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Girl of the Night (DVD Review)

24 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated
Stars Anne Francis, Lloyd Nolan, John Kerr, Kay Medford.

Anne Francis died Jan. 2 at age 80, and it rated a lot more than a blip in the memory banks of my friends (or at least red-blooded male friends), judging from the commiserating notes I got and Facebook postings I saw. This is what Forbidden Planet did to its initial generation.

That sci-fi staple came out in 1956, which means Francis and her futuristic mini-dress really hit formative boomers where they lived — a full decade before the leggy 5-foot-8 actress also starred in the “Honey West” TV series of the mid-1960s. These are Francis’s two hallmark roles, but after seeing this almost never revived melodrama of prostitution — a very adult movie of its Hollywood day — one can make an argument that the list could be expanded.

Clinical and not too sensationalistic beyond the obligatory trace of bongos in its scoring, Night was adapted from a landmark psychoanalytical book called The Call Girl by Dr. Harold Greenwald. The movie boils it down to a single story, one about a pretty young New Yorker who has the goods to sell herself as somebody’s classy blind date — but is instead working through an agency (and her pimp boyfriend) doing what the movie’s title portends. We first see her in a distraught state all but crawling back to her apartment after a disastrous evening, and we later learn why. Her back is packed with welts from a client’s caning — decidedly not the kind of thing audiences were used to seeing on screen in 1960, particularly from a film carrying a major studio logo.

Located conveniently in her building is a friendly psychologist (Lloyd Nolan), who soon forges a professional relationship that enables her to relate her story. The boyfriend (John Kerr) works nightclubs instead of the streets but is strictly living on the fringe without much cash flow — a kind of pimp equivalent of Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco character in Sweet Smell of Success (who was actually a pimp of another kind). Kerr talks of marrying her, but like all pimps, depends on her in lieu of working. Through the agency’s madam (Kay Medford, eight years before her Funny Girl Oscar nomination), he’s trying to land a higher brand of clientele.

A movie of its day like this (and there weren’t many) risks becoming a case study filmed in cold semi-documentary fashion, and at times, this one veers in that direction. It is not fringe cinema that truly excites in the manner of Sam Fuller’s 1964 hooker potboiler The Naked Kiss does (coincidentally, just out in a new Criterion Blu-ray). But Girl gets more interesting as it goes due to the power of Francis’s performance (atop having perfect looks for the role) and some interesting supporting casting. Soon-to-be "As the World Turns" star Eileen Fulton, who became a flashier looker not far down the road, plays a young working-girl colleague and judge’s daughter who isn’t cut out for the profession. James Broderick (Matthew’s father and the future “Family” star)) is an art school instructor who can’t get very far after Francis makes her first stab at bolting her way of life. And, of course, there’s nothing very kneejerk about Kerr’s casting, given his star-making stage/screen performance in Tea and Sympathy, where he needed an older woman’s training wheels when it came to sex.

In addition to being an unusual project from the get-go by anyone’s 1960 standards, Girl was especially so in the case of director Joseph Cates (actress Phoebe’s real-life father). His work was mostly in television, including “Buck Rogers,” “The $64,000 Question” and the greatest Johnny Cash Christmas Special ever: the 1977 one where Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis played tribute to the recently deceased Elvis. But Cates also had his name on a couple big-screen trash classics that are more flamboyant than anything here: the lurid Who Killed Teddy Bear (“signature” Sal Mineo) and the you-takes-what-you-get-ish The Fat Spy, which boasts one of the more singular casts of the ‘60s: Phyllis Diller, Jayne Mansfield, insult comic Jack E. Leonard, deep-in-career-twilight Brian Donlevy and dippy Cadence recording artist Johnny Tlllotson ("It Keep Right On a-Hurtin’").

In this case, Cates’ work is restrained — probably too much so for some tastes — and the fact that the movie has an honest but ambiguous wrap-up probably sealed the deal for its commercial fallibility. If memory serves, Night was one of those pictures (like Elmer Gantry and Splendor in the Grass) where you had to be 16 to see it, even though the current MPAA ratings system wouldn’t go into effect for eight more years. If not for Francis, it would be just a respectable curiosity, but she makes it a little more than that.

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