'The Beat Generation' Is More Deadbeat Than Beatnik

by Imran Khan

9 April 2015

The Beat Generation fails to capture the trendy, hipster social scene that its title promises.
 
cover art

The Beat Generation

Director: Charles F. Haas
Cast: Ray Danton, Steve Cochran, Fay Spain, Mamie Van Doren

Capitalizing on the then-trendy literati circles of the beat poets, The Beat Generation (1959) takes aims at the scene and misses by a full mark. Director Charles F. Hass presents an intriguing setup with the absurdist activities of a youth subculture and instead hijacks the entire premise with a staid and mawkish marriage drama.

Beatnik Stan Hess (played by a somewhat miscast Ray Danton, who’s supposed to be a young hipster but clearly looks as though he’s pushing 30), hangs about the local poetry club with the rest of his too-cool-for-school chums, throwing back beers and playing the bongos. When he’s looking for some kicks, he spends his time stalking women and showing up at their homes where he eventually assaults them, sets the table for dinner-for-two and then splits. On his trail is the women-hating detective, Culloran (Steve Cochran), whose dismissive attitude toward the female victims infuriates his superior and pretty much establishes his character as the requisite tough-as-nails jerk common of many film-noirs. It’s campy, stylish and absurdly comical, until it horribly devolves into a flaky melodrama with heavy-handed emoting from the leads all round. When detective Culloran’s wife, Francee, (Fay Spain) soon finds herself the victim of serial rapist Stan, her problems along with her husband’s are now compounded with the issues of her pregnancy, which may or may not have been the result of the rape. Francee now has the agonizing decision of whether or not to keep the baby. 

The opportunity for a cool, pulp-noir wasted here is made all the more clear by the fact that the performances in the film are rather strong; the all-round solid delivery of the actors involved would have made for a solid B-movie thriller.

A closer look at the film, however, reveals the screenplay by Richard Matheson and Lewis Meltzer (poorly paced and sloppily edited) to be the culprit. With two separate storylines fashioned together rather clumsily, the misguided intention of serving up a morality cake heavy with the syrup of right-wing marriage beliefs completely dilutes the suspense-thriller properties in the film. Much of the script spends its time laboriously mulling over the pros and cons of carrying an unwanted child.

Since the film presents the assaults in such a lurid and sensationalist manner, it’s a wonder why the writers would force such a dramatic shift in tone toward pressing issues like abortion and unwanted babies. Also, the whole premise of the film feels rather misleading; the title of the film is The Beat Generation, yet very little about the beatnik lifestyle is presented here. Most of the film centers on Culloran’s and Francee’s disintegrating marriage and the issue of unwanted pregnancies. It almost feels as though the beatnik component of the story was used as a cheap ruse to lure viewers into a lecture about the religious evils of abortion. That plays out even tackier than the few corny scenes of the jives and sing-alongs at the poetry club.

With a title like The Beat Generation, one would have expected an all-out dig on one of America’s most influential fringe movements. Instead, we get a diluted soapy mix: one part pulp, three parts sap.

There are, however, two notable features of the film: a performance by Louis Armstrong at the poetry club (he also has a bit speaking part) and a genuinely funny and sassy performance by Mamie Van Doren, who plays a back-talking smart-mouthed divorcee. An edgier script that forewent the maudlin marital angle and played up the pulp-thriller elements would have greatly helped. As it stands, The Beat Generation is an opportunity wasted on subject matters outside of the source material which inspired it. Talk about missing a beat.

Olive Films’ Blu-ray release delivers a crisp and clear transfer of the film; there is no discernible print damage and the black and white picture is smoothly contrasted and even-toned. The audio comes through nicely.

There are no extras included on the disc.

The Beat Generation

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