon such as Cooper could possibly be involved in the production of an illegitimate tot.
During a trip to a New York publisher, Cass engages in a whirlwind romance and marriage to young Isabel Drury (Teresa Wright), whose family disapproves of their union, not due to arguments of a practical nature, but due to dire references from a volume of astrology. The combination of unwelcomed parental derision and the world’s most persistent cigarette butt results in both the Drury’s mansion burning to the ground and Isabel’s sudden rejection of her betrothed. Armed with a marital annulment and returning to his hometown of Rossmore, Illinois, Cass rather smoothly disregards what has just transpired easily slides into an engagement with long-time girlfriend Madge (Anita Louise), a decision meeting with disapproval by her father J.J. (Frank Morgan), a sympathetic confederate who believes that all women are trouble. Pressing forth with his engagement plans, nine months later, Cass receives a cryptic letter from a Dr. Zernerke (Jill Esmond) from a Chicago maternity hospital, advising him to immediately contact her.
That he literally abandons Madge at the altar, without explanation, is further evidence that no matter how folksy a manner Cooper attempts to inject into the character (this too is inconsistent, with the actor often lost in a depressed brooding more attuned to a suicidal John Doe), Cass is a fundamentally unsympathetic character, a bumpkin Lothario; selfish and apparently unable to consider the consequences of his actions (with parental kidnapping added to his multiple cases of marital abandonment) on others. These less than admirable personality traits are not uncommon in characters populating the screwball comedy (they are a hallmarks of the comedies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges), when what under normal circumstances would be considered disfunctional behavior is leavened by a heightened eccentric energy; the aforementioned pixilated lilt.
However, the pedestrian direction by Sam Wood puts an additional fatigue on Nunnally Johnson’s comic invention, a strain which becomes more apparent as Cass’ paternal desperation kicks into high gear, with the film loses whatever steam it has, stopping dead in its tracks. If the sequence at the Drury mansion comes closest to achieving the desired comic tone (though Cass’ unrepentant terseness mars the episode’s conclusion, trading an ill-advised mean-spiritedness for eccentricity), a later sequence finding Cass secreted in a hotel room with a homemade baby formula factory drags on endlessly (it’s maddening to think what Sturges would have done with the scene), exhausting the last drops of already depleted inspiration to the point where the film succumbs to replacing comedy with overt sentimentality, surrendering to a sudden reliance on that most shameless ammunition of the desperate filmmaker: a series of unnecessary but “adorable” baby shots.
Frank Morgan’s effortlessly sharp turn as J.J. is the best (if only) reason to see the film; his unflappable comic timing energizing every moment he is onscreen. For what is intended as a romantic comedy, women are particularly ill-served, with both Wright’s surprisingly underused Isabel and Louise’s Madge remaining ciphers at the end of the film, the latter so coldly discarded she doesn’t even rate the status of an afterthought.
“Wicked Woman” (1953)
Belonging to that smaller, less critically regarded, yet potent 1950’s offshoot of film noir proper, the “bad girl” film, Russell Rouse’s “Wicked Woman” offers up a portrait of a young woman prematurely aged morally by experience, suggested but mercifully not given lurid exploration, and clearly, as they once so colorfully phrased it, “on the skids”.
As played by Beverly Michaels, that statuesque cheesecake siren from a pair of Hugo Haas dramas, “Pickup” and “The Girl on the Bridge”, drifter Billie Nash has the outer appearance of a classic blonde film noir femme fatale- she certainly has the body language down cold -but what differentiates her from the standard heartless gold digger is that while in the pursuit of the standard rewards (money, men) of questionable behavior, she seems to be suffering from a chronic bout of asthenia; her actions and very movements weighed by an enervation that is not standard equipment in the seductress arsenal, but rather a result of extended struggle which has exhausted her psychologically, though based upon the awkwardness of her line readings, perhaps the actress was simply in need of a refreshing nap.
When Billie gets a job as hostess in a bar owned by married couple Dora (Evelyn Scott) and Matt Bannister (Richard Egan), it only takes a few furtive glances before she is wrapped in the beefcake arms of Egan’s bartender. Before the first heated kisses cool, the pair are conspiring to run away, their plans only complicated by the problem of the increasingly alcoholic Dora.
Interestingly, the boundaries of criminality which Billie and Matt are willing to cross to achieve their ends is slight; with the briefest suggestion that Dora might die, violently struck down by Matt in a fit of pique. Instead they concoct a rather featherbrained fraud scheme in which the bar (co-owned by the Bannisters) will be sold unbeknownst to Dora, with Billie and Matt then fleeing to a presumed paradisiacal existence in Mexico with the ill-gotten lucre. Concessions to Production Code moral comeuppance is provided in the form of Charlie (Percy Helton), a gnomish boarding house neighbor whose hormones have been aroused by Dora’s mercenary teasing early in the film, and whose actions will serve to unravel the attraction between the conniving duo.
The film, is a low-energy affair, indifferently directed by Russell Rouse, which may account for the inconsistency of tone in performance, with Charlie and the denizens of the boarding house ranting with the hyperactive ferocity of a touring company of “Marat/Sade”, while the supposedly rowdy patrons of the Bannister’s bar are a curiously muted bunch, as if their celebrations were taking place in depths of an abbey. Neither Egan nor Scott emerge with particularly distinguished appearances, though the skeletal script provided by Rouse and Clarence Greene affords slim opportunity for the possibility of dense characterizations.
The conveniently facile finale suggests a karmic condemnation for Billie; a kind of eternal journey of disappointment that will last as long as there are untraveled bus routes, though the film truly fudges on the greater underdeveloped theme of extreme actions taken through the suffering of chronic desperation. (The best moment in the film is a throwaway scene in which Billie frantically sets herself and her pathetic room in order before answering Matt at the door; a revealing moment which lays bare the insecurity she works so hard to conceal with a mask of fragile cynicism.) Had Rouse explored her character with any attention to detail, his film might have resulted as something more than an insubstantial B-movie sham.
