The  Pretenders - Bad Film Noirs

JAIL BAIT       1954      HOWCO  Productions           Director:  Edward D. Wood Jr.

Dolores Fuller,  Timothy Farrell,  Lyle Talbot,  Herbert Rawlinson,  Clancy Malone, Steve Reeves

Director Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is usually at the top of critic and fan lists as the worst film ever made.  Wood’s foray into film noir earned him a similar distinction in that genre as well.   As with most Wood productions the cast of Jail Bait includes girlfriend Dolores Fuller  along with an assortment of wannabes.    The story involves hardened criminal Timothy Farrell’s corrupting influence on the son of a successful plastic surgeon played by Herbert Rawlinson.  Of course in Wood’s budget Rawlinson lives in a cheap, sparsely furnished track home and drives a Nash Rambler.    Fans of Wood are not disappointed with this film as everything about it  is amateurish.  In fact you have to remind yourself  that it is not a parody and that Wood was serious in his effort.  He just lacked any ability at filmmaking.  

The title probably was chosen for its provocative connotation but nothing in the film has anything to do with underage sex.  The basic premise of the storey and the somewhat surprise ending is not bad.   Made by a competent director with a decent budget it could have amounted to something.  In another bizarre Wood touch, he included a scene of a blackface song and dance performer that would never pass political correctness today.  There’s no real connection to the storey other than to fill time.  

Worth noting about this film was the first appearance of Mr Universe, Steve Reeves.  He went on to make a name for himself playing Hercules and pirates in Europe, but the only thing he did in this film was stand around and look dumb.  Lyle Talbot is the only notable actor appearing here and one really wonders what possessed him to be involved with Wood.  You can’t even say he needed the money since Wood was known more for his promises that paychecks. Rawlinson was another experienced actor but was terminally ill while making the film and died several weeks after completion.

THE DEVIL’S SLEEP        1948      Screen Classics Inc.        Director:     W. Merle Connell

Lita Grey,  Timothy Farrell,  William Thomason,  Tracy Lynne,  George Eiferman

After seeing this film you would swear that Ed Wood was somehow involved in the production. Just as campy as Jail Bait it also has Timothy Farrell in a leading role.  But Wood is not guilty of this crime as  it was directed by the equally inept W. Merle Connell who also gave us such masterpieces  as Untamed Women and Tijuana After Midnight .

Farrell, (whose day job was an L. A. County Deputy Marshall) plays Umberto Scalli a drug kingpin who also runs a women’s gym. The gym part was apparently an excuse to show some female skin.  In fact, Connell managed to get in a breast shot (above) as a girl gets into a portable sauna.   While no one today would take a second notice, for 1948 and the production code in effect at that time this was about as bold as one could be.  The film also stars Lita Grey who was an actress in silent films and once married to Charles Chaplin.  She had pretty much quite acting after her divorce from Chaplin  in 1928.  One wonders what motivated her to come back for this disaster which would be her last screen appearance.  Bodybuilder George Eiferman is included in the cast and looked as awkward as Steve Reeves did in Jail Bait.  As to have some social redeeming qualities we get a lecture of sorts on the evils of drugs by a doctor played by John Mitchum, yes Robert’s brother.

During the film noir era there was no shortage of people wanting to take advantage of the new economics of film making. Since you  didn’t need  studio backing,  or even a sound stage for that matter, there was an abundance of self proclaimed producers making films on the cheap.  By the early 1950s many of the independent producers were selling films directly to the burgeoning drive-in market, and it didn’t take much to make a tidy profit considering what they invested.   Plenty of wannabe directors and actors managed to get in on the action and the end result was evident.  Needless to say this spawned a collection of some real stinkers, many under the guise of noir.   Besides getting a laugh, these films remind us to appreciate the merits of real noir.

