Mar 31, 2013

Girls in the Night (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Ray Buffum
Music: Henry Mancini, Herman Stein
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Producer: Albert J. Cohen
1953; Universal-International; 83min; B&W
Cast: Harvey Lembeck (Chuck Haynes), Joyce Holden (Georgia Cordray), Glenda Farrell (Alice Haynes), Glen Roberts (Joe Spurgeon), Patricia Hardy (Hannah Haynes), Jaclynne Greene (Vera Schroeder), Don Gordon (Irv Kellener), Emile Meyer (Officer Kovacs)

While Jack Arnold directed films in many genres, he will always be known for his string of science-fiction films in the 1950s. His first commercial feature is this dated, obscure but interesting melodrama with young adults eager to break out of the East Side ghetto- by any means. In a rare dramatic role, Harvey Lembeck (best remembered to modern audiences as the bumbling bike-gang leader in the Beach Party movies) is the aimless Chuck Haynes, who lives with his parents and two siblings in a cramped East Side tenement. All of the central characters have a desire to aspire to a better life- especially the father figure (presently disabled from an accident) who wants to put a down payment on a house (only three blocks away!) to get his family out of the ghetto. Chuck’s girlfriend Georgia scrapes up some loose change by shaking her booty at a beatnik party; his sister Hannah wins a beauty contest, but won’t get anywhere with her dopey boyfriend Joe.

One night this quartet robs some loot stashed by some old miser in his house, but unbeknownst to them the man is dead in the other room, as cheap hood Irv and his accomplice Vera had just made a botched robbery attempt before their arrival. Chuck is accused of murder, and his friends conspire to unmask the true culprit. Hannah, previously avoiding the lecherous affections of Irv, decides to turn up the affection towards him in order to spill the beans.

The film already has novelty value because of its director, the atypical dramatic lead, and for featuring the first significant role for ubiquitous character actor Don Gordon (seen in countless 70s movies and TV series). It is also unique in that the central villain of this piece is a woman. The tomboyish Vera is the most complex figure in this piece: calculating, full of sexual longing, clamouring for attention. She is attracted to Irv, and at first is subservient to his every whim. After the murder however, he is wrapped around her little finger, and must cater to her demands, lest she implicate him with the crime. Throughout most of the picture, Vera is commonly referred to in the second person as “Ugly”. (Try getting that one out of the gate today.) But fret not, viewers, for in the end credits when the voice of Universal contract player Jeff Chandler (!) introduces the young newcomers, it is revealed that actress Jaclynne Greene isn’t as homely as her fictional character.

This was made before The Blackboard Jungle ushered in the cycle of “troubled teen” flicks later in the decade, and as such, borrows from an earlier tradition. This space-age chronicle of misspent youth harkens back to the conventions of the Bowery Boys urban melodramas of the 1940s. Almost everyone, cops and teens alike, talks in patter like “Ah shaddap!” and “Look here, see?” (I kept waiting for Leo Gorcey to show up.)

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