Thursday, August 23, 2018


During a recent TCM  random catch of the last hour of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE for the first time in a few years (I'd been turned off last time around by Leigh's mannered hamminess), I was thrown by the power of one performance I'd never really appreciated in full before, Kim Hunter's Stella. Namely it was the scene after the famous "Stella!" moment. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) finds her sister in bed the next morning after Stanley's slunk off to work; playing down her morning post-coital afterglow in ways Leigh's own similarly-Rhett-ravished Scarlett would have overdone with kittenish sighs and dreamy girly smiles. Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven him his brutal outburst and radio smashing of the night before, but for Stella it's just another well-laid morning. Sex with an abusive husband when he's feeling deeply ashamed after an outburst is--according to Camille Paglia's research--why so many battered wives stick it out. High on endorphins from the sting of punches and slaps, they're deeply receptive--nerves enflamed and sensitive--to the chemicals of desire. It's just biology, and nature is an abusive thug.

Next time you see this scene, note the kittenish way Blanche says she was "sort of thrilled" by the way Stanley broke all the lightbulbs on their honeymoon, or the sly fallopian resonance she brings to the line: "only one tube was smashed." Counterbalancing Leigh's southern faded-belle histrionics, Hunter doesn't miss any of the little resonant mythic notes in Williams' dialogue, but--in courtesy to Leigh's strident yammering as befits an indulgent sister--lets it seem on the surface as if she's missed them all. Leigh's Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven Stanley, and that his savage rage has been so completely absorbed into Stella's sexual body. Yet we never feel--as we sometimes do when we hear of women going back to their abusive husbands--that Hunter is weak or not in full control.
The big "Stella!" scene is remembered for Brando, but Hunter is the one who makes it ring, when she walks down the stairs in a kind of voodoo trance - possessed by some pagan fertility goddess, so turned on by Stanley's bestial excess energy her conscious self all but blacks out. She's even able to call Blanche gently to heel reminding her who pays the bills: "Don't you think your superior attitude's a little out of place?"

Sure, I knew she'd won an Oscar for it, but Hunter's performance so ingeniously under-the-radar- so truly "supporting"  it may take--as it did for me-- a dozen viewings to see how it's really her film more than Leigh's or Brando's. As a kid, seeing it I was usually busy rolling my eyes at Leigh's drag queen Scarlett O'Hara impersonator histrionics (Blanche is really Scarlett after she becomes a full blown alcoholic, which she was on her way to being anyway in Gone with the Wind), or drooling in awe at the rippling back muscles of Brando's Kowalski under Harry Stradling's glistening cinematography (now perfectly transferred into the digital age so every sweaty sinew shines like a limestone stalactite under centuries of constant slow cavern drip).

This last viewing, as I watched her straddle between Stanley's savage magnetism and Blanche's Gothic hypocrisy, I found myself thinking back to her in other roles, and realized, suddenly, that through sheer repetition of viewings she'd become a kind of positive ideal for me --not the elusive anima but the obtainable heart's desire, the sort who plays the courtship game very badly, to show their cards right away and tell us they like us far too soon, so that dating them becomes stress-free; we can skip all the tedious date small talk, not even bother pretending we enjoy rock climbing or bungee jumping --go right to the colored lights portion, sex and laying around in a post-coital cocoon all day, drinking whiskey and ginger ale on the rocks, watching the James Bond marathon on TNT or listening to Columbia era Sinatra until the wee wee hours. Now I'm talking about someone else, but she too was one of these gifts from god to men (whereas hotter girls can be gifts from Satan all too often).

There were only ever a few such actresses who could convey all that with the shy open courage of Kim Hunter --nowadays there are none. Heather Graham had it for awhile and wound up subjected to the casting equivalent of Dogville.  Now there are are only hotties who lazy directors think can pass as 'plain' by putting them in a pair of glasses and a nerdy sweater, and girls who are strictly comic relief. In the forties we had Frances Dee in I Walk with a Zombie (watch it sometime and note the way she unreservedly invades Tom Conway's personal space, or blurts out "I love Fort Holland" yet never talks above a low purr). And we have Kim Hunter in everything - women who--in keeping with the tenor of wartime and, later, noir, talked softly, so as not to arouse some sleeping Axis neighbor. These girls wore their hair in smart naturally-colored curls so as not to get tangled in whatever factory, nursing or WAC job they were doing. Their beauty was subservient --not to men, some hissy stylists' trends, or childbirth--but to their own desires and smarts; they didn't work inordinately towards looking good (1) but always did enough to look pleasant. A man could fall in love with such a girl easily, but he'd had have to be looking carefully to find her even in plain sight. She wasn't out there turning heads and exploding milk bottles as she passed by on the street, so a man in love with her wouldn't have to be jealous every time she went out, like he would with, say, Marilyn Monroe. Girls like Kim Hunter felt no need to stand out from the shadows and so, in their way, provided the right shoulder to lean on. Sympathetic to a man's woes but not dumb enough to fall for a hustler's sweet talk nor maudlin enough to indulge any wussy tantrum of despair, WW2 soldiers saw the type all the time in field hospitals, opiates giving their nurse--all in white--a special halo-like glow. Against the darkening mist of their frail mortality these were angels, but on another level down to earth enough you weren't even embarrassed during your sponge bath.

