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 Playbirds (1978)

If you were going to make a hazard index for genre cinema occupations, models would definitely be near the top of the list, right alongside sex workers, camp counselors and babysitters. There is a certain amount of practical logic in this, as most audiences will read “model” as a shortcut to glamour and glitter, and it’s an occupation that requires little budgetary strain to convey onscreen. Some white backing paper, a few hot lights, and someone to announce “Beautiful!” or “Good!” while the shutter loudly snaps on the soundtrack is usually enough to establish the basic idea.

Additionally, there’s plenty of tried and true storyline possibilities for everything from sweet country girls corrupted by the big city, to catty backstage melodrama, or obsessive stalk and slashers of a wide variety of stripes. It’s also pretty easy to dial up the level of skin, sin and sleaze depending on if the model in question is a high fashion catwalker, a pin up, or an adult industry star. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the actress can actually pose, as the goal is not the still images anyway. It’s an easy win for all parties concerned.

This movie’s titular magazine (gifted with its own disco lounge theme song playing over the opening credits) is your typical sort of mainstream nudes, a touch naughtier than Playboy, but nowhere near as explicit as Hustler. It is the crown jewel of Harry Dougan’s (Alan Lake) smut empire, who uses the fortune he’s made from the skin business to live a leisurely life of casting couches, champagne, and horse racing. His idle rich routine gets interrupted when Playbirds centerfolds start turning up dead.

Grizzled Inspector Holbourne (Glenn Edwards), and his less cynical younger partner Inspector Morgan (Gavin Campbell) are assigned to the case, but the elusive killer leaves no clues aside from a rising body count. Desperate to find a solution before the case gets taken off their docket, the pair sends in Lucy (70s adult film queen Mary Millington) to pose as a centerfold, hoping the female officer can act as a deep cover honey trap to draw out the killer.

If The Playbirds rips more than a few of its plot beats from 1959’s Cover Girl Killer, in practice it also has a lot of surface similarities to 1973’s Massage Parlor Murders!. There’s the disgruntled older cop not terribly receptive to his partner’s ideas. The fresh faced younger partner gets romantically involved with a lovely young lady important to the investigation. Tons of (likely permitless) footage provides a time capsule tour of sleaze epicenters gone by (London’s Soho instead of New York City’s Deuce), and the utilization of both a massage parlor and the pool at a swingers’ party to squeeze in some additional nudity.

If only the film had continued in Massage Parlor Murders!‘ cheerfully cheap vein, with Morgan blithely blathering about “the unholy trinity: sex, witchcraft and horses” and the choice of undercover cop being determined via superior officer sanctioned striptease. The procedural elements are pretty flat, with a sex offender jockey and a prone to temper photographer with a fondness for shooting occult themed spreads providing the required red herrings.

Yet for all of the familiar British television actors dotting the cast, the movie never manages to muster much energy, the celebrity names all clearly watching the clock. Mary Millington struggles valiantly to bring some life to her line readings as Lucy, but it is glaringly apparent her skills lie elsewhere.

In fact, it tends to play the giallo-lite contours of its plot for sex farce style comedy. The women in this film are perpetually naked, dead or both, and no one seems much bothered by it. The cops can barely bring themselves to grab printouts from their insanely retro wall of computers “lab”, and Dougan finds the whole thing a damper on his moneyed fuckboy antics. In fact, the film likes nothing better than to cut from the killer’s latest victim to Dougan’s endless runtime padding days at the Newmarket races (supplied by stock footage).

While never as violent or explicit as something like The New York Ripper or Giallo In Venice, The Playbirds coats itself in an oily sheen of sleazy misogyny that could easily rival either. Victims worry about turning the kettle off before being strangled to death, or in the film’s absolute nadir, cheerfully announce they’ve never been sexually assaulted before, as if it was just another experience to check off on a to-do list.

What elevates The Playbirds from gross ineptitude to something truly baffling is that the entire film is basically product placement for a girlie mag. Producer David Sullivan had made a fortune in various pornographic endeavors, and Playbirds was one of the magazines he was publishing at the time. Alan Lake as Harry Dougan, smut peddling boy king, was basically a self insert. The character of Dougan is clearly written to suit what Sullivan thought was the height of suave swinger cool, but in actual effect comes across as the sort of self interested perfect suspect that likely would knock off his models for the sake of tawdry publicity and a bump in sales.

The fact that this portrayal was certainly approved by Sullivan to make the final cut hints at a startling level of narcissism. If that perhaps isn’t quite convincing enough, the pointless cruelty of the downbeat ending becomes even more vicious in light of the knowledge that David Sullivan and star Mary Millington were once lovers.

Sullivan had more than enough cash to throw around to fill his cast with well known actors who likely wouldn’t otherwise touch this sort of fare, if not for the need for a paycheck in a fallow period of their careers. Distributor Tigon Studios, once a respected producer of UK genre fare (Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw), was also in its twilight years. The in house film production had ceased some half decade earlier, and they had taken to distributing sex films and quickie schlock to keep the lights on a while longer.

As for Mary Millington, police raids on her sex shops and persecution related to her time as a porn star took their toll. Addicted to drugs and deeply in debt, she took her own life in August of 1979, roughly a year after the film’s release. Co star Alan Lake wasn’t far behind her. Relapsed in his alcoholism and still grieving the loss of his wife, screen actress Diana Dors, he also took his own life in the fall of 1984.

As for David Sullivan, he continued to profit off of Mary Millington, producing 1980’s Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions, a morbid Frankenstein of a film pieced together from interviews, archive footage and unseen sex scenes she had completed before her untimely death. After a 1982 conviction for living off immoral earnings of prostitutes, he began to transition out of porn to more “legitimate” businesses, eventually becoming a billionaire.

The Playbirds isn’t particularly notable as a police procedural or as a sex film, but is one of the more readily available examples of an exploitation picture in both senses of the word. The meta aspects catapult what would be a forgettable bit of scuzz into far more disquieting territory, and not just because this depressingly cynical film is often listed as a comedy in online databases or when it pops up on mainstream streaming services. The Playbirds is a 94 minute testimonial to the shallowness of the personal freedom and anti censorship talking points that so many pornographers and exploitationeers make part and parcel with their public images. When it’s time to pay the crew what they’re owed, or when the women in those centerfolds part their lips to speak of desires that aren’t as easily commodified, it’s strictly business as usual. Silence is preferable to anything that might have an adverse effect on the bottom line.