Here’s a useful website describing the work of other directors and producers working in the sexploitation field in the sixties.
Well, as a film historian, I’m lacking, I’m afraid. I’ve discovered our next scintillating feature was made before ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ Oh, well, a little bump in the chronology. Forgive me.
Upon viewing Motor Psycho (1965), there’s genuine continuity here as his next film after ‘Mudhoney’ – Meyer has stripped away a fair amount of the domestic melodrama, and made a nasty, minimalist thriller that concentrates far less on the carnal and far more on man’s violence towards his fellow man. Dante and Slick are on a bike road trip to Vegas, and along the way they hook up with the quiet but forceful Brahmin (Steven Oliver). Dante (Joseph Cellini) is obviously fascinated by the brooding and snarky Brahmin, and becomes an acolyte of sorts, while Slick’s passive amorality presents no resistance to going along with the other two.
The film opens with a couple enjoying an afternoon outdoors – he’s fishing in a small lake while she (a knockout…duh!) sunbathes. Of course, their peaceful day is shattered when our three bikers arrive. Dante’s up for giving the pair some mean-spirited grief, but it’s Brahmin who goes further, beating hell out of the husband and having his way with the helpless girl.
Meanwhile, we meet Corey and Gail Maddox, a swell-guy veterinarian (veteran character actor Alex Rocco) and his wife (Hollie K. Winters) (a knockout…duh!). The three bikers meet Gail on the street, and hassle her. But Corey stands up to them, leading her past and roughly pushing Brahmin out of the way.
The next day Corey looks in on the horses owned by Tex-Avery’s-Wildest-Dream, Jessica Fannin (Sharon Lee). Despite Jessica’s best come-hither efforts, Corey politely avers, remaining admirably faithful to Gail. Unbeknownst to him, however, his absence has afforded our bikers the morning to terrorize, and ultimately beat and rape, his wife, as repayment for his disdain the day before.
I think at this point it’s important to note that what Meyer chooses to show isn’t all that graphic. Casual drive-in viewers paying enough attention to know what’s going on would most likely still find these scenes pretty tame. But it’s the minimal, psychological aspects of these scenes that are more chilling than anything else. Brahmin’s offhand “You’re gonna hate yourself in the morning” to the fisherman’s wife, and Slick’s phone call to his mother while Brahmin and Dante have their way with Gail, evince a particularly cruel cynicism. This isn’t just melodramatic villainy – these guys carry around some real bleakness.
Meanwhile, we now meet Harry and Ruby Bonner. He’s a chunky, unshaven, put-upon middle-aged traveling businessman of some sort, of no little squalor. She (the return of Haji! Yaayy!) (…duh!) is his firecracker, spitfire, hellraisin’ etc., etc., French Cajun wife. Mid-argument, their pick-up truck gets a flat – he starts fixing the tire while she wanders off. Guess who arrives? Except this time they don’t know she’s there – they just start whalin’ on him anyway. When she does return, she tries to talk them into giving her a ride to L.A., leaving him behind. It’s pretty obvious that she just wants to get them away from the hapless Harry – she’s risking her own safety for his. But since no good deed goes unpunished, Harry starts earnestly encouraging them to Take Her – She’s Lotsa Fun, in a shameless attempt to save his own keister at her expense. One thing leads to another – Slick accidentally shoots Harry, and then Brahmin coldly guns down the fleeing Ruby. Brahmin then disables the bikes, and they escape in Harry’s truck, leaving the dead couple behind.
A little later, Corey comes upon the scene, and discovers that Ruby is, delightfully, alive. Brahmin’s bullet just grazed her head. Corey and Ruby head back to town, but happen upon our boys, who had stopped for gas before heading out into the desert. A chase ensues culminating with Brahmin stopping ahead to shoot their pursuers. He disables Corey’s Jeep, but can’t finish off the pesky couple. The boys bolt in the truck, and head deeper into the desert.
With the coast clear, Corey and Ruby start to regroup. But, suddenly, Corey’s bitten by a rattlesnake! And in a short scene both wildly inappropriate and hilariously shameless, Corey, in urgent panic, forces Ruby to cut him open and Suck Out The Poison. What might seem like a vaudeville routine or burlesque sketch is given Russ’ trademark expressionist ferocity to create one of the creepiest and most oddly entertaining short episodes you’ll see in an American film.
I won’t reveal the consequences of the showdown in the desert, other than to mention that Brahmin slowly disintegrates into out-and-out madness. It seems he’s a returning soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his badass biker good-times dissociate into me-against-the-gooks savagery. This was almost unheard of in 1965 as a plot twist in a movie. I’d be interested to hear from other readers if they know of any earlier movies where this came into play for the antagonist. Of course, the 70’s were replete with stories of traumatized vets, as both villains and heroes, and Russ would certainly be familiar with the condition from his World War II experiences.