Hunter, in short, is that rarest of actresses, playing a persona of a cool girl, the sort minted by the Second World War, projecting an ineffable decency (a whispering, sophisticated decency, not a square Tom Hanks-style 'plain folk' decency) that made her a fixed point of gravity, anchoring all the rotations in a film's constellation like a combination planet Earth and warm-handed amateur juggler. Thus we believe in A Matter of Life and Death that Peter could fall in love with her over the radio, simply because she's 'life' and he's 'leaving her' but also --on our end--because of the rosy colors of her radio room that mirror the plane's orange flames. She's so touching you believe that love would stick automatically and help Peter transcend death; and you believe the local doctor with a mild crush on her wouldn't bat an eye in transferring his affection purely to being just a friend and medical advisor when she brings home this new fallen poet. In 7th Victim, she can even gently spurn the pathetic advances of another frail tumbling 'poet', refuse the smugly proffered milk at a diner, and impress a Mephistophelean ladykiller shrink while refusing his advances all in the same hour of running time.

Hunter as Zora
And you believe too that, even as an ape, she can call Charlton Heston ugly to his face and not have him take offense.

In short, she's Kim Hunter: electric, but grounded; nurturing yet alluring; homey but not homely; normal yet cool, and as intimate as a whispered conversation in the ER at six AM between a nurse and a terminal patient sailing to death on a pillow of pain medication. She's a prime example of the center of the Goldilocks zone of hotness. She's life and we're leaving her, but that doesn't mean we want to, suddenly. Though we've badmouthed life all our... life -- with her, we want to take it all back. Don't patronize her like a child, tell her to drink her milk or try and make any practiced romantic overtures and you'll get along fine. She'll let you know she's interested - you won't be able to miss it- so if not, just be her friend and be grateful.

Face 1-  Stella Dubois-Kowalski's love for the wild animal Stanley
(1951) Dir Elia Kazan / W- Tennessee Williams

Maybe it's really a film about old school Southern gothic raging against the dying of the light as Kazan's Actor's Studio kitchen sink Freudian realism jackboots over Oscar Jaffe's overly mannered style of Southern Gothic theater. The exhilarating immediacy of Brando's Stanley, who comes home from his long factory shift, still loud and coiled with energy vs. the fading southern belle airs of Vivien Leigh. Though some lewd understanding seems to exist between them, Brando and Leigh grind up against each other like opposing centuries of drama classes. Brando's terrifying working class sanity is the new way forward in American kitchen sink acting, riding the same electric ripple that Clark Gable rode in RED DUST in 1932, blowing all the soft-handed 'juvenile' leads (like Gene Raymond) clear back into the category of easily out-gunned naive rivals, the type who bring their hot wives down to savage countries where native drums and monsoons enflame the blood to the point their husband's run away to their separate room in fear of combustion, leaving the way open for men already burning.

Brando's Stanley, susceptible to violent outbursts, never pretends to be better than he is and has a steady job. He might occasionally get drunk and smash a radio and maybe sexually assault a crazy woman if he thinks he can get away with it, and feels like he's owed something for all his own booze he hasn't drunk, but he'll probably be a fun, fiercely loving father, provided it's not poker night and he's losing. One can say his hunting down the 'truth' about Blanche's past is mean-spirited, but who can blame him, getting high-hatted in his own kingdom by some penniless hypocrite who alienates his own wife against him while drinking his booze, trying to turn his kingdom of boorishness into a the sort of southern mansion he'd never be welcome at.

Kim Hunter's Stella can thrive in either version. She can have a blast at the bowling alley on Tuesdays and make it to the hoity toity jubilee on Saturday. More earthy than Blanche, more mannered than Stanley, her synchronicity with Stanley's animal magnetism reflects the same synchronicity she once had for older sister Blanche's gentility. Stella used to helping Blanche get tarted up for her ballroom coming-out parties, a kind of divine inheritance that changing circumstances or attractiveness levels, kept Stella from living with the same airy entitlement --except vicariously. Stella has married the king of Hell rather than meekly serving Blanche in some heaven where she'd still be stuck at the kids' table

Everyone notes the "Stella! Stella!" scene when doing their Brando imitations, but it's really Kim's scene at least as much as Brando's if not more. Lit unflatteringly but sensually from below (left) as she descends the stairs, she makes no bones about hiding her vaguely plump mammalian herd animal features, the glow from sweat and awry hair radiating a halfway reversion to heat-induced savagery, she still radiates such a scornful godlike power, it's as if under voodoo possession by some magisterial fertility goddess; the hungry way her hands explore his Adonis like muscular ripped back is so vivid we can feel his muscles through the screen.

This latest viewing I noticed other interesting termite touches, like the way Brando's "Stella!" shout becomes a musical refrain carried in the far-off music, some singer practicing out his window or selling flores por los muertos. Clearly Stella is right, considering she's a guest in a place paid for by the husband's job, it is out of place, and for all her airs, her snobbery betrays Blanche's provincialism, her lack of nobless oblige. For, as rich snob puts it at the local cantina in Mesa of Lost Women, "the ability to adapt oneself to any situation is the mark of the true sophisticate."

Not living on the 'realistic level' is a common theme in Williams' work. As in Night of the Iguana, the fantasy life cannot survive the real world without creating a kind of insane destructive frisson. Consider Blanche in comparison with the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon in Night of the Iguana
At the end of Iguana, Shannon winds up in the arms of the female Stanley equivalent (Maxine - the rough earth mother) rather than taking the long swim (the only way left for remaining in the fantastic level aside from a lobotomy, like Mrs. Venable wants to give Katherine in Suddenly Last Summer). Eventually your dependence on the kindness of strangers will leave you fluttering in the wind once you no longer have access to a single new face.

That's why Hunter's Stella is such a reassuring character, contextualizing the monstrousness of Stanley into something human (she's the cub lolling in the arms of the king of beasts), and grounding her schizo sister as best she can. She's who ideally Shannon will be like in a few days once he adjusts to the rhythms of hammock living and being shacked up with a horny Mexican broad pushing forty. Hunter's resilience as Stella is Streetcar's moral, especially if you ignore the tacked-on ending when she runs upstairs vowing to leave Stanley forever (at least she doesn't think twice about leaving the baby in the carriage unattended outside in the street / courtyard before then - so all who pass may gaze upon it, confident that it won't be swiped - the whole of the neighborhood now the loving tarantula arms of the king of beasts).

