Cleansing the lens of cinemtic perception until the screen is infinite... and even beyond

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Crazy, Cool, and Catty Sue Cabot: SORORITY GIRL (1957), MACHINE-GUN KELLY (1958)

Raise the roof! Shout Factory TV via Prime have dislodged some of the long buried Corman gems from the late-50s beatnik Corman AIP days wedged up in the ceiling beams, including three of his very best: THE UNDEAD (1957), SORORITY GIRL (1957) and MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958). Long unseen by anyone not expressly looking (never on DVD), the sudden availability of these three gems should be great news to Corman fans like myself: the writing is go-for-broke inspired (Undead being a crazy riff on Bergman's Seventh Seal crossed with a Bridey Murphy hypnotist angle that prefigures The Terminator) and Corman's genius hipster acting regulars are all here, including: Barboura Morris, Dick Miller, Richard Devon, and --of course--the divine Susan Cabot. She's not in The Undead but she leads the pack in Girl and Gun, and though she's the bad guy in both we root for her most every step of the way. Cabot plays these characters with such in-the-zone confident relish, such modulated catlike finesse, we don't blame Corman for letting other details slide. As he would do in the next decade with Vincent Price, he spots a star making magic, and lets 'em loose. He knows magic when he sees it, especially the affordable kind. Thus Cabot gets almost as many lines, even though she's not the title character, in Machine-Gun Kelly as co-star Charlie Bronson.

I kept trying to get really good screenshots for this post but it's hard to nail down Cabot's expressive features, as she has a way of running through an array of moods and sly glances while doing a kind of restless movement thing with her head bending low and snaking up as she inches towards her prey. Both playful and a little macabre, the way she goes from mildly worried when, for example, someone threatens to rat her out to the dean in Sorority Girl, to a kind of brief animal rage, knocking the rat out, to determination while rummaging through her things, to triumph when she finds some incriminating evidence that will hold the rat's tongue in a blackmail quid pr quo, to playful cool once she has the rat under her control. What matters isn't the evidence itself, or the idea someone could get kicked out of school for spanking a pledge at a sorority house--which seems ridiculous--it's the irresistible way Cabot has with controlling a scene, with goading the other characters into pushing back, then taking their slaps or incriminations with a cat who swallowed the canary smile. It's theatrical, but it's a special kind of movie theatricality that scriptwriters can't often predict - suddenly their lines take wing as someone like Sue Cabot susses out all the fissures and peaks and moments the writer maybe didn't even know were there. 

She got a contract with Universal earlier in the decade; they loaded her into the background of a bunch of forgettable westerns, so she went back to NYC to act on the stage. Corman saw a tough confidence in her, tough enough to be sensitive and open, that kind of courageous raw nerve that lets her saunter up to a cop and make small talk while her man's in the bank next door, if you know what I mean. He put her in the lead, Sorority Girl, then she stayed with him to make six films within a three year period of 1957-59: Sorority GirlViking Women and the Sea Serpent, Carnival Rock, War of the Satellites, Machine Gun Kelly and The Wasp Woman. I've seen and reviewed them all (for defunct search engine Muze) and at least half are pretty good. The two released by ShoutTV onto Prime however are the bona fide best when it comes to punchy cool scenes that manage to use a single room set as background for so many tense and riveting exchanges, conversations so layered with turnovers of power and threats of immanent violence we can feel the young eyes of Tarantino glued to them.

Tough enough that she could play complex villains and flawed heroines. She was believable as an aging-- and then younger-- owner of a thriving cosmetics line in The Wasp Woman; and as a scheming harridan --the only brunette in a tribe of Viking women (and marked therefore as the villain)--in Viking Women and the Sea Serpent she could be the girlfriend of a tough guy like Charles Bronson and not even gripe or sob if he socked her for taunting him and teasing him in front of the other guys, and she could be manipulative sadistic sorority girl determined to abuse her hazing privileges to ridiculous degrees. And she could win our admiration almost in spite of ourselves, every time.