“It Came From Outer Space” (1953)
A meteor that could easily be mistaken for a Christmas ornament crashes into the Arizona desert and mysterious galactic visitors descend upon an altogether peaceful Southwestern hamlet to wreak havoc and spread paranoiac suspicion. (Is there, perhaps, a dangerous shortage of yucca plants in the far reaches that accounts for the attraction of this desolate area by the cinematic menaces of this film and countless others to follow?) Welcome to the continuing saga of attributing allegorical Cold War connections to almost half of the films of the decade, especially in science fiction, in what is certainly the most pedestrian of what are generally considered Jack Arnold’s 1950’s B-movie SF classics, “It Came From Outer Space”.
The sleepy town of Sand Rock, Arizona is the site for a giant fiery meteor to come crashing to earth, completely unnoticed by all (this is a sleepy town) except for casual astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson), who just happens to be is gazing at the sky with his girl Ellen (Barbara Rush) when the giant object strikes terra firma. Putnam, being an alarmist, alerts the town, including the archetypal doubting sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake), reporting that the object is, in fact, a spaceship, but that it has been subsequently buried by a rockslide. Assuming the role of Chicken Little, Putnam is dismissed until certain members of the town disappear and then reappear acting strangely. (Though it’s fairly easy to spot the imposters ahead of time when the wailing theremin is cued.)
The film’s theme of beneficent aliens (it turns out they have the spaceship version of a flat tire and have involuntarily stopped for repairs) is meant to be genre altering, even in this early stage of development, yet that would presuppose that no one in the audience had seen “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. (The one similarity between the films is that they both feature peace loving space travelers who have no problem reminding the human race that they could vaporize the planet at a moment’s whim. So much for death of Big Stick diplomacy.) However, the alien’s conduct, while asserting peaceful coexistence, is largely predicated on threatening the human race with horrifying consequences for getting bent out of shape over their rude extraterrestrial crime wave of thievery and kidnapping. Clearly someone has to brush up on their interstellar etiquette handbook. And in maintaining the grand tradition of making humans look puny, weak, foolish and small minded, Putnam suddenly forgets his previous role as the village alarm bell and becomes an advocate for the aliens. The more they terrorize the villagers, the more he’s convinced they are on the side of the angels. Seldom has a film hero taken up two sides of a conflict and been resisted by all on both ends.
In what would become a staple of the desert based SF film, the sparsely populated backdrop is positively seething with colorful oddballs just waiting to be absorbed/consumed/Xeroxed by the aliens, as if there were a central casting office hidden in a cactus patch, turning out streams of peculiar extras whose job it is to look as much like a fugitive from a Hopalong Cassidy oater as possible. The rest of the cast, those minus the Gabby Hayes whiskers, spend far too much time catching up to what the audience already knows, with a painful slowness that might a tree sloth wince with impatience.
Much is made of the aliens’ appearance being repulsive to human eyes, but this only to have a climactic “reveal” which is not only ludicrously anticlimactic since we’ve already had a clear look at them earlier in the film, but the extraterrestrial design is, to be charitable, lacking: with the alien laughably resembling a cyclopean trash can with a bad toupee. The screenplay by Harry Essex, based upon a treatment by Ray Bradbury, introduces some positively ludicrous howlers like the aliens breaking into the local hardware store to get repair material for their ship, presuming that most anything necessary to fix an interstellar craft can be found on the shelves of the local True Value.
There are also some extremely odd moments which don’t seem to have any connection to the action including one truly bizarre scene where two wives visit the sheriff’s office to report on the strange behavior of their husbands, with one presenting herself so provocatively that she looks as if she accidentally wandered off the set from a neighboring film noir shoot. However, there are admittedly many interestingly composed scenes that are effectively atmospheric, using the gimmicky 3-D enhancement to justifiable ends, without- rarity of rarities -losing any of Arnold’s signature low budget poetic subtlety. However, no where in the film can the 3-D add extra dimensions to a script that is brazenly simplistic on a narrative level and moribund in its hesitation to commit to any form of action that might given a desperately needed boost of momentum to the film.
Barbara Rush has an appealing energy and a genuine air of class that enlivens the scenes with SF dull stalwart Richard Carlson, though the script could have shown a bit more imagination in not reducing her so soon to a stock woman in peril. (She, of course, will go wandering off into the desert by herself despite the widening spate of alien abductions because that’s the role of every woman in a horror or science fiction movie.) As the hero, Carlson literally has nothing to do but to convince himself to take no action through most of the film. Not exactly the makings of a critically important hero.
“Hell is Sold Out” (1951)
One need not be Ernst Lubitsch to direct a stylish romance, but on the evidence of “Hell is Sold Out”, it pays not to be Michael Anderson. It doesn’t matter that the plot, taken from a novel by Maurice Dekobra, is no more preposterous than most concocted for many celebrated Hollywood fabrications (certainly not those firmly footed in the dizzy realm of screwball comedy), but if the resultant movie cannot commit to whether it wishes to be amusing or dramatic, the rusty mechanics of forced contrivance are bound to assert themselves in pronounced ways that emphasize the deficiencies in writing, direction and the resultant disjointed performances.
Popular novelist and French Resistance fighter Dominic Danges (Herbert Lom), a POW mistakenly reported killed, returns to find his latest book has become a tremendous bestseller. The only problem is, he didn’t write it. Nor the one before that. Nor does he recognize Valerie Martin (Mai Zetterling), a Swedish woman who is masquerading as his widow, and who is the actual author of Danges’ two fraudulent works. Predictable complications arise concerning Dominic’s continued literary reputation and the usual love/hate signals shot back and forth between Dominic and Valerie, temporarily complicated by Danges’ POW buddy Pierre (Richard Attenborough) whose feelings toward Valerie creates a romantic triangle that is sensed by all but never explicitly articulated
Where initial expository scenes are written with a lightness of tone, presupposing a breezier romantic comedy, the film regularly shifts uncomfortably into the darker waters of melodrama, at one point needlessly introducing an element of possible tragedy. By the end of “Hell is Sold Out”, there emerges what would be traditionally considered a “happy ending”, yet an unwitting result of the film’s wild fluctuations of narrative temperament actually is the unmasking of the inevitable unfairness that is the endgame of the three sided romantic dynamic , and how, no matter the outcome, it produces a holder of a broken heart. This is certainly the case in “Hell is Sold Out”, in which a traditionally satisfying conclusion leaves an ironically bittersweet taste that comes with a knowledge of a purer affection scorned.
