For 22 years, Mike Vraney’s Something Weird Video has been an invaluable source for discovery of oddball treasures languishing for decades awaiting reappraisal from new audiences. It’s no surprise, then, that one of their latest efforts is a collection of forgotten films from the film noir era – the only big shock is that it’s taken this long to bring one out.
The reason for the delay may be that the definition of “film noir” has become so fluid that it’s taken until now for the label to encompass “basically any old crime film in black and white.” Of course, I recently reviewed a documentary that lists Buster Keaton among its’ masters of “kung-fu,” so definitions be damned. On with the lurid crimes!
The set gets off to a bad start with GIRL ON THE RUN, a 1953 flick which manages the astounding feat of being a crime film that takes place at a carnival and involves burlesque dancers, yet somehow still feels tiresome at 64 minutes. The sole directorial effort of Arthur J. Bechkard, writer of the Shirley Temple vehicle CURLY TOP, the plot doesn’t even live up to its’ title – it’s about a male reporter on the run after being framed for his boss’s murder. Sure, his girlfriend is with him and ends up wearing a burlesque outfit as a disguise, but it’s just an excuse for some quick cheesecake.
Not that I mind excuses for cheesecake, of course, but GIRL ON THE RUN doesn’t have enough of them. Despite taking place entirely at a carnival where our hero and his lady friend are hiding, there’s very little carny antics on display, save for a couple solid scenes of an outside talker introducing the girls and an occasional peek at the carny games. Most of the film consists of people talking inside a tent, and it’s so bland that it may as well have been shot at a campsite for the surly and overdressed.
Steve McQueen is prominently listed on the box as being an extra, but that’s all he is, so only completists should need to bother. On the plus side, dimunitive actor Charles Boldener (DARK INTRUDER) has a hefty supporting role as the carny manager, though the credits don’t give him much credit, listing him simply as “Dwarf.” They’ve clearly given the film as much attention as you should.
Thankfully, the following entry is more like it. THE NAKED ROAD is a cheap, sleazy gem, one that bares comparison to the likes of THE SINISTER URGE in its’ tale of shady small town “hospitality.” The film cuts to the chase as young model Gay Andrews (Jeanne Rainer, also in SW’s YOU’VE RUINED ME EDDIE) is shocked, SHOCKED, by the suggestion that her date, the much-older marketing executive Bob Walker, take them to a motel. It having been established that she’s not that kind of girl, Bob agrees to take her home.
However, things go astray when Bob gets pulled over and issued a $50 speeding ticket that must be paid immediately. As he doesn’t have the cash on him, the justice of the peace agrees to let him go get it, as long as his date stays as collateral, which is apparently was the small-town custom back then. While Bob is out, a man in a similar ticket-owning situation enters in the form of Wayne Jackson, a rotund, foppish fellow played to Victor Buono-ish heights by Ronald Long. Jackson offers to pay Gay’s “collateral” and take her out to dinner, even giving her a place to stay for the night.
Of course, all of this is too good to be believed. Gay, however, goes along willingly for the ride, never getting the subtle hints that Jackson is the HEAD OF A SMALL TOWN WHITE SLAVE TRADE PROSTITUTION RING IN WHICH ALL OF THE GIRLS ARE HOOKED ON HEROIN.
That’s about when things move from entertaining to gleefully lurid, as she’s imprisoned and potentially made to “rehearse” her future occupation with Jackson’s creepy assistant. It would all feel incredibly sleazy if Gay wasn’t such a dim bulb – you actually begin to side with the portly pimp as he has to explain everything that’s going on to her in great detail just to get through her thick skull. But all is okay, as one of Jackson’s assistants points out that she probably won’t be able to be “turned” because she grew up in foster homes and “some of them are really religious!”
The first film of director William Martin, who would later helm the similarly lurid SW juvenile delinquent flick JACKTOWN, THE NAKED ROAD is a highly entertaining 74-minute ride. The performances are all over the place, but Long is captivatingly bizarre as the head villain, and it’s never less then engaging even if you’re just watching because you can’t figure out what it has in store next.
1961’s THE 7TH COMMANDMENT closes off the first disc, and while it’s not as entertaining as THE NAKED ROAD, it does have one great performance that makes its’ detriments less obvious. A religious melodrama isn’t exactly what you’d expect from Irvin Berwick, the director of HITCHHIKE TO HELL and THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, but COMMANDMENT certainly is one, albeit one in the thin skin of a low-budget crime pic.
Jonathan Kidd stars as Ted Mathews, who is tempted by his girlfriend Terry (Lyn Statten) to go out for a drive and ends up in a car accident that gives him amnesia. Leaving Terry to take the blame, he absent-mindedly wanders into the company of a traveling preacher, who appoints him the new name Tad Morgan. As Tad, he somehow becomes a faith healer and travels the country using his gifts, including healing a lame boy and a deaf girl played by Berwick’s kids.
Terry, discovering that Tad has been reborn as someone with access to money, is justifiably pissed about the situation and her time in jail, so she plots with her current abusive boyfriend Pete to get back at the guy by marrying him to get the cash. The rest of the film follows Terry’s attempts to seduce and destroy, while holier-and-more-brain-fried-than-thou Ted tries to ask God for help on making the right decisions.
