Saturday 30 January 2010

Girls on the Loose (1958)

Director: Paul Henreid
Stars: Mary Corday, Lita Milan and Barbara Bostock
Paul Henreid was a notable actor back in the golden age. Born in Trieste in 1905, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he left for England in 1935 and of course ended up in Hollywood, courtesy of a supporting role in Goodbye, Mr Chips. You've seen him, of course, given that he was Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but film fans know him well from other memorable performances too in films such as Now, Voyager, Between Two Worlds and The Conspirators. His acting career dried up after being blacklisted during the witch hunts, but somehow he managed to become a director instead, working mostly in television (28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents alone) but with a handful of B movies to his name too.

Made the same year he made Live Fast, Die Young, this one's a B movie about a bank heist, but as the title suggests, there's a notable exploitation twist. When the Jamestown Laundry truck drops off three men in hats and trenchcoats with the collars pulled up, we can tell that they're not men at all. As we find out when they get inside they're wearing masks too, but it's impossible not to notice the way they walk, the hint of curly blonde hair that we see behind one of those collars and, most obviously of all, an ample bosom. Did I hear high heels too? Yep, I think I did. All these bank robbers have short hair, but they're all still obviously women.

Vera Parkinson is the ringleader and her friends Marie Williams and Joyce Johanneson are in on the job too. They've planned well and they're apparently good at what they do: the heist is over in minutes, they're in and out quickly and efficiently and they leave with a solid haul. No less than $200,000, say the papers. They even demonstrate restraint during the heat of the moment, given that Vera has every opportunity to kill Tom, the bank employee who reaches for the alarm, but she slugs him unconscious instead of shooting him dead. Of course however good a bank robber she is, she sucks royally at digging a hole in the woods to bury the money, not least because of those inappropriate high heels.

The real mistake appears to be Vera's bringing in her younger sister Helen on the deed too, given that while they're sisters the pair are utterly different in character. Initially Helen only believes she's picking her sister up after a 'late night business appointment', but Vera does explain it to her afterwards, at least to the degree that she's earned $40,000 for fifteen minutes work, doing something dubious. She doesn't want to know the rest. The catch is that she soon falls for a homicide detective, Lt Bill Hanley, and having cops hanging around when there's a couple of hundred grand dangling between bickering crooks is never a good thing.

Yes, this is the old story about there being no honour between thieves, and they're an unlikely trio. Vera runs a nightclub, modestly named the Club Vera, and she's a cool as ice criminal mastermind in high heels. In the form of Mara Corday, born Marilyn Watts, she's precisely what this sort of film should be about: tough, capable and intelligent, but always ready for a catfight when it counts. Girls on the Loose was released the year she became a Playboy Playmate of the Month, but it was also the last film she made before retiring from the screen to concentrate on being a wife and mother. She left behind her a string of B movies, many genre related, like Tarantula, The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion. She returned to film later in life but only to play supporting roles in films featuring her friend, Clint Eastwood.
Her cohorts in crime are utterly unlike her. Joyce is a masseuse, apparently a real one not the usual euphemism, though actress Joyce Barker plays her with a tone of such sleaziness that we could believe anything of her. Surprisingly this was her only film appearance. Marie is a beautician, but she's hardly a pillar of reliability, given that she's also a drunk, a pickpocket and an inveterate shoplifter. She has a vaguely continental air to her, hardly surprising given that she's played by an actress called Lita Milan, but she's really just from Brooklyn. Her real continental flavour came later the same year, when she married the son of a Latin American dictator, who seized power of the Dominican Republic in 1961, yet another inevitably short lived dictatorship whose failure prompted Lita and her husband to flee to Spain.

Marie's a thinker as well as a drinker, and the more she drinks the more she thinks. That would lead her down dangerous paths as it is, even if Vera didn't promptly give her even more to think about by bumping off the other character involved in the heist, Agnes Clark. Agnes is the inside man at the bank, or the inside girl, I guess, as well as the getaway driver. She knew Tom, that bank employee who Vera hit, which act is played up by the radio as a brutal assault that left him in a coma, and she's as shook up by the whole thing as Vera isn't, unable to even go to work the next day. Flouncing around in a tizzy, Vera gives her a sedative only for her to begin spilling all in her sleep. There's just no way they're going to stay free with Agnes on the loose.

So Vera takes care of her, cleverly setting it all up like a suicide, locking the door from the inside and even sending her a $200 money order to arrive late but divert attention nonetheless. While this establishes Vera well as being both intelligent and ruthless, it also removes Abby Dalton from the rest of the movie. Probably best known to the world for her television work in comedy shows of the sixties and Falcon Crest in the eighties, I know her best as an actress for Roger Corman in the fifties. She was Desir, the lead character in the awesomely titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent and the leading lady behind Dick Miller in Rock All Night, one of my guilty pleasures.

It's the death of Agnes that brings Lt Hanley to Club Vera and you can pretty much write the rest of the story yourself from there. He falls for Helen's performance on stage, given that she's not just Vera's sister, she's her entertainment too, and pursues her with a passion. Hanley is played by Mark Richman, better known nowadays as Peter Mark Richman, one of those faces that you'll know that carries a name you won't. Helen is the delightful Barbara Bostock, who didn't make enough movies. The immediate comparison that leaps to mind is to Liza Minnelli, but that's mostly because of the short hair and the material she's given. The more we see her the more she seems much more like Maggie Gyllenhaal, especially when she quits the virginal younger sister act and starts dancing on stage. Lt Hanley is hooked and so are we.

This is a routine movie, not a patch on the sort of thing that saw Paul Henreid's name as an actor rather than as a director, but it's a fun diversion nonetheless. Everything about it is surprisingly capable, the material suggesting something a lot worse. There's some bad acting going on, but it's generally not that bad. The worst comes courtesy of Ronald Green, who is credited as a gigolo but is really the new delivery guy who couldn't act to save his life. He made seven movies but this was only one of two that saw him actually credited. How he impresses Vera enough for her to fall into his arms, I really don't know. Compared to his acting, the few prominent plot conveniences are forgiveable. Sure, people can come out of comas just at the right time, just as guns can jam just at the wrong time and knives are always left out in the open just in case.

The best work here is on the dialogue, presumably courtesy of writer Alan Friedman. While some of it is the usual forced B movie tough banter, there are more than a few gems that sparkle out to be noticed, mostly from Vera given that Mara Corday is perfect for them. She could have been a great film noir lead in her day, had she been given the right material. 'Thinking takes brains,' she tells Agnes. 'Just forget you've got them.' Everyone else seems to be on the end of one of her cracks too. After a spat, Joyce gets, 'Have a good nightmare,' after suggesting that, 'I'll see you in my dreams.' Even Lt Hanley receives a great snub in 'This is our business. Why don't you mind yours.' He begins the best one though. 'Don't you ever hate yourself in the morning for what you do to that girl?' he asks Vera, only to receive the dry reply, 'I never get up in the morning.' The dialogue is great, the girls are good and the rest you won't tend to mind too much.

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