However, expecting such a weighty psychological undercurrent to effortlessly reconcile with connecting material featuring broad humor inevitably creates stylistic schism that so awkwardly jarring, it’s as if the reels were switched in the projection booth. Scenes and characters outside of the immediate love triangle seem to exist in a different film altogether; this is especially true in the case of Danges’ publisher Mme. Louise Menstrier (Hermione Baddeley) and her lackey Cheri (Olaf Pooley), whose appearances are exercises in excited eccentricity, with the silliness increasing exponentially in a later scene involving four American cultural sponsors who for some reason, suffer from an excess of Capraesque pixilation.
If the film fails to establish a sustainable emotional playing field, it is not assisted in any significant measure by the confused performances of Herbert Lom and Mai Zetterling. Lom, more substantially regarded as a supporting performer of estimable merit, brings to the role of Danges a manner more attuned to a man with sinister intentions than in capturing the heart by force of his charm and personality. For her part, the lovely Mai Zetterling is Lom’s surprising equal in unprepossessing flirtations. Throughout the film, Zetterling is hampered by a peculiar melancholy in her eyes that suggest a necessity for therapy rather than amour. Richard Attenborough visibly shrugs off any attempt at convincing anyone that he’s a natural citizen of the City of Light, though his rather one dimensional puppy dog eagerness manages to skirt the trickier bridges between the film’s stylistic extremes. Notably, nothing in the film, aside from an early title card establishing location, gives the audience the impression of the story actually taking place in postwar France. This general dislocation is not alleviated by the fact that the supporting roles are populated with such renowned francophones as Joan Hickson, Laurence Naismith, Nicholas Hannen and Kathleen Byron.
“Jungle Street” (1960)
Charles Saunders’ “Jungle Street” is one of those minor crime dramas which the British film industry made in plentiful numbers without the greater impact of comparable American film productions of the 40’s and 50’s. What distinguished the films across the pond is that the British films generally substituted an unexpected level of viciousness for what they lacked in the chiaroscuro inspired stylishness of the American film noir.
After unwittingly killing an elderly man in an act of petty thievery, Terry Collin (David McCallum) returns to the Adam & Eve Club where he works as a gofer to club owner Jacko Fielding (John Chandos) and is smitten with a featured stripper named Sue (Jill Ireland), who also happens to be the girlfriend of Terry’s partner in robbery Johnny Calvert (Kenneth Cope), who, while maintaining Terry’s identity a secret from the authorities is serving a year’s prison sentence but unaware of the Sue’s new profession as an ecdysiast. Meanwhile, Terry sits through several appalling strip club performances with some of the most chaste acts this side of “The Sound of Music”; one by a stripper named Lucy Bell (Vanda Hudson) which is so excruciatingly amateurish, viewing might be regarded as cruel and unusual punishment. This, however, is beyond the notice of Lucy Bell’s “agent” Joe Lucas (Brian Weske, who, by far, delivers the film’s most colorful performance), whose obliviousness doesn’t extend to Terry, who he is immediately convinced of foul play, a hunch he later exercises as a blackmail scheme when he realizes the young hood is the now-sought after murderer. Complicating matters is the untimely return of Johnny Calvert who in seeking out his former cohort, finds the occasion to make a visit (which adds nothing to the plot except to give additional screen time to the actress spouse of screenwriter Alexander Doré) to Terry’s doting mother (Edna Doré) with whom the audience is already acquainted having been privy to a domestic squabble between Terry, his mother and drunken laborer father (Thomas Gallagher) in a scene which looks as if it were mistaken spliced in from a lower case John Osborne kitchen sink drama. Occasionally it might seem helpful to take a decoding course from MI5 to unravel the mazelike layers of subterfuge in this paltry little drama.
McCallum successfully portrays Terry as a low level criminal weasel in every way possible, though his behavior is so thoroughly loathsome that the finale doesn’t deliver the intended gut punch but merely seems inevitable and well deserved. Jill Ireland is bland as Susan, and Kenneth Cope is severely underused as Johnny, a character whose story seems far more interesting that that of young Collins. To the detriment of the film’s complexity of plotting, director Saunders seems preternaturally obsessed with squeezing every last second of screen time on the pathetic writhings of his exotic dancers; unfortunately, his actresses making even the idea of sex dull.
“The Flesh is Weak” (1957)
As if the film’s suggestively salacious title weren’t clue enough, if there were any doubt as to the direction to be taken by Don Chaffey’s “The Flesh is Weak”, look for no further guidance than in the direction in which the camera is pointed during the opening credits: toward the gutter.
A young woman arrives in London, checks into a hostel and is immediately set upon by predatory agents of a vice ring who plan to enter the unwitting woman into a forced career in the sex trade. By what the film seems to suggest, it is unsafe for any girl to stroll a sidewalk or sit in a coffee house in England without an armed escort.
A supposed exposé of prostitution rings, “The Flesh is Weak” is so contrived in the melodramatic manipulations used by pimp Tony Giani (John Derek) against innocent but almost pathologically gullible Marissa Cooper (Milly Vitale) that it finally collapses under the absurdity of its own suspect stratagem; the protracted and tenuous charade pretending a nurturing domestication by which Tony initiates Marissa into emotional enslavement seems both impractical and economically unsound. Compounded with the unconvincing extremity of Marissa’s ignorance (which extends to her being blind to the nature of her fate even after servicing several men), is the film’s unsavory portrayal of women suggesting that, perhaps, they are unwittingly but still culpably complicit in their ruin by a surrender of protective reason in order to satisfy their own hunger for material gain and/or even fleeting emotional gratification. (Significantly, there is only one minor female character introduced in the entire movie who isn’t, in some fashion, employed in catering to the more handsy factions of the Queen’s subjects, a disturbing exercise in occupational census taking.) That Marissa affects a distant, almost instantaneous hardened attitude, once she finally reaches a point of resignation toward her circumstances, is more an act of pouting than of remedial cognizance.
