Bite Size: Cover Girl Killer (1959)

A great title can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing when watching films from the more forgotten corners of cinema history. It might be a massive spoiler (Three On A Meathook), an alluring misdirection (The Night God Screamed) or a purely aesthetic choice for maximum promo potential ( I Drink Your Blood).

1959’s Cover Girl Killer mostly belongs in the second category. There is indeed a killer stalking magazine glamour girls, but the film isn’t anywhere near as lurid as the name or the setting would imply. If you can’t be sleazy, you may as well be smart, and Cover Girl Killer is a surprisingly satisfying exercise in British made bottom of a double bill shenanigans.

Wow! is a cheesecake enterprise, a magazine that’s “not for people who can read”. It’s a favorite of Pop (Dermot Kelly), the wizened manager at the Soho strip club that serves as a recruiting tool for many of the periodical’s centerfolds.

On this particular night, Pop’s having a chat with a literal stage door Johnny (Spencer Teakle). The nervous and nerdy journalist is writing a “A Day In The Life Of A Showgirl” piece for Wow!. Well he was, until his subject, savvy showgirl June (Felicity Young), brushes him off. Once she catches on that an unpaid writer couldn’t possibly afford the swank places he’s been taking her, she assumes he’s a lying lech and shows him the door.

Gloria (Bernadette Milnes), the headliner of the show, isn’t quite as street smart. When a slick talking, rainslicker and toupee wearing “producer” fills her head with dreams of her own television show, she gleefully agrees to shoot public park pin up photos in the middle of the night for the man with the made up sounding name of Mr. Spendoza (Harry H. Corbett, Steptoe And Son).

She does timidly complain that all of these bizarre call times are messing with her beauty rest, and with a 10am appointment the following morning, she’ll “be dead”. Little does the poor woman know that it won’t even take that long, as the next shot we see is of her bikini clad corpse.

The Cover Girl Killer then follows a pretty standard police procedural formula, as Scotland Yard discovers that Gloria isn’t the only centerfold who has died mysteriously, and rushes to find the killer before he kills again… least until Wow! runs out of prospects for pin ups, and more sophisticated tactics are needed to draw the murderer out.

While it isn’t quite fair to call the Cover Girl Killer original or directional in any way, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the moments that it does subvert trope, with some above par drily droll dialog to boot. Johnny doesn’t draw a salary because he owns the magazine, which he inherited from his grandfather. He isn’t so self important to think he should be able to draw from the company coffers with his rookie journalism because he owns the place, nor is he invested in looking down upon his models for their occupations.

As for the lawmen, they aren’t nearly as dumb as is typical for this style of film, and when Johnny rushes to the station with his equally rudimentary detective work, Scotland Yard has already sussed out the killer’s M.O. They might be a touch too chatty for runtime padding purposes, but they aren’t complete morons.

While it is obvious from the first frame that the bespectacled, toupee wearing oddball is our killer, the fact that this isn’t his real identity is a clever footnote. What better way to disappear in a vice district than to play dress up as a bog standard raincoater?

Like many comedic actors cast against type, Harry H. Corbett is clearly enjoying the chance at a spot of villainy, and when the killer opts to taunt the police by offering a tip to their investigation in his “respectable” guise, he actually does turn in a fine little performance, with his subtle reactions to the police’s unflattering description of the culprit.

Like so much exploitation of the pre 1960 variety, the film (and its killer’s primary motivation) is the lurid outgrowth of cultural norms that required moralist hand-wringing at perceived immorality, while reveling in depictions of same for some flimsy veneer of public good and ethical purity. It isn’t sleaze for sleaze’s sake, it’s shedding light on what lurks in the shadows of society, and who could blame anyone for taking a long hard look at whatever the spotlight might reveal?

At just over an hour long, Cover Girl Killer is solidly competent, occasionally clever and never overstays its bargain bin welcome. If anything, its commitment to being utterly scandalized by a relatively tame pin up magazine seems delightfully quaint, a finger wag rather than the unfiltered Madonna/whore mean spiritedness of 1978’s The Playbirds, which has a very similar plot. Cover Girl Killer never quite delivers what it teases, but the bait and switch is a pretty pleasant one, all things considered.

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.

