The Shame Of Patty Smith (1962)

In 1959, an unidentified caller alerted the staff of a California hospital to a body lying on the well manicured grass of the grounds. She was pronounced dead immediately, but the body was still warm, her handbag and the labels inside of her clothing having been carefully removed. The only clues to her life (and subsequent untimely death) were a distinctive locket, a delicate wedding ring on her left hand, and two mysterious needle marks.

The story was front page news, and the media attention brought forward family members who were able to identify the young woman as 16 year old Brenda Blonder Emerson. The headstrong daughter of a well to do family, she had recently eloped against her parents’ wishes. The official cause of death was an overdose of sodium pentothal. The subsequent investigation revealed a shady network of fly by night “clinics” and nebulously qualified “doctors” promising desperate young women the bodily agency the law denied them.

While underground abortions had long been reported by hospitals tasked with dealing with the terrible after effects, the high profile death of a wealthy white woman brought a new mainstream attention to the dangerous gauntlet long run by the poor and people of color in seeking reproductive choice. The manhunt and trial for those responsible for Brenda’s death was still enough of a hot topic that her story was used as the lede on a Saturday Evening Post expose on illicit abortion published in the spring of 1961.

The expose was the likely inspiration for Patty (later retitled as both The Case Of Patty Smith and The Shame Of Patty Smith). Filmed in the summer of 1961, but released in 1962, the basic beats are obviously ripped straight from the headlines of the period, in both the grand exploitation tradition and the “timely, topical, not typical” ethos of major studio dramas of the 30s and 40s.

Patty Smith (Dani Lynn, If a Man Answers) is fresh off of the bus from Kansas, having moved out to the coast just five months prior. In that time, she’s found a friend in her roommate, Mary (Merry Anders, Young Jesse James), a job as a secretary for a real estate agency, and a budding romance with the square-ish and square jawed Alan (Carleton Crane).

The pair are out on a date when Alan gets into a fender bender with three leather jacketed miscreants straight out of juvenile delinquency film Central Casting. The young punks mock both Alan’s straight laced nature, and his annoyance at the damage to his fancy car. Patty guides Alan away from further confrontation, reminding him that “there’s no winning with that kind”. Unfortunately, even the mildest form of a woman standing up for herself further angers the crew.

The gang follows the couple to a remote spot on the beach, doubly determined to show that mouthy Patty just what kind they are. What began as a minor mishap turns much darker, as the trio sexually assault Patty and force Alan to watch while held at knife point. Traumatized and shaken, Patty begins apologizing to Alan as they escape to their car. Despite being the victim of unimaginable trauma, the poor woman blames herself for both the assault and Alan’s own cowardice, helping him rationalize his inaction. Knowing she’s too ashamed to report the crime to police, Alan drops Patty at her door with a selfish admonishment to forget the whole thing, and an empty promise to call her later.

Six weeks later, Patty discovers she’s pregnant. Alan is studiously avoiding her phone calls and she’s lost her job in a mistake laden, trauma fueled fog. Patty doesn’t want to give birth to a product of assault, and she and Mary begin searching for a solution to her tragic predicament. Patty’s general practitioner lectures her on legality, and attempts to ship her off to a home for unwed mothers when she reveals that her conservative immigrant father would never accept her condition. Mary finds a doctor willing to break the law, but the pair don’t have his $600 fee (roughly $5000 in 2021 dollars), and the recently unemployed Patty is unlikely to receive a bank loan. Patty appeals to the mercy of her parish priest for the cash, but he condemns her to eternal damnation when he discovers the nature of her needed operation.

While the the topic at hand is firmly in the wheelhouse of roadshow style fare, The Case Of Patty Smith is a somber drama forced to wear the white coater trappings of an exploitation film by virtue of its subject and era. This was writer/producer Leo A. Handel’s only stint in the director’s chair on a feature, but he had a successful business producing 16mm classroom films, which is likely why the bursts of voiceover narration and factoid filled expositional scenes amongst the film’s authority figures carry a much more genuinely educational bent than the usual censorship evading veneer, in a very bold push to reconsider public policy and its side effects (a full 11 years before the landmark decision of Roe vs. Wade).