With Marissa’s persona supposedly coarsened by her new career (which, when she finally hits the pavement, seems to consist of extremely unproductive work days, including the hosting of one shy client who begs forgiveness, pays her and leaves prematurely without unbuttoning his vest, or lounging about her bedroom waiting for Tony to appear so she might make yet another ill-timed and halfhearted attempt to pack up and leave), the film then trips over itself to demonstrate what a danger she is to Tony and his cohorts (Tony’s brother Angelo, played by Martin Benson, is the leader of the operation) in the prostitution empire by designing an elaborately fabricated crime scene which will land the hapless and innocent girl in prison. (It is never explained why the reputedly vicious hoods who hold terrifying sway over the stable of girls- who repeatedly demonstrate their terror of Tony by shrugging off his more excited utterances -simply don’t dispose of the clueless Marissa.) That the film never reconciles the failure to explain her continued refusal to cooperate in Tony’s downfall when she is repeatedly pestered by crusading journalist Lloyd Buxton (William Franklyn) to bear witness against the calculating pimp, is an omission of calculation. Since this is meant as an exposé, the story is in need of a heroic figure to take on the forces of criminality (the police are conspicuously and ungallantly silent about reining in Tony, which makes the value of Marissa’s supposedly bombshell testimony even more problematic as an obvious and unconvincing plot device, since the authorities already know everything that she knows, and more), an unenviable role which is assumed by Buxton, who could be described as tenacious, except that he is introduced early in the film and then disappears entirely while the movie refocuses its investigative attention on the minutiae of Tony’s efforts to erase Marissa’s free will through the dangling promise of matrimony. Such a vacancy of details relating to events which precipitate the actions at the film’s climax (weak though it may be), leave the viewer feeling cheated of a victory for the forces of good (especially with the deflating, though probably pragmatic end title card declaring “This is Not the End”. Despite a spare running time of 89 minutes, the film often feels as if its dragging its feet, quite satisfied in mentioning what seem to be important incidents (the dangerously escalating rivalry between criminal enterprises) and then refusing to dramatize them.
Milly Vitale effectively conveys the polar extremes between romantic enthrallment and the lugubrious, while John Derek, as Tony, is so oily he could be used to grease the chassis of a fleet of pimpmobiles. However, the most interesting performance comes from Freda Jackson as Trixie, an aged prostitute who acts as a sympathetic den mother to the fledgling streetwalker. Jackson conveys a surprisingly resourceful dimension of conflicted emotions in a role as wanly written as the others, yet subtly conveying the internal despair of a life stolen and wasted. (If the film makers had an ounce of insight into their subject, the film would have centered on her.) Don Chaffey’s direction is merely workmanlike.
Timing is everything in comedy. Tom Poston is effectively eccentric in”Zotz!”, a daffy little film with supernatural overtones that is part of a particularly overlooked and all but abandoned mini-genre of film- the college comedy -which enjoyed a brief but major resurgence during the early years of the Space Race, when the forum for academia wasn’t the cyncically dirty joke it was perverted into by the end of the 60’s (see: Make Light, Not War: “Getting Straight”), as in 1962 the walking pillars of higher education were more likely admired than scorned and thus when given a satiric poke, it usually meant- as in the case of “Zotz!”, a gentle poke with a portrayal of eccentricity rather than one of dangerously clueless demagoguery.
In “Zotz!”, Poston plays Professor Jonathan Jones, a brilliant educator in the field of ancient Eastern languages; a seemingly limiting field for comedy except when in comes in particularly and suspiciously handy (Castle’s films seem to be consistently constructed on absurdly precarious towers of unlikely circumstance and coincidence) in a plot involving the discovery of an ancient coin which unleashes extraordinary power to its holder, once the properly translated incantations are spoken. Suddenly endowed with the power to cause pain, retarded movement (the targeted person – or object -suddenly moves in slow motion) and death- a bizarre triumvirate of abilities, but who are we to question the judgments of ancient civilizations and the thought process of their prankish Gods? -Jones busies himself with such essential activities one might associate with the sudden empowerment of virtual omnipotence, such as chasing his niece about town (who is now in possession of the mysterious disc since he has foolishly left it laying around) and engaging in an ill-advised plan to demonstrate his powers to the Dean (Cecil Kellaway) in his home during a party;activities laced with such predictable disaster, they stop the film dead in its tracks. Castle proves himself neither a master of broad physical comedy (his set-ups are far too clumsy and the rhythm of the scenes always seem several beats off) nor does his directorial finesse (in this case, an oxymoron) seem more refined (or even in existence) than in previous films. The lengthy and deadening party scene (outside of which the identity of the female lead is revealed) seems to exist only for every character to repeat the same behavior already exhibited in earlier scenes. (The appearance of Margaret Dumont as the wittily named Dean’s spouse Persephone Updike makes one long for the sudden gate crashing appearance of Groucho as an anarchic antidote to Castle’s otherwise staidly restrained sense of hilarity.)
Jones next attempts to contact the military to pass along the resource of his powers, a development which only momentarily reconciles Ray Russell’s screenplay to the Walter Karig source novel; a far more directly satiric stab at endless government bureaucracy, though still ignoring the book’s observation of the mordant historic paralysis of Man to move beyond its inclination to develop and bear weapons with which to destroy itself. However, typically absent of any mastery of subtlety (Castle’s films always have the feeling of someone given the assignment to read a Shakespearean love sonnet, instead choosing to recite the menu at IHOP: there is no perceptible hint in the director’s oeuvre of an awareness of gradations of human expression exist.), the Pentagon scenes culminate with the talented Fred Clark being offered up as a sitcom buffoon as a substitute for less irreverent comic invention. The subsequent tired Cold War plot developments involving abductions by (presumeably) Soviet spies is predictably forced and uninspired (why do so many comedies feel compelled to abandon the natural development of plot and character with the introduction of villains, spies or thugs who generally have little to do with what has elapsed previously?), essentially abandoning all of the previous plot points (the collegiate setting and all complimentary interdepartmental power grabs between Jones and Horation Kellgore [Jim Backus]) and characters (the compliment of assumedly important [given their lengthy expository exposure] female characters, Jones’ niece Cynthia [Zeme North] and love interest Virginia Fenster [Julia Meade], both reduced to ) to pursue an eleventh hour espionage spoof complete with the inevitable extended pursuit, enlivened by the one clever use of Jones’ powers in the film: a leap from a tall building resulting in an amusing series of slow motion somersaults to the sidewalk, though this too is overly extended.
