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.