The film carefully avoids sensationalism, and while individual characters victim blame Patty, the movie itself is very clearly on her side, never castigating her for being a career girl, abandoning small town life or dating before marriage. This is underlined in the opening minutes of the film, when the narrator informs us Patty is “the average American girl, with average hopes and average problems”.

There’s no screeching moralism or lurid camp in the performances, and Dani Lynn is near instantly sympathetic as Patty. Initially determined even in the face of the nightmare she’s endured, it is heartbreaking as she makes herself sweet and small, full of apologies and earnest pleas to be heard and believed. Instead, everyone she turns to hides behind the performance of kindliness and earnest assistance, following the letter of the law (both secular and religious) to avoid addressing the intent of those same principles. So dedicated to the idea of preserving life, none of the men in the film give adequate weight to the actual life consequences for the innocent victim begging for help sitting in front of them, even as they privately acknowledge the horrors of the choices their inaction pushes her toward.

Unsurprisingly, it is Merry Anders’ Mary that is the only person in the film who truly hears and supports Patty, and the genuine warmth of their friendship is one of the few bright spots in a rather dark film. There’s no cattiness or competition in their interactions, only an almost maternal empathy and the sort of steely, sassy protectionism that Patty is too fragile to conjure up for herself in the face of the endless parade of emptily moralizing male authority. There but for the grace of luck or better sexual health education goes Mary, and she treats Patty just as kindly as she would want her fellow women to regard her if the roles were reversed.

Unfortunately, this is still 1962, and by the time the cowardly Alan finally emerges to hand Patty $60 and the address of a bar owner named Colbert (long working character actor Bruno VeSota) who has some very questionable “connections”, the audience knows exactly where the film is headed. Patty’s strength and Mary’s support are no match for the thunderous indifference toward female suffering that would make access to a fly by night underground clinic a profitable addition to the portfolio of shady services a man like Colbert provides in the backroom of a seedy bar.

In the final third, Patty‘s competent, but generally unobtrusive aesthetic takes a turn toward the terror this all is. Colbert spews smoke and casually suggests the already fallen Patty turn a trick or two to raise the $200 for her appointment. A pawn shop is lit like a jail cell, the diamond cross Patty pawns just another dingy trinket. Her journey to the floating “clinic” is full of shadowy corners and twisting staircases. By the time a chain smoking “nurse” pulls a filthy thermometer out of her pocket, leering at how pretty Patty is like the lecherous warden of a b movie women’s prison, what was already heart breaking has become a full on nightmare, all low lit terrors and the creeping dread of the inevitable. Because the bulk of the runtime is played appealingly straight, this sequence is more effective than many of the actual horror films of the same period. As Patty makes her doomed walk into the “doctor’s” (actually an unemployed pharmacist) makeshift surgery, I found myself biting my nails to the quick, stifling the urge to shout a warning at the screen.

When discussing vintage exploitation and horror films, there is often a certain comfortable remove from both the more harrowing aspects of the subject matter, and the retrograde ideas that often drive the narrative. There’s little real danger of atomic mutants, rabid hippies, or cannibals stalking the streets of urban centers. The ongoing work of multiple social justice movements, while far from done, have made notable strides toward a more progressive and inclusive society than the ones that produced these films.

What makes Patty so oddly affecting is how far we haven’t come in the nearly six decades since its release. Abortion is legal in the US, but both that status and actual access to the surgery itself (or non abortion related reproductive health services) are under perpetual attack. Sexual assaults remain under reported, and under prosecuted, when a victim does go forward with charges. The rationales espoused by various characters in the film for denying Patty assistance, both religious and secular, can be found nearly verbatim in recent conservative media thinkpieces (which I’m choosing not to hotlink so as not to heighten engagement for ideologies I’d prefer not to signal boost).

The real shame of Patty Smith is what an enduring stand in she is, not only for young women demographically like her, but as a signpost pointing towards the thousands of women who died needlessly for similar reasons. Those who weren’t deemed acceptable as tragic figures, or found worthy of front page headlines and thinly fictionalized films, who died alone on dirty kitchen tables or anonymously in hospitals from back alley butchery complications. For those born after 1973, it can be a bit too easy to take Patty’s fate for granted as a sad, melodramatic relic of an earlier era, secure in the knowledge that abortion can be safely performed in hospital settings. The sorrowful reality is that without vigilance regarding those protections, the dangerous consequences in the rearview mirror are much closer than they appear.