(1957) Dr. Roger Corman
***/  Amazon/Shout Image - A

From the title, we kind of expect a bunch of malt hops and mixers with Tab Hunter giving our heroine a pledge pin and maybe getting her pregnant the night Chubby Checker or Bill Haley come to town to play at the big beachside fraternity party. But the mysterious credits, a surrealist figure alienated from the bunch, reacting with a cat o'nine tails, becoming a kind of surrogate harpy, leave a different, eerie impression. What Corman is bringing us under that innocuous title is a strangely sexy psychodrama about a disturbed young woman named Sabra (Cabot) from an affluent but loveless home who struggles with her deep Sadean impulse to hurt and destroy. Clearly she should see a shrink but we must remember back then shrinks were considered a shameful secret. If it got out you'd been to one it could ruin your reputation (a stigma that persisted through into the 70s), and chances are it would be some smug male who'd decree she had 'lady part issues' and needed to get married or, on the other side, have electroshock treatment and be committed. I mention this to temper the scenes of her begging for help from her distant loveless mom, to the point we shout at the screen: go to the shrink and get some anti-depressants! But antidepressants are still decades away. Pity them, the fucked-up children in a time before Prozac.

Until then, well, she tries, in all the wrong ways to connect. I can certainly relate, and maybe you can to, to not realizing that your mistreatment of the dopey B-list pledge who does want to hang out with you, is the reason you are shunned by the cool kids. With her schemes and bizarre psychosexual sadism she prefigures Tippi Hedren in Marnie and Sara Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions. And during a surprise visit home to beg for help and/or affection from mom, we don't need our Penguin Freuds to see where Sabra gets her inability to tolerate or express affection.

Thanks to the insights of her voiceover and the visit home, we have endless sympathy for Sabra, which makes her odious behavior all the harder to accept or understand. What sets all this above the average 'co-ed' movie (even Corman's later nurse pics for New World) is the sober intellect and overall supportiveness of the student body amongst each other. The fear of public gossip---this being the age of strict codes of conduct, where getting pregnant can mean disgrace, when abortions are illegal, and the level of prudish gossip vs. actual practice is just a few rings more moderate than Peyton Place, making blackmail and other nefarious evils all too easy--
 seems unfounded as the only mean spirit around is Sabra. The one weak element here is that there is no one else in the whole Greek system who seems as vile and Mean Girls-ish as her.

One of Corman's ingenious tricks is to plant his films with a very strong and entertaining centerpiece scene, usually it only has a moderate amount to do with the rest of the film but it packs in sex and tough, awesome talk, as if Russ Meyer took over for a middle reel. Here, it's an extended scene that goes from Sabra trying to steal her roommate Rita's (Barboura Morris') man (Dick Miller, modulating his /beat swagger to seem like a gadfly about town trying to stay cool even as his girl is moving into politics) downstairs in the drawing room of the sorority house, after all the other sisters leave for a pledge rush party (he's late picking her up), to trying to help dowdy pledge Tina (Barbara Cowan) lose a few pounds by forcing her to do some crunches / sit-ups, to becoming so incensed by Tina's defeatist childish attitude, she reaches for the sorority pledge paddle.

 What follows is a very erotically charged sorority paddling, ingeniously edited to focus on Cabot's face, lost in a haze of suppressed lesbian (?) and Sadean desire, worth of Petra von Kant, especially considering Tina's complicity: she meekly submits, lying face down on the ottoman. Tina could easily say f--ck you, and go back to her own room, but there's clearly some darkly erotic Freudian/repressed sapphic undertones as she submits to this paddling and a kind of sub/dom unspoken sublimated lesbian outpouring erupts like a repressive hysteric symptom within the drably heterogenous confines of the sorority house (once all the girls are gone, the social sphere disappears).

Corman films from two angles-- behind Cabot and looking down to the side at the submissive pledge and then an upward angle from her position of Cabot's face, which seems to be hiding an unholy mix of sadistic lesbian relish, all done very subtly (there's no moaning or screaming in pleasure or pain). The quiet sobbing of the pledge afterwards sounds more ashamed of some secret masochistic enjoyment. In this repressed world, paddling is about the only means of sexual contact these two women are allowed, and even then, it's so warped by social repression (cruelty is less abject that lesbianism). Through close-ups from below of Sabra's face as she swings the paddle, to the quite sobbing of Tina on the ottoman, there's an unspoken release on both sides, some strange suppressed sublimated sexual desire (neither one has a boyfriend or seems interested in such things - they are the two outsiders, bound in a coded sapphic master-slave relationship neither one quite understands).

