Monday, 30 November 2020

Reflections on ... Paid in Full (1950)

Recently watched: Paid in Full (1950). Tagline: “The story of a woman’s bitter victory.” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

Paid in Full opens on a note of panicked urgency, instantly plunging the viewer into the action. A pregnant woman in agonizing labour and on the verge of collapse manages to drive herself to the hospital on a stormy night. We learn that she’s Jane Langley (portrayed by magnetic film noir queen Lizabeth Scott). Due to life-threatening medical complications, Jane must undergo an emergency cesarean, but the dilemma is stark: either mother or baby will survive – but not both! Jane is asked for the father’s identity so the hospital can contact him, which prompts a flashback to explain just how we got to this crisis point. 

The luminous Scott alternated between bad girl (Dead Reckoning (1947), Too Late for Tears (1949)) and good girl (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Desert Fury (1947), Pitfall (1948)) roles with equal conviction. But calling the supremely virtuous, long-suffering Jane Langley “good” barely beings to cover it! Jane, you see, is hiding a painful secret (actually, multiple painful secrets – but that doesn’t become apparent until later). Her mother died tragically after giving birth to Jane’s little sister Nancy (foreshadowing alert!). Dutifully stepping into the maternal role, Jane raised Nancy herself. As adults, Jane is a clothing designer and Nancy (Diana Lynn) is a model who sashays around a department store showroom flourishing her sister’s creations. Jane is secretly, unrequitedly in love with Nancy’s fiancé, dashing advertising executive Bill Prentice (blandly handsome Robert Cummings. He’s like a walking ad for Brylcreem). In fact, Bill is so oblivious he rehearses his marriage proposal spiel on Jane! Stoically swallowing her heartbreak, Jane wishes the couple well. Did I mention that toxic Nancy is a spoiled rotten, selfish little bee-yatch? (Kudos to Lynn, who imbues Nancy with an almost Gloria Grahame-like surly petulance. Jane’s unwavering devotion to the undeserving Nancy has echoes of the Joan Crawford / Ann Blythe dynamic in Mildred Pearce (1945)).  

Paid in Full positions Nancy as the glamorous, sexually irresistible-to-men sister, whereas unlucky-in-love, married-to-her-career, always-the-bridesmaid singleton Jane is meant to be comparatively plain. But this is relative! Paid in Full is, after all, a golden age Hollywood production, and Jane is portrayed by the impossibly sultry Scott (Oh! That raspy voice!), who is exquisitely costumed (by Edith Head) and coiffed throughout. (In fact, the willowy Scott better resembles a fashion model than Lynn. Like her contemporary Lauren Bacall, Scott’s entryway into films was via modelling). The ever-sardonic Eve Arden offers comic relief as Tommy Thompson, Jane’s wise-cracking gal pal and work colleague. But Tommy also serves as a warning to Jane. As Bill cautions, Tommy “waited too long to get married. Now she’s too eager.” 

/ This smiling threesome is wildly unrepresentative of Paid in Full /

Mid-century melodramas routinely romanticized the notion of a woman’s noble self-sacrifice. Paid in Full stretches this to the point of lunacy. The film begins as an absorbing if conventional romantic triangle.  After a shocking and hideous tragedy occurs towards the end, the tone of Paid in Full goes full-tilt nuts, with Jane tipping into complete martyrdom and masochism. (The full significance of the title gradually becomes horribly apparent!). As a social document of its era, Paid in Full offers some fascinatingly archaic attitudes towards conceptions of matrimony, motherhood, fertility and “spinsterhood.” Watch the film here: 


Monday, 23 November 2020

Reflections on ... Screaming Mimi (1958)


Recently watched: Screaming Mimi (1958). Tagline: “Suspense behind every curve!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).