Bite Size: All The Sins Of Sodom (1968)

Joe Sarno was a pioneer of sexploitation cinema, and his best works are engaging tightrope acts between the arthouse and the grindhouse, combining the forbidden content the sticky seat masses desired with a distinct minimalist aesthetic that those supposedly too highbrow for such lurid fare could use as the tailor made excuse to buy themselves a ticket.

After shooting proto softcore hit Inga in Sweden, Sarno returned to his native New York to lens his next few films. All The Sins Of Sodom was shot back to back with Vibrations, with both movies released in 1968. While the US was in the midst of the roughie boomlet, All The Sins Of Sodom‘s influences lean more toward European cinema of the same approximate period, with a protagonist and setting reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and a bit of Ingmar Bergman’s (of whom Sarno was an admitted admirer) constant questioning of the complex mechanics of identity and desire. Livening up the cross continental reference mix is some biting dialog and a pulpy fixation on the creative professions as only a half step from vice dens, full of damaged, wanton seekers.

Henning (credited by IMDB as Dan Machuen, but uncredited on the print I saw, so proceed with caution) is a relatively successful (enough to go by surname only) photographer of cheesecake prints and art nudes, happy to live in his studio and draw from his models as single serving bed partners when the mood strikes. A fantastic session (in both senses) with the charmingly gamine Leslie (Maria Lease, see above) breaks the usual pattern, and the two begin what might be an actual love affair. However, his new muse is slowing his pace on paid assignments, and Leslie can’t quite emote what’s needed for Henning’s next project.

Protecting her 10%, Henning’s agent (Peggy Steffans, who was married to Sarno at the time, and fills in several roles behind the scenes) sends him a sultry brunette waif named Joyce (Marianne Provost, supposedly) who might better suit the brief. Henning is a preacher’s son, and full of the standard issue Madonna/whore complexes and sexual repression such an upbringing usually implies. He wants a model who can be the ultimate temptress, a Jezebel in high heels who embodies lust in its darkest forms. Joyce, with her jaded affect and free wheeling ways, has a dark carnality that Leslie lacks, and soon she’s making her home in Henning’s spare storage room and acting as his personal muse.

Deep in the throes of artistic obsession, Henning is the only one who doesn’t notice that Joyce’s libido fueled cunning goes farther than the photo series she’s posing for. Soon she’s woven herself into his personal life, driving a wedge between Henning and Leslie in the guise of assisting him in capturing his vision. Not content with her machinations, she also carries on a clandestine affair with one of Henning’s best models, a closeted (and obviously conflicted) lesbian.

It’s clear Joyce’s end goal is eventually to seduce Henning himself, and the closing in of a doomed love triangle is reflected in the sparse, claustrophobic nature of the production. There’s just a hint of ambient noise from the street below, the only music cue a rattling, rising heart of a drumbeat when things get steamy. Henning’s single mindedness in regards to his art, is capably echoed by set dressing that shows a living space that would better suit a monk than a swinging photographer.

Nearly the entire film takes placed in the cramped environs of Henning’s apartment/studio. Yet the tiny spaces feel distinct, with the studio lit hot and bright white, an empty canvas for Henning to fill with the models who act out the tableaux he conjures up. The photo shoots are expertly framed, and its one of the few instances in cinema (exploitation or mainstream) where you can see how the session as depicted would produce beautiful stills.

Meanwhile, Joyce’s storage room domain is an inky black underworld, like some shadow dwelling succubus for whom dragging someone into bed is only the first step in dragging them down, period. While there is a slight tentativeness in the sex scenes, it’s likely no coincidence that the stark lighting is focused on the faces, contorted in ecstasy that could also be agony, the literal translation of le petit mort made visual reality.

Despite the title, this isn’t as sinful or as overtly sexual as one might expect, with the sex scenes well integrated into the larger plot. There’s plenty of time to let each character expose their traumas and insecurities before all of these hurt people, hurt people. Sex is just another tool in the arsenal. While the ending of the film is predictable, the journey to that forgone conclusion is consistently engaging.