Though she's sobbing afterwards, the next time we see Tina she's still hanging out with Sabra--the closest thing she has to a friend. Later, on the beach, they are still sitting together. Tina is doing sit-ups and even dryly noting she's gotten tougher. She's used the incident in a productive manner. It's toughened her up, in a way she may never have become.

Perhaps Cabot drew from experience, having grown up in a series of 13 foster homes in Boston before getting married at 17 in order to escape the havoc. We can feel in her eyes the round-and-round mix of need/desire for acceptance and companionship ever at odds with a total contempt for weakness and loathing for any kind of physical affection indicative of growing up in an environment void of physical affection.  When Sabra drives home, hoping in vain to get some sympathy from her mother (Fay Baker), it's as if she's forgotten what a bitch her mom truly is, not outright sadistic that we can see, just unavailable, contemptuous of weakness, not wanting a child's needs to interfere with her plans for cocktails by the pool later with the Joneses. It's a devastating, stand-alone scene that tells us everything we need to know and instills the utmost sympathy for this "evil" sorority sister. It's easy for the other kids, bouncing gaily through life with boys, but Sabra lacks the ability to express affection in any other way but the paddle. Growing up, we sense, she didn't even get that. 

In addition to Barbara Mouris, we get Dick Miller as a bar-owning man about campus who rejects Sabra's advances so she blackmails his waitress (June Kenney) into blackmailing him, even though they both know he's not the one who got her pregnant. The music is by Ronald Stein and Monroe Askins' photography brings an airy depth to the sorority house close quarters, and a misty mountain marvelousness to the climactic beach scene. The print on Shout TV/via Prime, is ungodly great. And so welcome. Barely clocking in at over an hour, there's not an ounce of fat on this strange cinematic event, which had a male military school version with even more kinky sadism and blackmail, also in 1957, The Strange One, starring the comparable Ben Gazzara. If you saw them both as a double feature you'd never send your child to school again! 

(1958) Dir. Roger Corman
*** 1/2 / Amazon Stream image - A

Though Charles Bronson gets the title billing, it's made very clear throughout that Susan Cabot is the real show, the real leader of the gang, and she has a field day! Her character, Florence "Flo" Becker, is based loosely (one presumes) on the real-life Kelly's wife Kathryn: the brains of the organization and apparently the one who styled her husband's public image, even convincing him to use a machine gun as a talisman. Why isn't she the title character? Because she was too smart even for that. Instead, well, Cabot's Flo gets as many if not more lines than Bronson's Kelly--who all too often is undone by a big streak of fear. She's way more courageous, witty and pro-active than everyone else in the film. She keeps reminding Bronson he's her "little baby," and her "gun arm," and she chose him because he was so weak and pliable! She tells him that in front of the other members of the gang, including the Morey Amsterdam as a dime-dropping fink mad at Kelly just because he threw him against a cougar cage and his arm got ripped off.

Bronson plays Kelly with kind of tough with just a hint of functional sadism over top of the fear, but he can be nice too--it's a full 3D performance and Bronson shows why he deserved to make it big, with his mix of Pennsylvania steel mill-style stoicism, breaking it up when Richard Devon tries to rape Barbara Mouris (their kidnapping victim's nanny) and even playing paddy cake with their kidnap victim.

Some elements of the true story have been shifted around (here Kelly and co. kidnap a rich guy's child -- in real life they kidnapped the rich guy himself) and it's a bit rough with our modern sensibility to see cougars and other beasts in these tiny cages, meant for tourist gawkin', but Corman films it all with a punchy, vivid urgent style so there's no time for feeling glum about anything. This is no plodding origin story where we need his whole arc. This is just a few crazy heists, and then the cops get 'em, the end. Bang! Corman has no time for tedious art or Big Statements, and in the process of stripping things down he's way more insightful and illuminating than most of the overblown prestige gangster pics.