Face 2: June for the Plummeting Poet Peter D. Carter
(1946) Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

If the love between Stella and Stanley is earthy and even lower than earth (the fiery furnace), the WW2 love between Hunter's June--a Bomber Command radio operator-- and RAF bombardier Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is literally airborne, high up in clouds, and fog so thick one might fall to the sea and not even get hurt, merely bounce to shore right into June's bike path, their magnetism drawing them towards each other across dimensions. When love fills them, radio waves are as strong as any ocean's, they'll carry a falling squadron leader right on home.

Their chemistry in that opening scene is terrific we believe this long distance/right before dying love is possible. They aren't really in the same scene at all, or even the same altitude, but they convincingly fall in love just the same and we fall in love with them too. We're for them 100% right from the get-go - almost desperate for them to be together, certain it can't be possibly happen and in that certainty, perhaps, enables us to cherish their spark as much as they do. His poetry-even-in-the-face-of-certain-death gallant sweetness (he dictates a cable to his mother) tied to the way his British stiff upper lip doesn't crack even in the face of certain death makes him strike some gong inside us. When he asks if she's in love with anybody and she notes "I could love a man like you, David," she has tears in her eyes, we don't blame her. "I love you, June," he says. "You're life, and I'm leaving you." - And just like 'that' -even though calling her 'life' is a kind of a back-pedal, we get it. We see her choking up with tears even while--though we don't see them--we're sure there's dozens of other people in the room around her, dealing with the same issues with other pilots. "I was lucky to get you," he notes. He could have received any other operator monitoring the flight, or none of them. As it is, now they're both in love with a voice, each bathed in Cardiff's Technicolor fire - she in pink-lit womanly underground bunker Bomber Command light and he in the fires going on all around him in the Lancaster bomber- and together theirs is a love which they have only a minute to agree has been struck, and there's nothing to do but for him to say 'see you in a minute' to his dead 'sparks' and jump out of the side without a working parachute.

Well, through some miracle not easily explained, he lives, and they wind up in each other's arms, on that beach. And they both know better than to abandon that love--made when just voices under heavy duress-- to the elements, to throw it back, as it were, into the sea. They both know it's what saved him, even if they don't know why or how. This isn't one of those films, thank god, where things get awkward in person. It's not Catfish and Kim Hunter isn't some aloof anima figure like Dietrich nor some soapy martyr like Joan Crawford ready to die rather than embarrass his aristocratic parents. June is real solid 'girlfriend' material, the sort who won't throw love away on some silly point of honor, like their life/death status or their separate classes or nationalities, or that they barely know each other. She just met him but she's willing to die for him - and it seems perfectly natural. As I wrote in Men Who Are Frozen, in wartime, love's victims don't wait to know anything about each other confessing their love in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity. What could be more intimate that total commitment, intensified by the thought of impending immolation? There may not be a second date--for anyone, anywhere, ever--so there is no time for taking it slow. And parents are whole continents away so no one asks permission. If you happen to stumble on a still walking preacher in a still-standing church, you take it as a sign to get married. Your regiment leaves at dawn, so you better not hesitate when you get your handful of hours in the honeymoon suite.

There's only one thing Carter needs to know on that night on the radio: "are you pretty?"

"Not bad" - she answers, with a kind of shrug. If she was prettier she might be offended, less pretty she might feel bad about lying. But she's Kim Hunter, and she's the working definition of 'the Goldilocks zone' (2), i.e. she's "not bad." You can introduce her to the family and the guys round the pub and they'll all like her, without either trying to hit on her, or wincing and looking at you funny. She's a keeper. Just hanging out with her and Roger Livesy for tea time - while some other girls rehearse a Midsummer Night's Dream amateur production behind them, all bathed in that delicious Technicolor - is a kind of perfect paradise, one everyone is able to appreciate, since they can feel its impermanence.

Strange Love 3 - Mary Gibson for her sister's husband
(1943) Dir Mark Robson, Producer - Val Lewton

Hunter in one of her first featured roles is orphan Mary Gibson, searching for her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in the empty-ish wartime lonely noir New York City after spending most of her childhood at an upstate girl's boarding school, her tuition paid for by her sister, who owns a cosmetics company and now vanished. Mary winds up at Missing Persons Office, one of the most desolate and quietly wrenchingly sad wartime moments in B-films, carrying a sadness extra intense for being so subtle, so hard to place- just a long pan across a row of office windows, each occupied by someone reporting a missing loved one. The burly (coded lesbian?) figure who now owns Jacqueline's cosmetics company seems to have gotten Jacquieline involved with Satanists who now expect her to kill herself because she gave away her secret away to her psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), though how they found out she told him no one knows, unless Judd violated yet another writ of ethics (this is the same Louis Judd who 'treats' Irina in Cat People.) It's all very jumbled up, probably from censorship and rewrites. It matters but not too much. Though, without Tourneur directing, the mood is less cohesive in its poetry, it's still brilliant, moody but also terribly sad in ways the first Lewton films somehow avoided. It's a creeping ennui that will only get worse as the series progresses.

oooh! scary
Rooming above called Dante's (an example of the literary references that would become more and more overt in Lewton's oeuvre), Mary meets an enervated poet named Jason (Erford Gage) who falls in love with her, rather pathetically. She meanwhile falls for her sister's concerned husband, a lawyer named Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), sort of. It's hard to figure out why or how any of these people fall in love with each other, as we all we really get out of the film is the chill of autumn turning into winter. There's no real connection, just respect, and a mutual willingness to try for one.

