Short Ends and Leader

Hot and Heady: 'A Cold Wind in August'

Today this time capsule feels like what it is: a clumsy if relatively sincere attempt at adult drama.


A Cold Wind in August

Director: Alexander Singer
Cast: Lola Albright, Scott Marlowe
Distributor: MGM Limited Edition
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1961
US DVD release date: 2011-03-15

In 1961, a hot wind was blowing over American movie theaters from Europe, where they made films in which grown-ups had sexual relationships. So when this low-budget New York indie came out, it attracted a lot of serious critical attention for its "frankness". It was actually about people who had sex! Perhaps unfairly, Jonas Mekas compared it to sexploitation and stag films (which he called Hoboken movies) and found the latter less pretentious. With the air of an overblown incident, it's adapted by Burton Wohl from his novel and shot in excellent low-contrast black and white by the great Floyd Crosby during the era he was working on Roger Corman's Poe cycle. There's not much to the story, so be warned that we're pretty much giving it away.

Lola Albright (of TV's Peter Gunn) is an aggressive "older" woman (in her 30s!) who seduces the supposedly 17-year-old "boy" who looks like a 20-something actor doing "awkward" (Scott Marlowe, 29 for the record). She offhandedly predicts it will be good for him, and she's not wrong. As is typical with sexually active women in American drama (see the plays of John Van Druten), it starts as a lark but she falls hard for the guy. That's flattering, but he can't get over the shock of discovering she's a burlesque queen. (The DVD package falsely claims she's a prostitute.) She defends herself well as someone who's not ashamed but is aware of social attitudes and double-standards, although in this case the double-standard probably protects her from jail. One of the best elements is the teen's relationship with his understanding father (Joe DeSantis). I'm sympathetic to any movie of the period that doesn't cruelly punish its characters for sexually stepping out of line, but today this time capsule feels like what it is: a clumsy if relatively sincere attempt at adult drama.

Director Alexander Singer, who later stayed in TV, is covered in Andrew Sarris' 1968 book American Cinema on the basis of this ("still sparkles with Lola Albright's distinctively hip brand of sexuality") and two films a few years later: Psyche 59 (with Patricia Neal and Samantha Eggar) and Love Has Many Faces (with Lana Turner), also about older women. Where are those movies? He concludes "Perhaps Singer has become the poet of the rejected woman while commercially exploiting the subject of the fallen woman."

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