The Mad Room (1969) ***

Tight little thriller lifted by excellent performances from Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters focusing on murders a dozen years apart. Mandy (Barbara Sammeth) and older brother George (Michael Burns), incarcerated in a mental institution after the murder of their parents, the twist being nobody can discover which child was responsible, are released into the custody of big sister Ellen (Stella Stevens), secretary to wealthy widow Mrs Armstrong (Shelley Winters) and betrothed to her son Sam (Skip Ward).

While concealing the children’s past, Ellen persuades Mrs Armstrong to offer them lodgings, that arrangement coming unstuck when the kids demand a room where they can go “to work things out.”  Armstrong is a bit barmy, engaged on building beside her home a museum to her husband, hence contractors and construction workers on site, and a horde of “ladies who lunch” involved in fundraising. She has also appropriated masseur Armand (Lou Kane), husband of alcoholic Mrs Racine (Beverly Garland), to fulfil her sexual needs.

Don’t worry – the poster doesn’t give the game away.
The blood comes from Stella Stevens discovering the corpse.

When Mrs Armstrong threatens to chuck the kids out, she comes to a sticky end, and the question is raised again of whether Mandy or George are responsible. Mandy is the more highly-strung, stubborn and likely to challenge authority. George appears predatory, stalking the maid. Both are convinced the other is guilty.

Meanwhile, Ellen undertakes to remove the body and pretend Armstrong met her death by accident at a beauty spot, no mean feat given the palaver caused by the builders outside and the constant need for construction decisions and the unexpected arrival of a posse of ladies including the alcoholic Mrs Racine intent on raising merry hell.

It’s part whodunit, part nutcases-on-the-loose, part film noir, part slasher picture,  and part grand guignol. Hands are severed and blood is used to daub flowers on the walls. It’s tense enough even before Armstrong’s demise. She’s not only a loony, but untrustworthy, selfish, capricious and demanding, and it’s as much as Ellen can stand to constantly iron out all the loose ends in her employer’s life. But she sounds believable, an earnest do-gooder even while conspiring against what she sees as Ellen’s gold-digging.

Ellen, life thrown into turmoil after the death of her overbearing impoverished parents and only now building a new identity removed from the shadow of the children, faces the prospect of losing her ideal future. While it would have suited her for the children never to be released, she exhibits surprisingly a strong emotional attachment to her siblings, willing to both shelter and protect them, and conceal again their crimes.

Initial tension revolves around a chase, savage dogs, a shifty maid and Ellen dealing with the manipulative Mrs Armstrong, holding her own long enough until she is safely married, while further pressure builds with the necessity to cover up the murder, explain Mrs Armstrong’s absence, cope with the sudden influx of people and ascertain who has the murderous tendencies. There are some excellent scenes and twisty payoffs, and quite a bit of misdirection – the chase, rabid dogs, a childish song – and some inspired drama such as Mrs Racine letting rip, and Mrs Armstrong’s growing puzzlement.

Stella Stevens (Sol Madrid, 1968), normally eye candy or in a supporting role, is a revelation as Ellen, creating a grounded personality, with several changes of emotion and except for being a little pop-eyed on occasion carries off the part tremendously well and not falling prey to the temptation of grandstanding. Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1964), who knows all about playing larger-than-life characters, tones it down here, even the obvious nuttiness reined in.

Michael Burns (That Cold Day in the Park, 1969) is the better of the two younger actors, while Barbara Sammeth’s (Foul Play, 1978) stiffness could be put down to inexperience – this was her debut. Otherwise former horror queen Beverly Garland (Stark Fear, 1962), one-time horr

The Scalphunters (1968) ****

If ever a film deserves reassessment, this is it. This western, marketed as a vehicle for Burt Lancaster in the wake of hugely successful The Professionals (1968), sees the star playing  cussed trapper Joe Bass trying to retrieve furs stolen first by Native Americans and then by outlaws. That the serious race issues tackled here were dressed up in very broad comedy and typical western action ensured it missed out on the kind of recognition that critics would assign a straightforward drama and lost its rightful place as a pivotal picture of the decade.

