“Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938)
The initial film incarnation of Hugh Wiley’s detective creation, first popularized in 1934 in Collier’s, “Mr. Wong Detective”, presents the stylish and erudite investigator in a mystery that is fairly unworthy of a master of deduction (sharp eyed viewers will solve the method of murder, if not the guilty party, fairly early in the story), though as a first chapter in what was intended as a continuous series of films featuring the title character, it does set up an amusing dynamic with Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff) effortlessly matching wits with his more acumen challenged compatriots on the police force, especially the easily excitable Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers). Street’s obvious overanxious recklessness to pin the blame on any convenient supporting player who happens to be in the room is the primary source of comic relief in an otherwise straightforward story of a mysterious chemical formula whose very existence leads to a series of unexplained deaths. Needless to say, the film easily falls prey to the contradictory but familiar trap recognizable in an astonishing number of mysteries, wherein despite the presence of a master sleuth, they are powerless to stop the bodies from piling to the ceiling. By the end of “Mr. Wong, Detective”, the solution of the killer’s rather ingeniously disguised identity is far less impressive when, in the interim, most of the likely suspects have themselves been fatally dispatched.
The film follows a series of nondescript scenes intended to introduce both characters and an expository backdrop for the story, though for the purposes of enlightenment the occasional shadowy photography is not the only thing that is obscure. Why, for example, does one character enter a room by descending from outside an apartment window? To escape detection? From whom? Those pesky traditionalists who use doors? And just what is connection of the ship being loaded to the murder mystery anyway? And why are the obvious bad guy in these films always decorated with an untrustworthy mustache or bear a suspicious resemblance resemble to Lionel Atwill? The eponymous Mr. Wong is introduced when Simon Dayton (John Hamilton), a harried industrialist who rightly suspects conspiracy and mayhem have made of him an uncomfortable associate, begs the detective to investigate who is behind the increasingly suspicious circumstances. Wong accepts the assignment and immediately demonstrates that though his intellect may be on the side of the angels, his need for an appointment calendar may be even more pronounced, as his tardiness to his meeting with Dayton allows for sufficient time for the inconvenient murder of his client.
What follows is your standard round-up of a few suspects, while the more probable complicit parties seem to enjoy a free pass from police scrutiny simply by refusing to cooperate. In the meantime, there is the amusing romantic distraction between Street and his long suffering girlfriend Myra (Maxine Jennings, playing the stock character for all it’s worth and enlivening every scene she’s in), whose slowly burning fuse with her chronically distracted paramour provides the only source of suspense in the film. In the meantime, Mr. Wong hovers about all of these disparate suggestions of a plot (the obvious Poverty Row resources accorded the film are most glaringly apparent in, of all things, the paucity of character enriching dialogue, so sparse that it appears as if every additional utterance would be looked at as a strain against the production’s balance sheet), with the unrestrained grin of a sated Cheshire Cat who has just snared his prey, all the while evincing little useful insight into the case at hand. These scriptwriting shortcomings are unfortunate as on the occasions when Mr. Wong is allowed to demonstrate, through experimentation, the full extent of his investigative skills at work, a fuller, more satisfying portrait of the character is ascertained. It is also remindful of how often the detective is portrayed as operating on blind instinct alone (or less, as exampled by Bob Kane’s celebrated “world’s greatest detective” who resolves every case with brute fisticuffs rather than acumen) as opposed to exercising a fuller arsenal of intellectual capabilities. The expected excitement of mystery and suspense undercut by underwhelming character development and lackadaisical exposition cannot distract from some nicely atmospheric uses of noirish shadows by cinematographer Harry Neumann, but unfortunately he couldn’t compensate for what transpires in the full light of day.
“Jennie, Wife/Child” (1968)
For the advanced connoisseur of sexploitation sleaze, “Jennie, Wife/Child” is bound to disappoint. But for those truly interested in the cinema in all of its permutations, and the small, unexpected demonstrations of unheralded accomplishment in the most unlikely of vehicles, there is much to consider, even admire, in this umpteenth telling of the jealous farmer and his sexy but unhappy (not to mention unsatisfied) young trophy bride.
The subject of endless derisive dirty jokes, the curmudgeon farmer as cuckold (or outraged parent of a violated tease in the farmer’s daughter variations) is here represented by Albert Peckingpaw (Jack Lester), whose miserly ways has created a frisson in his May -December marriage to twenty four year old Jennie (Beverly Lunsford) who, realistically, is a bit long in the tooth to be continuously referenced as a child bride. Finding little romantic sustenance in Albert’s refusal to buy her pretty baubles, Jennie seeks comfort in the person of their farm hand Mario (Jim Reader), a Jethro Bodine wannabe who, as prescribed by the rules of Hollywood stereotyping in the depiction of rural laborers, is as dumb as a bale of hay. Mario spends his leisure time becoming inebriated by swigging on liquor bottles which are obviously empty, while Jennie orbits about the barnyard dullard, with her dreams of erotic rewards sparked by the fact that Mario is often shirtless and sweaty despite the fact that he rarely engages in labor more strenuous than trying to remember which chores to do. Peckingpaw catches his wife in flagrante delicto merely by hearing her giggle (the film is surprisingly chaste), a demonstration of far more active imagination than the farmer has previously exercised. Naturally, being the product of heated melodrama, Peckingpaw reacts not with reason or self-reflection, but with the planning of a murderous revenge.
