|"A psycho with the urge to kill": The Sinister Urge isn't coy about naming one of its main influences.|
|A slightly paunchy Ed in The Sinister Urge.|
In short, Ed Wood has been around the block.
But none of this has made him wealthy or famous. In fact, he's always broke. "I should have a million dollars right now," he sadly tells his friends during his moments of self-pity. But his enthusiasm for show business is unshakable, and he's always focused on the next project with a tragicomic sense of optimism. Unfortunately, his drinking will become an increasing problem in the years to come, and Ed will be forced to rely more and more on favors from friends to find work as he steadily descends the ladder of respectability from low-budget science-fiction, horror, and crime films to softcore "nudie cuties," smutty paperbacks, and finally hardcore pornography. In the pivotal year of 1960, his career is at a crossroads, and he seems to know it.
|Wood's last mainstream film.|
Several years later, actor Conrad Brooks sold the rights to the precious Hellborn footage to independent producer Roy Reid, who agreed to let Eddie make a "new" movie out of it for Headliner Productions, which had previously distributed The Violent Years (1956). As with Night of the Ghouls (1959), Ed wrote and directed an original story that incorporated the existing film footage. The cast was a mixture of Wood's typical repertory players (Harvey B. Dunn, Duke Moore, Connie Brooks, Kenne Duncan, and Carl Anthony) with a few prominent newcomers, mainly LA nightclub performer Jean Fontaine, who supplied her own wardrobe, and a hungry up-and-comer named Michael "Dino" Fantini, who was culled from an acting school. Perhaps out of loyalty, Ed hired his longtime cinematographer, William C. Thompson, to shoot The Sinister Urge, even though the veteran cameraman was losing his eyesight.
As nearly every single biographer of Ed Wood has noted, the plot of the film, in which a once-legitimate filmmaker has gotten involved in the manufacturing of illegal pornography, very much mirrors Ed's own life and career. Perhaps taken together, Glen or Glenda? and The Sinister Urge form a more complete self-portrait of Ed Wood.
But how does the film stack up today? Let us succumb, you and I, to our sinister urges and investigate.
THE SINISTER URGE (1960)
|Title screen from the film.|
Alternate titles: Racket Queen, Act of Compulsion, Hollywood After Dark, Immoral Intruder, Chains of Evil, Hellborn.
Availability: The film is available with an introduction by filmmaker Ted Newsom as part of the Big Box of Wood collection (S'more Entertainment, 2010). It's available as a standalone DVD as well (Sinister Cinema, 2008).
The reason for this drastic police intervention is the fact that Gloria and Johnny's pitiful little racket is somehow the hub of the entire city's criminal community. The immoral pornographers even have a greasy, low-rent thug in their employ named Dirk (played with genuine menace by Dino Fantini in his only notable screen role) who kills anyone who may pose a threat to the operation, i.e. models who squeal to the cops. Dirk is basically Gloria and Johnny's vicious "attack dog," but he's getting to enjoy his work too much, not only killing but sexually assaulting his victims as well... and doing so without much subterfuge in broad daylight. Dirk's exploits have brought on even more police scrutiny, and the Syndicate wants him taken care of "permanently."
From there, it's a series of murders, attempted murders, and double crosses that lead to a very moralistic Dragnet-esque finale, with all of the scumbags either dead or headed to jail.
Disappointingly, there do not seem to be many colorful anecdotes surrounding the making of The Sinister Urge. Perhaps sensing this was his last chance at legitimacy or even semi-legitimacy, Ed Wood very much wanted to prove that he could bring a film in on time and on budget with no screw-ups or shenanigans. Producer Roy Reid had every confidence in him, and Wood submitted a carefully-written proposal called "My Plans for Shooting Arrangement and Why" (sample line: "There is an excellent chance of bringing this picture in in four days and one pre-production.") and an itemized budget (Ed's fee for directing: $2600; total budget: $20,152, which today would be about $160,000).
Much of the shooting was done on a ranch owned by cast member Harry Keaton, brother of Buster Keaton, making his last-ever screen appearance in the role of "girly" photographer Jaffe under the semi-pseudonym "Harry Keaten." The micro-budgeted film seems to have played mostly in LA but did make it to New York's then-infamous 42nd Street "grindhouse" circuit, where it ran for 13 weeks. What's notable is that The Sinister Urge is the first of Ed's directorial efforts to contain a brief flash of female nudity, which occurs when a sex-crazed Dirk rips the brassiere from one of his female victims.
Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy includes a photograph of a "bondage" scene, but no such sequence survives in the existing print. It should be noted that a few frames from one scene, in which Kenne Duncan shows some grisly photos to Harvey B. Dunn, have been clearly chopped out by the censors. Nightmare of Ecstasy also mentions that Ed filmed some "additional scenes" for The Sinister Urge in 1961, the year after its original release. Considering how very tame the film is, it's likely that these scenes were a little racier than what was already in the movie.
|A threat to American womanhood? This?!?|
Perhaps because of censorship issues, The Sinister Urge never depicts anything like real pornography anyway. At the moment of the big police raid, here is what is happening: Jaffe is taking some still photos of three women in swimsuits lying on their stomachs next to each other. When the cops kick in the door and start arresting everyone and seizing everything, it seems like a glimpse of a fascist police state, yet I think the movie wants us to feel glad that these lawmen are doing their job to protect the innocence of American womanhood. I've mentioned before that Ed Wood's personality was a strange, self-defeating combination of swinger and square, playboy and prude, and never is that more clear than in The Sinister Urge.
Before embarking upon this project, I had no idea how much influence Jack Webb and Dragnet had over Eddie, but now it's crystal clear. The hard-working plainclothes detectives portrayed by Kenne Duncan (a sexually-voracious sleazeball, by the way, whose boastful nickname was "Horsecock") and Duke Moore (whose character, just as in Night of the Ghouls, is kept from taking a date to the theater in order to focus on police work) are supposed to remind us of Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday, but instead their scenes play out like an alternate universe version of Dragnet in which two dull sidekicks are paired together without a leading man.
On the criminal side of the film, hard-boiled Jean Fontaine (who was married to a rich man and only pursued showbiz as a hobby) and twitchy, greasy Dino Fantini add some much-needed color and eccentricity, but the central character of Johnny Ryde, who by all accounts was Ed's onscreen surrogate*, is too demanding for a pedestrian actor like Carl Anthony, who seems supremely stiff and uncomfortable. Gloria's "syndicate" bosses, too, are a flop. They seem like bland bureaucrats rather than flashy gangsters. Maybe that was part of Ed's plan, effectively deglamorizing the world of crime by showing mob bosses as bean counters and number crunchers. I must say that Gloria and Johnny's pad, supposedly a den of sin and vice, looks like the standard living room set from every late-1950s/early-1960s TV sitcom. You get the sense that Rob Petrie might come in and trip over the ottoman at any moment.
*Yes, in a much-noticed "in joke," Johnny's office contains lobby cards for Plan 9, Jail Bait, The Violent Years, and Bride of the Monster. Johnny refers to the maker of those films as "a friend."
|Actress Jean Fontaine, aka "Gloria."|
In the aforementioned scenes from Hellborn, Ed himself appears as a clearly over-aged, somewhat paunchy delinquent, fighting with Conrad "Connie" Brooks outside a pizza joint, thus making his first major acting appearance in one of his own films since Glen or Glenda? seven years earlier. That pizza joint is highly reminiscent of the teen hangout repeatedly mentioned in Ed's novel Devil Girls (1967), and one of the female spectators is wearing -- you guessed it -- a fuzzy angora sweater. (I almost typed "a fuzzy pink angora sweater" before remembering that the film was in black-and-white.)
Alcoholism runs all through this film, with Gloria and Johnny boozing it up from one end of the picture to the other. And, yes, there is a scene of transvestism. In order to lure Dirk out of hiding, the police send a male officer dressed in drag to Griffith Park (Dirk's favorite crime scene) to act as "bait" for the mad killer. Does he go for it? Like a moth to a flame, baby. And did I mention that the first victim in the film is a model named Shirley? For those of you just joining us, "Shirley" was Ed Wood's drag name. If you get a kick out of technical mistakes, furthermore, you'll be happy to know that the boom mic is prominent in several scenes, perhaps indicating that either Ed Wood or Bill Thompson was getting sloppy by this point.
Meanwhile, just to show you how interconnected Ed Wood's works truly are, there is a portion of The Sinister Urge that plays like a dramatization of his posthumously-published manuscript, Hollywood Rat Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998). In that book, Ed writes about would-be starlets who come to Hollywood with big dreams after being the lead in a high school play but then wind up being exploited by sleazeballs and phonies. In this movie, the cops discuss such unfortunate young ladies, and then we get to actually see one such victim in action -- an ingenue named Mary (with all the innocence that name implies) who winds up owing money to Gloria and Johnny and, in order to pay them back, begins a sordid life of indentured servitude as a model for their smutty pictures and films. Such a shame. If only she'd read Ed's book before coming to Hollywood.
Next week: Have I got a treat in store for you? Actually, to be honest, I don't know because the next film is one I've never seen. Could be great. Could be terrible. Could be somewhere in the middle. One of Wood's occasional collaborators in the 1950s and 1960s was a Russian-born director-producer named Boris Petroff. Wood was an unbilled "consultant" (and perhaps more) on Petroff's Anatomy of a Psycho in 1961, and Petroff borrowed the character of Lobo (as played by Tor Johnson) from Bride of the Monster for his infamous 1957 anti-classic The Unearthly. Well, in 1963, Boris Petroff effectively ended his filmmaking career with a backwoods, "hick-sploitation" movie based on a script ghost-written by none other than Eddie Wood. Join me in seven days for an unabashed look at Shotgun Wedding aka Child Brides of the Ozarks. Sounds tasteful enough, doesn't it? Y'all come back now, hear?