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Monday, April 18, 2011

MY FIRST SEMI-DIRTY FILMS

Since it’s part of my personal identity to be an incorrigible list-maker, I don’t blush to admit that since the age of fifteen (some forty years ago, if anyone cares) I’ve kept a list of the movies I’ve seen. It was, and is, a simple list of titles alone. Usually this brief notation was all the mnemonic aid I needed, though on occasion I might read that I’d seen some flick called THE PSYCHOPATH, but I’d have no idea if it was the one from 1966, 1968 or 1973.


In my young movie-viewing years, I naturally had no recourse, even had I wanted one, to explicitly “dirty movies,” since most of what I viewed was on broadcast television. However, now that I've recently formulated the concept of the “semi-dirty” middle ground, I decided to rummage through the first few pages of the list to figure out which if any of the “clean”-looking films might have concealed a dirty affectivity, whether that of sex exclusively, violence exclusively, or the two conjoined, as I illustrated here with FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!


Now, in that period there were dozens of films that inspired dirty thoughts, but very few that were “semi-dirty” in the way I’ve used the term. In comedies and adventures, sex functioned to bring together hero and heroine for the closure of romance; in dramas and ironies, sex functioned to show how hero and heroine could have their bonds severed, whether they actually were separated or not by story’s end. But none of these films—most of which I viewed on television== drew attention to sex “as sex,” as a “sensuous frenzy” beyond the limits of the functional.


Still, one exception was the 1964 oddity, GUERILLAS IN PINK LACE.


In this oddball WWII army comedy, directed by star George Montgomery, the actor plays a gambler who masquerades as a priest to escape wartorn Manila. However, he and five USO showgirls are shot down and land on an island held by enemy Japanese. The Japanese accept Montgomery's masquerade and consider him harmless, but all five showgirls lust after Montgomery, despite knowing that they have to keep hands off, because he's supposedly a celibate priest-- and Montgomey doesn't dare reveal his deception. After assorted comic turns, Hamilton and the showgirls manage to capture the whole Japanese occupaton force (or maybe they call in American troops to help: I really don't remember). By this time the five girls have found out that Montgomery isn’t a priest. But the ending doesn't shake out the way it would in most mainstream films of the time-- say, your average Elvis film, where one of the competing ladies would be chosen as The Girlfriend, Implicitly the Future Wife. Instead, the five horny girls jump Montgomery and knock him into a concealing trench, where it’s broadly implied that they’re all going to gang-bang him.

To be sure, it’s a banging to which Montgomery cheerfully consents. But in 1964, when the so-called Sexual Revolution was just getting started, this was a really dirty ending to a clean-looking movie-- more like something one might get from those lusty Italian filmmakers than from anything in North America.








As for violence, the first one in which I saw violence go beyond the merely functional was probably Arthur Crabtree’s 1958 FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. For the first hour or so, it’s a slow film in which people at a military base are being mysteriously killed by some invisible monsters. But at the climax, a scientist finds a way to render the monsters visible, revealing that they look like disembodied brains with bony spines attached—spines which the “fiends” use to propel them along the ground the way snakes move their bodies.















In addition, the brain-beasts can coil their spine-lengths under them, so as to spring like snakes. Once they reach a victim, they can wrap their “spines” around his neck like a snake’s coils, and then “bite” into the victim’s flesh somehow or other. Of the dozens of monster-films that simply trundled out SF-versions of vampires or werewolves, FIEND is unique in coming up with a monster whose violence seems uniquely disruptive, even though one sees very little actual blood and guts.





Finally, I looked for the first film in which, from today’s perspective, I could see sex and violence conjoined. PSYCHO, of course, would be a good example had I seen it first, but as it happens I first encountered a film from the same year; a film which may sexualize violence even more than PSYCHO does with its infamous shower-scene. This was George Blair’s THE HYPNOTIC EYE, in which an assortment of beautiful women-- all of whom attended performances by a strange hypnotist (Jacques Bergerac)-- apparently go mad and disfigure themselves. Thus, long before Dario Argento would specialize in sadistic set-pieces showing beautiful women being killed or tormented, Blair paved the questionable path with such EYE-brow-raising scenes as a woman setting her hair afire from a stove.

This would seem to be an indictment of male sadism, but interestingly, Blair adds the twist that the master hypnotist is actually subject to His Mistress’ Voice--that is, his female assistant, the signficantly-named "Justine" (Allison Hayes). It seems that Justine herself was disfigured long ago, though she conceals the fact with a face-mask, and now she forces the hypnotist to destroy any of her potential rivals.









Of course there are many films that are better known for pushing boundaries in terms of acceptable levels of sex and violence. But though I don’t find any of these three films to be exceptional in terms of the history of cinema, all are *exemplary* in terms of showing how the kinetic elements of sex and violence permeated even the more formulaic Hollywood oeuvre.

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