But not only was this aspect novel, but the whole idea of the biker-as-loner, living by his own ‘twisted’ moral code, terrorizing the squares, wasn’t explored by Hollywood for another year or two, either. Save for 1953’s ‘The Wild One’, ‘Motor Psycho’ seems to be the only biker movie of any note whatsoever until 1966’s ‘Wild Angels’. Then, of course, the genre flourished – ‘Born Losers’, ‘Hell’s Angels On Wheels’, ‘Hell’s Angels ‘69’, ‘Angels Hard As They Come’, etc. Once again, Russ (and writers James Griffith and Hal Hopper – God bless him!) got there first.
I really liked this movie a lot. There’s a nice storytelling rhythm and urgency to the whole thing, but Meyer doesn’t short-change his characters in the process. There are lots of similar characters for comparison these days, but Brahmin, Dante, Slick, Corey and Ruby were, at the time, pretty unique. Brahmin presupposes amoral antagonists like The Hitcher and Patrick Bateman, Dante would fit right in with the rough-and-ready urban second-generation Europeans of Cassavettes, Scorsese and early DePalma, and Slick – oh, I don’t know…Shaggy from Scooby-Doo?
2008 rating – PG-13 – more for the underlying mood of mean-spiritedness and potential violence than anything sexual. Russ is incapable of making a movie that’s not lively, but this and ‘Mudhoney’ have some undeniably dark undercurrents that would be lost on younger audiences. Recommended.
After ‘Motor Psycho’ was, of course, ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ – Russ suggests in interviews that FPKK was Eve’s idea, and that they both liked the idea of The Girls kicking some Boy butt after the girls tended to end up on the wrong end of the butt-kicking proposition in ‘Lorna’, ‘Mudhoney’ and ‘Motor Psycho.’ And I think FPKK enlivened Russ’ tendencies toward the more overtly sexual as well.
Mondo Topless (1966) is a low-budget but wildly enthusiastic return to Russ’ nudie roots. It’s essentially a loosely filmed and edited collection of various well-endowed strippers dancing, but it’s presented with a ringmaster’s confidence that Only Russ could have found These Women. He’s also brought back the voice-over narrator, and the combination of Walter Winchell and Lionel Stander that Russ favors in vocal talent is on terrific speechifying display here. “You’ve only dreamed there are women like this until now, but they’re real! Unbelievably real, and they’re Mondo Topless!”, followed by a veritable Roget’s gallery of adjectives describing each dancer – bumptious, buxotic, luscious, delicious, yummy, exciting, bouncy, magnificently configured, vivaciously voluptuous, Juno-esque…
The festivities start out in San Francisco – “situated upon precipitous peaks above yawning canyons, precariously perched and poised on the tip of a peninsula, San Francisco thrusts itself into the bosom of the Pacific!” – “exploding from dusk ‘til dawn with the way-out craze of the Topless, spawned and nurtured by staid and stolid San Francisco!” And Russ has seen fit to reinvest in Color, ‘Eastmancolor!’ the narrator proudly declaims.
Russ’ reportage of this ‘way-out craze’ is twofold – American stripper-dancers – not on stage, but in nature and natural locales – on the beach, in the woods, and, of course, in the desert. Darlene Gray’s turn is disconcertingly shot from almost directly overhead, against a bleak and rocky brown background, but the contrast works to her alluring advantage. Babette Bardot shakes it in the desert while a gigantic freight train cuts across the frame diagonally. Pat Barringer dances a duet with a huge steel radio tower. This is to become one of Russ’ most consistent visual motifs – the beautiful, sexually powerful woman alone in, and framed against, immense nature – forests, mountains, deserts – and being the equal to it, aesthetically, philosophically, and ontologically. Russ consistently celebrates sensual beauty in our midst while simultaneously resigning himself to their fundamental profound untouchability – how can men ever measure up to these Forces Of Nature? How can the freight trains and radio towers we’ve erected and strung along in the vast wilderness compete with the overwhelming natural beauty and energy of These Women?
The other segments involve a ‘tour’ of international hotspots – Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Belgium, Hamburg etc., and ‘document’ the particular routines of European strippers. While the narration hints at an international tour of high-class strip joints across Europe, most of these segments have the look of being shot in the corner of a small soundstage in Hunter’s Point, or on a tiny stage in the Tenderloin. These routines are as appealingly tawdry and pretentious as you’d envision – you either think they’re insipid or inspired, depending on your tolerance or appreciation of lowbrow show biz.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out the sloppily edited but surprisingly rockin’ musical soundtrack, provided mostly by a textbook sixties guitar combo (Michael Weldon says it’s The Aladdins) of no small jammin’ talent. Russ’ quick and constant inserts of the radios, speakers and tape players from which the music emanates constantly refreshes your attention to the music itself, keeping it in the forefront of his mix of gyrating foxes and offbeat backgrounds.