The dilemma with Screaming Mimi is that it frontloads so much lurid excitement into its opening minutes that the rest of the film feels anti-climactic. It begins in Laguna Beach with statuesque bathing beauty Virginia Weston (Anita Ekberg) emerging from the crashing surf, accompanied by her yapping pet dog. Discarding her one-piece bathing suit (implied nudity alert!), she scrubs herself in an outdoor shower. Unbeknownst to her, an escaped psycho killer is spying on Virginia from the bushes! He stabs her dog to silence its warning barks (don’t worry – this happens off-screen) and lunges at Virginia with a knife! (Yes, this shower segment foreshadows Hitchcock’s Psycho). Virginia’s screams alert her stepbrother Charlie, who shoots the psychopath dead. 

Cut to Virginia (diagnosed with “deep traumatic shock”) recuperating at Highland Sanitarium. But her problems are only beginning! Dr Greenwood - the shrink assigned to her - has become erotically fixated on his sultry new patient (actor Harry Townes communicates this with haunted bulging eyes) and exerts an unhealthy control over her (“You need me to look after you!”). Six months later, Virginia is released from the institution, re-locates to San Francisco (with the corrupt Dr Greenwood in tow as her manager) and - after adopting the stage name “Yolanda Lange” - resumes her exotic dancing career at a club called (appropriately enough) El Madhouse. But now Yolanda’s fellow strippers are being murdered by a serial killer. And a mysterious statuette of a screaming woman is found at the crime scene! 

/ The look of love: Harry Townes and Anita Ekberg in Screaming Mimi (1958) /

Suffice to say Screaming Mimi struggles to live up to that frantic introduction. It certainly isn’t a “good” film by any standard. Gerd Oswald’s direction is frequently pedestrian. The narrative is disjointed and confused. For an ostensible thriller, the pacing is surprisingly plodding. The police procedural aspect is dull, especially when the focus shifts from Ekberg to Bill Sweeney, the news reporter who’s determined to crack the case (and falls in love with Yolanda). The actor who plays Sweeney (Philip Carey) is fatally unengaging. But any black and white film swathed in noir-ish shadows, where the action unfolds mostly at night and shuttles between lunatic asylum to strip club to apartment illuminated by a flickering neon sign exerts an alluring sleaze appeal. Screaming Mimi is vividly representative of a sensational lowbrow fifties pulp sensibility.   

/ An example of Burnett Guffey's striking noir cinematography /

And leading lady Anita Ekberg’s performance is compellingly bad. The voluptuous Swedish sexbomb was always more of a glamour icon than an actress (the only director who knew how to properly utilize her charms was Federico Fellini). To be fair, though, the part of Virginia / Yolanda would flummox the most accomplished of actors: she’s a one-dimensional victim with uncertain motivation (her character changes scene-by-scene from catatonic to petulant to child-like). “She’s the greatest thing in the history of night club entertainment!” someone raves, but in truth Yolanda’s burlesque routine (think slave girl bound in chains) reveals Ekberg is no dancer (it mainly consists of her striking poses or writhing on the floor). But Ekberg possesses undeniable magnetism, and she resembles a spectacular Nordic Viking goddess throughout.   

Then there’s Gypsy Rose Lee as the brassy proprietress of El Madhouse. Her presence ensures a certain camp curiosity value, but how can I put this? Lee is a massively significant pioneer in the history of striptease.  Her origins are immortalized in the classic Broadway musical Gypsy. But she’s frankly awful in Screaming Mimi, and her "Put the Blame on Mame" number is excruciating. Lee is involved in some of Screaming Mimi’s most seamy facets, though. Her character is “coded” as lesbian, and the nubile young cocktail waitress / wannabe dancer from El Madhouse is her "companion." And when Sweeney visits Lee's apartment to question her, he makes a joking reference to the scent of "perfume" - he means he can smell that the two women have been smoking reefer! 