As is with the case of many of Castle’s films, the most measureable pleasure to be enjoyed is from the performance of his lead actor, in this case the inimitable Tom Poston who invests the role of Professor Jones with his signature enervated wryness which accomodates both the humorously oddball aspects of the character with a genuine talent for conveying superior, if haltingly considered intelligence. On the opposite end of the acting scale, Jim Backus seems content with limiting his role to that of a bleating bag of humbug, not exactly the most flattering nor effective choice even for the stock role of intellectual rival; the kind of role played to peerless perfection by the vastly underappreciated Elliott Reid in “The Absent Minded Professor” and “Son of Flubber”, The one performance to match Poston’s, in accomodating the potential of even a small role, is that of James Millhollin whose brief appearance as psychiatrist Dr. Kroner is a textbook in comedically contrapuntal discourse.
However, as previously stated, timing in comedy is everything; an observation which ultimately leads back to the self-defeating and rhythmically inert primitivism that is an aesthetic trademark of William Castle’s film output, so ham-fisted and bluntly stilted in execution, it becomes apparent that he may have discarded all of the progressive developments of cinematic vocabulary evolving over the preceeding forty years of filmmaking. Regardless of the intent of the scene- comedy, drama, suspense -in a Castle film, the feel of the scene is the same, perhaps explaining the producer-director’s insistent preoccupation with insuring a popular acceptance of his creations with the installation or distribution of gaudy joke shop novelties.
“The Little Shop of Horrors” is a more broadly freewheeling horror-comedy than Roger Corman’s savagely on target beat counterculture satire “A Bucket of Blood”, a film with a far more ambitious agenda as it was satirizing a then contemporary cultural movement whereas, this minor opus concerning a pesky carnivorous plant is more of a gentle poke at both crummy horror films (which at the time of production usually involved a somewhat wince inducing, low-budget menace interrupting the hero’s attempts go get into the ingenue’s skirt- think the Hays Office as supernatural guardians of chastity and you get the idea) and while Charles B. Griffith’s screenplay isn’t as observationally sharp as his work on that film, nor as smart- the newer film is also less controlled in it’s focus (it has a tendency to drift when the location shifts from the flower shop) , it is still a sufficiently inventive, often hilarious film which works best when the remarkably fine interplay between Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles and the irrepressible Dick Miller is front and center, building the completely loopy premise of the nurturing of a talking, mind controlling, man eating plant into a skid row version of the popular film satires of the day which had Madison Avenue hyperbole as their nurturing agar: success through trendy novelty as a source of public sensation. Less successful is the patently appropriated rhythmatic staccato of investigating detectives Joe Fink (Wally Campo) and Frank Stoolie (Jack Warford) as a deadpan parody of the deadpan “Dragnet”, though this does emphasize- among other things -the rich bouillabaisse of pop culture influences from which this little film draws; it’s a virtual cinematic realization of Mad parodies during the Harvey Kurtzman era. However, such a scattershot approach- additionally the film’s comic tone is a crazy quilt of show biz traditions, including burlesque, vaudeville, Yiddish theater, black comedy, (perhaps) unintentional camp parody and commedia dell’arte -also creates an inconsistency within the film that can be both disappointing and frustrating.
As noted, as long as the film remains within the confines of Mushnick’s flower shop, the wit is sharp and rapid fire, though appreciably losing much of its comic zing when focused solely on the plant’s inventor Seymour and his alcoholic, hypochondriacal mother. Neither character is sufficiently conceived without a palpable whiff of mothball staleness and the performances by Jonathan Haze and Myrtle Vail fail to jell into the ensemble: Haze lacks the true comic’s confidence to envelop his role (he seems to be thinking too much as to how to throw out his lines and his timing suffers accordingly), whereas Vail’s vaudeville background emerges as she seems to be playing to the upper reaches of the balcony; a singularly annoying presence who cavorts like the lowest of burlesque comics, lacking only a pig bladder and seltzer bottle. The problem with these scenes is not only their tired spate of boozy mother jokes, but the fact that they are irrelevant to the main plot and therefore take us away from where the real core of the narrative is developing.
So too is a problem with the extended dental sequences (this is inclusive of the pain loving patient played by a young Jack Nicholson, whose later fame is the only reason his role is recalled with any measure of nostalgia) which contributes nothing of substance except to immerse the film momentarily exaggerated performances that virtually perspires onscreen, relegating material that if played at a far less feverish pitch might have retained some of the bite of black humor inherent in the dialogue if one resists distraction by flailing arms and bulging eyes. Somehow meaningful peripheral developments of the story, beyond the confines of the central location, appeared to stymie Griffith and Corman, which is odd since the community interplay within the florist shop is written and executed with a surprisingly elemental proficiency: the script in these major portions is constructed like a surrealist situation comedy, complete with complimentary multiple camera set-ups which rarely veer from master shots, granting the advantage of the entire cast being visually present in the frame at most times so we might enjoy the tidy bits of atmospheric business commensurate with a happily resourceful cast. The ease of comic presentation is so fluidly achieved by Corman in these sequences it makes the less polished exteriors directed by Welles and Griffith pale in comparison: there is a lack of comic tension in these scenes and they are far too reliant on the strained efforts of Haze.
Yet despite some unfortunate variations in the quality of writing, directing and performance, there is nothing to conceal the joys of the Borscht Belt exchanges between Jackie Joseph’s deliciously dim innocent Audrey, the object of Seymour’s shyly budding romantic attachment; Dick Miller’s eccentric horticultural gourmand Burson Fouch and most importantly, Mel Welle’s Gravis Mushnick, who turns his role into a delightful cavalcade of bafflement, suspicion, derision and anxiety; a classically comic invention which gleefully borders on the precipice of ethnic caricature while engaged in a percolating internal struggle between blind avarice and the blind panic of imagined authoritative encroachment. Wonderful stuff.