But, ultimately, this movie is about boobs, and the women genetically lucky enough to possess them. It is, in fact, probably the finest filmed Baedeker of Breasts ever unleashed to the Raincoat crowd, who are no doubt blissfully ignorant of Russ’ higher subtextual purposes. As pantingly appreciative as Russ is, and as hopeful as he is of his male audiences’ mutual appreciation, there isn’t a single instance of overt sexual suggestion or outright sexual exploitation. Nothing about how these women are shot or presented leaves any hope that you could meet them, that you may have something in common, that they’d be happy to share a cocktail with you, that you might have a chance. Admittedly, some of this is inherent in the nature of burlesque overall – the untouchable distance between performer and audience is part of the allure – and one of the dancers herself explains the clear distinction between ‘Burlesque’ and ‘Topless’ in her voice-over comments. Russ, admirably, is promoting bigger Dionysian, sex-positive attitudes, ideas, and appreciation, rather than just baiting his audiences’ testosterone-driven libido. God bless ‘im.
Highly recommended for completists, and people who, like Russ, or Nadine Strossen, or Camille Paglia, can appreciate those rare instances where Objectification is Empowerment; it’s of, admittedly, limited value for the general moviegoing public. The viewer is truly saturated in topless-ness. Fascination or boredom will ensue quickly. I can assure B-movie cultists, however, that it’s far better than ‘Orgy of the Dead’, even if there’s no delightful Criswell. 2008 rating: me, I’d go PG-13, but I suspect the MPAA would say ‘R’.
1967 and 1968 brings us the next phase of Russ’ oeuvre. He decides to work away from the gritty, black-and-white potboilers of his gothic period, and, invigorated by the more overtly sexual tenor of FPKK and Mondo Topless, starts to lean more towards in-color social melodramas, peppered, of course, with his good-humored lasciviousness.
The first of these is Common Law Cabin (1967). After a narrator extols the beauty of the Colorado River and its environs as a dream destination for those who aspire to utopia, we meet Dewey Hoople (Jack Moran, who I suspect is also John Moran, screenwriter for this and many of Russ’ earlier films), a widower who has turned his run-down, middle-of-nowhere Arizona cabin home into Hoople’s Haven, a day-trip tourist trap for cityfolk looking for a rustic getaway. He lives there with his voluptuous French second-wife Babette (Babette Bardot) and his comely teenage daughter Coral (Adele Rein). Their pal Cracker (Franklin Bolger) promotes the ‘resort’ to urban out-of-towners – “an open-air cocktail lounge cooled by the desert winds…” – and ropes in three clients – taciturn, humorless Dr. Martin Ross (John Furlong, Calif from ‘Mudhoney’), his sultry, stacked and overheated wife Sheila (Alaina Capri – rrroowwwww…) and stocky and handsome Barney Rickert (Ken Swofford), who comes off as a businessman of sorts, but is purposefully reluctant to elaborate. Cracker delivers the guests downriver in his motorboat, Dewey mixes the cocktails and chats, Coral waits tables and shakes a tailfeather for the clientele, and Babette performs an exotic top-of-a-cliff bonfire dance, culminating in a death-defying dive into the river below, before assuming her other duties as chief-cook-and-bottle-washer.
The plot starts to thicken when Rickert bribes Cracker to leave the three marooned at Hoople’s Haven overnight, and starts a hard-sell for Hoople to sell him the place, then and there. Meanwhile, Sheila starts stirring up sexy trouble and intrigue, parading her availability to Rickert and Hoople, and her willingness to cuckold the browbeaten Doctor out of bored spite. It doesn’t take long for her to lock onto Rickert, who’s up for whatever she’s serving. But Rickert’s an opportunist as well, and starts working on the Hoople girls in a progressively forceful and violent manner. Ultimately we learn that Rickert’s a city cop who has absconded with the booty from a big robbery, and wants the remote outpost to serve as an on-the-lam haven for himself. But just as he’s about to beast the innocent Coral, reclusive, hunky young heir-to-millions Lawrence Talbot arrives in another speedboat, chases Rickert away, and ingratiates himself with both the smitten Coral and her Dad. Talbot’s been the subject of celebrity radio reports, speculating on the whereabouts of the young, rich pleasure-baron. It turns out he’s just a quiet, friendly kid who wants to be left alone, and has boated down to Arizona for some R ‘n’ R.
Meanwhile, the overheated couple-switching, and Dewey’s distaste for it, reaches a turning point when Sheila and Rickert rope the Doctor and Babette into what they call a horse fight, but what we used to call a chicken fight – he’s in the water, she’s on his shoulders, first couple to go under loses. This particular chicken fight results in the Doctor dying of a heart attack, and Sheila’s alleged complicity (did she know her husband would collapse from a weak heart?) and Rickert’s ambivalence sours Dewey’s patience. He wants to take Talbot’s boat to Yuma to report the incident to the police and get the body taken care of. Rickert doesn’t want to be discovered, though, so he enlists Sheila to seduce Dewey to keep him from firing up Talbot’s boat, while Coral and Talbot are out doin’ what comes naturally. More bad news for Rickert arrives when Cracker is spied making his way along the river back to the Haven. Enough’s enough – Rickert grabs Dewey’s rifle and starts to make a final angry stand, and, at this point, he’s not too concerned with who’s still alive when he’s through.