/ Gypsy Rose Lee (shakin' that fringe!) in Screaming Mimi (1958) /

Anyway, everything eventually culminates in a shock-o-rama twist conclusion that weirdly evokes the ending of A Streetcar Named Desire. But there are still plot holes aplenty. Does anyone really understand the significance of the statues? How come Virginia has a Swedish accent? Why is Virginia’s stepbrother old enough to be her father? And why is he dressed like Colonel Sanders? I guess we’ll never know!

Watch Screaming Mimi here: 


Sunday, 15 November 2020

Reflections on ... Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)


Recently watched: Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973). Tagline: “Wilder than you can imagine! Explicit beyond belief! Meet them all! Hustlers and pimps! Pushers and S&M freaks! Straight guys and girls looking for thrills and one-night stands!” Sample dialogue: “It’s getting so you can’t give a blowjob on Times Square without some cop looking over your shoulder!” 

It’s fun to imagine the dirty mac brigade settling into their seats at some fleapit grindhouse cinema in the early seventies to watch some raunchy triple-X titillation – and instead being confronted by this grimly downbeat, profoundly unerotic character study about survival prostitution by maverick outsider gutter auteur Andy Milligan (1929 - 1991). There’s even mournful flute music on the soundtrack for maximum erection repellent. You could call Fleshpot a “gritty” genital warts-and-all slice of life – but “grubby” might be more accurate. 

Pretty brunette Dusty Cole is a street-smart and calculating sex worker barely eking out a hardscrabble existence in New York’s Times Square. Her hard-bitten demeanor begins to melt after a fluke encounter with handsome, sensitive and earnest young Wall Street banker Bob Walters. Can Dusty embrace the straight life and find true love and happiness in Staten Island with Bob? Spoiler alert: anyone familiar with Milligan’s pessimistic oeuvre will already know the answer is a resounding no!

Like Andy Warhol, John Waters and R W Fassbinder, Milligan populates his movies with his own repertory troupe of freaks and misfits – in his case, mostly drawn from the realms of underground off-Broadway theatre and pornography. The acting here is genuinely potent (some of the verbose monologues demanded of the actors are worthy of Tennessee Williams). Porn actress Laura Cannon imbues surprising delicacy, complexity and intelligence as constantly hustling, amoral anti-heroine Dusty. We glimpse the emotional toll of constantly living by her wits and the seemingly endless procession of encounters with creepy, unappealing men, and that everything Dusty does is tinged with desperation. (I love how Cannon tangibly goes into weary dead-eyed autopilot every time she begins disrobing). Always the most chivalrous and affable of seventies porn studs, young Harry Reems of Deep Throat notoriety (sans his trademark mustache) is painfully adorable as the idealistic Bob. And as Cherry Lane, Dusty’s sassy aging drag queen roommate and fellow working girl, Neil Flanagan - and his matted bouffant wig - steals every scene. 

Thematically and stylistically, Fleshpot is analogous to Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), the trilogy of Warhol-produced underground films directed by Paul Morrissey, and the early works of John Waters. What separates Milligan from Morrissey and Waters is the ferocity of his misanthropy and nihilism. He takes a decidedly jaundiced perspective on concepts like “free love” and sexual liberation. Apart from Bob, none of the characters could be described as “sympathetic.” The film offers a vividly grungy cinema verité document of decrepit pre-gentrification seventies New York. Every character in Fleshpot lives in squalor and escapes to drown their sorrows at depressing dimly lit dive bars. Milligan was gay and the sexuality on display here is refreshingly polymorphous: the ostensibly hetero male tricks take a surprisingly pragmatic open mind when it comes to the gender of their sex workers (Dusty and Cherry share clients). The world Milligan evokes packs an undeniable lowlife allure, but you wouldn't want to live there. Warning: the ugly racial epithets casually thrown around by Cherry are authentic to the period and character but wildly offensive to modern ears (prepare to flinch!). There are two versions of Fleshpot in circulation: grainy and softcore (on Amazon Prime) and digitally remastered and hardcore (via Vinegar Syndrome’s website).

Further Reading:

Read my analysis of the earlier Andy Milligan film Seeds (1968) here.