While there are definite moments of overacting from the less than experienced cast, all of them are far more capable than expected with oft barbed dialog. It’s Maria Lease’s Leslie who steals the show, full of spry sunshine followed by lovelorn fragility as she loses hold on Henning. In the film’s strongest scene, Henning directs Joyce to sexually stimulate Leslie as they shoot, and Leslie’s combination of arousal at the physical touch at odds with her revulsion for the conniving interloper is about as strong a performance as you are ever likely to see in this era of sexploitation film.

All The Sins Of Sodom, while not one of Sarno’s best known features, is probably one of the best arguments for his work being placed alongside with Radley Metzger’s in terms of erotica with ambition and style to spare, overdue for more mainstream reassessment and acclaim. Beautifully photographed in black and white, its a meditation on shades of gray, between love and hate, dedication and obsession, pleasure and pain. One definition of erotic is “to arouse desire”, and All The Sins Of Sodom is a tense, effective character study of the frustration it is to be driven by unquenchable need, sexual or otherwise.

Bite Size: Moonshiner’s Woman (1968)

No matter what illicit substance you’re selling, it’s never wise to start tapping into your own supply. Claude (Bill Crisp) drinks as much moonshine as he sells, and only puts the jug down long enough to scream at his pretty girlfriend Loralee (Linda Lee) for daring to disturb his libations by taking a walk.

Claude’s alcoholism and his judgement are both at rock bottom. When his big city business partner Mr. Jarvis (director Donn Davidson) notices that Claude’s been skimming off the top, he’s is quickly disposed of. Claude hasn’t even finished his excuse before he’s lying dead in the mountain dust. Mr. Jarvis considers Loralee partial payment for what he’s owed, and takes her away to the big city.

Exploitation was full of slick talking salesman, and director Donn Davidson was one of the hardest hustling fixtures of the deep south. A former stage magician and Yo Yo champion, he had long perfected his pitch in the carny like atmosphere of roadshows and spookshows. His first brush with film directing was in service of same, when he created a cheap set of creature feature like inserts for an unauthorized print of David Friedman’s She Freak, and took it out on the road as Asylum Of The Insane.

Moonshiner’s Woman was his first swing at a (just barely) full length feature, and is a film that was most certainly created in reverse. What plot there is was clearly bolted together after he had taken inventory of the footage he had the resources to shoot. Only a few scenes even attempt to poorly sync sound, and pretty much all of the narrative is delivered via voiceover. At least one music cue is clearly someone idly tapping their fingers on a table, and a meeting of the gangsters is backgrounded by library music that sounds like it was stolen from a spaghetti commercial. Because they’re Italian.

If you give up on the hopes of something that makes any linear storyline sense, Moonshiner’s Woman manages to hit a some tried and true exploitation beats, in its own meandering way. In addition to having a blast hamming it up as Mr. Jarvis, Donn Davidson provides narration that is full of overheated audience warnings, fatherly asides to his own creations, and clucking chastisements to himself for almost providing spoilers. The overall effect is charmingly odd, like a rambling story from a favorite uncle who may have had a few too many drinks.

As for protagonist Loralee, she seems to take the bizarre series of events that tore her away from her mountain home in surprising stride. Mr. Jarvis is initially quite charming, and his suggestion she try on “showgirl” costumes allows the film to show a touch of skin. Loralee seems to understand Jarvis’ offer of a showbiz job as a front for something far less upright, but she doesn’t refuse his demands. Instead, Loralee is dazzled by the big city ways of cosmopolitan Daytona Beach, with a stolen shot travelogue of the races providing the background for her doomed love affair with Mitch (Roy Huston), one of Jarvis’ lackeys tasked with keeping an eye on her.

Soon, all traces of the mousy country gal are gone. Loralee much prefers pretty dresses and plane flights to burlap sacks and bare feet. With dangling earrings and heavy eyeliner, she’s gleefully smoking weed and dropping LSD, with her drug trip a swirl of the camera across landscapes and a patterned floor that seems ripped right out of the Andy Milligan playbook. Things escalate from a “simple country girl is corrupted by the big city” riff to catfights, death by magician’s cabinet and revenge. As this happens rather late in the film, its easier to be in sync with the movie’s jerky rhythm in regards to story.