Bite Size: The Flesh Merchant/The Wild And The Wicked (1956)

We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. “- Hugh Hefner, as interviewed by Oriana Fallaci in the January 10th, 1967 issue of LOOK magazine

The girl gone wrong vice picture was another stalwart of early exploitation, with a endless parade of pretty young things moving to the big city seeking glitter and glamour, usually in show business. Despite men’s feelings on the matter, the women of exploitation cinema were certainly interested in curating mystery and a cosmopolitan air of casual difficulty, outside the limited confines of hearth, home and day dresses demanded by their former existences. The desire for more, be it material goods, sexual agency or the additional options afforded by financial independence is exactly what is used to lure these women into sex work, white slavery (non Caucasian characters are rarely afforded the same level of respectability or perceived innocence to warrant the same paternalistic, protectionist hysteria) or some hybrid of the two.

For all of his pretensions toward both the liberated and the libertine, Hefner’s quote shows he was no different (aside for a flair for personal opportunism) from any of the moralists of his day, or the production codes they created that mandated crime mustn’t ever appear to pay. The female protagonists of vice films may not be rounded up by law enforcement, but they are still punished in the end. Locked away from their former lives, tainted by their ambitions and implied to be deserving of whatever befell them before the credits rolled. You can be that difficult, mysterious woman…..but you’ll be forever marked by the filthy stain of wounded male ego. Had you just been content with your lot, none of this would have happened.

The Flesh Merchant is, on its face, a nondescript little exploitation film. The movie was indifferently directed by grindhouse journeyman W. Merle Connell (best known for the 1948 hygiene film Test Tube Babies) and dumped unceremoniously into the grindhouses in 1956. Typical of B fare, a spate of retitlings (The Wild And The Wicked, Sex Club, Dial 5683 for Love) and projectionist recuts makes information on the original conception of the film a bit tricky to track. Both “hot” (as seen on the Secret Key Archives Skin In The 50s DVD release) and “cold” (the print available most everywhere else) versions of the film exist, with a barely feature length runtime designed for the addition of additional loops to spice things up a bit.

22 year old Nancy Sheridan (Joy Reynolds) hops the bus to Hollywood where her estranged sister Paula (Lisa Rack) has had some success as a fashion model. Paula is far from thrilled by kid sister’s plans to stay awhile, and her reaction makes clear that modeling is probably not how she affords her fur coats and swank apartment.

Paula drops Nancy off at the bus depot the following morning. Nancy instead takes a cab to an art institute seeking models, the business card of which she stole from Paula’s desk. The nude modeling escalates into luxury prostitution at a resort like compound run by obvious Mafia stand ins. Soon Nancy is rooming with wise old broad Easy, and realizing the “guests” would like more than to take her picture.

This zippy little melodrama whizzes by, as necessitated by the scant 58 minute runtime. The cast of colorful characters (end of the line hooker Easy, a closeted male secretary at the art school, a goofy Chico Marx type brothel employee referred to only as Joker) are full of coded, delightfully suggestive dialog clearly designed to skirt right up to the knife’s edge of what the mores of the day would allow, while cluing the audience in with a nudge and a wink. When young Nancy is asked if she has any art modeling experience, she chirps “Yes, naturally”. A “naturalist” was a common synonym for “nudist” at that time.

There’s plenty of filmy peignoirs and bathing costumes and sheer dresses, as well as a brief bit of actual nudity even in the “cold” cut. In a refreshing change, where the loops are meant to be inserted isn’t hugely jarring or distracting. Given there there isn’t much visual craft here other than the beauty of actresses, having the more salacious elements passably blend into the main plot definitely helps the overall experience.

Perhaps most interestingly, while The Flesh Merchant hits all of the standard beats of a vice picture, Nancy is given far more agency than most of these stock plots usually allow. While initially a bit shocked by nude modeling, she calculates a beat and playfully drops her draping in an alluring pose. When she catches on to the true nature of “The Colony”, Nancy is more afraid of her gangster employers than the work itself. Soon she is getting quite used to champagne cocktails and diamonds on her wrists. Nancy’s already had the wholesome agreeable small town girl bit, has learned the rules of engagement, and has decided the brothel is definitely the better deal.

This leaves Paula to be the sanctimonious voice of era approved reason. Once the inevitable insanely improbable coincidence happens to make both sisters aware of the other’s true nature, she makes a second impassioned plea for Nancy to go home, before she misses her chance at Eisenhower era perfect domesticity. Paula then explicitly states she doesn’t know how to appeal to Nancy. You can see Paula realizing she’s projecting her own yearnings onto her younger sister, as her impassioned arguments run out of steam in an admission of futile frustration.

