Bite Size: Passport To Shame/Room 43 (1958)

From the 1910s to the dawn of the swinging 60s, an introductory “square up” was a common component of exploitation cinema. It might be a simple text crawl, or if budget allowed, a filmed introduction from a supposed “expert” or authority figure. In either case, the square up was another safeguard against snip happy censors. The standard claim was that the illumination of racy or disreputable subject matter worked in service of the public good, saving audience members from the characters’ sad fates. It also served the far less noble aim of providing the audience a juicy preview of what flavor of forbidden fruit the film was about to offer.

In this case our expert is Robert Fabian, a long time Scotland Yard inspector who found his life and work fictionalized in early television police procedural Fabian Of The Yard. Sitting solemnly behind a desk he vouches for Passport To Shame as a valid look into the real life mechanics of London’s perpetual prostitution problem (read: his check cashed), and how innocent girls end up mixed up in vice.

The film opens with a fantastic sidewalk level tracking shot that gets the point across better than lectures ever could. The camera bobs and weaves at knee level through pickpockets, prostitutes, gamblers and fences going about their nightly business. A woman’s high heeled shoe nearly blots out this stylized street view. The camera pulls up to reveal a gorgeous blonde, a kindly stranger shouting a warning before she can immerse her immaculate white pumps in the gutter’s dirty rainwater.

Johnny (France’s favorite American import Eddie Constantine) is a down on his luck Canadian, working as a cabdriver in London . After taking out a hefty loan on a new cab, the brand new car is totaled in a hit and run a few days later. A man named Nick (Herbert Lom) claims he saw the accident, but not the license plate number of the lorry. As the pair strike up a conversation, Johnny mentions his military service, and Nick offers to help settle his debts, as karmic repayment to another Canadian that had saved his life in combat.

Meanwhile, Malou (Odile Versois) is a Parisian waitress who is having an equally bad run. Her employer accuses her of stealing from the register. A wealthy English tourist named Agatha (Brenda de Banzie) offers to settle her debts, and take her from France to England to avoid prosecution for the theft. Agatha is in need of a live in ladies companion, and decides Malou would be perfect for the position.

At first, everything seems perfect, as Malou enjoys her new job as an aide and the comparative luxury it affords her. However, there is some trouble with getting the young woman a work permit. Lacking other options, a green card wedding is suggested. As it just so happens, Agatha’s good friend Nick knows just the right bridegroom. Johnny needs money, Malou needs a husband. She reluctantly agrees to the marriage in name only.

Of course, Nick and Agatha are working in tandem, and all of these insanely complex machinations are in service to making Malou into the star of Nick’s stable of high class call girls. The “boarding house” next door to Agatha’s place is a bordello for his street level workers. The only prostitute allowed into both halves of the house is Vicki (Diana Dors) the vamp to whom the audience was indirectly introduced in the opener.

Passport To Shame keeps its melodramatic plot moving briskly along, quickly braiding its rather complex character threads into the promised familiar framework of a vice ring/white slavery scare film. Our young newlyweds discover the truth of their situation only after they’ve parted ways. Alone in a new country and dependent on her malicious keepers, Johnny feels duty bound to save Malou from a situation he inadvertently helped create.

What could be another unremarkable piece of screechy faux moralism becomes an effective and entertaining B picture, shot with an abundance of style by future BAFTA nominee Alvin Rakoff. From the opening shot cleverly incorporating some visual code from the silent era, to positioning Nick’s ladies of the night directly in front of a “Sale” sign, he incorporates a ton of winking symbolism throughout, the varied moods and tones easily kept up with by Ken Jones’ junk drawer jazz club score.

Abandoning the crisp black and white of the bulk of the film, he turns a standard issue for this subgenre drug hallucination sequence into a manic bit of fog machine fugue state that sits in between modern dance performances and dime store Expressionism. While there are plenty of exploitation entries that bump into arresting aesthetics almost by accident, the level of purposeful polish here feels refreshing.

All of the characters are drawn broad, but they never tilt fully into cartoon camp due to an above average cast. Eddie Constantine’s Johnny is an affable mix of tough guy and working stiff, Odile Versois’ Malou sweetly winsome, a good girl in an ugly world. Herbert Lom is reliably effective as a career gangster who hides his cruelty under a veneer of fine cognac and an expensive car coat. While she’s billed first, Diana Dors’ Vicky is more of a supporting player. However, she’s never looked more lovely than she does here, and her dryly droll line reading when questioned about her job as an “entertainer” is the perfect amount of jaded for the script’s designated hooker with a heart of gold.

As is typical of British productions of this era, Passport To Shame is a bit more demure, content wise, than its American counterparts from roughly the same time period. The film never misses an opportunity to showcase the spectacular Ms. Dors in lingerie or painted on wiggle dresses, but there’s no overt nudity. Despite the square up, this isn’t as much a sexploitation film as it is a crime thriller with a bit of bonus titillation served on the side.

While lit and shot like a like a late period noir, Passport To Shame has none of that genre’s amoral black heart. The darker dregs are levied by scenes with a breezy brightness, both halves of that duality feeling like cohesive parts of the film’s oversized pulp novel universe. A fleet clearing cabbie versus gangster brawl and a wronged prostitute’s flaming revenge coexist right alongside salt of the earth types who would never cross up a pal and a charming romance with a fully orchestrated original love theme.

Passport To Shame isn’t the most transgressive of exploitation films, nor are its larger plot beats the most original. However, with its superior attention to craft, you’d be hard pressed to find a low budget vice drama that’s more zippily entertaining, British or otherwise. The only real shame in Passport is how few modern exploitation fans have ever heard of (much less seen) the movie.

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