Moonshiner’s Woman is certainly a dismal failure as a narrative feature. The highly dramatic voiceover account of the plot is never quite at the same tone or pace as the rather inert visual events on screen. Nor do most of those events connect in any satisfying way. Almost in spite of itself, what Moonshiner’s Woman does have is a leisurely, folksy charm. Donn Davidson is clearly aware of how little he’s working with, but everyone involved seems to be having a lot of fun. There’s something to be said for his earnestness in attempting to put on the best show he can with the minimal resources available, a refreshingly less cynical take on the old adage about sizzles and steak.

Bite Size: Mad Youth (1939)

By 1939, the Hays Code had cracked down on Hollywood. High profile scandals had been making front page news since the 20s (from the death of Virgina Rappe to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor) , and the dawning of a new decade did little to diminish the moviegoing public’s appetites for racy material, from Mae West’s bawdy wisecracks to overheated Cecil DeMille historical epics full of some rather scantily clad starlets. When religious groups and the moral majority grew increasingly loud regarding the perceived “immorality” of mainstream films, Hollywood instituted a campaign of self censoring production guidelines that would hold for the next three decades.

As always, this left exploitation cinema to pick up the slack in the celluloid sins department. 1939’s Mad Youth is chock full of the snappy innuendo, daring peeks of skin and (comparative) sexual frankness of its bigger budget pre Code cousins, with just enough of a “moral” for plausible deniability of prurient interests. Like many other exploitation films before and since, it was cut to suit local markets by both state censor boards and local projectionists more familiar with the amount of scandal their localities could bear.

Lucy Morgan (Oscar nominated silent/early sound star Betty Compson) is a high living divorcee who spends more time with her social calendar than she does with her daughter, Marian (Mary Ainslee). Mrs. Morgan hires handsome young escorts from a local agency to accompany her to this parade of bridge games and club nights. To add brass to bad parenting, she even asks her daughter to loan her the cash to pay for her companions once her alimony check is all spent.

Marian, being a clever girl, uses the loan as a bargaining chip for permission to throw parties while her mother is otherwise engaged. While Mrs. Morgan is playing bridge and negotiating the price of “necking” with the handsome “Count” DeHoven (Willy Castello, a mainstay in many similar vice pictures), Miriam is tossing a rager full of booze, some pretty impressive jitterbugging, majorette routines(!?) and strip poker.

When Mrs. Morgan attempts to bargain for a freebie by inviting the Count to the house for a nightcap, he meets the lovely Marian, pretending to have fallen asleep waiting up for her mother. Their introductions are quite adversarial, given DeHoven realizes Miriam is just covering up her partying, and Miriam knows that he’s just another paid staffer for Mrs. Morgan. Despite the sparring, and Miriam’s idle dismissal of the gigolo, the chemistry between the two is obvious. Before long, DeHoven is secretly calling on Miriam free of charge, and avoiding Mrs. Morgan’s requests for paid assignments.

It’s almost comical how obsessed with sex nearly every character in Mad Youth is, apart from from the gigolo angle. It’s all very coded, but its a code you could crack with a ring from a cereal box. When Marian’s friends are parked down the block awaiting her to signal the start of the party, two are making out in the back seat. A cop comes to roust them out from making “googly eyes” ……only because it disturbs HIS necking with a young woman on a nearby park bench. This odd plot swerve is explained only with the following, retroactively hilarious, line:

“When a man wants to goo, he wants to goo, and I don’t want any lovebirds perched that close when I’m goo-ing!”

Cutting to Mrs. Morgan’s bridge game/bargaining session, even the gossip around the table is who’s zooming who, and exactly what sort of rides you might receive on a date with a car salesman. Mad Youth‘s adults are just as perpetually sexually frustrated as the teens. The principle difference is that the teens’ drinking, panty flashing dance routines and naked card games seem way more fun than bridge. As does the cafe where DeHoven joins Marian for an actual date, where the runtime padding includes more dancing and an ersatz bullfight.