What distinguishes “Jennie, Wife/Child” is something that is seldom seriously considered in the field of exploitation movies: a notable aesthetic execution. So while the film offers little more than a shallow and familiar narrative unembellished by either attempting to elevate the simplistic but heated rural soap opera into a template for the gaudy faux artiness (“Baby Doll”) or conceding to the more lascivious possibilities freely associated with the film world’s general view of rural America as an incubator of simmering sin on a scale unseen since the good old days of Sodom and Gomorrah (The reputation of “backwoods” females as models of primal sexual desirability was certainly popularized, in large part, by the example of curvaceous Dogpatch cuties Daisy Mae Scragg, Moonbeam McSwine and especially Stupefyin’ Jones.), as exampled in the myriad of hillbilly populated sex romps (“The Pig Keeper’s Daughter”, “Sassy Sue”), the overall technical craft of “Jennie, Wife/Child” indicates a creative desire to exceed the limitations of such simplistic storytelling. However, while such technical proficiency (especially visually, but more about that in a moment) in any endeavor is nothing to discourage, the disparity in the sophistication of the presentation and the far less elevated material worth of the screenplay merits commentary and exposes the underdeveloped scenario far more prominently than if it were adorned with the usual bawdy distractions of wiggling buttocks and jiggling breasts commensurate with the sexploitation genre.
Simply put, in playing such malnourished material in a straightforward manner, the spare narrative fails to satisfy as drama. The film is one of those rare examples where an attempt to raise the bar may have actually done a disservice to hothouse material that requires a certain level of debauchery to achieve success (and even that is only on an undemanding level). Such a nod to sexuality is weakly acknowledged late in several instances: first, with the introduction of loose-hipped blonde Lulu Belle (Virginia Wood), who figures prominently in the film’s extremely weak finale in which everything that has previously transpired is undone by a sudden reversal of character which substitutes moral conscience for retaliatory animus; and second (and more blatantly), in a skinnydipping scene featuring Jennie frolicking in a local watering hole, a sequence that admirably aims for lyricism rather than prurience and seems more apropos of a film by Bo Widerberg than the genetic cousin of a crude Russ Meyer or Harry H. Novak production. The sexual content of the film, so sparse and tastefully muted that the typically sensational come hither promise of lurid provocation in the advertisement of the production might qualify as an extreme case of false and misleading marketing practices. (Though to be precise, the campaign comparing the film to both “Lolita” and “Candy” is not without ironic- if unintended -accuracy as those film’s also traded in the sordid reputation of materials which failed to find comparable realization in cinematic form.)
On a more positive note, what is equally more surprising than misleading is the often quite splendid visual design of the film, which might easily be attributable to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (here credited as William Zsigmond), though certainly this does not account for the intelligent camera movement and framing which informs scene after scene, both of which must have certainly included the participation of the director, though in the case of “Jennie, Wife/Child” there are two credited with that distinction, James Landis and Robert Carl Cohen, which may also account for the curious divergence of stylistic choices in the film’s visual scheme, which on two separate occasions abandons the smartly composed images and moderate editing rhythms in favor of a more frenzied handheld approach (they seem as though they have been inserted from an entirely different film); scenes in which the actors also seem abandon their more low-keyed performances in favor of wildly exaggerated cavorting. On the available evidence, it is not unrealistic to presume that the more aesthetically impressive portions of the film were helmed by Landis, who had previously collaborated with Zsigmond on the provocative 1963 cult film “The Sadist”. Also of interest is the ambitious musical scoring of Harley Hatcher which provides an ersatz running commentary of the drama with the contribution of no less than ten original songs; a distinct improvement over the irritating overuse of randomly selected library cues which is an altogether too common affliction of the low budget world of exploitation filmmaking.
“Monstrosity” is a film that has a great deal on its plate but none of it worth doing as it has already all been done better. And worse. Hence we are privy to a narration (spoken by Bradford Dillman) postulating the wonders of brain transplantation and its connection to vampiric legend (don’t ask) as well as a sexy corpse, a mad scientist, a nocturnal prowling man-beast, a murder and grave robbing. And that’s only in the first four minutes. Unfortunately, sheer quantity of borrowed horror movie elements does not necessarily guarantee a better film, but there is always the promise of a creative traffic jam.