By the time director Frank Capra created his series of unrelenting Man of the People populist fantasies, it was clear that although he didn’t invent this particular genre (though even a cursory glance at the filmmaker’s autobiography cum declaration of divinity The Name Above the Title might certainly suggest otherwise), he certainly perfected an archetypal formula by which a single individual imposes his ideals onto a greater citizenry to the exclusion of anyone daring to suggest alternative opinions lest they be pegged as (surprisingly without irony) demagogues or corrupt power brokers. The fact that the Capra formula was also steeped in a creepy masqueraded fascism that sugarcoated the proposition of a singularly enforced populist view being as unhealthy for the social collective with an abundance of aw shucks eccentricity- generally identified as Capracorn -that gives the impression a genuine philosophical difference in the division between opposing but ultimately similarly odious enforced ideas. Regardless from which side the populace is viewed, in a Capra film (and his resulting formula), the people are always portrayed as lemming-like rubes, instantaneously enamored of the most simplistic of societal constructs; a communal perception which reaches its zenith in the 1946 fantasy “It’s a Wonderful Life” which blatantly promotes the importance of one individual by the uncharitable sacrifice of everyone else in the town as being portrayed as grossly incapable of formulating neither a positive lifestyle nor personality.
This formula is perfectly mirrored in the William A. Wellman film “Magic Town” which was not so coincidentally produced and written by none other than Capra’s important thematic collaborator Robert Riskin without whom it might be confidently stated there would be no “Capra touch” as we know it, which is actually in evidence in almost every frame of Wellman’s film, though the script diverts from the purest extension of the Capra formula in one important (and revealing) way: the results of a singular intrusion are allowed to run their manifest course, that is, the audience is allowed the spectacle of the inherent consequences to the populace when the singularity of the intrusive ideal is not only grasped at by the community at large but is escalated and given momentum by their own ill-considered (recalling that the mob is generally- as is certainly the case here -depicted as a mass of gullible dopes) hubris. The resulting collapse of the people’s essentially paradisical existence- being that their town seems to exist in some sort of Peter Pan-syndrome in which the ravages of neither the Great Depression nor World War Two seem to have had any effect (Perhaps a reference of the previous Capra–Riskin collaboration “Lost Horizon” and its manifestation of the very idea of Shangri-La?) -the film’s comedy coating quickly relents to a far darker tone (also interestingly reflected in the visual aesthetic which, not unlike the aforementioned “It’s a Wonderful Life”, takes on a forboding shadowy noirish aura) that temporarily brings the townspeople to a self-realization of shame and ruin, until the introduction of convenient narrative contortions which are an unfortunate staple of the same populist formula.
James Stewart plays “Rip” Smith (a veiled reference to Jefferson Smith?) , a professional pollster who is intrigued by a survey taken by a former Army acquaintance Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) in the town of Grandview (how’s that for subtlety?), the results of which, according to Smith, may indicate the town as a kind of opinion Rosetta Stone where the pulse of average America can be instantaneously collected, though five minutes with the citizens of this particular rural berg might have even the least hardened urbanite screaming for the nearest hint of common sense or setting up a concession for butterfly nets. That Grandview is populated by a citizenry entirely the most (to borrow a reference from “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”) pixilated roster of characters since those unfortunates comprising Bedford Falls, renders a jaundiced view of what impresses Smith that such a berg might speak for the entirety of the United States outside of a convenient necessity for the plot to turn in that direction strictly so the filmmakers might a barely veiled contempt for the common man: the very antithesis of what one might presume would be a charitable eye to the so-called traditional hometown values such a film champions on the most flimsy of surfaces.
Hardly aiding in the film’s duplicitous sympathies is the character of newspaper editor Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman) filling the popular role of journalist whose professional ethics are unceremoniously flexible to wherever her romantic longings obscure her judgment. Thus, even the society’s sacred watchdogs of the Fourth Estate demonstrate (as is uncomfortably common in the populist formula) an absence of dedication to the truth for its own sake. This emotional corruption is strictly convenient only in advancing the expected romantic subplot, but only obscures the film’s greater populist theme. Yet despite these unfortunate formulaic obstructions, “Magic Town” does have the conviction to actually demonstrate the logical (in its own calculated terms) progression of consequences to the people targeted by Smith’s self-interested goals rather than just those toward Smith himself,though the film certainly takes the time to underscore that the resolution of his romantic problems to be equally on par with the solution of the town’s woes, though in keeping with tradition, both are managed with the maximum of eyebrow raining contrivance possible only in the purest of Hollywood hokum. Stewart, Wyman, Kent Smith and and the invaluable Regis Toomey all perform their appointed roles with a remarkable dignity (considering the nonsensical occasion) but none can make make legitimate an increasingly cynical formula which wishes to simultaneously elevate and emasculate its vision of the “common man”.
“13 West Street” is an example of the juvenile delinquency movie of the later 50’s and early 60’s, which purports to caution against the roving teen and his natural inclination to violent antisocial behavior, while thoroughly frustrating the available arms of law enforcement, adult authority and, in this case, the hapless victims of such mayhem. With such homegrown menace terrorizing the suburbs of Everytown U.S.A. was it any wonder that the threat of something slightly more sophisticated as Soviet missiles pointed at your neighborhood Dairy Queen might generate a slightly elevated sense of paranoia? Further still, films like “13 West Street” proffer the anxiety generating threat of dangerous youthful hoods not emanating from areas of poverty and presumed social corruption (the wife of a victim is explicitly surprised to find that the gang fails to come from “black leather jackets, Levis, the slums…you know, the underprivileged”) and instead from “nice homes.” However, more importantly, though a minor feature of second-tier status, “13 West Street” (based on the novel The Tiger Among Us by Leigh Brackett) actually moves beyond the seduction of easy criminality on unlikely teens alone by demonstrating the possible corruptive influence of unjust victimization upon an average citizen, thus anticipating by a decade the more literal wave of films advancing the attraction of vigilantism as a curative against what are perceived as weaknesses in American justice.
The film rather unflinchingly shows aerospace engineer Walter Sherill (Alan Ladd), a victim of a random savage assault by five passing teens, degenerate within the boundaries of a rather obsessive personality (admirable when focused on his work, though with subtly placed hints that this has led to a childless distance in his marriage despite the outward appearance of domestic contentment) that cannot see beyond a blind quest for a vengeance, a search which descends reckless endangerment to his devoted wife Tracey (Dolores Dorn, typically coiffed in an extension of Eisenhower Era fantasy domesticity, looking as though ready to attend a cocktail party while dusting the drapes) and himself, not to mention fouling up the legitimate investigations of Juvenile Division Detective Sergeant Pete Koleski (Rod Steiger) whose quiet, observant manner is impatiently mistaken by Sherill for professional complacency.