Like ‘Lorna’ and ‘Motor Psycho’, there’s a pretty clear delineation between right-minded folks who want to lead peaceful, constructive, loving and hard-working lives, and the opportunistic scavengers who screw things up for them. In those previous films, Jim and Corey are, as Bill Clinton might say, doing everything right and getting nowhere anyway – but they’ve got The Love of a Good Woman and they’re true to their all-American convictions. Dewey’s character’s a little gnarlier – a war vet who’s ready for some peace and quiet in the middle of nowhere, but who figures he can still make a modest living by sharing his home with tourists. Babette’s a sensational sex-bomb wife, and daughter Coral couldn’t be cuter. But there’s a darker undercurrent – Dewey drinks pretty consistently, and is obviously still torn up about his first wife’s death, which leads him to be wildly jealous and overprotective of Coral. At one point he wakes from a semi-drunken nap, and, hallucinatorily mistakes a dancing, bikini-clad Sheila for Coral. Dewey almost takes Talbot’s head off when he finds he and Coral en flagrante on the beach. The man’s got some issues. It’s an interesting subtext to put up against Rickert, who turns out to be pretty overtly hard-boiled, and far more deserving of a bad fate than the complex but likeable Dewey.
As usual, Russ’ camerawork is superb. Again, he uses the starkness of the desert to frame and contrast the sensual and emotional fleshiness of the humanity on display. Hoople’s Haven is like a little Hawaiian tiki bar capsule of color and skin – it’s uncanny how foreign the buxom, beehived, bikinied Sheila looks here, while Babette, with many of the same visual qualities and assets, looks right at home. And, as Russ is usually his own cameraman, he simply doesn’t bother with panning or tracking shots, in any of his films. His editing enlivens the static set-ups, and establishes his unique visual rhythms. Which is a long way of saying that if you think this is a well-told visual story, you’re right, and that’s good all by itself. But if you’re more interested in angles, set-ups, blocking the actors, movement in space, and the nuts-and-bolts of how particular scenes are filmed and edited, then you may geek out at will – Russ owns the joint.
Pleasantly recommended – there’s still no outright nudity, but Russ is getting more and more comfortable with sexing up the landscape with as much femme flesh as he thinks the censors will bear. But moreover, Russ is branching out from the strict drive-in potboiler mentality and telling more expansive grown-up stories. It’s still not nearly as good as ‘Mudhoney’, but it’s a nice direction, and he nails it two movies down. 2008 rating: PG-13.
1967 also brings us Good Morning and Goodbye, a multi-character soap-opera with a far more citified tone. The film begins with a gorgeous nude woman running through the forest, a woman who will have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film. That’s Russ!! (That was Polsky!!) The opening narration, however, should be a lascivious touchstone for B-movie screenwriting classes. Burt Boland (the always reliable Stuart Lancaster) has it all, my friends – a successful career, a bunch of money, a friendly temperament, and a hot wife and daughter. Alas, he can’t keep the wife, Angel (Alaina Capri again, who’s still totally rrroowwwww…) happy where it counts, partly due to his own insecurities, and moreover because of his wife’s apparently insatiable nymphomania. He had the same problem with his first wife, and he sends her money as much for alimony as to keep her away from his blond amazon teenage daughter, Lana (Karen Ciral). Where has Burt gone wrong? Is he going to squander his second chance at happiness with Angel as well?
Lana hangs out with the handsome rich boy Ray, dashing around in sports cars and dancing to the radio at the lake. It seems natural to want to take the next step with Ray, but he’s just up for his own noncommittal good times, and can’t see getting serious with Lana. She’s also torn by the nastiness of Burt and Angel’s marriage, and fears that her good passionate intentions will inevitably sour, just like her folks’.
Meanwhile, Angel spends her away-from-home time banging a smug ladykilling hunk named Stone, a beefy quarry worker who also tears off a piece of his slovenly co-worker Herb’s wife, Lottie, then beats hell out of him when Herb catches them in the act. “You’ve been giving too much of what everybody else is gettin’. You don’t learn anything from this beating, you’re a dummy.” Stone’s also on a first-name basis with the local barmaids. The man’s busy.
The film takes a serious left turn into deep goofiness when, while wandering in the woods, pensive and forlorn, Burt discovers, and is then captured by, a beautiful and mysterious enchanted wood nymph, who introduces him to the primitive pleasures of her ancient, time-honored ministrations. Only the unsinkable Haji (Yaayy!) could save this character from outright jawdropping silliness, and I suspect that’s a minority opinion. The character seems to be modeled after a background extra from a community theater production of ‘Salome’, blended with one of those Egyptian vestal virgin types shimmying and sashaying behind Imhotep pre-mummification, with choreography by Tina Turner. But Haji succeeds where mortal women have failed, and Burt gets his mojo, his black-cat bone, and his John the Conqueroo all back in one fell swoop.