Cleverly named scientist Dr. Frank (Frank Gerstle) is experimenting with brain transplantation using the bodies of recently deceased, very healthy looking young women. Regardless of the fact that there is no explanation as to the availability of so much freshy departed female meat in such a desolate location, the experiments proceed with the usual monstrous blunders (hence the title of the film) present in every mad scientist film, including the aforementioned man-beast; the product of an animal brain placed inside a human body (though why this makes the subject suddenly look like a denizen of Dr. Moreau’s summer cottage is another unexplained mystery of science). Frank’s research is funded by a miserly old woman, Mrs. March (Marjorie Eaton) whose interest is motivated by her own desire to have her brain transplanted into the body of a nubile young woman. Also in her employ is Victor (Frank Fowler), a toady who practically salivates at the prospect of grabbing onto Mrs. March’s money (though Mr. Dillman reminds us that the unsavory rewards of romantic attachment to a twenty-something pin-up girl only for her to have the mind of a crotchety octogenarian). The scheme nears fruition with the importation of three foreign domestics- Nina (Erika Peters), Beatrice (Judy Bamber) and Anita (Lisa Lang) -who, unlike most women in peril in horror films, seem acutely aware that something is amiss from the very start, but feel powerless to take countermeasures.
As previously stated, there is barely a scene, concept or that is not derivative of better films, yet there is a distinctly disturbing tone to the film that elevates its more recognizable (and often ridiculous) elements into moments of genuine horror; much of which has to do with the reconfiguring of the usual mad scientist formula where in “Monstrosity”, the emphasis is on- despite the deranged science setting -a human element which asserts itself in small revelations exposing insecurities, bitterness and pathological anxieties fueling their horrific actions, but making them all the more heinous as their individual motivations are steeped in a banality of evil; though the three villains of the piece are insensitive to the monstrous horrors they inflict upon their three captives, they are almost childishly self-absorbed in their own petty neuroses. (Meanwhile, the narration is almost breezily inconsequential to the more lurid aspects of the film, which makes the events all the more nightmarishly removed from reality.) “Monstrosity” may serve up all of the familiar tropes of the horror genre (and then some), but its reminds the viewer that true horror is only possible in the absence of the human heart.
“Dance Hall Racket” (1953)
Critics have been arguing for decades over the genius/mediocrity of the late comedian Lenny Bruce, but with scant direct filmed evidence to make a case either way (certainly the horribly miscast Bob Fosse directed biopic “Lenny” did not help in any way), the verdict may perpetually be unresolved. “Dance Hall Racket”, the only extended feature film appearance of the late comic as an actor will only further roadblock the cause for cultural canonization as Bruce is awkward, hesitant and often physically unable to spit out his admittedly horrible dialogue. The situation may be worse than first imagined, however, as Bruce is also credited with writing the same admittedly horrible dialogue.
Directed by Phil Tucker between his work on the notorious SF hiccup “Robot Monster” and one of his sociological treatises on ecdysiasts, “Tijuana After Midnight”, “Dance Hall Racket” is the kind of backyard production that might have resulted when Mickey and Judy decided to “put on a show”, if their intention was imitate the tried and true gangster film by divesting themselves of every healthy creative instinct, all the while emphasizing the nickel and dime production values (and having change left over) that would make any PRC production look like a Cecil B. DeMille opus by comparison.
Low level racketeer Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell) runs a run down dance hall while running a diamond smuggling operation in his office. His hot-tempered flunky Vincent (Lenny Bruce) kills one of his contacts- a off-duty sailor -in the crowded hall, but as in keeping with the traditions of bad movie convenience, no one notices, and Vinnie and an associate easily dispose of the body. Enter the authorities, who send an undercover man to solve the mystery, but whose genuine function only seems to be to contain the story within the confines of the film’s few crummy sets. Oddly, none of this will have any relevance to the outcome of the movie.
“Dance Hall Racket” is the last of what was an unofficial “Umberto Scalli trilogy”, with Farrell repeating the character, even though he was supposedly gunned down in the second film “Racket Girls”. There is little plotting in the film, with what there is stretched out to interminable lengths by director Tucker, who never misses an opportunity for an awkward pause or a slow pick-up in a line of dialogue if it will extend the film to an additional reel (had the film been judiciously pruned to include only pertinent narrative scenes, the running time might have been a scant six or seven minutes). Bruce’s script is an example of narrative laxness of the most extreme form; a crime drama which forgets about its main characters (though, supposedly, identified as main character, there are huge gaps in the film where Scalli is both unseen and unmentioned) or the minor crumbs which merely suggest the bare bones of a plot. “Dance Hall Racket” treats plot progression as an alien concept, especially as the story approaches its “climax”, when the movie is suddenly infused with a puzzling profusion of unrelated scenes involving catfights (a signature of the trilogy), romantic scenes with previously unseen characters and a lengthy and irrelevant distraction concerning with a dance hall customer who hordes tickets.
However, the film’s most bizarre invention is that of a character named Punky (Bernie Jones), who is meant to be a Swedish sailor but floats throughout the film acting like an amalgam of bad impressions of Pinky Lee, Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel. His obnoxious antics may only be equaled in jaw-dropping unnecessary novelty by Bruce’s mother Sally Marr, who as Hostess Maxine performs what is meant to be the Charleston but can perhaps be more accurately described as a bout of spastic colon.