The group of five teen hooligans, roles which are unsurprisingly inhabited by actors in their mid twenties, are led by the slickly persuasive Chuck Landry, played by familiar lightweight actor Michael Callan who rather impressively inhabits the spirit of the unrepentant high society sociopath with the appetite of an actor eager to make a memorable impression outside of the more insubstantial shadow of Gidget. Callan makes for a formidable opponent: his narcissistic, youthful arrogance used in interesting counterpoint to the faded image of Ladd’s matinee idol looks gone puffy and prematurely to seed, his head seeming to get heavier as the film unfolds as if the weight of the world is becoming an unbearable stress on the fracturing of what he took to be tranquility. The film lacks a more substantial balance between Landry and Sherill- Callan disappears from the film for far too lengthy periods and this allows the tension of the film to sag -which would accelerate and emphasize the growing sameness between the two characters; perhaps climatically separated by only the barest of moral impulses. The film has a potentially powerful dramatic arc which it fudges on by spending far too much time following the investigative efforts of Koleski, despite the interesting conception of his character (we await an explosion in the man which is never forthcoming)) and the uncharacteristic charm which Steiger infuses the role: a diligent, purposeful but politely civilized performance. Still, it seems that the detective is in a constant game of catch up as Sherill’s aggressively mulish efforts seem to unfailingly attract the attention of Landry who continually seeks to up the ante on his unshakeable nemesis by placing greater and greater pressures on Tracey, a tactic which seems to cause increased consternation in Sherill- not for the peril under which his wife is exposed -but as a continued caustic snorting retort to his own masculine authority. It is the battle between these intensifying egos which is at the heart of the film (interestingly both antagonists are cautioned by their allies, Landry by his gang members, Sherill by both Koleski and Tracey, to suspend the course of their mutual antagonisms with no success) interpolating the noirish attribute of the good man corrupted by the lawlessness of the world about him, except that- as depicted by the film -the world is not festering in polluted moral disorder, but- with the exception of the expectedly defensive parents -most of the characters within the film are fairly decent and reasonably honest; it is only Sherill’s fixation which magnifies his existence into a delusional noir-like vortex, resulting in far more damage- through his stubborn investigative interference -than would have been caused by Landry alone. Sherill stimulates Landry into greater and greater impulses to do harm which in turn intensifies Sherill’s impulse to exact vengeance: an absurdist exercise in tail chasing which has the ability to reach nightmarish except for the base timidity of director Philip Leacock and screenwriters Robert Presnell, Jr. and Bernard C. Schoenfeld who continually shy away from the logical direction of their own story by backing away from the seamier progression of the film’s theme by a continuous reintroduction of Steiger’s righteous portrait of honorable law enforcement and the mini-lessons in civility which which these scenes wear like a wreath of garlic against anarchistic interlopers. (What an experienced hand with such material as a Don Siegel might have accomplished, one might only speculate.)
By the filmmakers backpedaling against their own material, the movie implodes in both theme and execution by falling back on the sorriest indicators of spineless crime dramas: a narrative dependence on both the villain suddenly acting with convenient last-minute irrational self-endangering stupidity and the police suddenly becoming almost saintly in their forgiving dismissal of recklessly fatal breaches of lawfulness.
“Jail Bait” (1954)
“Jail Bait” is the most accomplished film from the fertile mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr., which is like saying the maiden voyage of Titanic is the most famous of sea disasters: it may technically be true, but it’s still not an enticement to buy a ticket and experience it for yourself. The difference from Wood’s usual seven-layers-removed-from-reality oeuvre may be found in that the screenplay is co-written by actor Alex Gordon, which may account for those moments that sneak through the usual Woodian twists of expression and almost resemble human dialogue. There is also a greater reliance on location shooting, (which gives the illusion of a greater immediacy consistent with Wood’s favored and still present “Dragnet”-like voiceover narrations), with the film approaching something resembling a Poverty Row lustre as well as removing the film from his usual studio bound reliance which serves to emphasize the worst characteristics of his deadly, stilted writing. (During those moments, it becomes crystal clear, the importance of possible distraction by clever art direction.)
Make no mistake about it, this Ed Wood vehicle contains the same bare bones production design, the same lack of the use of editing to enhance a scene’s dramatic rhythm and the same (to be charitable) mixed bag of performance competence, but it does have a structured narrative that follows a genuinely logical advancement of plotting, something completely foreign to the Wood canon, in which budgetary woes, amateurish casting or sparks of ineptly seized upon “inspiration” were the standard influences on the construction of the auteur’s scenarios. The film even goes so far as to feature an amusing twist ending, without the usual narrated moralizing coda which tends to dampen any sense of enjoyment- sober or inebriated -the viewer might be experiencing. This is not to say the film is good; simply that in comparison to Wood’s other cinematic curiosities, it comes closest to achieving that which might be comparable to a bad B-movie noir, though the salacious suggestiveness of the title certainly promises a more lurid content than the film delivers (Wood’s sense of sexual provocation, despite the later dips into the pornographic pool, is among the most arid, immature and undeveloped of Hollywood filmmakers until the emergence of Steven Spielberg.)
Don Gregor (one-shot wonder Clancy Malone) is bailed out of jail by his sister Marilyn (top-billed Wood regular Dolores Fuller) after being picked up for suspicion of robbery by Police Inspector Johns (Wood regular Lyle Talbot) and Lt. Bob Lawrence (muscleman and future peplum “Hercules” Steve Reeves). The male Gregor shows his gratitude by, immediately upon returning to his father’s house, mixing a drink (which he drops on the floor, shattering the glass and soaking the carpet, but in true Woodian “The Show Must Go On!” fashion, no one notices and the scene continues) and recklessly absconds with his father’s gun (though what the father is doing with a gun- except for the purpose of narrative contrivance -is never explained). That Don is a punk, susceptible to the influences of underworld ne’er-do-wells may not be suggested by his alarmingly ill-fitting clothing (Is that a zoot suit?), but is more evident by his criminal partnership with Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell), an unrepentant hood who speaks with a perpetual film noir sneer: a tough talker who turns to jelly when confronted directly by the police, which occurs when Inspector Johns and Lt. Lawrence happen upon Vic and Don at a local watering hole. The felonious duo rob a theater-supposedly after hours, though the intercutting of a stage performance makes the continuity highly suspect -where Don, in a fit of panic (clearly, under pressure he’s as big a marshmallow as Vic), fatally shoots the night watchman (Bud Osborne), while Vic wounds a witness, the theater’s bookkeeper (Mona McKinnon). The pair elude arrest by the police after a car chase which is probably the only actual example of an action sequence in a Wood film, a surprisingly competent bit of darkly lit, though atmospherically visible, nocturnal location shooting and editing that manages the slightest modicum of genuine excitement that, for a brief moment, immerses the audience’s attention to the point of imagining they’re watching a real Poverty Row studio picture, the antithesis of the usual Wood viewing experience where the audience is inescapably drawn into the conscious sensation of watching an unfolding freak show through aquarium glass. Though his fate seems fixed in granite, Don finally sees the errors of his path and confesses his actions to his father, the eminent plastic surgeon Dr. Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson), who convinces his son to turn himself in, which Don intends to to but- showing that conscience is never a substitute for brains -first makes a pointless but fatal trip to Vic’s home.