This being 1939, all of this free floating horniness can’t possibly end well. Mrs. Morgan snoops through Marian’s diary, and discovers where the Count’s actual affections lie. This leads to a rather well acted standoff between the two women. Mrs. Morgan is both the worst kind of parent and the worst kind of trick. She truly believed Count DeHoven was going to marry her if she paid for enough of his time.

Mrs. Morgan then admits that she openly resents Marian, and never wanted her, blaming her daughter for her own lost youth and loveless former marriage. Marian, correctly pegging her mother as delusional, opts to move out. Rather than surprise her father and his new wife, she heads to Pittsburgh to join her best friend Helen.

Helen had written Marian about her unexpected wedding, to an unseen dreamboat from a correspondence club. However, when Marian arrives at the provided address, its a white slavery ring/brothel. The madam now has two beautiful young girls in her slimy clutches, and an unnecessarily racist caricature to help her keep them there.

White slavery panic was one of the most common scare tactics in early exploitation, but Mad Youth deserves credit for using some some fresh calculations to get to very common final answer. It also makes a sex worker the late in the game moral center of the film, and lets him be the hero of the day as he saves the girls. Sure, Count DeHoven renounces his former occupation, but just when you think the moralists have won the day, Mad Youth pulls one last cheeky reversal of the “immorality must be punished” ethos right as the credits fade.

While both statically shot and heavily padded as was typical of its budget and era, Mad Youth brings some fresh twists to a pile of early exploitation tropes, complete with a late career grand dame to class up the proceedings. For those unfamiliar with pre 1960/”classical” exploitation, this film would be a solid place to start. Director Melville Shyer was a veteran of the very early days of Hollywood (eventually helping found the Screen Directors’ Guild), and worked alongside some very established names. Accordingly, Mad Youth is livelier than many of its contemporaries, with a nice mix of mainstream style melodrama and exploitation’s censor evading obsession with sleaze smuggled into scare tactics.

Bite Size: The Babysitter (1969)

The Babysitter is a bottom of the bill Crown International cheapie that has all of the negligible production value of a sexed up, mid tier soap opera from the same period. A dash of morality melodrama keeps the threadbare story from falling apart at the seams. If it weren’t for the constant shoehorning of timely slang and fashions I would’ve assumed this film had sat on a shelf somewhere for at least half a decade before its 1969 release date.

George Maxwell (George E. Carey) is an assistant district attorney, about to prosecute a member of a 1 percenter style biker gang for murder. He’s moving up in the ranks at the office, has a brand new baby at home, and his wife Edith (Anne Bellamy) prefers they keep a rather busy social calendar. Enter Candy Wilson (Patricia Wymer), the pretty blonde babysitter they hire to keep an eye on the infant.

Candy overhears the Maxwells arguing, and quickly catches on that George is lonely and mostly sexless. What starts as George giving her a ride home quickly blossoms into a full on May-December affair. Between his torrid tangles with Candy and his daughter’s lesbianism, George soon finds himself being blackmailed by the girlfriend (Kathy Williams) of the biker he’s about to put on trial.

Leading man George E. Carey also co wrote the script and produced the film, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Mary Sue than George Maxwell in all of the vanity projects in exploitation cinema. No matter how many selfish things he does, our sympathy is always supposed to lie with him as a hero in this epic of male fantasy wish fulfillment.

Candy isn’t so much a human being as she is a manic pixie flower child. Her entire personality is constructed out of out of touch adult assumptions of what those free loving hippie chicks must be like. Immediately after the baby has gone to bed, she throws a wild houseparty in the Maxwells’ basement, complete with a full band and some friends to do naked go go dancing to the groovy tunes. Her apology is full of love for the music, man.

The car ride home is full of encouragement for George to let go and just be free to LAUGH and THINK and FEEL. They stop at a roadside stand and eat tacos while holding them horizontally (cue double entendre rimshot noise). Candy attempts to seduce George within maybe 5 minutes, fully hot and bothered by his hangdog air and constant complaints about his cold bitch of a wife. Wyler is actually well cast for the role, but there isn’t an actress on the planet that could make Candy read as anything other than a wet dream.