In theory, a somewhat unusual Burt Lancaster western. In reality something else entirely. For large chunks of the movie Lancaster is absent as the story follows the fortunes of black slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) as he achieves not just freedom but genuine equality. Joseph is introduced as a slave of the Kiowa, left behind when the Indians steal Joe Bass’s furs. In compensation for his loss, Bass plans to sell Lee in the slave market in St Louis and in the meantime enrols him to help recover his furs.

However, a band of outlaws, specializing in collecting Native American scalps (hence the title) and selling them at $25 a time, get to the furs first as a by-product of a raid on the Kiowas. In pursuit with Bass, Lee falls into a river at the outlaw encampment and becomes the slave of Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who also aims to sell him. Lee plans to escape until discovering Howie’s large troop is headed for Mexico where the slave would automatically become free. With clever talk, beauty-treatment skills and knowledge of astrology and ecology, Lee insinuates himself into the wagon of Howie’s paramour Kate (Shelley Winters).

With Bass still in pursuit, there are several excellent action scenes as the outnumbered trapper seeks to outwit Howie who turns out to be just as devious. But the main question is not whether Bass will recover his stolen property but which side will Lee pick. Will he act as spy to help Bass get back his furs or will he disown Bass and remain with the murderous genocidal gang? Either in the company of Bass or Howie, he is constantly reminded of his status, taking a beating from one of Howie’s thugs, Bass refusing to share his whisky because he views him not just as a slave who “picked his master” but as a coward refusing to fight back when attacked beaten up.

The film comes to a very surprising ending but by that time through his own actions Lee is accepted as an equal by Bass and the issue of slavery dissolved. In effect, it is a tale of self-determination. Lee effects liberty by taking advantage of situations and standing up for his own cause.

Lee is one of the most interesting characters to appear on the western scene for a long time. Exactly where he acquired his education is unclear and equally hazy are how – and from where – he escaped and how he ended up as slave of the Commanches before they traded him to the Kiowa. However he came to be in the thick of the story, his tale is by far the most original. But he’s not the only original. The fearless Bass was an early ecological warrior with an intimate understanding of living off the wild, not in normal genre fashion of killing anything that moves, but in knowing how to find sustenance from plants. That in itself would endear him to modern lovers of alternative lifestyles.

Normally the derogatory term “scalphunters” would be reference to Native Americans, but here it is American Americans who exploit this market. Despite being the leader of a vicious bunch, Howie turns out to be a bit of a romantic and Kate a bit more interested in the world than your average female sidekick.

Director Sydney Pollack (The Slender Thread, 1965) does a marvelous job not just in fulfilling action expectations and taking widescreen advantage of the locations but in allowing Lee to take center stage when, technically, according to the credits, Ossie Davis was only the fourth most important member of the cast. Burt Lancaster was approaching an acting peak, following this with The Swimmer and Castle Keep, happy to take risks on all three pictures, especially here where for most of the movie he is outwitted and ends up in a mud bath.

Both Telly Savalas (Sol Madrid, 19680 and Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1964) reined in their normal more exuberant personas.  Savalas, in particular, cleaves closer to his straightforward work in The Slender Thread than the over-the-top performance of The Dirty Dozen (1967). Winters, usually feisty, is here more winsome and vulnerable, apt to be taken in by sweet-talking men.

But Ossie Davis (The Hill, 1965) is the standout, his repartee spot-on. It is a hugely rounded performance, one minute wheedling, the next sly, boldness and cowardice blood brothers, and while his brainpower gives him the advantage over all the others he is only too aware that such superiority counts for nothing while he remains a slave.

It’s dialogue rich and it’s a shame it wasn’t a big hit for that would have surely triggered a sequel – especially in the wake of the following year’s buddy-movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – because the banter between Lee and Bass is priceless. For the dialogue thank the original screenplay by future convicted gun-runner William W. Norton (Brannigan, 1975), father of director Bill Norton (Cisco Pike, 1971).