However crudely conceived, “Jail Bait” is unique in Wood’s filmography for the number of scenes which attempt a development of character, proportionate to those scenes which exist simply to advance the plot; typical of Wood’s scenarios are scripts which most resemble television soap operas- with dialogue functional strictly as constant plot synopses -though without the density of configured relationships that helps obscure the poverty of incisive expression. The script here, while never to be mistaken for accomplished authorship, is a gigantic leap forward from the director’s expected level of language and ideas so inexactly articulated, they often become low-grade parodies of the simile. Certainly, there is an abundance of the typical Woodian howlers-
“This afternoon, we had a long telephone conversation, earlier in the day.”
– but the influence of co-writer Gordon can be felt, not only in the tighter structuring of the script (there isn’t an extraneous scene in the film, except for the inserted theatrical performance footage) but in the greater definition of characters, rather than the typical creations of Wood’s imagination who are mainly defined by their career “types” (policemen, reporters, etc.) rather than as flesh and blood people (and in the case of “Glen or Glenda”, the characters were even more indistinctly conceived, defined only by gender). It’s a pretty safe bet to observe that for all of the cult attention lavished on the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr.– both perversely positive and justifiably negative -there are no memorable characters anywhere in view. (To recognize and iconic image, such as that of Tor Johnson and Vampira standing mute and menacing in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is not the same as a written portrayal which gives full measure to human complexities.) That Wood had an enthusiasm for films and filmmaking is undeniable, but his attention to those cherished films seemed to be limited to the form and not to the content: his results of his efforts merely mimicking the elemental characteristics of genre types but with no evident attempt to advance or move beyond the most recognizable (and, therefore, banal) categorical boundaries. That being said, the slight structure of the story does afford the opportunity for a fair amount of character exploration, though this development is almost completely sabotaged by the crudity of the performance levels, an unfortunate constant in Wood films- his performers seemingly taking misplaced inspiration from his surname -that is far more damaging to this than any of his other films, not simply for the wasted opportunity while working his most accomplished script, but because the level of character exposition is still shaky and requires the refinements of solid, interpretative invention by the actors to mold the present, but diffuse, elements of their individual roles into a substantial level of histrionic exceptionalism that might raise the dramaturgic dynamism to its greatest potential, even in the face of the script’s myriad syntactical deficiencies. For once, moral questions are raised and faced as exercises of character rather than the director’s standard narratives built on sequential occurrences with the participation of stock cardboard figures resembling people but actually mere suggestions of characters defined only by the most patently stereotypical genre types. Worse yet, are his films which obfuscate human drama even further and act as faux social documents steeped in maddeningly convoluted (by way of building foundations of illogic and contradiction) but sincere alarums pleading for societal equanimity. This may be the only instance in an Ed Wood film where events are entirely driven by the character of the portrayed characters.
The performances are almost universally flat, with Dolores Fuller “performing” with such paralyzed facial inertia that, except for the vintage of the film, there would be serious reason to assume she was administered a head full of Botox injections. As the senior Gregor, Herbert Rawlinson is a more seasoned performer, but heruns through his lines as if he’s late for a bus, his mind preoccupied -his tell-tale gasps for breath contribute a particularly odious note to the proceedings since it is widely known that Rawlinson perished of lung cancer a mere day after completing his role. Clancy Malone’s affliction is of a less distressing but far moreimmediately dislocating type: he is of such a limited level of acting ability that he is outperformed by his amusingly outsized suits. Malone also distinguishes himself by portraying “The Least Believable Corpse in Hollywood History”, though, to be fair, it probably was the suggestion of the director for the dead Don Gregor to stand erect and unsupported in a kitchen closet. Timothy Farrell barks his lines as if channeling every mustachioed bad guy from Republic serials, though Theodora Thurman makes a credible stab at replicating Lauren Bacall’s early career awkwardness, in her role as Loretta, the girlfriend and ersatz gun moll of Vic Brady, who spends most of the film either parading about in a succession of fashionable nightwear or waving a gun (perhaps to keep the “fashion conscious” director away from her wardrobe trunk). However, both Lyle Talbot and Steve Reeves make credible police and even manage an enjoyable, if gruff, chemistry, though the odd moment in which Wood finds it necessary for future “Hercules” beefcake Reeves to shed his shirt in the office, while his partner looks on interestedly, seems to be moving the film in a pioneering direction, though it turns out be just another of the director’s oddball moments, and no new territory is traversed.
Events spin wildly out of control after Brady is betrayed, and Don is dispatched, with plastic surgeon cannily using his professional skills to affect a twisted act of revenge, and a blackly ironic act of justice. Though the execution is pure Ed Wood, the premise is heavily lifted from Sam Wood’s superior 1935 gangster drama “Let ‘Em Have It”; an act of creative “borrowing” not uncommon in exploitation cinema, with “Jail Bait” also featuring creative heists in the form of an off-color minstrel show film sequence from Ron Ormond’s 1951 “Yes Sir, Mr. Bones” and, even more offensive, the maddeningly monotonous piano-guitar score by Hoyt Kurtain, originally composed for and featured in the 1953 Ron Ormond & Herbert Tevos misstep “Mesa of Lost Women”: a grating, torturous atonal composition whose infinitely repeated one bar of music works against the film in every conceivable way- it’s not even charitably used to obscure Wood’s existent arcane dialogue -except as the basis of a sick endurance test.