Paula makes one last ditch effort, bursting into the drawing room full of clients. Instead of charming them, makes an angry speech detailing her rage and disgust at the purveyors of sex, the men who buy it and all of the compromises that trade has forced her to make in her own life. Lisa Rack never made another film, and the role of moral scold is a rather thankless task. Her performance as Paula is surprisingly adept, and she delivers this final screed with believable conviction that she is trying to save young Nancy from that same fate.

Of course, the moral majority wins out in the end. Considering the stranglehold the expectations of happy domesticity and constant feminine cooperation had on this particular era, Nancy eschewing all of that, no matter how briefly, might just be the spiciest bit of content The Flesh Merchant has to offer.

Bite Size: She Demons (1958)

Irish McCalla was a popular pin up model whose brief acting career is probably best remembered for her titular turn on mid 50s television series Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle, a role for which she was cast when Anita Ekberg turned it down. While far from a dynamic actress, her statuesque 5’10” frame and nominal ability to deliver her lines gave her a modest edge over some of her fellow beauties looking to jump from the pages of men’s magazines to the silver screen.

1958’s She Demons is the only film appearance in her slim filmography where Irish was given top billing. Given the time frame and the jungle island setting, this was likely a bit of a calculated career move for all parties concerned. She wanted out of television, the film’s producers wanted a still somewhat recognizable name on which to hinge an otherwise unremarkable bit of budget genre fare.

Spoiled socialite Jerrie Turner (Irish McCalla) is sent off on a vacation cruise so her father can get his bratty daughter out of his hair (and his checkbook) for a bit. Unfortunately, the ship gets caught up in a hurricane, and crash lands on an uncharted island. Thankfully, square jawed tour guide Fred (Tod Griffin), sassy sidekick Sammy (Victor Sen Yung, whose list of credits is historical proof of just what kind of roles non Caucasian actors were unfortunately limited to in this era), and ship’s captain Kris (Charles Opunui, ditto) have all survived the wreck along with her.

Typical of someone used to hired help, Jerrie is less concerned with her crew or essential items like food or a radio than she is with the location of her powder blue cashmere shortie or a particular pair of toreador pants. The group’s troubles quickly move out of Gilligan’s Island territory, and into something more pressing. The seemingly empty island is actually filled with, you guessed it, “she-demons”. The creatures look like scantily clad human women from the neck down, but have horribly mutated faces, sharp fangs and a tendency towards random violence. To make matters worse, the one partial radio broadcast the group is able to receive indicates the US military is scheduled to use the island as a bomb testing site in less than 48 hours.

This sort of schlock was an even bigger barnacle than juvenile delinquency melodramas for hanging onto the bottom of a double bill for ungodly amounts of time. What distinguishes She Demons is just how many tropes it manages to pack into 76 minutes.

Baseline plot stolen from Bela Lugosi’s work in both 30s sci fi serials and 40s horror cinema?

Check to both of those, simultaneously.

Rampant exoticism and ethnic stereotyping used primarily in service of giving some blandly attractive white extras an excuse to shake it in sarongs?

Check, and it’s a fully choreographed number set to Les Baxter’s “Calypso”.

Mad scientist in attendance?

Absolutely, check. The villain isn’t just a mad scientist, he’s a Nazi mad scientist, Karl “The Butcher” Ostler (Rudolph Anders). He’s been holed up on the island with his foot soldiers since before the war ended, using the suspiciously pale “natives” as guinea pigs in a crazy scheme to restore the beauty to his burn scarred wife’s face. There’s also a henchman named Igor (Gene Roth) who pops up to add some early Nazisploitation style sadism to this whole affair, whipping an escapee and tossing the girls into bamboo cages when its not their turn on the operating table.

Had writer/director Richard E. Cunha managed to shoehorn in some half baked voodoo angle, this film could have filled the Bingo card. That said, the final act is a nice surprise as it’s Jerrie, not unseasoned potato salad Fred, who saves the day. She manages to grow both a spine and a sense of resourceful priority quickly enough to save herself and her staff before the stock footage of US Air Force bombers is scheduled to show up.