CATCH-UP: This Blog has covered virtually the entire career this decade of Sydney Pollack. Check out my reviews on The Slender Thread, This Property Is Condemned (1966) and Castle Keep (1969). Burt Lancaster films reviewed are: The Unforgiven (1960), Seven Days in May (1964), The Swimmer and Castle Keep.

Book into Film – “A House Is Not A Home” (1964)

Hollywood biopics tended to follow one of two routes – overcoming circumstances or falling victim to circumstances. Polly Adler’s autobiography A House Is Not A Home fitted into neither category. It was more of a survivor’s guide and if there was any element of triumph it was within an unsavory profession and one that sailed too close to the nether worlds of the Prohibition gangster.

The film stuck to a shorter time frame than the book, kaleidoscoping certain events and characters, highlighting an inevitably impossible romance and adding a gangster subplot, while acting as an expose of civic corruption, cops especially rubbing their noses in the financial trough.

Dramatic license is taken throughout the film, for example Adler (Shelley Winters in the film) was not rescued in the book by future lover Casey Booth (Ralph Taeger), who was in any case a pseudonym, but first met him when he drank himself unconscious in her brothel. Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) makes only a brief appearance in the book. Both film and book skip present Adler as businesswoman first and victim second.

Adler’s unflinching attitude to the business is core to both book and film but inevitably a movie made in Hollywood in the mid-1960s enjoyed less freedom in matters relating to sex than a book published a decade before. In some respects it’s a shame that the film was shot  in such prohibitive times. Had it been made today either as a movie or mini-series it would have had a more decent chance of telling a better story and bypassing the pressing issues of morality, as was the case with Molly’s Game (2017), another true story, about a woman heading up a multi-million-dollar illegal gambling racket.

The book tells a fascinating story and casts a light on troubled times. Adler came to the U.S. as an immigrant at the age of 13, was raped by her workplace supervisor, thrown out of her home and went into the pimping business by accident before setting up her own brothel. But she did quit and operated instead as a lingerie retailer before being duped out of her savings. Thereafter, back in the sex worker business, she made a point of hiring only the most beautiful girls and her career path  demonstrated a fascinating understanding of business, especially her grasp of marketing, as she moved from the gangster world into high society.

There were busts along the way and she went out of business for over a year when implicated in the Seabury vice investigations of 1930-1931 and for a time afterwards was bankrolled by gangster Dutch Schultz. And although Adler worked her way up to notable personality and enjoyed the attention of artists and members of high society who used her premises almost as a salon, she did not run shy of spelling out the worst aspects of the life.

Loneliness was a key factor. It was impossible to retain a relationship except a destructive one with a pimp or gangster. Poverty, lack of education, poor home environment, lack of love and early exploitation were the reasons women became sex workers. Suicide – loss of hope – was common as was drug use. A high-class brothel was a long way from the type of operation where women were expected to service 25 men a day – a record of their activity kept by a “lace curtain” of holes punched into a sheet – but yet, inevitably, that was the final destination for the high-class girls once age or drugs or alcohol took its toll.

 “To outsiders it seems hypocritical and hair-splitting for a madam to make a distinction between herself and a pimp,” said Adler who maintained she did not fall into the latter category because her girls kept more of the money they earned and she did not take on inexperienced girls whereas a pimp seduced girls into the life and kept them there often by hooking them on drugs. 

Much like Don Corleone in The Godfather, morality did not enter the equation. “If I was to make a living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint.”

Unlike the bulk of women employed as sex workers, the Adler story had a happy ending. After being busted in 1943 and undergoing a public humiliation on vacation, she retired from the business, went to university and wrote her biography which turned into a bestseller. She died in 1962, two years before the film appeared.