As a story, THE 7TH COMMANDMENT isn’t great shakes, but it’s all made very watchable by the performance of Lyn Statten. An unknown actress whose only other recorded roles were on a pair of TV shows, Statten gives her all to the performance, creating a buxom, vampy, Cathy Moriarty-like, gravel-voiced sexpot that most true noir films would kill for. She steals every moment she’s on screen, and no matter how much the film tries to sell Tad as the “good” side of the “good against evil” morality it’s clearly touting, Statten’s Terry is clearly the winner in terms of personality.
Disc 2 begins with 1961’s FEAR NO MORE, previously issued by SW on a DVD-R, and it’s probably the slickest film on the set. In fact, FEAR NO MORE could easily fit in with most studio film noir collections, and while it’s never going to rank with KISS ME DEADLY or DOUBLE INDEMNITY, it’s a solid entry with interesting twists and good performances.
DADDYS GONE A-HUNTING’s Mala Powers plays Sharon, a young woman on the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco via train who finds her travel interrupted by a man with a gun who knocks her out after admitting to killing a woman in her car. When the police investigate, Sharon makes a run for it fearing her being framed, and ends up meeting divorced Frenchman Paul (THE HYPNOTIC EYE himself, Jacques Bergerac) who gives her a ride.
After some domestic squabbling with Paul’s ex-wife, Sharon heads back to her place and soon another body appears, and she goes to Paul for help, ending up back at her last employer where nothing makes a bit of sense. Did Sharon imagine the whole thing? Why doesn’t anyone seem to believe her? Does this have anything to do with Sharon being recently released from a mental institution? (It probably does!)
Based on a novel by Leslie Edgley, FEAR NO MORE is essentially an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS stretched to feature length. Though it does seem a bit overlong at 80 minutes, there’s enough little character bits and clever plotting to make it worth a watch, and it’s certainly the best-looking film on the set, with a myriad of locations and a talented cast of character actors.
Easily the chintziest film on the collection is 1962’s FALLGUY a cheap piece of work from one-time director Donn Harling, and not to be confused with the Reginald LeBorg noir flick from 1947. “Donn Harling” may actually be a psuedonym from a director who knew better, as the only known face in the cast is character actor George Mitchell, and he’s billed under the moniker “George Andre,” so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were more people involved that wanted their names far from this thing. It starts off well enough, with a jazzy score and a great faux-Saul Bass title sequence from visual effects artist Ray Mercer (PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, Corman’s PIT AND THE PENDULUM), but it’s all downhill after the actors start talking — or at least it looks like their talking, as the post-sync sound dubbing usually doesn’t even come close to resembling a professional production.
Ed Dugan (or possibly “Ed Dugan”) stars as a high school kid who helps a guy in a car accident, only to have that guy turn out to be a mobster who attempts to frame him from the murder of a mob boss. The rest of the film comes off as more “stuff happening” than “plot twists,” and the minimal locations and bad day-for-night photography, along with the fact that you’re not really given any reason to care about the characters on screen, may result in more of a quick nap than anything resembling thrills. When even a random catfight can’t perk things up, you know you’re in the dregs of low-budget crime filmmaking.
Fortunately, the set ends on a higher note with the bizarre STARK FEAR, starring B-movie mainstay Beverly Garland. Less a thriller of any sort than a misanthropic, hostile melodrama, Ned Hockman’s STARK FEAR stars Garland as Ellen Winslow, a woman married to the abusive Gerald (Skip Homeier, who allegedly finished the film after Hockman quit) who claims that he’s going to divorce her when she gets a job with his old friend Cliff, played by Kenneth Tobey.
When Gerald disappears, Ellen agrees to look for him in order for him to keep his job, instead of just letting him vanish. Ellen, it seems, is an emotional masochist, and she can’t live without Gerald’s yelling and occasional slaps. Her hunt takes her to a wild party and then to a small town where she finds Gerald’s best friend – a history that she’d never even been told about. Meanwhile, Kane tries to hunt her down to figure out what’s going on.
While there’s not exactly much in the way of “thrills” in STARK FEAR – there’s no murder, blackmail or small town prostitution rings to be found – it’s still about as sleazy as films at the time get. Virtually every character is unsympathetic, and every man save for Cliff is either sex-crazed or sex-disabled, with one character even yelling “There’s no such thing!” after his advances on Ellen make her say that she’ll yell rape. Not that Ellen herself is some sort of likeable lead either – every action she takes just leads her further into a trap that she’d get out of just by walking away from the whole stupid situation!
STARK FEAR can hardly be called a good film, but there’s certainly no better one in this set to live up to the “Something Weird” label – it’s a cheap, sordid regional potboiler that’s unique enough to be worth a look. While Garland essentially disowned the film, her performance is solid, and in lesser hands, Ellen would come off as even more of a useless character than she is. It’s a shame that this film looks the worst of the set, with huge scratches and washed-out sound during several of the reels. SW had previously issued the same print on DVD-R, and Alpha Video released the public domain film on a double feature with FRIGHT a few years back.
None of the films in SW’s WEIRD NOIR collection are going to be revered as classics anytime soon, but at least four of them are worth seeing, with FEAR NO EVIL and THE NAKED ROAD emerging as the best of them. Retailing for under $20 for six movies, even if only 4 of them are actually something you’d like to sit through, it’s a great package for those who want to peek into a few crevices of film history that have barely had any light upon them in the past.
– Paul Freitag
Paul runs the Pychotronic Netflix page on Facebook and is the weekly author of the Psychotronic Netflix list we publish every week.
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