[10 December 2010]
Three turn-of-the-‘70s movies, freshly available through Warner Archives’ made-on-demand service, give us distorted reflections of a moment when peace, love and the “youth movement” became linked with murder in the popular imagination. Before discussing the movies, we must mention the realities that lurk behind them.
Item: The “Manson family” murders occurred in July and August 1969, setting off a media storm that wouldn’t begin to abate until Charles Manson and others were convicted in January 1971. Bear in mind that this is a California crime.
Item: In December 1969, Meredith Hunter was killed by Hell’s Angels acting as security at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamount—another California crime involving wild young people with their drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Item: Predating these, Life magazine ran an article by Don Moser in March 1966, “The Pied Piper of Tucson”. This seminal piece, reprinted in the Library of America’s True Crime: An American Anthology, tells the story of an Arizona man named Charles Schmid who murdered three young women and was shielded for a time by local teens. While thousands of murderers do their work without becoming cultural touchstones, Moser mythologized Schmid through associations with a fairy-tale character who was the subject of a contemporary hit song by Crispian St. Peters (“Follow Me, I’m the Pied Piper”). He knew a zeitgeist item when he wrote one. By the end of the year, the incident had inspired a classic story by Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, dedicated to Bob Dylan because she also took inspiration from his 1965 song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. That story was later radically modified into the film Smooth Talk (1985).
Moser’s article and others like it were aimed not merely at sensational revelations of the secret lives of teenagers, but at providing a deeper thrill: the soul-searching and guilt-tripping of middle America. Their kids weren’t all right. There was something wrong with them. That’s why they were so angry and unmanageable with their civil rights and Vietnam protests and LSD and free love and long hair and disrespect for authority. It had to go beyond communist agitation. By 1974, The Exorcist would explain that mouthy kids were possessed by Satan.
It’s into such a cultural brew that Hollywood began offering up snapshots of alienated youth. These are often highly conflicted and critical portraits, as befits movies made by and for uptight squares about their kids while at the same time trying to appeal to those kids. Many movies are more or less exploitive portraits of drugs and sex that combine wistfulness and punishment. As usual, Roger Corman had his finger on the pulse with films like The Trip and The Wild Angels. Easy Rider is a major example of the double-barreled appeal of celebration and cynicism. Violent youth from other eras were served up in such items as In Cold Blood and Bonnie and Clyde. At the same time, many adult-oriented movies began shining a hard, cold spotlight on the American dream and the lives of the parental generation, with greater or lesser success. Examples include An American Dream, Rachel Rachel, Rabbit, Run, Play It As It Lays, and The Swimmer. The Graduate linked the two generations.
Far away from these items, at the outer edge of ambition and plop in the middle of the impulse for escapism, we find the generic thrillers Once You Kiss a Stranger and Pretty Maids All in a Row.
Once You Kiss a Stranger is “suggested by a novel by Patricia Highsmith”, meaning it’s a sort of remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, but it hasn’t much in common with Highsmith or Hitchcock in style or theme, and it doesn’t even have much in common with the trend in psycho-movies triggered by Psycho. Although it partakes of the audience’s familiarity with these things, its big idea is to plug contemporary fears of crazy youngsters into the template. Director Robert Sparr, a TV veteran, died in a plane crash in August 1969 just after the Manson events exploded, so that wouldn’t have been a direct influence. However, the film was released in April 1970, in the middle of the youth-cult uproar, and must have coasted on the dubious resonance.
Carol Lynley plays the spoiled rich lass who lives in a groovy house with her own slice of beach, which she defends with a speargun against trespassing tykes. We quickly realize she’s a bad, bad girl. Famous professional golfer Jerry (Paul Burke) describes her as a “sandtrap”, and she’s one this clueless, adulterous lout of a hero can’t get out of. She seduces him, polishes off his main rival by swinging a mean putter, and tries to blackmail him into bumping off her shrink.