After Candy is introduced and Maxwell’s daughter establishes her lesbianism with some softcore by the pool, its 55 minutes into a 75 minute runtime before we hear another peep out of the plot. In the meantime, there are lot of montages of (softcore) fucking and frolicking as George falls into lust with the high spirited Candy. She teaches the old man the new dances at a nightclub. They roll around in the park. Candy lovingly caresses George’s crows feet in between rounds of clandestine sex, while a knock off Mamas and The Papas theme song plays (apparently supplied by impossible to Google local band The Food). She really digs this man. He really turns her on, and several other bits of slang that were dated even when the film was first released.

All good things must come to an end, and George finally cuts Candy off when the movie remembers the whole blackmail angle an hour later. Jilted but still full of whimsy and wonder, Candy grabs two toughs and gets the blackmailer to destroy the negatives of the photos, in an attempt to still stand by her former old man.

Not that any of it matters. When the pictures are discovered, George’s wife tearfully apologizes for her expectation he have friends and lovers his own age, rather than someone as young as his collegiate daughter. As for George’s boss? He laughs, asks how the sex was and keeps a photo for creepy spank bank posterity.

Boys will be boys, as the credits roll. The middle aged raincoat crowd had to wait a year for George E. Carey to basically remake his own film as 1970’s Weekend with the Babysitter. The existence of the second film indicates that perhaps they all learned an important lesson. If you are a geriatric lech, your best shot at any face time with a pretty young thing is to shut up and pay for it.

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: Violated (1953)

While the title and promo materials suggest an early roughie, 1953’s Violated is a bit of an exquisite corpse, making gestures toward both the arthouse and the grindhouse in its barely feature length run time.

Jan C. Verbig (William Holland, also the film’s producer) is a seemingly mild mannered glamour photographer. With a vague accent and name like a bad Scrabble hand, his courtly manner and sharp eye make him a fairly popular promo shot producer for the local actresses, models and dancers. Yet, when night falls, he finds himself stalking those same beauties.

Verbig’s particular brand of the death of 1000 (off screen) cuts involves not just slashing the women’s faces, but fetishistically shearing off the hair of his victims. Rejected by mercenary burlesque star Lili Demar (real life burlesque queen Lili Dawn), his urges to kill become even more difficult to control. As the cops close in on cracking the case, he sets his obsessive sights on Susan Grant (Vicki Howard), an innocent young ingenue, as his next target.

The Greenwich Village of the early 50s was both beatnik and beat down, simultaneously trendily transgressive and seedy enough for artistic types to still be able to afford the rent. The location certainly helps make a virtue out of Violated‘s various visual concessions to budgetary necessity. The best big bankroll studio pros couldn’t have classed up any of the joints used as filming locations, so the odd jerky editing and the run down quality of the sets aren’t nearly as jarring as they might otherwise be. A sordid little story like this feels like it belongs in a visual world full of threadbare couches and cracked pipes.

The film’s best moments are when it fully leans into the gutter noir beats of its plot, with a suggestive, somewhat sexually charged edge. The first victim discovers she’s doomed when her manicured nails play sensually over the fabric of a sport coat, only to discover a sharp pair of scissors in the pocket that will seal her fate. There are some character filled close ups of the exhausted, deeply lined faces of the cops and the bored usual suspects they round up. As Tony Mottola’s minimalist jazzy score drifts over the soundtrack, Verbig wanders the New York night, and Violated almost hits on the particular brand of loneliness you can only feel when in the middle of a crowd.

These quieter moments don’t last, and mixed into the proceedings are the sort of classical exploitation tropes that are as loud as a carny lemonade barker on a particularly hot day in July. There’s an expositional psychologist that does little more than provide the usual veneer of educational respectability for taboo discussion of mental illness and sexual perversion. The burlesque subplot allows for both some scandalous (for the era) flashes of skin and a random catfight backstage. Lili Dawn delivers her lines like a cut rate Diamond Lil. By the time sodium pentothal gets involved, the slight promise of the film’s first third is wasted, and not even a comparatively well done ambiguous ending can quite put all of the tonal shifts back together again.

