Raincoat Cinema

Titles Reviewed: Dance Hall Racket (1953), One Shocking Moment (1965), Smoke And Flesh (1968)

See also: the pages for Doris Wishman

Dance Hall Racket

(USA, 1953) DIR: Phil Tucker. SCR: Lenny Bruce. PROD: George Weiss. CAST: Timothy Farrell, Lenny Bruce, Honey Harlow, Sally Marr.

Another film a clef from the Grade Z mastermind of Robot Monster, Broadway Jungle and Cape Canaveral Monsters, this pulpy exposé film is best known for the casting of Lenny Bruce and his wife Honey Harlow, but actually they're secondary characters. Lenny plays the henchman of the "dance hall"'s gangster-owner, slapping around anyone who tries to double-cross this dubious entrepreneur. All things "Tucker-esque" are in abundance here: non-existent art direction (check out when customers want "to go to Hawaii", which basically means having some crummy palm tree put in front of their table while a dance hall girl smooches with them; that's the best set decoration in the entire film); badly overacted performances which go to the realm of baroquely cartoonish; impossibly dreary single-take medium-long shots in which you can view all the non-decor and the non-actors; and spare, washed-out cinematography only rivalled by Dreyer.

But also, Dance Hall Racket is perhaps Phil Tucker's most structurally challenging film: not bad for a movie taking place entirely in a shabby set with three tables, a cramped generic office and a back alley (these limited locations also compliment the stagnant lives of their inhabitants). This "complex meta-narrative" operates on several planes at once. The time-old tradition of having a wraparound story is in effect here, as one detective explains to another that "shocking story" of all the crime and corruption in this dance hall, where we view scenes the detectives couldn't possibly have known, much less been a part of. Despite the known presences of Bruce, Honey, and everyone's favourite world-weary bad guy Timothy Farrell, there are really no major characters. Even the eccentric customers "wanting to go to Hawaii" take equal precedence. There is really no plot in this impressionistic study, despite the faint whispers of racketeering.

I've only ever seen this movie on the VHS offered by Something Weird, and that print more than a few times has some small scenes repeated. Evidently, the reels were mixed up and someone stopped it, put the right one on and kept going. But leaving these moments in adds another bizarre touch to the screwy narrative. It's as confounding as anything by Alain Resnais.

(Since I originally wrote this review way back in 2000, Something Weird Video has since released it to DVD as a bonus feature to its "Tease And Please Double Feature" release, which features Dreamland Capers, along with Tucker's other Lenny Bruce opus, Dream Follies. Alpha Video also features it as a bonus feature on its DVD release of Joe Sarno's Sin You Sinners.)

One Shocking Moment

(USA, 1965) DIR-SCR: Ted V. Mikels. PROD: Mark Brown, Ted V. Mikels. CAST: Gary Kent, Lee Anna, Verné Martine, Victor Izay.

A gripping tale of morals from auteur Ted V. Mikels! (Now that I have your attention...)

This curious nudie picture is an early directorial credit for Grade Z visionary Mikels, and a much more sober film than his later efforts of Astro-Zombies and The Corpse Grinders, for which he is better known. This tale of disintegrating suburban mores concerns the exploits of Cliff (Gary Kent) and Mindy (Lee Anna), who move to another city after his big promotion, and soon fall prey to the debauchery of two swinging gals who work down at the local peeler bar (one of them conveniently lives across the hall). The film opens titillatingly enough (as tantalizing as this flick gets, anyway) with Cliff getting it on with some as yet unknown woman, only to be interrupted by a spiked heel crushing his sweaty hand. Then we are whisked back to the past to understand how our couple spiralled down to this stage.