Returning home, Burt lays the pipe for Angel to inspiring support from the radio farm report; “young hens moved well, offerings were fully adequate in all weights of young toms…” but wait! Lana has just walked in on them, and she’s been with Stone, too! Rode hard and put up wet! NOW what’s Burt gonna do? He’s on his way to the big confrontation with Stone when he runs into Ray, who finally wants to settle down and marry Lana. Great idea, son, now get outta my way! And with a helping hand from the cuckolded Herb, Burt gives Stone what’s what with some serious fistwork and reclaims the dignity of his family.
There’s enough softcore smolder to the soap-opera aspects here to counteract the silliness of the Haji deal. Nonetheless, I can’t really call this film a success. I recommend it for completists. It’s mostly well written, well shot, it’s definitely a Russ movie, far better than his worst but not nearly as good as his best. There are just so many other good Russ movies that I can’t put this one anywhere near the upper half of the list. 2008 rating: PG.
One other note is that this was the second of only two Russ movies for the impressive Alaina Capri, who shouldn’t be overlooked as the template for The Vixen, Russ’ archetypical muse-to-be in most of his later movies. The Vixen is insatiable – mortal men don’t have a hope of keeping up with her. It’s only her graciousness and good taste, in spite of her appetites, that lead deserving men to be allowed to stay with her. We’re a film away from ‘Vixen’, and Erica Gavin, and all hell breaks loose in the seventies after her.
And, again, the films Russ doesn’t quite nail lead to the films that he does. And Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers (1968) takes its place as one of the most thrillingly efficient softcore soap operas ever made.
The film revolves around the Red Carpet, a cocktail lounge with strippers run by the enterprising, but easily distracted, Paul Lockwood (both the character’s name and the actor’s as well). It takes Russ less than ten minutes to establish that the bar is doing well by the locals, that Paul slips out occasionally to Claire’s brothel for some action on the side, despite being married, and that the Red Carpet is about to be robbed by a couple of pros (Duncan McLeod and Robert Rudelson).
Claire (Lavelle Roby) entices Paul out of the bar on this particular night to introduce him to her latest employee, Christiana, a talkative Amish-raised blonde who knows her way around the Kama Sutra and a straight razor. The shaving scene is pretty bold, sexually, but Russ is very subtle about the psychological aspects of shaved genitals as well. It, of course, reminds me of the similar scene in Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers’, where Eva Green’s Isabelle is excited by the prospect of shaving Michael Pitt’s character, only to have him react angrily to the idea of being infantilized. The removal of pubic hair isn’t just about the aesthetics of too much hair – it brings the shavee back to a pre-pubescent state. The thirty-ish Paul drunkenly admits to feeling ‘twenty years younger’. Jan Sinclair’s Christiana stays sunnily chatty throughout the whole scene, but it’s a great allegory for the rest of the movie – people taking what seems to be reasonable, consenting advantage of each other, heedless of the much darker undercurrents their actions will really trigger. When they actually start making love, Russ parallels the boudoir oohs and ahhs with scenes of two little Amish kids flying a kite.
While the intrepid Christiana moves on to other clients, Claire takes over keeping the indefatigable Paul entertained. While the soundtrack jazzily riffs on Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto, Claire starts nuzzling, and proceeds to convince Paul that maybe an interest in classical music would temper his voracious sexual appetites – something like Richard Strauss’ ‘Don Juan’, or Hindemith’s ‘Mathis der Maler’ – Erich Leinsdorff’s conducting Friday night… and as the heated action increases between them, we see the water fountains of the Philharmonic at the Music Center providing visual counterpoint to Paul and Claire’s, umm, state of transport, much like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly’s famous Parisian fireworks show. Claire is a great character, working against typical sixties casting to portray a very sexy, very canny, very cultured black businesswoman. And there’s an especially nice twist for her character near the end.
What’s really great about this sequence is that Russ has laid down a lot of exposition and characterization, generated some softcore-but-substantial sexual heat, had some clever visual fun without defusing some pretty dark subtextual overtones, and we’re not even a third of the way through the film yet. There’s some tremendous narrative efficiency being wielded here, but you never feel like, as Joe Bob Briggs used to say, there’s too much plot getting in the way of the story.
Paul eventually makes his way home to find his long-suffering wife, Kelly (Anne Chapman) thoroughly disgusted by his boozed-out, oversexed condition. His partner, Ray, has been calling – that night’s dancer has upped and quit, and they’ve got to replace her to keep the customers happy. Paul’s too woozy, and horny, to deal with business, and has his forcible way with the humiliated and angry Kelly before passing out altogether. Kelly explodes – she flies out of the apartment, goes to the club and takes over as the night’s featured topless dancer, much to the delight of Paul’s clientele, Paul’s infatuated partner, Ray, and, of course, the robbers, who are still there waiting for the place to close.