This being the 50s, Jerrie ends up doing so in an evening gown, and Fred still gets the romantic hero treatment in the last 5 minutes despite being basically useless. It’s still a notably refreshing change for a film of this ilk to give its leading lady a bit of character arc. Even if that character arc is “self involved spoiled brat” to “self involved spoiled brat that manages to appropriately wield a champagne bottle and a set of keys to spring the men….. because there is absolutely no way in hell she’s voluntarily paddling 300 miles to the mainland in a rowboat”.

Bite Size: Chained For Life (1952)

Daisy and Violet Hilton were a set of English born conjoined twins, with a life story that is arguably stranger and decidedly more exploitative than any of the fictions created during their long career as entertainers. Born in 1911, their poverty stricken mother sold them outright, and they began touring with the sideshow as toddlers.

Daisy and Violet were trained as singers, dancers and musicians (Daisy played violin, while Violet preferred a saxophone). The combination of skills allowed the girls to become a sensation outside of the sideshow, and they played to capacity crowds in the comparatively more respectable burlesque and vaudeville houses.

After years of abuse and wage theft, the Hiltons successfully sued their guardian and her husband for emancipation and financial damages in 1931. Finally free to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they continued to tour as the Hilton Sisters Revue, took a well deserved vacation cruise, and made an appearance in Tod Browning’s Freaks.

While the 1932 film is now regarded as a classic of early cinematic horror, there was a massive backlash at the time regarding the perceived obscenity of such a sympathetic and overt portrayal of “oddities”. With their very existence deemed indecent for polite society and a sea change in popular music and entertainment on the horizon, the Hiltons’ drawing power and fortune quickly dwindled into a quagmire of financial problems and doomed publicity stunt marriages.

By 1952, the sisters were dead broke. With a over a decade of misfortunes behind them and an ever narrowing field of prospects, they signed on to make a film for exploitation producer George Moskov. Chained For Life lets schlock imitate life, incorporating some of the pair’s actual troubles into the potboiler plot.

Opening in an suspiciously jury-less courtroom mid murder trial, the film’s narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks as each of the principles takes the stand. Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton (Daisy and Violet Hilton) are the headliners of a vaudeville act. With box office receipts slipping, their sleazy manager (Allen Jenkins) comes up with a can’t miss publicity stunt. The theater will hold a mock wedding for one of the siblings. After Vivian declines, he arranges the faux marriage for Dot. Andre (Mario Laval) is a sharpshooter in the show, and for his role as bridegroom is paid by the week.

Andre is what the parlance of the time would have called a “cad”, and is soon unsatisfied with both his salary and the fact that he can no longer shag his assistant with impunity. Slowly he puts his oily charm to work on Dot, convincing her to marry him for real. After grifting large chunks of her money, he jilts her via newspaper article after just a single day. Violet, never having approved of the scheme in the first place, avenges her sister’s broken heart by shooting Andre from the wings with one of his own pistols.

There was potential here for a campy sort of grimy noir, but it fizzles rather quickly given the sisters’ flat delivery. They look uncomfortable at having to emote, and one or the other shoots a nervous look straight into the camera at multiple points in the film. Their real life marriages ended in an incompatibility of sexual orientations, not murder, but the meta echoes of bigamy accusations, golddigging con artists and earnest pleas for acceptance as separate individuals with basic human needs lends a distinctly uncomfortable air to the proceedings. Life had been far less than kind to the Hiltons, and here they are reenacting lurid recreations of some of their worst traumas just to keep a roof over their heads.

Perhaps in a concession to the limitations of the film’s stars, the love triangle plot is treated almost as an afterthought, while an above average slate of vaudeville acts pad the runtime to feature length. It’s an interesting time capsule of a vanished form of popular entertainment, and one of the better extant examples of the sisters’ singing, which they are far more adept at than dramatic acting.

None of it is quite enough to wash away the oily, seeping stain of obvious underhanded profiteering. The non ending of the film makes it worse. Having facilitated the desired sideshow, the film makers opted to hurry up and cut to credits with a cop out that will hark back to the frustration of anyone who had the unfortunate luck of having Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady, Or The Tiger? assigned to them as required reading in primary school.

Unsurprisingly, the Hilton Sisters never made another film. They made personal appearances at drive ins showing their modest filmography as a double feature. When even that small bit of reflected lemonlight tapered off, they worked as checkout clerks in a grocery store until their death in 1961.