Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 67: Revisiting 'The Sinister Urge' (1960)

Scratchy-voiced Gloria Henderson (Jean Fontaine) made her debut on MST3K in 1994.

Neglected no more: The Sinister Urge.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. really didn't direct that many feature-length films during his so-called "golden age," i.e. the years before he permanently descended into the world of pornography in the 1960s. There are the big three, naturally: Glenda, Plan 9, and Bride Of The Monster. The ones everyone knows from the Tim Burton biopic. The standbys. There's Jail Bait, too, a neglected "middle child" that has never received as much love and attention as its siblings. The Violent Years, though scripted by Wood, was (at least nominally) directed by William Morgan, so it doesn't quite count. Wood claims he edited two of those made-for-TV Tucson Kid episodes with Tom Keene into a quasi-feature, but this has never surfaced. Wood's other titles from this era (The Sun Was Setting, Final Curtain, etc.) are featurette-length.

That just leaves The Sinister Urge, an anti-smut scare film from 1960, by some counts the "last" movie Ed Wood ever made. When reference books say Ed Wood only directed five movies, they're ending their tally with this one. For whatever reason, despite its importance in the Wood canon, The Sinister Urge has gotten rather short shrift in this project. Sure, I did a complete write-up on the movie back in 2013, but I haven't rewatched it since then. I basically sat through it once all the way through, shrugged, and moved on. And yet, here is a full-length movie written and directed by Ed Wood when he was still sort of in his prime. He was only 36 when it came out. Thanks to some repurposed footage from the abandoned juvie flick Hellborn, Ed even plays a semi-prominent (if brief) role in it. Doesn't that deserve more attention?

I started wondering if maybe there were more to The Sinister Urge than I'd originally gleaned. So I decided to rewatch the movie with fresh eyes. Right away, I was struck by the first shot: a blonde (one-film wonder Betty Boatner), clad only in a bra and slip, running in terror toward the camera on a dirt road. The camera seems to be on the back of a car or truck, because it's moving, too. For an Ed Wood movie, this is a very dynamic beginning. Keep in mind that Glenda starts with Bela Lugosi sitting in a chair, and Plan 9 starts with Criswell sitting behind a desk. In contrast, The Sinister Urge doesn't have any scene-setting narration or preamble. Other than the title appearing onscreen, it doesn't even have opening credits. More so than at any other time in his filmmaking career, Ed Wood seems eager to get the action underway. This is as in medias res as he gets.

Don't worry, though; the usual Ed Wood inertia is not far away. In his DVD introduction to the film, Ted Newsom suggests that credited cinematographer William C. Thompson only shot the interiors for The Sinister Urge. And, true to form, there is a marked difference between the indoor and outdoor scenes in this movie. One plot thread has pompadoured hoodlum Dirk (Dino Fantini), driven mad by exposure to pornography, stalking and killing young women in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. These scenes crackle with an energy that vanishes once the film heads inside.

For the most part, this film is even more static and talky than usual for Wood. Our heroes are two hardworking, grim-faced policemen: Lt. Matt Carson (Kenne Duncan) and Sgt. Randy Stone (Duke Moore). Matt is a little sharper than Carson, sort of the Sherlock to his Watson, but neither is particularly energetic. Matt and Randy spend most of their time in the former's dark, wood-paneled office, discussing a string of porno-related murders and decrying the rottenness of the smut racket. When they do venture out to a crime scene, their hard-boiled dialogue goes like so:

Randy: (examining a woman's corpse) Just like the others. 
Matt: Pretty kid, too. 
Randy: She doesn't look much like a kid now. 
Matt: Maybe she grew up during that moment of truth. When she died. 
Randy: The same M.O. Killed the same way. The same everything. 
Matt: With one great difference. 
Randy: What's that? 
Matt: Her name will be different.

Duke Moore and Kenne Duncan in The Violent Years.
Move over, Joe Friday, huh? Actually, The Sinister Urge may be the best movie yet to illustrate Ed Wood's obsession with Dragnet-style police procedurals. I still maintain that Jack Webb was one of Eddie's greatest unheralded influences, more so than Tod Browning or James Whale. Why else would Glen Or Glenda, a film ostensibly about gender fluidity, be structured around a police investigation? Wood was so enamored of the tough-guy repartee between Duncan and Moore that he wanted to build an entire second feature, The Peeper, around their characters. Maybe he even had dreams of a mini-franchise starring these two. It's obvious why that never happened, though. To cast sleazy, sarcastic Kenne Duncan as a good guy seems all wrong, and Duncan's chemistry with bland, pudgy Duke Moore is virtually nonexistent. At one point, Wood tries to lighten the mood with a scene in which Randy plays a mischievous little prank on Matt, who has fallen asleep at his post. But "impish" just isn't in Kenne Duncan's wheelhouse, and the scene falls flat.