To get back to Cabot's Flo, what lets the audience know she's the real leader of the gang is the way only she seems totally at ease with danger. And she's always dressed to the nines, sauntering in and out of the hideout trailing her fur stoles while the men all have to lay super low, bickering and playing cards.. As luxuriant and catlike as one could ask for in a super moll, she's the one casing out banks, drawing out maps, flirting with the guards for the inside dope. Kelly is prone to freezing and running away out when confronted with any memento mori, coffin, skull paperweight, or obituary column.  He needs constant teasing and reinforcement to get him to man up and wield the gun. She gets him to man up by flirting with his outlaw cronies (none of them have molls), and yet during a heist he's thrown off his timetable by the sight of a coffin being loaded into the funeral home basement near the bank. He freaks out, misses his cue, and his partner (Jack Lambert) ends up holding the bag and having to shoot his way out. This leaves Kelly gangless and with a new enemy for setting him up, prompting Flo and Kelly to lay low at Flo's mom's house, a whorehouse, as it happens. Mom is a badass madame played with real moxy by Connie Gilchrist. Savvy and cool, she brooks no umbrage from Kelly, unfazed by his tough guy veneer, realizing he's no good. We see where Flo gets her her scathign wit and her lack of fear when it comes to tough-talking, hard-hitting men.

Cabot is as brave as Flo, relishing her character, investing so much playful nuance and force it's amazing. Part of it I imagine is her theatrical background, the ability to play extended single takes covering a lot of different emotional moments, and she does it daringly well. Unlike most 'moll' characters in crime movies, her Flo enjoys the life of crime. She's a long way from being just eye candy, sulking around on the couch eating bon-bons and occasionally whining about how much she misses being able to out dancing, irritating a pacing James Cagney as he plans their next escape or break-out. Here it's just the opposite. She's the one going out and doing all the work. And at the end it's she who is toughest, ready to die shooting it out with the cops, using the kid as a shield, etc.  And when push come to shove she's the one ready to go down swinging. Kelly just--well I shan't spoil it.

Gerald Fried whips up some really peppy rich jazz for the score, a million miles from the phoned in Dixieland ragtime generic nonsense usually played in the 70s during their 20s-30s nostalgia kick. I mean, man, this stuff rips, I found myself unable to stop snapping my fingers and at one point was lifted out of my recliner as if on the wings of Gene Krupa. And Corman makes sure it's all edited tight on the ones as bank heists and elaborate getaways come off like clockwork tied to the precision jump-back crackerjack flap the pack rack rhythm of the band. Fried had just done the score for Kubrick's The Killing a couple years earlier and the buzz was still generating. It's 61 years later and he's still working! Every day is Fried day!

Alas, aside from this small period of working with Corman (six films in three years: 1957-59), Cabot never really made the lasting mark she should and could have. Cabot went back to NYC and Boston after The Wasp Woman to do mostly theater, and then, her tragic death (1). As for that, well, I don't like to dwell in my favorite stars' murky home lives, lest some detail or other ruin their viability as a screen for some archetypal projection, such as Cabot is, to that mix of anima, trickster, cougar and devouring mom I have deep in the collective cinema unconscious. Cabot could embody all these archetypes and more, in a single scene, perfectly modulated, all with a catty class and oomph that reminds us strong cool women come in all decades, shapes, and sizes, that a short brunette with shark eyes, clunky shoes, and a weird smile can wow us to core, even in a B-list gangster movie, or a sorority sister psychodrama meant to fill in a B-slot at a drive-in. Greatness always finds its way to the light!

1. See Tom Weaver's piece "The Life and Tragic Death of Susan Cabot" for the full sad tale
2. And to prove the powerful effect of this kind of strange, deeply Freudian scene, Corman recreated it 13 years later in Bloody Mama this time in a holding cell between Bruce Dern and Robert Walden with a wet towel instead of a paddle, and the desire/fear-paralyzed Walden gently singing a religious spiritual as the 'whacks' come down.  In getting at the deep Freudian root, in these two scenes Corman creates moments we find confusing in their eroticism. We're hypnotized and dimly--on a subconscious, precambrian level--even turned on, albeit in the way we may have been as a child imagining such punishments inflicted on others. So often in film these kinds of incidents are filmed all wrong. An auteur like Bunuel or Von Sternberg focuses more on the psychological sort of masochism, and some, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, get too hung up on the bondage gear and class. In these two examples, Corman somehow manages to stage the abuse in a way that captures all the Freudian intensity without ever tumbling into the void of either Shades of Grey softcore tackiness or Girl with a Dragon Tattoo misogynistic trauma. See: Taming the Tittering Tourists: 50 Shades of Grey for the one type (tacky), Butterfly Moanin' - Duke of Burgundy and Fairie Bower Cinema (inert) for the other.

1 comment:

  1. Haven't seen these in ages. Another fine article,my friend!


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