Gregory is clearly more worldly than Jason, and this is the big city yet all these people already know each other, including Dr. Judd, Gregory, Jason - all of them used to cluster around Jacqueline, though we can't really imagine why. Maybe it's because she used to offer a kind of light in this glum melancholy dark of the city and because the best masculinity America had to offer was all overseas. Only the tenderfoots remain, those whose life is so sad they think Jacqueline is vivacious, but she's a dying star. She's imploding and the best they can do is gravitate over to Mary. Maybe to exhibit any decisive power of their own orbit would mean a draft notice in their mailbox, as if the war, some giant Molloch industrial god of death, could sense their readiness to enter maturity.

It doesn't matter, let the men be how they are. After all, we're watching the movies and not out playing softball like our mom keeps nagging us to. We, the asthmatic hay fever suffering indoor viewers, love Mary, too. She might get scared there on the elevated platform, but she doesn't panic; she doesn't cry, give up, or lose hope or faith in humanity. Even with no life experience beyond an all-girls' school, she can easily, but calmly tell Gregory off when he condescendingly tries to get her to drink milk (the ultimate echo of Victorian condescension in cinematic parlance - feel my and Anna Christie's rage here).

But the same problem Mary has with milk is what I have with the "poet" who feels it's his duty to somehow shepherd these people towards his lame insights about Cyrano's sword or whatever. Dude, poets have day jobs. Peter Carter in the last film worked in another field as well being a poet, he didn't mope around a restaurant all day looking thoughtful. I also have a problem with buying Jean Brooks as the 'stunning and vivacious' Jacqueline. She's far too glum looking for any of the Rebecca-Laura-style hype that precedes her character's sudden entrance. Sweeping around the stairwells in a black fur coat (Irina's?) and Cleopatra wig, she strikes me more like a middle-aged secretary turned cranky from waiting too long in the car. If she was even half as beautiful as the hype, it wouldn't matter if she was so dour, and vice versa. We can imagine the role really belonging to cat-eyed ("sister!") Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell, an actress who could be dour as you like but was still classically gorgeous. Was Russell's part stolen by the "this is the girl" machinations of some Illuminati old power broker with a yen for Brooks?

At any rate, like Blanche, she is Mary's allegedly charming older sister, after all, and has the same older sister authority to take over the narrative that Blanche did once she's finally found (hiding out at Judd's). Suddenly Victim shifts focus from Mary and her nocturnal search and the friends she accrues, to Jacqueline grouchy in her easy chair with the poison and the cult. "No!" she keeps saying - they won't let her sleep.  "No!" They keep trying to drive her to drink; for killing her is against their religion - it has to be her own hand. Like the roulette in Deer Hunter, it's a rather impractical metaphor for suicidal ideation (if you've ever been in the subway and just imagined putting a gun to your head, over and over, as if hitting the button on your opiate drip in post-op, then you know what Lewton's getting at.) On the other hand, it is a perfect analogy for the early days of sobriety, before you learn how to stay away for 'triggers' (i.e. "people, places and things").

7th Victim - this is what
what being a white knuckle alcoholic is like
The other riveting scene--one of the big moments--the equivalent of the blood under the door in Leopard Man--is poor Jacqueline trying to seek help from a group of theatrical performers streaming out the back door of a theater, so ready for celebration and alcohol they're still in costume. Rather than take her seriously, one whisks her up in his arms to come along for a steak and a tall drink. But she's already said no to a drink once too often. "No! No!" Incidentally, the poison scene (above) is not unlike how I used to spend my Monday mornings, trying to not to take that first morning hangover cure hair of the dog, just one to take the edge off, man; or trying to show I could be my old self in a bar with friends during the first few months of sobriety (and even now). That she makes it home and then hangs herself anyway fits the bill too, the equivalent of making it all through the morning without drinking and then, finally, you get home from work and --you EARNED it - you made it to cocktail hour!

Poor Elisabeth Russell shows up at the very end, going out on the town for the last time, even if it kills her, and we want to go with her, away from Brooks and her dour sleepless despair. Both run to death and death meets them as fast, but one is running to the pleasures that are like yesterday, and one is running neither forward, no back, but up, onto the chair above the rope.

But we needn't despair when there's still Kim Hunter's Mary, ready to step in and pick up the pieces left by her crazy older sister. Mary lives on, presumably, to teach kindergarten and marry that nice lawyer and bank her steady fire against the ever-rushing darkness of the Lewton-verse.

Though she's always willing to let some other actor else have the spotlight, would any of these three films be the cherished classics they are without her quiet anchoring grace? We can see why these men in all three films, from rising beasts to falling poets (literally in Peter D. Carter's case, figuratively in Jason's) curve their erratic journey through empty, frozen space and begin to orbit in the force of her gravity. She's a warm star in the night, a campfire in the empty desert visible from space, curbing our lost soul drifts.

Me, I curve towards Death the most of these three films, classics as they all are, because of Cardiff's blazing Technicolor. That haunting orange light is like cool hand hand on my fevered tombstone brow. When I'm wigging out on a panic attack, Hunter's voice in Death meets me as fast as the flush of whiskey used to meet my dusty stomach. In our modern age, where we fall in love with voices and words before we meet the object of our night's affections, there, in that Technicolor Cardiff-crafted warmth of her cheeks, I truly find a home,

even if--in the end--it's all just them colored lights.

1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller

Friday, August 03, 2018

Angels of Death Special Edition VII: FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!