The movie is overlong, slow, and clumsy. At least the sets are colorfully appointed and conspicuously consumable. In terms of plot or character, Lynley’s alienated performance as a cold pixie with nothing but contempt for everyone, including the man she so easily snares, is the only thing in the movie worth watching. She’s vaguely Jean Seberg-ish (especially the coiffure) and less campy than Ann-Margret in Kitten with a Whip (which isn’t as good as its title, either).
The cover of Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) reproduces the poster with a tagline that tells you something about its time as well as what the movie promises: “Roger Vadim, the director who uncovered Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda, now brings you the American high school girl…and Rock Hudson.” Over the internet today, such a solicitation could get you arrested.
Vadim brings a Frenchman’s eye to a California high school and its youth, making this a cousin to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and Demy’s Model Shop, only with sexual obsession replacing the ennui. It’s supposedly a murder mystery about a serial killer, but it’s mainly a sex comedy. The main thrust, as it were, concerns a virgin male student named, really, Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson). He’s surrounded by burgeoning, mini-skirted lolitas who cause perpetual erectile problems (not the kind that need a pill), and he gains experience and confidence thanks to a teacher played by Angie Dickinson as a tight-sweatered wet dream. This sounds similar to any number of ‘80s sex comedies—My Tutor, Class, Losin’ It. Vadim’s film was all over pay-cable TV in the early-‘80s, so perhaps it was a direct influence.
The boy’s mentor is the vice principal (Rock Hudson), whose principle vice is the female students. Much of the film shows him in various stages of frolic. He’s a kind of “right on” guru, a decorated vet, football hero and psychologist who believes education should teach kids to embrace life instead of being socialized and regimented. He utters some radical philosophies and encourages the students to discuss oppression. However, the movie has more to say about him, and the ending leaves us wondering about the extent to which his mentorship of Harper will prove a good thing. Lest we think the movie is uncritically celebrating inappropriate relations in reckless sexual-revolution bacchanalia, which is how most of it sure looks, there’s that murder plot as the girls start showing up dead, effectively punished for their knowledge.
The plot (scripted and produced by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek) is barely focused upon amid comic bits of business with co-stars Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowell and Keenan Wynn, and especially amid all the jail-bait eye candy and the scenes of almost casual documentation of student behavior. They sing a mocking song about Vietnam. They talk frankly about sex and “our generation”. They flash their boobs. This is a movie more about atmosphere and ornamentation than the silly sex-and-murder business, and once again, it sells both titillation and caution about America’s wayward youth and their capacity to absorb bad influences.
Curious fact: an actor named Orville Sherman appears in both movies. He’s the stuffy butler of Lynley’s aunt in Once You Kiss a Stranger and the pastor who presides at funerals in Pretty Maids All in a Row. According to IMDB, he was an actual pastor of the Church of Religious Science. One of those California things, right?
Much more seriously, Barry Shear’s The Todd Killings is a true-crime film in early ‘70s beady-eyed, neo-realist mode, with its associational jumpcuts and downbeat air of alienation and desperation. Think Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens without being that good, although maybe it could have been if it starred Jack Nicholson. This is based directly on the Schmid case mentioned above. Some reviewers now compare it with River’s Edge (1985), based on a different incident that occurred in 1981 California. There are points of comparison, although it should also be compared with Smooth Talk, since that was indirectly inspired by Schmid while going in a very different direction.
Schmid is now called Skipper Todd (Robert F. Lyons). The name Skipper signals his lingering childishness as a 23-year-old who hangs out with high school kids, and also that he’s skipping any number of things, like the oft-mentioned “responsibility”. In fact, he’s diagnosed and anatomised glibly and often by all others in the cast. There’s his mom (Barbara Bel Geddes), who runs a dumping ground of an old folks’ home that her son compares to murder and which he swears he won’t live off of as he collects his allowance (the irony isn’t allowed to escape us).