Selling Sex – The Pressbook for “A House Is Not a Home” (1964)

Selling sin had never been difficult in Hollywood, dating back to the Cecil B. DeMille silent epics and more recently when a series of films challenged the Production Code, the studio’s self-governing censorship system. In most films, however, sex had been a by-product of passion, a couple in love, or a glimpse of nudity. Nobody had ever attempted to foist onto the American public a picture about transactional sex, one that examined the basest elements of male desire.

If anyone could be relied upon to sell the unusual it was producer Joseph E. Levine, the master marketeer, who had spent millions to make millions with Hercules (1958) and more recently The Carpetbaggers (1964).  Only Levine had the audacity to market the picture as a “typical American success story” and present the Polly Adler, the New York madam at the center of the movie as “not a stereotype of a procurer” but as confidante of politicians and artists.

That at least was the upfront story, the version presented in the various articles peppering the Pressbook whose sole purpose was to win over the exhibitor. When it came to the public, the approach was a mixture of the imminently direct and the subtle.

In the straightforward department were a whole string of teasers under the headlines “She’s One of Polly’s Girls” featuring glamorous women in sexy outfits to soften up the potential moviegoer in advance. The women featured in virtually every advertisement to follow as “luscious playmates,” either taking center stage or in the background.

A graphic with an illustrated sexy women in little more than bra and panties sitting atop a house also appeared in several adverts. There were several ads along these lines and several different taglines.

“The story of a House of Pleasure…The woman who ran it…The beautiful girls who lived in it…The famous and the infamous who knocked lovingly on its door” set the tone.  Taking a similar approach was the tagline: “A motion picture for those who think they’ve seen everything and those who know they haven’t”  / “the body-and-soul shocker” / “Take a tour of New York’s most famous house! Meet the madam who ran it…the beautiful dolls who lived in it…the Johnnies whose ‘jack’ built it.” (“Jack” in this case meaning “money” in case your imagination runs to more lascivious ideas.)

Going down a more playful route, certainly subtle in comparison to the rest of the advertising, was a series of small ads that focused on aspects of an ordinary home – “the welcome mat is always out” / “the door is always open” – simple illustrations without sight of a sexy inmate.

Often promotional writers struggled to find enough interesting information to fill out a Pressbook but this was littered with fascinating snippets. Shelley Winters lived up to her reputation as a colorful actress by having thrown off the set a noted columnist, a photographer, a magazine writer and the film’s press officer – all in the one afternoon. Cesar Romero who plays gangster Lucky Luciano was born close to the gangster’s birthplace and had been gifted the underworld kingpin’s watch. Polly Adler, whose story the film tells, started writing her bestseller A House Is Not A Home as a thesis as part of a degree at UCLA and later took up painting.

Meri Welles, who essays suicide Lorraine, was actually in the property business, renting homes to movie stars like Rex Harrison. Broderick Crawford had previously won an Oscar as a crooked politician, similar to his role here, in All the King’s Men. Over 1,600 young hopefuls were auditioned over 18 days for the bit parts of Polly’s girls.

Leading the tie-ins was a new edition of the bestseller which had sold over 3 million copies. Brook Benton, then a top-selling pop star, had recorded the title theme by Burt Bacharach and Hal David which managed to avoid any mention of the type of house involved and there was always sheet music to add “promotional punch.” However, based on the notion of an ordinary house, exhibitors were encouraged to get in touch with household suppliers in order to run adverts along the lines of “a house is not a home without refrigerators” linked to the name of a local company.

However, the marketing team struggled somewhat to deliver the usual roster of gimmicks that could be applied by exhibitors, falling back on contests to complete a crossword and devise a limerick. Quite who dreamed up the idea of dressing up a promotional model in cap’n’gown and have her hand out diplomas inviting people to “meet the girls at Polly-Tech” was anybody’s guess and exhibitors might find it difficult to hire someone to parade the streets as a “walking book.”

A House Is Not a Home (1964) ***

Best remembered these days as the debut film for Raquel Welch (One Million Years BC, 1966), the rest of the film is well worth a look.