"Welcome to violence, a deep raspy voice grabs us right from the get-go, the soundwaves of his voice on the tape measured out for us in some macabre dance of manly depth, "wrapped up in the flesh of woman,". At the mention of the threat posed "even by dancers in a go-go club!" the music explodes as we cut to three uninhibited (clothed) dancers in the midst of enflaming male lust. The audience is puffy with ugly masculine energy, middle aged clods hopped up on drink and desire. The audience is the kind of mugs not even a mother could love, frenzied with cigars and darkness, shouting: 'Go baby go! Go! Go!" The girls wail and rock in their bikini ensembles; the music builds; the shouts intensify; it all explodes into sunshine with a maniacal laugh and the title credits come rolling up as the dance continues into a sunny race down and sports cars zipping along the open American desert highway, the bright morning sun blinds us after being in the dark dankness of the club. Now the girls are out of that darkened cesspool, speeding forward into the wasteland (the open roadster-ready planes of the the Mojave Desert, where you can see a cop--or anyone else-- coming from ten miles away); each woman is in her own little souped-up roadster, leap-frogging each other and blasting their way freer and freer. The theme by some garage outfit called the Bostweeds roars under them like a souped up engine: "Pussycat is living reckless / pussycat is riding high / if you think you can tame her / well, just you try!"

Already we're in love with these maniacal girls and their movie. We'd never dream of trying to tame any of them, or this film, all we can do is hang on the way we do on roller coasters or when the woman driving us home from the bar is going way too fast but we're scared of blowing it if we say anything so we just discreetly grab onto our seats. It's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, a 1965 drive-in massacre helmed by Russ Meyer, the brilliant chronicler of big-breasted, sexually voracious, tough-talking women burning through men with uninhibited carnality.

Before this big breakthrough, Meyer, 'nudie cuties' ruled the former burlesque clubs-turned-art houses. These were the kind of things made in pursuit of the long green by daring the censor with anything they could get away with in the early-60s, which wasn't much.  The film Poor White Trash that had been playing the tail end of drive-ins for decades, and Meyer took notice, delivering things like Mudhoney and Lorna, and then 1965's Motor Psycho (a kind of The Searchers, but with bikers instead of Apaches and sexy Haji instead of Jeffrey Hunter). Pussycat was something else altogether-- there was no precedent for it, no antecedent. Cinema had never seen women like the three wild go-go dancing, off-road dragging thrill-seeking maniacs, nor would it, sadly, ever again --a few random female characters roaring through not withstanding.

The threesome of Pussycat are now the stuff of grindhouse legend: Varla (the terrifying Tura Satana), the tough butch sadistic leader, in the black Porsche, who shouts her lines in a haughty monotone; Rosie (Haji), her right hand underling/lover, who speaks in a low-key Chico Marx accent ("now I'm a-gonna spin-a dry you!") and Billie (Lori Williams), the curvy fun-loving sexually carnivorous blonde who tags along with this duo for the wild kicks they provide.  Wild stuff happens wherever they go, turning on Billie to a point, and it's implied that if her wild antics get her into trouble with--say--go-go patrons stalking her after house, she can rely on Varla to beat the shit out of them.

In a sharp turn from the slew of 1950s girl gang delinquent movies, there is never any mention of these three being in any organized gang. They have no matching jackets or tattoos, not even weapons, aside from Varla's switchblade (Rosa carries it for her). There is no posing or growling or trying to act tougher than they are. These three girls - they're the real deal. We learn this pretty early on after--and some might say he deserved it for hitting her when she was already letting him walk away--Varla breaks a young all-American boy Tommy's (Ray Barlow) entitled little SWM neck.  For thrilled first time viewers we're suddenly in brand new territory. We have no idea what's going to happen; there's no cliche or roadmap here. Not anymore. All we know is, any man who crosses Varla better watch out. And it's pretty easy to hide a body even in the dead of the blazing California afternoon... in a big empty like the Mojave.

Susan Bernard worries she might be hogging all the oxygen. 

Replete with tire markers for boundaries used for racing and timing trials, the Mojave is the kind of place that is usually deserted for miles and miles in all directions and, well, if you've never been way out alone in the middle of a desert before, then you know how eerie and ominous it gets, how long you can go without seeing another living soul, and yet how far you can see in all directions. It's an eerie feeling, how quickly the law and order of the country can be left far behind, and horrible crimes could occur right there in the open, for hours and hours, and no one would know, and even if you tried to escape, there's nowhere to hide. Even if you manage to get in your car and drive away, your pursuers have miles and miles in which to catch up and run you down. This sense of lawlessness brought on by isolation is something understood by Peckinpah (Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West), George Miller (Mad Max, the Road Warrior), and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes), among others (Wolf Creek), but not everyone - you have to experience it to know about it. You have to feel the danger in the air to know that you can't cart your civilized obliviousness into the wilderness. Even if it's just to run some timing trials (or score drugs), you have to be ready to defend yourself, and you should never be dumb enough to let yourself be led too far away from your trailer or homestead, leaving your children and/or hot wife unprotected so a bunch of guys on bikes (or horses) can just ride up and run riot while you're off chasing a decoy. Unless you're going to track them all down later and kill them yourself, there's not a damned thing you can do about it all, except run feebly back towards your trashed house.

"you don't have to believe it --just act it."
Into this wasteland came the hot rods. Teenagers were souping up dad's hand-me down Studebakers and drag racing out there, nice flat land all free of traffic lights and store windows. It's a distinctly Californian, distinctly mid-60s, pre-summer of love / post-big studio system phenomenon, when southern California car culture was all the rage (ala American Graffiti) and drive-ins the perfect place to see violence, sex, and speed and submarine races while getting it on in the back seat. Don't forget too that the mid-60s marked the time when the bikini--long a staple of French beaches--finally gained acceptance in the States. It was new-ish, so just having the word 'bikini' in your title, could guarantee box office interest. Bikinis and cars were coupling up, as seen in AIP pics from the same era, like Velvet Vampire with its flashy yellow dune buggy, or climactic car chase scenes in Dr. GoldfootBikini Beach, Eegah!, etc. It was also the dawn of the transistor radio, so not only would we now see the voluptuous young bodies in all their splendor on the beaches, but they could bring their garage band radio stations and dance the frug or whatever and hula hoop out there until the sun went down and then go cruising home with the top down. Old duffers like Buster Keaton scrambled for fishing-related excuses to get out there and discreetly ogle.

