Tuesday 24 May 2011

Kitten with a Whip (1964)

Director: Douglas Heyes
Stars: Ann-Margret and John Forsythe

There simply isn't anything a movie can do to live up to a title like Kitten with a Whip, unless it actually starred Kitten Natividad and was directed by Russ Meyer. This one came from Universal in 1964 so no, it's not particularly exotic, being shot in black and white to boot. However it does star Ann-Margret as hell raising Jody Dvorak, who begins the film in a nightgown being chased by armed men with dogs. We don't know she's hell raising to begin with, as we're not given context to work from, but we're happy when she finds an apparently empty house and cuddles up in bed with a teddy bear. We still have sympathy when up and coming politician David Stratton comes home and discovers her. Jody has wild hair and in the light we see that the nightgown is torn. She even shows Stratton the long scratches on her back and runs through a wild yarn to explain it all. Only her wild attitude gives us pause to think there's something else behind her story.

We find out the details when Stratton goes to lunch the next day, because it's plastered all over the news. Apparently she broke out of juvenile hall, after stabbing the matron and attempting to burn the place down. Here's where we discover how dumb Stratton is and how much trouble he's got himself into. He didn't call the cops. He bought her clothes from a store, pretending they're for his wife. He gives her some money to start over. He's even about to tell a colleague about what happened until he sees her on the TV. Given that he's a politician played by John Forsythe, you might expect him to be a little brighter than this but no, he's a kind hearted fool. Jody knows exactly how to deal with him. He threatens he'll call the cops but she stops him in seconds. If he goes through with it, she'll cry rape. 'I'll get my claws into you,' she tells him, and promptly does, literally ripping his shirt and scratching his chest to make a point.
Now we know what we're looking at: a suspense thriller that's ahead of its time in a number of ways. I was expecting some sort of gang story, perhaps with Ann-Margret as a female Brando, but this is nothing like that. As it unfolds we see two possible directions. It could be a hostage drama, merely one that has a cute and bubbly female villain using blackmail as a weapon rather than a tough guy with a gun. It could also be a psychological piece, where Jody isn't just trouble but mentally unbalanced, maybe schizophrenic, what the matron calls 'an unpredictable girl'. What we get is something of both but more too, an attempt to look at the modern generation in a new way. Whether it succeeds or not is open to question but it certainly has an intriguing try in an unconventional setting. Much of this side of the picture arrives when Jody invites friends over to Stratton's place: Buck, Ron and Midge, who are as different from each other as they from Jody.

Jody is a damage case, half victim, half villain, and turning from one to the other on a dime. Ann-Margret is magnetic to watch, though she can't remotely pass for 17. She was 23 at the time and looked great but she had a maturity to her that both helped and hindered here. We don't buy her age but we buy her streetwise act, as much as she sometimes tries too hard. Midge is the hanger on, only part of the group because she has wheels. Actress Diane Sayer isn't bad looking but Ron plays with her and Buck abuses her. She lets it happen because it means that she belongs, but she's still scared. Buck is the thug, though a polite one. He's quick to violence and isn't afraid of following through. Skip Ward reminds of a young Lee Marvin. That leaves Ron, who is bizarrely some sort of amateur philosopher, a guru full of advice for everyone. He's fascinating to watch, proclaiming that he feels no pain, attempting to put mind over matter, controlling everything.
The ride that these characters take David Stratton on is a strange one, completely different from all my expectations. There's a lot here from The Desperate Hours, but while John Forsythe looks nothing like his older self here and more like a less iconic Humphrey Bogart, he has the Fredric March role not the Bogart one. There's some Touch of Evil too, in the cross border setting, jazz music and sleazy, unpredictable atmosphere. I wasn't surprised to find that some of the music was lifted from Henry Mancini's score for that film, though I was surprised to find that the motel scene in Tijuana towards the end of the picture was shot on the Bates Motel set from Psycho. I can't place the other film I felt here, perhaps because it's less about the details and more about the longing. While Jody is a tortured character, I felt there was a longing for normality in a kind of Myrna Loy, perfect wife type way. How much was sincere is open to question.

Kitten with a Whip is ranked among 'The Hundred Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made' in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, and it was lampooned by the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000. I vaguely remember reading about it back in the eighties and getting the impression that it was a camp teen drama, which it patently isn't. While I don't believe the film succeeds in everything it attempts, and in some instances it doesn't come close, it does at least succeed in standing on its own. It has elements taken from other films, but it brings them together in a new framework. I'm sure that this is going to become a guilty pleasure, which makes me regret leaving it on my DVR so long. I'm most fascinated to find out whether a couple more viewings will make me drop the 'guilty' part of that. I'd like to track down the source novel too, written by Wade Miller. What I don't want to find is the purported remake, with Lindsay Lohan in the Ann-Margret role.

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