Monday, April 12, 2010

Buxom, blonde, and dangerous to know: Cleo Moore and Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2 on DVD

Cleo Moore was born on Halloween, 1928 in Baton Rouge. At 15 she was briefly married to Huey Long’s youngest son, and had very likely already assumed the sort of undulating corporeal proportions that can make a guy break down and weep. She would eventually set records for the longest filmed kiss on live television, run for governor of Louisiana, and enter the world of real estate before dying of a heart attack at the age of 44. But in the 1950s she was a star of sorts, the muse of eccentric Czech-born auteur Hugo Haas, slated at one point to star in a bio-pic of Jean Harlow, though I knew her only for her memorable cameo in Nicholas Ray’s
On Dangerous Ground (1952). If we shave off just one of its four titles, the recently released Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2 could just as easily be titled The Cleo Moore Signature Collection. The two-disc set serves as an introduction to a minor but nonetheless interesting career, one that speaks volumes about the role of women in postwar America.

The girls in these titles tend to not be all that bad, and the films certainly not all that noir. Too transparent for manipulation, Moore didn’t play the femme fatale. At the start of Haas’
One Girl’s Confession (53), Moore’s waitress steals $25,000 from her scumbag employer, hides it, and thereafter turns herself in. She becomes a model prisoner, and upon early release goes back to where she came from and, too deeply paranoid about people spying on her to recover her stash, takes another gig slinging drinks for a swarthy, lecherous gambler, played with terrific zest by Haas himself, who becomes chastely enamored with Moore, even after she nearly kills him. This strange tale of feminine self-reliance and the perils of coveting dirty money is highlighted by pleasingly bizarre plot twists and Haas’ distinctive use of close-ups. It’s a bit disappointing when Moore winds up content to be romanced by a horny fisherman, but in her private thoughts, conveyed through dreamy voice-over, she confesses that she’s genuinely drawn to him. He has clean fingernails, she thinks. “From all that salt water, I guess.”

“Caged men are separated only by a thick wall—from caged
women. The system is wrong…” So goes the over-heated opening narration of Women’s Prison (55), directed by Lewis Seiler from a script by Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur, and the mother of all babes-behind-bars movies. It’s an ensemble piece, and Moore has a smaller role here, co-starring with none other than Ida Lupino, who plays the stylish and sadistic supervisor of the female half of the penitentiary where all the action takes place, as well as Jan Sterling, who starred with Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (51), and Audrey Totter, veteran of several key noirs, such as Lady in the Lake (47), The Set-Up (49) and Tension (49). Despite Lupino’s prestige, Women’s Prison is about as trashy as you’d expect, given the period and the studio gloss, with hysterical inmates, saucy wisecracks, and a tawdry secret rendezvous, though there's little to suggest the subgenre’s token lesbianism. It’s perhaps a little fantastic that virtually all the women seem to do their time together in perfect harmony, exuding solidarity, but the pay-off comes when they organize to take over the joint with only a couple of knives and some ingenuity, and can only be suppressed by rifles, gas and the promise of revenge on Lupino.

Over-Exposed (56) begins when Moore’s snared in a police raid of a bar frequented by prostitutes and is ordered to leave town. She doesn’t, and instead is taken under the wing of a kindly old tippling photographer with a cat who runs in slow-motion. She learns the trade and adopts a new identity, trading in Lily Krenshka for Lila Crane—a name which would assume very different connotations only a few years later when given to Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho (60). She moves to New York, rises in the ranks of society and becomes a famous portraitist, at one point a guest on this bizarre television program where the host phones her celebrity guests at their homes instead of bringing them on the show. Her ambition is soured by greed and a growing distrust of everyone around her. The mafia connections responsible for her social position prove to be her undoing, but as hubristic as Moore’s heroine may be its immensely frustrating when the movie ends with her succumbing to the drab, condescending, paternal affections of journalist/conscience Richard Crenna, who would one day become Rambo’s father figure, and the film’s latent feminism nose-dives with the realization that no woman in her right mind would choose a career over becoming an obedient spouse. Over-Exposed would be Moore’s second-last credit, and even if she never quite embodied the truly independent bombshell in the movies, she seems to have made considerable strides over the remainder of her too-short life.

The sole non-Moore title in
Bad Girls, Vol. 2, which also lacks a female protagonist, is Night Editor (46), part of an unrealized franchise of wee-hour tales told by a big city newsman. A married cop witnesses a banker beat a woman’s brains in with a stick while trysting in some tall grass with the glamorous, wealthy, and equally married Janis Carter, excellent as the poisonous other woman. Some great location work and weird details, such as the old ethnic cop who habitually downs four glasses of buttermilk in a row, bring some flavour to an otherwise moralistic but entertaining thriller.

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