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) - Bonehead dates a Mermaid

But over away from the relative safety of AIP's beach movies and stuff like Beach Girls and the Monster, and The Horror of Party Beach, were the adults-only "third and last film on the marquee' drive-in pics. 
Thus to Pussycat, wherein in A nice-looking All-American boy, a "safety-first Clyde" and his groovy obedient chick come roaring up to where our three amazons are hanging out: 'the best measured strip of land around' for timing trials' ("It felt fast.... real fast!"). We're headed for trouble from the moment Tommy gets out and stretches a little too patriarchally before them, as if to say, I'm the only man here so naturally I'll be in charge. His girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard) comes out when Varla notes of his car: "you could time that heap with an hourglass" ("did someone mention my figure," she says all cute. Then adds "shall I set up shop here, Tommy?" and already you can't wait to see him get roughed up). But soon squabbling and chicken runs will give way to something much darker.

With each trip to the well, my cup to fill, I come away with no admiration for what may well be the Big Sleep of 60s drive-in exploitation - a favorite that makes me feel just a little cooler every time I watch it. Luminaries of the trash arts like John Waters (who first turned me onto it through his book Shock Value), and feminist film critics like B. Ruby Rich recognize the film's genius and can convey it more cogently perhaps than I, who sometimes have trouble writing about my favorite films, as if afraid I'll somehow spoil them for myself by too much self-editing. I can only agree from my dozens of viewings that, as Waters says, "it ages like fine wine." 

Even now, new elements are still coming out in its bouquet. From the sound mixing to the framing, the gutsy brawling saxophone of club jazz combo score -- always somewhere between a tough TV cop show and a strip club --and no-prisoners editing, everything is surprisingly professional and opened up. No canned audio dubs, nothing primitive in its execution. It's flawless. Sure, they shout all their lines when outdoors, to make sure they're heard - but they never sound muffled and sloppy, like they would in, say, an Al Adamson movie, or all canned and overdubbed, like in a Doris Wishman and -oh! oh! What delicious lines! Jackie Moran's gonzo script roars by like a half-beatnik version of Ben Hecht and punch-drunk George Axelrod. You can feel and hear the air between the actors and the cars, the voices, that blowsy wailing saxophone giving everything a groovy edge. The acting may be flat, mostly (only Haji and Stuart Lancaster seem born for this weird style of dialogue, almost like Samuel Jackson was born for Tarantino's), but the dialogue is on point, it works perfectly anyway.

Speaking of Haji- I never really paid much attention to her until around the 12th viewing, being too enthralled by the statuesque curves of Lori Williams, and the evil of Tura Satana. But then, Marx Brothers fans like myself don't really appreciate Chico Marx, either --he's not as anarchic as Harpo or as intellectual as Groucho. But without him, the schtick falls apart. His presence makes them 'the brothers', the way Haji makes it a girl gang even with just three people. Her Rosie defines what they are and aren't. She never seems to be hamming even with that weird accent. She sticks with Varla, but she's also very aware of the danger they're in, or that her lover/leader may have gone too far. She's not as freaked out as Billie, but she's also clearly got some kind of moral conscience. And she makes the best use of any line she's thrown. While Tura and Lori both shout their lines like they're yelling over a lawn mower, Haji purrs, low, almost halfway to herself, comments like "His car's okay.... only the color needs changing... like maybe yellow?" and my favorite line of all, when Linda offers them a soft drink. "Soft drink, she asks? We don't a-like nothing soft --Everything a-we touch is hard."

But while Rosie is to be fathomed for her middle child subtlety, Varla is one of the most amazing and badass characters in all of exploitation cinema. Tura Satana's a giant, beautiful in a weird almost alien way - half-Japanese, tall, pale skin dark hair fierce heavily black-lined eyes, flattish face that showcases her teeth like some alien carnivore, and a sneer that seems to melt into the fourth dimension. We wouldn't see a smile that scary again until the alien smiles for Harry Dean Stanton in the Nostromo docking bay. Yet Tura is never not all woman, even belting out hammy jujitsu moves or swinging her head around in a crazy kamikaze driving style, she's mad feminine. We never learn why she's such a crazy bitch, but who cares? She doesn't seem to have got that way by suffering past male abuse, but just by being a true Woman, stripped of all phony pretense of decency.

Then there's Lori Williams' Rosie, who gets all the best lines and looks the sexiest in her white go-go boots and hip-hugging white shorts. Her lust after 'the Vegetable' the brain damaged body builder who the old man (Stuart Lancaster) uses like, as he puts it, "a piece of mutton", is truly hilarious ("I don't know what you're training for, but as far as I'm concerned, you're ready.") What Williams lacks in subtlety she more than makes up for in giddy oomph. When she's getting drunk at lunch with Stuart Lancaster (as 'the Old Man') she sounds like she really is drinking (there ain't iced tea in that Cutty Sark bottle), noting it's "it's been known to be passin' out time." With Varla out back seducing Kirk to get the loot location and Varla jealously spying, and the Vegetable taking Stuart up to his room for a nap, it's time for Linda to make a dash for it, but this is still the desert, and walking anywhere on foot without a day-long head start, you just wont outrun an All-American jeep.

