Three Wild and Curvy Crime B-movies go High Def!
The Girl in Black Stockings
DIRECTED BY HOWARD W. KOCH/1957
Guns, Girls, and Gangsters
DIRECTED BY EDWARD L. CAHN/1959
DIRECTED BY EDWARD L. CAHN/1959
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 20, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Mamie Van Doren. Described on the packaging of her new three-film “Noir” Blu-ray set as a “voluptuous screen goddess”, Van Doren was, first and foremost, the kind of woman who’d arrive in a room, and then the rest of her would walk in a minute later. A late 1950s semi-icon, she followed the Marilyn Monroe template to silver screen success. She wasn’t Monroe, even if Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction got the two of them confused. But considering her platinum blonde hair and striking figure, it’s easy to understand how one could mix them up.
Unlike Monroe, or even that other faux-Monroe, the brilliant Jayne Mansfield, Van Doren never had quite the major studio career of her blonde sexpot contemporaries (sometimes referred to as “The Three M’s”; tape sold separately). Her not-inconsiderable talents and striking presence were enough, though, to land her prominent roles in several bigger films (1958’s Teacher’s Pet at Paramount Pictures, Born Reckless at Warner Brothers the same year, to cite two) before landing in the trio of black & white cheapies presented here, The Girl in Black Stockings; Vice Raid; and Guns, Girls, and Gangsters.
The Girl in Black Stockings, from 1957, is the earliest entry in the set, and also the one with the least amount of Van Doren screen time. Though her likeness has been front and center in the film’s marketing from day one, she’s billed after stars Lex Barker (playing a beefcake lawyer) and Anne Bancroft (as a girl in the wrong places at numerous wrong times). But even then, her character’s importance ranks pretty far down the cast list. And this being set in a busy homicide-happy Utah motel, there’s more than enough cast members.
As a murder mystery, which The Girl in Black Stockings thoroughly is, the whole thing works. At under eighty minutes (all three films are that short), the film manages to hold viewer attention and keep everyone guessing as to whodunnit, and who’s still doing it. Was it the rich misogynistic quadriplegic? Was it his jealous caretaker? Or the beefcake lawyer who’s ready to prosecute, but has no idea whom? Is it the gal who’s caught his eye (a subtle-sexy Anne Bancroft)? Or is it the gal who’s caught everyone else’s eye (Van Doren)? The emotionally distraught girl? The drunken halfwit? Or even the venerable town sherif who’s tirelessly on the trail of the killer, but still can’t stop all the killings? Decently directed by Howard W. Koch, who was best known for producing such movies as The Manchurian Candidate and The Odd Couple, Black Stockings stands up as a form-fitting crime caper, even as Van Doren fans will be wondering where she is most of the time.
Next is 1959’s Guns, Girls, and Gangsters– a title that is as inaccurate as it is cool- finds Van Doren playing Vi Victor, a voluptuous lounge singer (is she going to play any other kind?) who allows herself to get caught up in a plan to rob an armored truck. Van Doren is legitimately the best thing about the movie, and for legitimate reasons. Her part here is a legitimate co-lead, an empathetic vamp who wonderfully stops the movie twice with her pair of big, bouncy, rambunctious musical numbers. Nevertheless, she makes some lousy choices, hooking up with this shady bunch of chest-thumping alpha male armored truck thieves.
The truck in question will be carrying over two million dollars out of Las Vegas, the major casinos collective haul for the New Years holiday. The plan turns out to be as half-baked as it sounds, particularly when Lee Van Cleef, playing a psychotic escaped convict who’s also Vi’s husband forces his way into the action. Vi’s over the deadly freak, and ready to fly the neon coop and take up with the heist mastermind, the hot-headed Chuck Wheeler (Gerald Mohr).
Before Van Cleef shows up, everything is going as swimmingly as one would expect. The crew’s in-fighting is generally non-lethal, as their plan to shoot out a tire on the armored truck at a particular point on the highway, thus forcing it off the road and into a lone roadside repair shop, is coming together. These guys are cardboard, every one of ‘em. But they just might pull this crazy thing off. But who will they have to kill in the process?
Guns, Girls, and Gangsters has the things that most anyone would want from an el cheapo heist noir movie such as this, even if there’s only one girl (as opposed to “Girls”), and the would-be thieves are not bonafide “Gangsters”. The retro Vegas glitz mixed with the lonesome desert surroundings serves this movie well. It ain’t great cinema, but it’s a right chewy kick- the best of trio, in this critic’s opinion.
One hopelessly laborious aspect of both Guns, Girls, and Gangsters and it’s follow-up in this set, Vice Raid, is their over-reliance on voice-over narration. When story-savvy people state the case as to how narration in movies is a cheat, these prime offenders could be exhibits A and B. No doubt a cost-cutting measure in regard to both films shooting schedules (both were low, low, low budget productions from busy producer Edward Small), the use of a Dragnet style no-nonsense Official-Sounding Male Voice fills in gaps in between the action, explains the plot in thorough detail (multiple times), and states what time it is, just for good measure. These movies don’t need this now, and probably didn’t need it then, but one must look upon such pervasive heavy-handedness as a part of the whole experience, intrinsic to the films’ hokey charm.
The third and final film in the Mamie Van Doren Film Noir Collection, Vice Raid, was made and released the same year as Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. Perhaps its own little pinnacle of “blunt object” cinema, this sordid tale wields a meaner outlook and a certain sadistic streak. Though wholly innocent in terms of any kind of overt depictions, be they sexual or violent, this crime potboiler boils freely in the realm of what, in 1959, was likely the closest mainstream thing to being a pure American exploitation crime picture.
Van Doren plays it unsavory in Vice Raid as Carol Hudson, a model turned call girl who’s all too willing to sleep her way to the top of the bottom. The local chapter of the national “syndicate”, lead by boss Vince Malone (Brad Dexter of The Magnificent Seven fame), runs all manner of contraband, including girls. Malone recruits Carol to be his moll; allowing her to live large: fancy apartment, fancy dresses, the best of everything.
Then her younger sister (played by Carol Nugent) arrives unannounced, as wide-eyed and innocent as they come. Naturally, the kid wants the life of luxury that her big sister has. But she has no comprehension of the cost. This is the major vulnerability for Van Doren’s character; an utter mercenary up until now. Yes, things get jarringly ugly.
Filmed in a straightforward style similar to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (both directed by Edward L. Cahn, and bearing that gawdawful narration… by the same Official-Sounding Male Voice!), and also in black & white and around seventy minutes in length, Vice Raid gets the job done, if nothing else. It’s hard to root for anyone in this movie, except maybe the boring Vice Squad guy (Richard Coogan) who gets too close to the fire as he pursues this widespread criminal racquet. But as a gritty bit of no-nonsense cop-schlock, not to mention a big part for Van Doren, it warrants its place in this set.
The Mamie Van Doren Film Noir Collection comes highly recommended for anyone interested in vintage under-the-radar B-movies. The 2K restorations are all terrific, better than one would expect of films of this caliber. The three features are spread across two Blu-ray discs; The Girl With the Black Stockings and the bonus features on one disc, and the other two films on the other disc.
Besides trailers for all three films, the only other bonus feature is a newly filmed interview with Mamie Van Doren. For a woman pushing ninety (though only looking maybe half that old), she still weaves a good yarn, and seems genuinely happy about her career. Of the “three Ms”, hers, not unlike Harold Lloyd in the “three geniuses of silent comedy”, is the only one with “a happy ending”. Though that said, Van Doren is still going strong. Though the movies themselves scarcely qualify as “Film Noir”, this set is, if nothing else, a fun honor to her.