Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, Week 12: "The Sinister Urge" (1960)

"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.
The year is 1960. Edward D. Wood, Jr., 36 years of age, has been in Hollywood for twelve years at this point and in that time has done virtually everything there is for a young man to do in showbiz. He's acted in films and onstage. He's been employed by a major studio, Universal, in a position of some responsibility as a night production coordinator. He's worked in local television as a writer and director as well, sometimes even getting paid for it. 

More importantly, Ed has written, directed, and produced his own feature films. He's worked with one certified movie legend, Bela Lugosi, and a whole host of colorful, nationally-known pop culture figures, including Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Criswell, not to mention several of the B-movie cowboy actors (such as Kenne Duncan, Tom Keene, Bud Osborne, and Tom Tyler) he had idolized when he was a young moviegoer in Poughkeepsie, NY. Several of Wood's scripts have been purchased and produced by other filmmakers, too, occasionally to financial success. He's helped stage a Las Vegas revue and even made technical training films for the government.

In short, Ed Wood has been around the block.

None of this has made him wealthy or famous, however. 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.
Those are the circumstances under which Ed Wood directed his so-called "last" feature film, The Sinister Urge (1960), and they're not especially pretty. Actually, a good chunk of the film had already been made back in 1956, when Ed did one day's worth of shooting on a rock-music-themed juvenile delinquent picture to be called Hellborn. Producer George Weiss, who had shepherded Ed's debut film Glen or Glenda (1953), couldn't raise any more money, and the production shut down.

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's succumb to our sinister urges and investigate.

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 backstory: Much like Ed's previous films, Jail Bait and Night of the Ghouls, the plot of The Sinister Urge revolves around a criminal couple. The twist here is that the no-nonsense, tough-talking mastermind in the relationship is the woman -- brassy blonde Gloria Henderson (singer Jean Fontaine, in her first and last screen role), who runs a pornography or "smut" ring for her thuggish bosses in "the Syndicate." (That's what people used to call the mafia.) Her lover and accomplice is the wonderfully-named Johnny Ryde (Plan 9 from Outer Space veteran Carl Anthony), a formerly-respected movie director who now oversees the making of sleazy, no-budget pornographic films and photos. It's a lucrative but highly dangerous operation, with the police (led by Duke Moore and Kenne Duncan) constantly raiding their studios, confiscating their films, and tailing their every move.

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?!?

The viewing experience: Stultifying and drab, but not worthless. The Sinister Urge is an extremely hypocritical film that preaches against pornography with the same fervor that Reefer Madness condemned marijuana but at the same time invites viewers to ogle the (somewhat) scantily-clad women on display in the film and take pleasure from their debasement. Certainly, the two sanctimonious cops on the case must spend a lot of their time poring over "dirty" films and photos. Could that perhaps be why they're so willing to spend virtually all their waking hours on this case? At one point, Kenne Duncan (also in his last screen role) tells us that smut is even more addictive than dope. This is interesting news, since by pure coincidence, I just read about a recent scientific study that suggests that the brain does not actually react to porn the way it does to narcotics and that "porn addiction" may not even exist.

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.

In many ways, The Sinister Urge suffers from a shortage of charisma, a problem that  also plagued Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid, another Ed Wood project with Kenne Duncan. In the past, Wood's films had larger-than-life personalities like Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Criswell to spark the audience's interest. Here, unfortunately, too many of Ed's loyal but dull second stringers have been promoted to leads. I've already mentioned the tedium of Duncan and Moore's talky scenes at the police station. The boredom there is briefly relieved by a welcome appearance from Harvey B. Dunn as a concerned taxpayer, but then Dunn disappears after being shamed by one of Kenne Duncan's Dragnet-esque sermons. (In his shooting plan, Wood says that the "taxpayer" character, Romain, is crucial. That's perhaps why he cast Dunn in the relatively small part.)

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."
But what about the standard "Ed Wood" brand of eccentricity? What about his pet themes? Oh, they're here. Have no doubt of that. First and foremost, The Sinister Urge is a clumsy patchwork job that tries to incorporate old footage into a new story by means of dubbed-in dialogue and cutaway reaction shots. The mismatches aren't as crazy as the ones in, say, Bride of the Monster (1955), but they'll do. Similarly, the dialogue is oddly formal and heavy on exposition and outdated slang. While not as quotable as some of Wood's other films, it's noticeably off-kilter at certain points. ("I don't dig the angel bit," says Dirk after Johnny unsuccessfully tries to bump him off.) If there's a character you'll be quoting or imitating afterward, it's probably going to be Gloria, whose climactic "that's not Dirk" speech is already well-known to fans of MST3K.

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?