For those who aren't familiar with it (and it can become hard to track down since the Meyer estate keeps the rights notoriously close to the vest) Pussycat is slightly easier to find than the rest of his films (aside from the studio-made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) though they're sold on the Russ Meyer website, the DVDs aren't the best - they look like merely remastered from old tapes rather than source prints. So why someone like Arrow doesn't do a deal with them is a lingering mystery. I hear there's been a Blu-ray thing in the works for years now, but who knows why it's taking forever? (Editor's Note: according to his son, Meyer threw away the negatives when he struck the video master, figuring they'd never be screened again. So alas, the video masters are all that are left, which is too horrible to contemplate).

The film's been compared to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and indeed there's a kind of bent similarity but Texas' qua-feminist throttle isn't all the way open the way it is with Faster. The buzzing you hear isn't Leatherface's chainsaw threatening Marilyn Burns but Varla's wheels crushing 'the Vegetable'. They'll have to send him away "from a lot of things" and we imagine suddenly that Carmen Sternwood would be a great candidate for this gang, to take Billie's place after she dies, as would Claudia Jennings from Truck Stop Women (1974). Well, we can't have everything, unless we want to make a movie ourselves. 

Hmmm I'm not trying to put any ideas into anyone's heads, but it seems to me a badass girl gang crashing a lot of different genres would be just the thing. A lot of folks have tried and they end up being the usual overwrought nonsense with one too many well-scrubbed thugs locking overly siliconed strippers in trunks, in between lugging bags of cash in and out of hotel lobbies, shots of sunglassed douchebags smirking into rearview mirrors, abusive backstory, flashy meaningless over-editing (you know the ones I'm talking about - no names) and female violence done with "this hurts me more than it does you" anguish in their eyes rather than sadistic relish. In other words, these mostly male directors miss the whole point. The only film of late I can see even coming close is the 2010 low budget Aussie pic, El Monstro Del Marwhich is kind of like the Faster Pussycats vs. the Sea Monster and, of course, the fantabulous 68 Kill (which is awesome and recommended - don't let the dumb title and excruciatingly tacky poster art dissuade you).


Faster is so good it's natural to want to explore more Meyer films. Alas, while the quality of the filmmaking is always superb, the films aren't restored, leading to blurry colors (which is why hiw black-and-white films hold up better). But even taking that into account there's no film quite as perfect as Pussycat in the Meyer canon. After this, he moves to color and off-road mayhem gradually mixes down to roaring soapy bedroom farce. His earlier backwoods lustful "Erskine on the Half-shell" insanity becomes tempered down into historical epics (Blacksnake), banal softcore (Fanny Hill), and cartoonish rutting (Up!, Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixens)

These days I have a whole new appreciation for Haji's Rosie, The co-star of Motor Psycho, her gorgeous breasts ever hanging out of a torn blouse as she bounces around in Rocco's truck through the desert on their quest for vengeance. 

Even his vehicular homicide film from the same year (1965) wasn't in the same league as Faster, not by a longshot. By keeping the bad guys all men, it becomes a 'roughie,' part the short rape/revenge trend in mid-60s exploitation. Now it's notable mainly for a chance to see Haji in a more prominent role, as a compatriot in bereaved vengeance to Alex Rocco (!). After the gang harass and/or kill Rocco's wife and her family, Haji and veterinarian and Alex Rocco drive off to take revenge.  The Mulveyan male sadistic gaze meanwhile must watch in horror as the bikers act on our eye's desires (the girls are very shapely), almost like they're our own monster of the Id (from Forbidden Planet). Very Clockwork Orange in that respect - as all our libidinal leering comes back to haunt us. We'd never get quite that uncomfortable in that way today, when Hollywood films sexual assaults in such a way as to leave us feeling personally violated, traumatized, but never uncomfortably complicit through our own ogling desires. Either way, it's the polar opposite effect of Pussycat. Sigh, I wish there was a whole Pussycat series.

we do not approve of their methods- Motor Psycho

But no.. Drive-ins no longer wanted black-and-white, so- Meyer moved into color (now faded and soft_ and relaxing censorship let him drift ever closer into hardcore. One of his other films of his I do like, SuperVixens (1975) has scenes like the one with mail order bride Uschi Digard running around the farm, naked but for feathers in her hair and waving ears of Indian corn outstretched as if auditioning for some X-rated margarine box, while Stuart Lancaster, naked but for a chicken over his groin, runs in an intersecting direction, breaking up a montage of them screwing in all sorts of farm locations. It's funny and strange but shows Meyer's confusion with loosening censorship via both sex and violence. How far does he really want to go? Everywhere our hapless hero goes 'Super'-sized glamazons (with names like "Super Cherry") throw themselves at him and he seldom wants to reciprocate, either trying to fight them off and arousing the ire of their kinky boyfriends (who like to watch, like John LaZar) or angering the farmer or hotelier he'd be cuckolding into chasing him with a shotgun. Violence explodes from the wild cartoon fury of nymphomaniacal Super Lorna (who takes an axe to his car in a jealous rage and then is later killed in the bathtub by Charles Napier after she taunts him for not getting it up, a scene both hilarious and deeply disturbing. 

Indeed, that uneasy mins becomes the norm for Meyer: the killing and abuse of women is repeatedly made an extension of sexual frenzy wherein everyone loses. Even in Meyer's big budget Beneath the Valley of the Dolls two women get a pistol shoved in their mouths for being lesbians. "Theirs was not an evil love, but evil came because of it." Really, Ebert? Yet you shit all over I Spit on Your Grave?

Uschi Digard in SUPER VIXENS - the Mail order Milk Maid Fantasy cranked to cartoonish extremes
enough to make Jayne Mansfield blush; (but in this pic too we see the problem with color film vs.
black white as far as preservation - it's all muddy, especially without the negatives to strike a restored
print from for  a good DVD or Blu-ray. Gosh darn it Russ, why did you throw the negatives away!?