She is, of course, sensational. But near the end of the night, she succumbs to her despair and shame, breaking out in tears over her horrible marriage and her desperate attempt to feel wanted by dancing topless for a roomful of boozing lechers. Ray comforts her as well as he can, and offers himself as a more gentlemanly alternative to her dog husband. Kelly does her level-minded best to push him off, but ends up going back to his place for a carniverous hook up in his pool, tastefully augmented by Russ’ intercutting… demolition derby footage! Russ may not be subtle, but he’s effective.
With the bar cleared out and closed, at long last, our two robbers get to work on the club safe for the tons of cash from a very successful night. But Paul wakes up at home, and, finding Kelly gone, heads for the club. Hearing him enter, the robbers take him out and tie him up. Meanwhile, Kelly decides she needs to end her night of reckless abandon, and insists that Ray take her back to her car… at the club. All three of them are eventually trussed up and at the mercy of the thugs, who are having trouble getting into that safe…
The denouement is somewhat predictable, but there’s a nice twist or two before the very end, and Russ doesn’t oblige himself to tie up every loose end or unresolved question.
I first saw this film over twenty years ago, and I like it even better now. Russ takes a number of late-sixties-thriller clichés and expands them to create a genuinely terrific film. The robbery-caper set-up, the opportunist squandering his happy home for cheap thrills, the neglected wife who reaches the breaking point and lashes out, conflicted between her liberation and her guilt – all of the made-for-TV intrigue we’ve seen over and over. It’s especially effective because the overall context of the film is so different from Russ’ usual settings. This is a very urban film, shot almost exclusively in interiors. No deserts, no rural cabins, no speeding cars on dirt roads. The opening shot of the movie is trademark Russ non-sequitur – red and black sports cars in the desert speeding past a naked, helmeted dancing flagwoman. If Russ’ perfect movies are about Speed, Sex and Violence, then he’s going to plant speed smack dab at the beginning of the picture, even if that’s the only place it’ll ever show up. The sex and violence take care of themselves over the course of the story. By 1968, it was already apparent that the production code was going to be supplanted by the MPAA ratings system, and Russ was far less concerned with censorship. He, in fact, welcomed the ‘X’ rating as a marketing tool. The sex and nudity are still pretty softcore here, but it was a lot for 1968, nonetheless. Special prurient kudos to Jan Sinclair as Christiana, Lavelle Roby as Claire, and Anne Chapman as Kelly, easily one of Russ’ most beautiful actresses.
Highly recommended. It’s probably end up in my top five, but I’m reassessing the entire oeuvre, so we’ll see where it ends up in January, after Russ Part III. 2008 rating: a solid ‘R’. A very hot movie, with tasteful but frequent nudity. I’m also distressed to see it’s NOT available through Netflix, a glaring omission that I hope they’ll remedy soon.
There’s a lot to like about Russ Meyer’s self-created filmmaking culture, and here’s one of my favorite aspects: John Furlong played Calif in the admirable ‘Mudhoney’, and Dr. Ross in ‘Common Law Cabin’. In ‘Finder’s Keepers…’ he’s one of the extras in the crowd at the Red Carpet, and he’s credited as the film’s gaffer! John Moran is all over the place as well as actor and writer. Anthony James Ryan, the handyman in ‘Eve and the Handyman’, is credited as an associate producer for many of the later films. There are a number of Russ’ friends, old army buddies and working cohorts who reappear in wildly different places from film to film. Here we find Robert Rudelson, the odious Feeney in ‘Finders Keepers…’ was the screenwriter for Russ’ greatest box office success, the legendary Vixen (1968).
‘Vixen’ was the film that catapulted Russ Meyer out of the cult drive-in circuit into genuine box-office heaven. Made for $47,000, it made over $25 million, outlandish numbers for 1968. I know for a fact it ran at the Loop Theater in Chicago for a year and a half, and had at least that long a run in Seattle.
So what was the hubbub, bub? Aside from some imported low-budget European art films like ‘I Am Curious (Yellow)’ and ‘Inga’, ‘Vixen’ was one of the first American films to secure the brand new ‘X’ rating. And despite the usual hue and cry from the bible-belters, the film actually received a lot of good notices, not the least of which was Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. It got great word-of-mouth as well for being really sexy without being an outright stag film, and for having a genuinely good, often funny plot.