There’s his high school English teacher and “only intellectual in town” (James Broderick), who lectures on Moby Dick to local housewives because “they know they’re under a death sentence”. He praises young people who protest society’s problems and sharply defines them against Skipper, whom he declares more bourgeois than any of the ladies he mocks. There’s his main girlfriend Roberta (Belinda Montgomery), who sounds much too wise for 16 when she dresses him down (“Are you afraid you’re just like everybody else?”), then consistently behaves like an idiot who must be raped into love.
The observational scenes of restlessness and pointlessness are often well handled, like the bits in the old-age home. Skipper had been a promising student but now he crashes in his room surrounded by books and a Guernica print, supposedly composing songs while partying with the kids. “Nobody’s ever watching,” he declares existentially at the beginning, just after the first body is buried. We don’t know what happened, but our knowledge that a murder has occurred colors our perceptions for the next hour of this sociological tract and lends meaning to Skipper’s philosophical remarks.
“You know, fornication isn’t much but it’s about all that Darlington has to offer,” he explains to Roberta, and he could just as be well be quoting from The Last Picture Show or any contemporary movie about kids on the cusp of growing up hopeless. Actually it’s not quite true about Darlington, though. They have a one-screen theatre, and it’s playing A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with The Boys in the Band promised for next week. That’s an evolution worth pondering.
Richard Thomas plays Billy Roy, who falls under Skipper’s exploitive mentorship (he calls him Billy Boy), perhaps not too far removed from the mentor relationship in Pretty Maids. Billy Roy is just out of reform school and hoping to score with a girl on whom he has a crush, but who only has eyes for Skipper. Gloria Grahame and Edward Asner have cameos, the latter as a local mobster. There’s talent all over this thing, including the spare music by Leonard Rosenman. It’s very much a sour, brooding product of its time that doesn’t make the top cut but falls somewhere in the middle of this period of cinematic soul-searching.
Also new to Warner Archives is Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). How refreshing to run across a youth movie from the dawn of this cinematic era (also the dawn of the MPAA) that’s actually made by a guy in his 20s and that has something sweet and hopeful to say about youth. After the other pills, it feels like a bracing antidote.
Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner) works in the New York Public Library like his father, I.H. Chanticleer (Rip Torn), curator of incunabula. Bernard has a vision of goddess-like Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman), a remote, impossible, wish-fulfillment figure of fantasy who, absurdly, invites him to move in with her. Bernard, like the hero of many an American no-sex comedy, can’t actually go through with the act about which everyone spends all their time talking and thinking, and it’s because he’s so nice and klutzy and inhibited and neurotic and can’t see the nice girl (Karen Black) right in front of him. This is a good-natured, casual and predictable story that serves as a pretext for travelogues of New York (including pre-Disney 42nd Street, where Bernard tries to enjoy pornography), songs by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the sheer energy of camera and editing, and quirky comedy from troupers like Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Michael Dunn, Tony Bill and Dolph Sweet.
Bernard’s sweetness is illustrated when he sees a graffiti that says “Niggers go home”. Since his brain is always playing word games and making associations, he instantly translates this through “Home is where the heart is” and “My heart is in the highlands” to an imaginary scene of black children dancing among lovely green hills to bagpipe music played by a black man in kilts. How’s that for a pied piper? Bernard has a magical power to turn ugliness into joy through imagination, after which he erases the graffiti. He has neither ignored it nor allowed it to get him down.
So, like the later Pretty Maids All in a Row and The Todd Killings, there’s a central male virgin who just wants to get laid. Like all these other movies, it acknowledges that young people have sex, take drugs, and act rebelliously, and unlike them, it says “God bless us every one”. In the world of this movie, the idea that kids are getting buried in the Arizona desert or invading people’s houses “in cold blood” or getting swept up in California cults is part of a world very far away from the exciting and bewildering jungles of Manhattan and Long Island. It makes the movie seem innocent, even with its messed-up women and hapless men. I won’t ask which message we’d rather hear about American youth, but I think it’s worth asking which vision of the Pied Piper is really the more naive?
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.