Hypocrisy had its heyday in The Roaring 20s when prohibition made bootleggers millionaires, helped bankroll other criminal activities like prostitution and encouraged cops and politicians to seek their share of the loot. No surprise then that the biopic of real-life madam Polly Adler (Shelley Winters) is knee-deep in corruption.  

Thrown out of her own home after being raped, Adler finds a knight in shining armor in the shape of bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) and is soon, at first apparently innocently, pimping out her friends. The reality of what becomes her profession is not ignored, the word “whore” bandied around, one girl, Madge (Lisa Seagram), turning junkie as a result while Lorraine (Meri Welles) commits suicide. As in Go Naked in the World (1961) Polly realizes that true love has no place in her world, a relationship with musician Casey (Ralph Taeger) unsustainable.

Adler, in her many voice-overs, explains why vulnerable women become sex workers – poverty, lack of family and lack of hope is her take on it – and she professes to view it as a business and preferable to working in a factory for pitiful wages, but the movie is at its best in linking the nether worlds of infamy and showing that the woman is always the loser.  Morality got in the way of portraying Adler as a winner, a successful businesswoman who brought a certain amount of style to the oldest profession. Women profiting from illegal activity would not be deemed heroic (to use the word loosely) until Molly’s Game (2017) and like Jessica Chastain in that film Adler’s love life is in tatters because, like her male counterparts, she devotes so much time to her business.

While any attempt to properly portray the period is hampered by lack of budget, it does provide an array of interesting and occasionally real-life characters, Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) for example. A brothel proves an ideal meeting place for crooks and politicians, the latter easily bought by contributions to their campaign funds. Cops are not shy about asking for donations to their Xmas funds or using the facility.

The Adler operation puts a glossy shine on the shady business since all her girls are glamorous. But still the movie pulls no punches except in the case of the madam herself, presented too often as an innocent and who saw nothing wrong in taking as much advantage of the vulnerable girls in her employ as the  clients who paid for them. Nonetheless, while Adler attempts to justify her life the film’s moralistic tone undercuts this.

 

Oscar-winner Shelley Winters (The Chapman Report, 1962), more often a supporting player at this point in the 1960s than the star, grabs the role with both hands and although unconvincing as the younger girl delivers a rounded performance minus the blowsy affectations that marred much of later work. One-time MGM golden boy Robert Taylor, pretty much in the 1960s reduced to television (The Detectives, 1959-1962) and low-budget pictures, shows a glimpse of old form as the smooth bootlegger.

Cesar Romero (Oceans 11, 1960) and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford (All the Kings Men, 1949) head up a checklist of old-timers filling out the supporting cast. Future director Lisa Seagram (Paradise Pictures, 1997) as the junkie hooker makes the biggest impact among the girls.

From the flotilla of wannabes playing Polly’s girls, apart from Raquel Welch the only one to break into the big time was Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970). In the main they comprised beauty queens – Amede Chabot (Miss America), Danica d’Hondt (Miss Canada) and Leona Gage (Miss Universe) who had a small part in Tales of Terror (1962). Otherwise Sandra Grant became the most famous – for marrying singer Tony Bennett. Patricia Manning had the most screen experience, second-billed in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), bit parts in television shows, and fourth-billed in The Grass Eater (1961). Inga Nielsen would later turn up as bikini fodder in The Silencers (1966), In Like Flint (1967) and The Ambushers (1967).

Director Russell Rouse (The Fastest Gun Alive, 1956) was better known for the screenplay of D.O.A. (1949) and had a story credit for Pillow Talk (1959). In fairness, although the film has no great depth, Rouse keeps it ticking along via multiple story strands, although occasional lapses into comedy fail to work. Lovers of curiosities might like to note that Rouse was the producer on an abortive American attempt to remake the classic British television comedy Steptoe and Son for U.S. audiences with Lee Tracy in the role of Albert and Aldo Ray as his son Harold.

This is hard to get hold of. Ebay will be your best bet. Youtube has a print but it’s not in great condition.

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