Although this flick was no doubt made solely for the raincoat crowd (with ample cut-ins of anonymous breast grabbing to keep those poor old horny guys interested), this sordid picture indirectly succeeds in capturing the high-rolling crowd's suburban ennui, circa 1965. Although the characterizations are rather calculated (ie- written with little means to change their lives or defend themselves), they do however recall the era's unfortunate sexism, in the objectification of females as property or a plaything. Cliff, for instance, makes remarks about his neighbour's attractiveness... right in front of his poor wife! And later, after Mindy is "liberated" by the bisexual neighbour, and far from innocent herself, she gets back at husband by performing a drunken striptease at a party, which becomes equally embarrassing and sad.

Despite the crude production values (many scenes underlit; the canned soundtrack accentuating the heavy breathing to make this innocuous picture seem like a roughie), this somehow succeeds as a bitter portrait of executive life, where people in long, lonely alcoholic fogs are easily susceptible to ways of the flesh to relieve their stifling existences. Finally, the film creaks along to the scene where it opened, in which the interruption of Cliff's tryst finally forces our characters realize how far they have descended.

And yet, instead of an expected wrap-up where we see Cliff and Mindy "being good", we end on a Glen Or Glenda montage, with plenty of underexposed freeway scenes, as the tired narrator offers that this picture should serve as a lesson about people escaping their ill repute, but ends with, "maybe some people won't want to". A bizarre touch to a turgid, but not uninteresting movie. Postscript: This review is based on my viewing of the Something Weird VHS tape. The movie has since been re-issued on DVD, and in a bright, clean restoration for streaming on byNWR's website. However my reactions are influenced by the circumstances under which I viewed it. The canned sound and dark cinematography (muddying much of Greg Sandor's work) were products of the VHS transfer, which however enhanced the sordid material. In this case, the medium definitely was the message.

Smoke And Flesh

(USA, 1968) DIR-SCR: Joseph Mangine. CAST: Richard Howell, Ed Sansone, Lee Parker.

Perhaps the Scorpio Rising of 60s softcore, Smoke And Flesh may sound like a Tennessee Williams play, but is instead a near-plotless account of a "sex and drugs" party gone awry. Beneath the campy surface is a scathing portrayal of sexual liberation gone straight to hell. Cheerfully bereft of such pesky things as character development, this is an exploitation picture at the base level. If all you want is people getting high and rolling in the hay, well, that's all you're gonna get! Even so, this study of mankind's primal activities shows just how much less civilized we are than the beasts. The elaborate opening scene shows this leather-clad dude riding his motorcycle through alleys, parking his hog, going up a fire escape, hopping over into another building, and finally, into someone's apartment to buy some dope for tonight's big party with his hippie friends!

That's the crux of this whole picture: the extremities that people will go for some pleasure. And what ensues in this party is a non-stop laugh riot up until its bizarre third act. Most memorable are the scenes where a guy makes love to a beautiful black woman, with generous amounts of whipped cream for good measure (I'm mentioning her ethnicity because only sexploitation films ever dared show interracial couplings at the time), and get a load of the fifty-something professor who encourages these hippie studs to make love to his wife for his research project! Wilhelm Reich, eat your heart out! The movie turns sour when bikers crash the party and begin to have their way with the booze and the women. The stoned-out hippies retaliate by putting acid in their beer! So much for "peace and love", man! This initially campy romp ends on an ugly note, but necessarily so. What is this picture but a depiction of society taking its newfound liberation to outrageous degrees?

Smoke And Flesh seems like a picture from another world now, but it's distinguished from dozens of other 60s raincoat movies for its curious misanthropy, and its surprisingly creative B&W photography. (Check out when the bikers freak out on LSD- everything is shot in negative.) This is a rare directorial effort for cinematographer Joseph Mangine, whose resume includes such drive-in favourites as Squirm and Alligator. He hired himself as cameraman for this project, which is likely why it is visually a step above other sexploitation films of the time. This is precisely the kind of reward given for being an incurable film archaeologist. Something Weird released this to VHS (how I reviewed it), and on DVD is paired with Alice In Acidland in one of the pressings that Something Weird released through Image Entertainment.