FINGERPRINTS DON’T LIE         1951       Spartan Productions      Director:  Sam Newfield

Richard Travis,  Sheila Ryan,  Tom Neal,  Lyle Talbot

The story involves the frame-up  and murder charge against an innocent man using  fingerprints.  While that sounds like elements of a good noir, any similarity ends there.  The actors in the film may have had SAG cards but their performances were as unemotional and bad as any of   Ed Wood’s armatures. Tom Neal of Detour  fame, whose self-destructed career was about finished, has a small part.  In an apparent attempt to appeal to the drive-in crowd they threw in Sid Milton for some comic relief as a photographer.  Of course one of the things he photographs are some girls in bathing suits.  If all this wasn’t bad enough, the viewer is subjected to a background of organ music that sounds like it was leftover from a bad radio drama.     

TOUGH ASSIGNMENT      1949     Donald Barry Productions           Director:  William Beaudine

Don Barry,  Marjorie Steele,  Steve Brodie,  Marc Lawrence,  Sid Melton

The cowboy meets film noir is the best way to describe this oddball feature.  Don Barry had become popular in the 1940s playing Red Ryder in the western serial for Republic Pictures.  He formed his own production company and apparently thought this vehicle would let him transition out of his stereotyped cowboy character.  He spends half the film in a suit and the other half in cowboy garb playing a reporter investigating cattle rustling and bogus meat sales by a crime gang.   While the storey may sound intriguing, any thoughts of a worthwhile project ended with the involvement of William Beaudine.  Beaudine, one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history, was known for delivering  cheap films with a fast shooting pace.  He certainly didn’t disappoint us with this effort.  

For whatever reason we again have Sid Melton doing his comic shtick undermining any credibility the story may have had.  Old noir hands Marc Lawrence and Steve Brodie make the film interesting but their efforts are wasted in this bomb.  The film didn’t do much to help the career of Barry since it was all downhill from here.  He spent  his remaining career doing small parts in television and occasional uncredited film roles and ultimately committed suicide.

GANGSTER STORY       1960      Releasing Corporation of Independent  Producers         Director:   Walter Matthau

Walter Matthau,  Carol Grace,  Bruce MacFarlane,  Garry Wallberg

When this film was made in 1959 Walter Matthau was still somewhat of a struggling actor.  The opportunity for some easy cash found him teaming up with low cost producer Jonathan Daniels  for this embarrassment.   Daniels also produced the likes of Virgin Sacrifice and Dragstrip Riot.  The story has Matthau playing a clever criminal who throws in with a local mobster.  It also presents a softer side of the killer as Matthau develops a relationship with his girlfriend, real wife Carol Grace.  It’s a muddled story at best that gets downright boring at times.

The film was made for a reported $75,000.  In order to save money Matthau directed the film  and his wife played the female lead. This would be the only film that Matthau directed in his esteemed career and given the results one wonders why he later didn’t buy up all the prints and burn them.  The movie was filmed in Orange County, California and the producers got the cooperation of local police departments to use their officers and facilities gratis.  The film crew was either so inept or their equipment so bad that most of the dialog was re-dubbed.  Of course not many drive-in patrons ever noticed.

Here are six  films from that era that typify  just how bad a film could be.   Four of these have been released on DVD and marketed as film noir, still pretending.

DECOY       1946      Monogram Pictures        Director:   Jack Bernhard

Jean Gillie,  Edward Norris,  Herbert Rudley,  Sheldon Leonard.  Robert Armstrong

It’s regrettable to have a film with  Sheldon Leonard on this list.  But not even his presence could salvage this clunker.  In what could best be described as Frankenstein meets film noir, Jean Gillie seduces a prison doctor (Rudley) to use a a new drug to revive her condemned husband after his execution.  Of course she only wants her husband revived so he can lead her to the loot he stole in his crime spree.  Edward Norris. who made a career in really low budget films, plays her boyfriend who has his own plans for the money.  After realizing he’d been played for a sucker, Rudley spends much of the film as a zombie of sorts.

This was Gillie’s first American film and it probably helped  that she was the director’s wife.   Even with her British accent she makes  a decent femme-fattale. There’s plenty of double crossing but the film’s premise is so absurd that it cannot be taken seriously.  The film is marketed by Warner Bros. in their “Classic Film Noir Collection” but it more appropriately belongs in the science fiction genre.

American Film Noir