For the majority of both cast and crew, Violated was both the first and the last film they ever worked on. Thankfully, writer/producer William Mishkin realized that the film’s utter flop at the box office was a strong indicator that cinematic nuance was not his particular strong suit.

Leaning into the lurid, Mishkin became a producer and distributor of both sexploitation and horror fare over the next two decades. In addition to successful recuts/retitles of European sex films, he produced the Lee Frost exploitation oddity The Man With Two Heads, and the best known work of misanthropic microbudget madman Andy Milligan.

Bite Size: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Like most films that bear a “based on a true story” title card, 1970’s The Honeymoon Killers takes a loose approach to the facts of the real life crimes that inspired it, a 1940s multi-state theft and murder spree that earned its culprits the snappy newspaper sobriquet the “Lonely Hearts Killers“.

Nursing supervisor Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) lives with her aging mother in a modest apartment in Alabama. When her well meaning best friend, Bunny (an early role for TV regular Doris Roberts) signs her up for a correspondence club for singles, she is far from thrilled. However, a letter from the suave, Spanish born Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) soon sees Martha in the throes of a whirlwind romance.

After a visit to his home in New York City, Martha learns what sort of frog lies behind her supposed prince. Ray is a gigolo, using the personals to find older rich women to marry and subsequently rob blind. Rather than run, Martha decides to assist him in his schemes. She travels alongside Ray to meet his procession of “wives”, pretending to be his spinster sister. Soon Ray’s dishonesty and Martha’s furious jealousy escalate what had been simple grift into cold blooded murder.

Despite the primarily handheld, documentary style camerawork, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t try to hide any of its carefully curated artifice. This isn’t “reality” any more than a carefully staged real estate showing is a “home”. There’s no attempt to disguise the era swap to the then present day, the technical gaffes typical of low budget productions or the film’s replacement of Martha’s real life circumstances to that of a single, childless woman to better suit the narrative.

What lends the film a heft it wouldn’t otherwise have is the fact that it commits to its fictions wholeheartedly in a manner that feels authentic without being bogged down by the need for period perfect details or the minutiae of the protagonists’ real life counterparts. Writer/director Leonard Kastle (who famously subbed in for the quickly fired Martin Scorsese) doesn’t so much truck in realism as he does the utter lack of romanticism.

This was likely quite the shock for audiences at the time of the film’s release. The majority of the vocabulary in cinematic crime films up to that point was dominated by cartoonishly lurid low budget potboilers, noir-ish morality tales and glossy big studio efforts deeply invested in the stylish pathos of tragic outlaws.

Stoler and Lo Bianco both give expertly calibrated performances of the lived in banality that accompanies an uncertain life on the fringes, bickering and boasting in equal turns depending on where their ill gotten fortunes stand on any given day. The film parcels its violence sparingly, and when the constant paranoia and mistrust between the pair brings the couple’s bright burning passion to ash, it happens with a sighing whimper and a telephone call, rather than the fireworks pop of bullets and artfully tousled defiance.

The clinical tone of the film has subsequently been used to great effect in a variety of genre fare (Henry:Portrait Of A Serial Killer), but The Honeymoon Killers retains a subversive, transgressive charge in Shirley Stoler’s snarlingly surly and confidently sexual portrayal of Martha. It’s rare to see a female character allowed to exist this far outside of the notions of conventional desirability and mandatory feminine agreeableness. It’s even rarer to see that character treated seriously as both a love interest and an object of desire.

It would be easy to dismiss the hysterical, mocking focus on Stoler’s physicality as an an unfortunate relic of an earlier era had it been confined to the original promo and press materials. Yet, modern reviews of the film point to Stoler’s passionate affair with a man who makes his living as a lover with the same air of prurient incredulousness rampant in those of 50 years ago, which definitely speaks to how little the baseline of gendered expectations have changed.

Much like Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter or Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, The Honeymoon Killers is one of genre fare’s finest one off directorial efforts. In a realm that famously sold the sizzle rather than the actual steak, The Honeymoon Killers takes the opposite tact. Sold as a sensationalist bit of ripped from the headlines exploitation, the film refuses to serve the meat of what the promo materials promise. Instead, it dispassionately allows a glimpse into the sort day to day drudgery that the promised butchery entails.

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.