Our hero is very rude not to indulge the weird come-ons of Super Cherry while her boyfriend
(John Lazar) watches excitedly from the driver's seat.

In short, outside of Faster we get violence but the wrong kind, not the badass liberated gangland karate of Varla, but a kind of extension of pent-up, summer heat-fueled sexual madness. We don't 'feel' the violence in Pussycat or share Linda's frustrated terror at the macabre luncheon ("she's a sick girl, pops"), or wince at Tommy's humiliation after the race around the track. We're meant to view this pair of clean-cut normies with a kind of savage's eye, the way we do the white kid virgins snatched by Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem in Perdita Durango (aka Dance with the Devil). Before they maybe die, their small world has been enlarged, their sense of middle class entitlement blown apart forever by this experience.


One of the unusual aspects too of  Faster -- there isn't any sex in it whatsoever, making it unique in the Meyer annals. There's implied lesbian pair bonding and -- in the house of the three men, some implied (but never seen) rape/murders done in the past by the Vegetable with the Old Man as instigator/spectator (revenge for a past slight done - when he crippled himself rescuing a girl off the tracks, who didn't even stop to see if he was all right). According to interviews, Haji didn't even know she was playing a lesbian until the shoot was almost over, but that's okay- this is 1965, after all, that they don't wear it on their sleeve is quite realistic for its time. We wouldn't really notice if not for Billie teasing Rosie that "you only got one channel, and your channel is busy tuning in outside. You really should be AM and FM..."  Earlier, when Varla tells Billie, "Rosie and I are going to take a walk..." we imagine there might have been a softcore lesbian moment if this was 1969 instead of 65, or if Meyer had time, and the girls were down. But who cares, in the end? There's no time for such stillness in this fast-moving film. The few times (straight) sex is tried it's interrupted either by either a train (which throws the Vegetable off his rhythm) or a scream from Linda (which interrupts Varla and Kirk), and at the end, a rape the Vegetable is too upset to perform despite his lecherous old man's shouts. No time! Cue the Bostweeds!

This lack of sex marks a key turning point for the Meyer canon. From henceforth, sex will become Meyer's obsession. Feminism and amok 'super'-sizing will all be in service of sexual fulfillment which never seems to come.  The cars will still zip by, but our heroes will be settled in cabins ant tract homes, at least until their horny broads almost destabilize the scene in a fit of horny pique, or he comes home to find her making it with the milkman, unless that sort of thing turns him on.

"You girls nudists, or just short of clothes?"

As for the rapey duo of Vegetable and old ma, we never really get the details of one ominous pronouncement that they have "all the land to hide those pretty ribbons in when we're done with 'em" but we wonder how the good brother, who doesn't seem to have any kind of a job except nursemaid to the pair of them, can stand back and let these kind of atrocities go on. It's fine that the script doesn't bother explaining that: it's too busy tossing out one great line after the other.

It's also perfect to drink to, as there's copious opportunities and justifications, such as when the old man grabs the Scotch bottle out of the grocery box Kirk is bringing in from the store. "It's a little early for that, old man!" notes Kirk. "The train is late!," Stu snaps. "Nothing's on schedule today!" When I watched this over and over in a drunken euphoric bender haze on a 6-hour tape with Mesa of the Lost Women, Cat People of the Moon, and Spider Baby. I never shut up about that tape on this site, and I'm sorry. 

In the end it doesn't matter what the old man instigated or not SPOILER ALRT -- he will be dead before nightfall, his wheelchair overturned, his long greenbacks fluttering in the wind. Something else is gone forever, too. Movies will never feature this much crazy thrills packed into Hawksian 'enhanced' real time again. There'll never be a character as unhinged and gleefully butch mercenary as Varla, not in the Meyer canon, not anywhere.  This is the steep price of civilization. Nowadays producers would be too worried about arousing feminist / lesbian film scholar ire, actresses too worried about their image. When there are badass females, they 'got that way' because of child abuse or a rape. They're not just wild... untamed... violence in the form of woman.

As in Chainsaw, Linda realizes her 'rescuer' is taking
her back to where she just escaped fro
"Welcome to violence, the word and the deed," that narrator said back at the start (and is never heard again). But the stay is short, like a delicious lap dance to a short song, the film ends much too quickly, leaving us with the only two 'other' boring characters in the film: Linda and the 'good' brother (Paul Trinka), who buys lots of big hardcover books over mail order -"and they're ain't a picture in one of them." The others are all dead now (or 'destroyed' in the biceps) and it's not even dark yet. The film is over so fast we need, want to keep the electric thrill of it going with another film. But what comes close, if, as I said above, the Meyer films tend to drift off into rape and bedroom farce rather than badass bitches tearing up the swinging' miles?

That's the saddest part of Faster, the realization there's almost nothing else like it, anywhere. And there should be. It's a damned conspiracy. Women are becoming more equal and men are afraid ironically of getting flak from feminists by showing women as too powerful. Women are now forced to be merely equal, but for my money that's missing the point. Equal to what? 

The point is of no return, we're reaching it. Can we turn it around?



Actually -For some Pussycat-eaque thrills, make sure to get the DVD set of Honey West starring Ann Francis. Lori Williams has a poolside cameo in the first episode (left)! Francis plays detective Honey as a capable swinger, both Emma Peele and John Steed rolled into one -- her handsome boy Friday may do the heavy lifting, but she's the lead and never lets him forget it (and there's no romance of male dominance - she calls all the shots). Each episode is only a half hour, so no time for the filler that sometimes eats up the first half hour of Charlie's Angels episodes. 


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