But sexy is as sexy does, and theatergoers had never run into a character like Erica Gavin’s Vixen Palmer. Russ’ definitive embodiment of his Vixen archetype, Vixen wants, and gets, sex all the time, entirely on her own terms. Her easygoing Canadian bush-pilot husband, Tom, keeps a steady stream of good-looking urban adventurers (and potential lovers) moving through their idyllic cabin getaway, and when the sportsman business is slow, there’s always a Canadian Mountie around when you need one. Tom’s blissfully unconcerned about her intramural activities – she’s always there for him, and he’s always there for her. He’s content to be part of what he sees as a perfect marriage, leading the bush-pilot life he loves, and never bothers to beg the question. Russ also decided to never, ever ask Erica Gavin to tone it down. Her squealing gyrations of pleasure, her mega-shrew screaming matches, her ‘what is this thing called love’ semi-bewildered lesbian rapture with the wife of a client, her mugging winks and glances; her entire shameless array of reckless abandon is lovingly captured by the best cinematographer and acting coach she’ll probably ever work with. I can’t imagine Ms. Gavin ever had this much fun again.
But far from being just a fluffy sex-bomb, Vixen brings a disconcertingly dark passion with her. A fling in the woods with the aforementioned Mountie is interrupted, for a split second, by the Mountie playfully pulling her back for more. “Don’t grab my arm like that,“ she flares, and the look on her face and the vehemence of her protest is one of those “Whoah…!” moments that feels like a trapdoor just opened under your feet. Vixen’s layabout brother is staying with them, and his friendship with the black American draft-dodger Niles sets Vixen off into aberrant rage. These days we can see Vixen’s virulent racist streak with an ironic Tarantino-influenced humored distance, but it’s hard to speculate on whether the audiences of the sixties saw this as over-the-top surrealist humor or were genuinely provoked by it. I think the majority just found humor in the audacity of it. It’s a problematic aspect of the character – ultimately, I credit Russ for going over the top rather than shying away. It’s pretty hard to take her hatred of Niles seriously when she tells him to go find a white girl to rape while she’s in bed with her own brother. You either find that funny, or you don’t. Forewarned is forearmed.
Rudelson’s script is a pretty admirable compendium of Meyer motifs from other Russ films. He brings back the heroic opening narration, extolling the virtues of the Canadian wilderness and the intrepid culture of bush pilots. Niles and Vixen’s brother Jud are bikers, which make them adventurers of a different sort in Russ’ book. And Russ is obviously delighted with the outdoor locations after the urban claustrophobia of the excellent ‘Finders Keepers…’ And there are some new novelties as well – Vixen’s sultry fish-dance has to be seen to be believed, and Rudelson pays broad, humorous homage to some of Russ’ old-school Cold War inclinations with a deeply goofy I’m-hijacking-your-plane-to-Cuba episode. John Furlong even makes yet another cameo appearance as a plane mechanic with a godawful British-Australian-Irish accent.
Recommended. Sexy, funny, and surprisingly entertaining. The stuff that doesn’t work fails because they took it too far rather than backed off and played it safe. I’d also offer that this is probably your best First Russ Meyer movie – it covers a lot of bases, offering a nice sampling of Russ’ audacious sociocultural attitudes and filmmaking chops. 2008 rating: R. Nudity, sexual situations, sexual activities. If you like that sort of thing. (WooHooo!)
So, Part II began a little out of chronological order, and it’ll end that way, too. ‘Cherry, Harry and Raquel’ was actually shot before our next film, and was released almost simultaneously with ‘BVD’, ‘Cherry’ in April 1970, ‘BVD’ June 1970. But I think ‘Cherry’ is more of a piece with the other seventies work, while ‘BVD’ is its own gloriously unique self-contained masterwork.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), like ‘Faster, Pussycat!’ is justly revered as one of the finest counterculture films of the late twentieth century. For one thing, it’s one of the most visually dense films ever made, in the same league as ‘Lola Montes’ or Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’. The numerous party scenes are textbooks of moving crowds through space within the frame, and the smaller one, two, three and four-character shots are beautifully arranged and shot – in this film, the camera loves everybody. And Russ would be the first to tell you how lucky he was to have Roger Ebert to write the script. Drawing on an encyclopedic array of cultural trivia, from Shakespeare, the Nazis, Ealing comedies, Douglas Sirk, Richard Lester and TV soap operas to Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, Phil Spector and the Manson murders, Ebert wrote a swift and efficient howler of cultural satire that perfectly complemented Russ’ own rapid fire images and editing.
