Tuesday 27 November 2012

School for scoundrels... Pretty Maids all in a Row (1971)

A film directed by the man who made Bardot a star, written by the man who devised Star Trek and which deals with inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and pupils. Oh, and it features a theme song performed by the Osmonds too.

This is a seemingly typical early 70’s American movie featuring many actors who were the mainstay of 70’s TV dramas… Keenan Wynn, Roddy McDowall, Telly Savalas…  Rock Hudson. It even feels like a made for TV movie in all but one very significant respect: there’s a little too much nudity. Naturally it’s pretty much all female and, with the notable exception of Angie Dickinson, all are supposed to be senior students at Oceanfront High School.

John David Carson, the greats Roddy McDowall and Keenan Wynne,
All of the “pretty maids” were aged between 19 and 25 when the film was made and yet they're meant to be a little bit younger – around 18. They were a roll-call of the hottest young actresses of the day (see what I did there?) including future Isis Joanna Cameron, Brenda Sykes, Gram Parson's squeeze, Gretchen Burrell and the always smiling June Fairchild.

Joanna Cameron
June Fairchild

They are all preyed upon by Rock Hudson’s manipulative alpha male coach, who also has a beautiful wife back home (Barbara Leigh). The film never really explains why it is that he feels the need to dominate and exploit these women… only a half-coherent murmur about wanting to connect with them in the only way they would understand… He related to the boys through sports and the girls through sex: an arch comment on contemporary sexual stereotyping?

Now, I’m no expert on early 70’s sexuality and I appreciate that there’s humorous intent here, but this feels wrong-headed: I'm not entirely sure of the film's sincerity...

Rock and Telly
There’s no doubt the cast is excellent and that the film is genuinely funny in parts but the story’s too slight to get away with any high-minded attempt at sophisticated social commentary. It’s very uneven suggesting, at various points, a Dickinson/Hudson rom-com in the making, a murder mystery with slap-dash cops, a coming of age story and an attempt at a socio-political statement.

Angie Dickinson and Rock try a little rom-com
Gene Roddenbury (who also produced) based on the screenplay on a novel by Francis Pollini, yet, whilst he made  plenty of statements through science fiction you feel here he’s missed the point(s). Vadim, from the modern perspective, just appears to be interested in showing off female flesh (as previous wives, Bardot and Jane Fonda could attest…).

Maybe there was less of a hang up about this in 1970 -  but then we’re hardly living in more enlightened times these days... Perhaps the shock come from those of us old enough to remember (or at least be aware of in my case) the feminist movement at the time.

Yet these women are not just exploited, some of them are killed and by an almost mindless and motiveless self-serving psychotic. One who may or may not escape to Rio in the end…

John David Carson
It all swings into action with the sexually-frustrated cycle into college of Ponce (John David Carson ) who’s eye is tortuously drawn to the hemlines of his fellow students as he passes. He’s at a difficult age but doesn’t know how to get on with the opposite sex.

His torture is made even sweeter by the arrival of an attractive older teacher, Miss Betty Smith (played by the aforementioned Angie) who can’t help but add to his virgin woes. He escapes to the bathroom only to find the dead body of one of his fellow students… the murderer has left a cheery message on her panties…it’s not funny.

Roddy McDowall and Telly Savalas
The police are called as the school principal, Roddy McDowall ineffectually tries to keep order.  Keenan Wynne plays comedy cop Poldaski until the real police arrive in the form of homicide specialist Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) and his lieutenant  Follo (James Doohan… almost a shock to hear his natural accent!). You feel sure they’ll get to the bottom of things...

Suspect number one rapidly emerges as “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson) who seems to be systematically working his way through the female students under the guise of providing counselling and guidance.  He coaches the football team as well as the young women: he seems to be in complete control of his environment and the people in it.

Angie Dickinson and John David Carson
He directs the new teacher Betty towards young Ponce in an attempt to give his “protégé” a sexual kick start, playing both along he succeeds in melting the ice between them – Angie Dickson was just 40 at the time whilst Carson was almost 19… here’s to you Mrs Robinson.

Meanwhile young girls keep on being killed and stickered with off-hand messages. The detectives interview the senior pupils and they all seem sexualised, not that this cuts any ice with Surcher who has his eyes on the job. But there’s an implication that these young women are anxious for experience.

Gradually things unravel for Tiger as Ponce discovers a tape recording from one of his “maids”. Tiger would seem to have only one option and takes Ponce to a secluded part of the docks… he drives his car into the water and, in a last act of nobility appears to save the young man he had earmarked as his successor…

There’s a funeral but we’re left in no doubt that Tiger has flown and, from the look of his wife’s air ticket, they will be re-united in Brazil. But the ever vigilant Surcher spots the ticket and we know he will follow.

Why Miss Smith...
Meanwhile Miss Smith looks to have overcome her reservations about staff-pupils relations and Ponce appears to have gained the confidence to start providing a broader base of guidance to the female students.

It’s an interesting film in spite of my reservations and very well acted by Dickinson - arguably the prettiest maid of them all and Savalas who is assured and just darned cool - Kojak was only a few years away. Savalas' believability contrasts sharply with the humour provided by Wynne and McDowall.

Cool before Kojak...
Hudson, who was a powerhouse of US cinema at this stage, is also excellent. His motivations may be unclear but he portrays them with conviction… you can believe in his need to control but are none-the-wiser about why it exists - he's effortlessly psychotic: cuddling his wife and daughter one minute and killing the next. 
Tiger explains his peculiar mentoring techniques...
Perhaps he’s just the big bad wolf, the reality of sexual violence that can await the unwary. Perhaps the film’s more moral than it looks and maybe Vadim’s European sensibilities are ill-matched with US innocence and ultra-violence?

Dusty verdict: Back in the video box. If you must have the DVD it's available here.

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