The film starts with the three members of rawkin’ combo The Kelly Affair, Kelly (Dolly Read, the future Mrs. Dick Martin of Rowan and Martin fame, who has trouble swallowing her British accent to play a not-so-wholesome Midwestern gal), Casey (former Playmate Cynthia Myers) and Pet (short for Petronella, played by converted fashion model nubian Marcia McBroom), doing their best to enliven the senior prom in Westmont, North Palookaville. Luckily, Kelly has learned that she’s in line to inherit some family money, and brings the gals and her boyfriend/manager Harris (David Gurian) to Los Angeles to meet her only other living relative, fashion maven Susan Lake (B-movie veteran Phyllis Davis), in hopes of picking up a little cash to advance the fortunes of the band. Kelly visits Susan (“Yes, operator, that’s Quant. Q-U-A-N-T.”) at her studio, a scene of seemingly constant backstage pandemonium, Fellini-esque fashion and a far-too-short cameo by Haji (Yaayy!). Aunt Susan and Kelly get along famously, and Susan offers to give Kelly a third of the one million dollar inheritance, much to the chagrin of Susan’s business manager and lawyer, Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod, the professional thief from ‘Finders Keepers…’). Susan then invites the girls to a party at famed music producer Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell’s place. And the descent into Hell begins!! The amiably reptilian Z-Man gives Kelly the tour, describing the partygoers with Barnum’s showmanship filtered through Oscar Wilde on purple microdot (“This is My Happening, and it Freaks Me Out!”). The man makes Austin Powers look like Arnold Horshak from ‘Welcome Back Kotter’. Amidst the partygoers is: Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives, porn queen: Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), blond surfer-dude bad actor and gigolo; moody and beautiful lesbian Roxanne (Erica Gavin, 180° away from ‘Vixen’), and Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page, the draft dodging target of Vixen Palmer’s racist spite in ‘Vixen’), the friendly black law student who’s got Meet Cute With Pet written all over him. Also peppered in are LaVelle Roby from ‘Finders Keepers…”, Princess Livingston, the rubber-faced, barking mad Maggie Marie from ‘Mudhoney’, and Haji (Yaayy!) in black body paint. Choons by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, no less! And the bartender is Nazi-in-hiding Martin Bormann.
Inevitably, Z-Man invites the girls to play a song for the party, and they, predictably, kill. Z-Man, transported by inspiration, offers to manage them, and changes their name to The Carrie Nations. A long montage later, they’re rich and famous, with Harris being forlornly left out in the proverbial cold. He starts shacking up with the predatory Ashley, drowning his sorrows with booze and drugs, while Kelly falls for the opportunistic Lance. Lance is well aware of Kelly’s newfound inheritance, and manipulates her into seducing Porter Hall to get him out of the money picture. Then, Lance falls out of Kelly’s good graces for beating hell out of Harris, who, having been chewed up, spit out and called a fag by Ashley, visits the shy and retiring Casey, and, in an alcohol-fueled night of passion, ends up getting her pregnant. Meanwhile, Pet meets heavyweight boxer Randy Black, succumbs to his virile charms, and Emerson walks in on them getting some. A fight ensues, with Emerson getting the wrong end of the outcome. A mystery man from the past re-enters Susan’s life. Roxanne sees Casey through her abortion, and they start a relationship that dares not speak its name. And with the girls at their most famous, most fabulous and most miserable, Harris jumps out of the catwalk during a Carrie Nations TV appearance, attempting to commit suicide on national television by splattering his viscera on the hapless girls… and fails! He’s a paraplegic, but he’s still alive! And we’re not even two-thirds of the way through this film! Whew!!
So where do Russ and Roger take all this? I won’t spoil it with too many details, but the Manson murders were a cause célèbre during the film shoot, and our intrepid filmmakers saw an opening in their existing portrayal of the Phil Spector-like Z-Man to take things completely over the top. Z-Man invites Lance, Roxanne and Casey over for a private party that starts out like an acid-nudged love-in and swiftly turns into Z-Man’s personal psychosexual abattoir. Sex! Drugs! Ultra-violence! Bad taste! I can only speculate, but I’d swear to God that Roger Corman wished for the rest of his life that he’d been in on this film.
Structurally, visually, script-wise, this film is a little miracle of entertainment. So what could be the problem? Well, my biggest regret is it’s so damned seventies. Films like ‘Mudhoney’ and ‘Motor Psycho’ and even ‘Finders Keepers…’ still hold up today – the period is unobtrusive background. But ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ just doesn’t have that kind of shelf life. In some ways, it’s the curse of cultural satire – everything that smartly nailed the status quo then tends to become – gasp – Camp now. And I freely admit, as Camp, this film is spectacular. But the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film, in the seventies, probably left more than a few jaws on the floor. Whereas, now, it’s all just another part of the overall anachronistic weirdness.
Nonetheless, it’s highly, highly recommended. It’s the biggest budget he had ever worked with, and every well-spent dime is on the screen. His other big-budget Fox film, ‘The Seven Minutes’, was, by all accounts, an unwatchable failure that had Russ swearing off of the big studios for good. But, for all of the campy anachronism the film has had to bear up under over the last thirty-eight years, it’s still a big, fat, fun great time at the movies. 2008 rating: PG-13.
Part III will appear sometime in January, and feature most of the work he’s best known for: Cherry, Harry and Raquel, the little-seen Blacksnake!, SuperVixens, Russ Meyer’s Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens.
1969 – Ebert interviews Russ
“Incredibly Strange Film Show” on the BBC