On the other side of the law, we have porno filmmaker Johnny Ryde (Carl Anthony), a man who "used to make good movies," and his boss/distributor/lover, scratchy-voiced Gloria Henderson (Joan Fontaine). They, too, spend a good deal of time sitting around and talking. Interestingly, Johnny and Gloria have both their strategy sessions and their makeout sessions in Gloria's sparsely-decorated living room, making this movie yet another example of Ed Wood using the homestead as his favorite backdrop. Gloria's house, in fact, doesn't look much different from the troubled homes featured in Glen Or Glenda, Jail Bait, and Plan 9. And just like those domiciles, this one is threatened by outside forces. When knife-wielding Dirk breaches the perimeter, it spells doom for the household and everyone in it.

The character of Gloria, on this viewing, reminded me a lot of Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell), the gangster from Jail Bait. Both of these people spend their lives in a constant state of agitation, always snapping at the people around them. Irritation is Gloria's default reaction to pretty much any stimulus. There is a scene, for instance, in which Johnny introduces Gloria to gawky, naive Mary Smith (Jeanne Willardson), a starlet he plans to exploit. Before Johnny even attempts to say Mary's name aloud, Gloria explodes with rage: "Names at this stage are unimportant! Names are your department anyway!" If the crooks are trying to win Mary's trust, this is a strange way of going about it. One wonders how Gloria ascended to a position of prominence in the underworld with so little finesse.

As for Carl Anthony's character, reader Milton Knight points out that the name Johnny Ryde is very similar to that of Johnny Hyde (aka Ivan Haidabura), the Russian-born talent agent who was instrumental in shaping Marilyn Monroe's early career. Hyde changed Monroe's image drastically, a process that included plastic surgery, and helped her secure important early film roles. Certainly, then, there are parallels to Johnny Ryde's treatment of innocent Mary Smith, who is encouraged to change her hair, wardrobe, deportment, diction, and place of residence. Hyde had already been dead a decade when The Sinister Urge was released; Monroe herself died in 1962.

All in all, my opinion of The Sinister Urge hasn't really changed since 2013. I still find the film suffocating and sluggish at times, though eccentric characters like Gloria and Dirk help liven up the proceedings. Johnny Ryde might be an onscreen stand-in for Ed Wood, but Carl Anthony plays him as such a colorless dullard that it hardly matters. The Sinister Urge closely follows the template of Reefer Madness, simply substituting pornography for marijuana, but Wood's film lacks the transcendent nuttiness of Louis Gasnier's anti-pot parable. Of the films from Eddie's classic era, this will probably be the one I watch the least. Some have praised this movie for being more coherent and focused than Wood's other efforts, and it is. Personally, though, I feel Wood's appeal rests on his abnormality, his asymmetry, so coherence is not necessarily what I'm looking for in his movies.

But I'm glad I revisited The Sinister Urge just the same, because there are some prime Wood-ian moments that I had forgotten. Perhaps my favorite comes when a group of tough-looking young women, another one of Eddie's many girl gangs, storms into an ice cream parlor at the behest of Gloria and Johnny to beat up the proprietor, a stocky older man named Claussen who has snitched to the cops. There's a closeup shot of one of the girls shoving a vanilla ice cream cone right in Claussen's fat face. Eddie doesn't hold the shot quite long enough for my taste, but it's a thing of surreal beauty nevertheless. The moment is worthy of Bunuel.

An episode from 1994.
Just to make sure no stone was left unturned, I finally decided to watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of The Sinister Urge. For some reason, I'd been avoiding this one, maybe figuring it would be a bit too mean-spirited. Wood's movie was used as the basis for an episode during the show's sixth season back in November 1994, when it was still on Comedy Central. This wasn't MST3K's first voyage into the Wood canon by any means. The show had memorably tackled Bride Of The Monster during its fourth season and had razzed The Violent Years just three episodes prior to The Sinister Urge. Since the show's theme song promised viewers "cheesy movies, the worst we can find," it's only natural that they should aim their sights at a filmmaker widely considered "the worst director of all time."

The MST3K episode turned out to be a lot of fun and nothing to worry about. The Violent Years gets off fairly lightly here. It doesn't provoke the same agonized reactions as Manos: The Hands Of Fate or Red Zone Cuba. Host Mike Nelson and his robot pals (voiced by Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu) don't threaten to mutiny or anything like that. In The Mystery Science Theater Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (1996), writer-performer Paul Chaplin describes Wood's movie in almost affectionate terms:
In this movie, the production end of Gloria's empire seems rather charming: the smut involves women in baggy swimsuits being photographed by a kindly elfin immigrant. Arousing? Not particularly. But is that really the main point of smut? For reasons too complicated to get into, Gloria kills Dirk when she means to kill Johnny (or is it the other way around?). The cops reveal the mistake to her, and she emits a harshly nasal "Nuh! Uh-uh! No way!" it's become one of our favorite moments. Gloriahard, raspy, and shrillserves as a reminder of the world Ed Wood inhabited. You get the idea this is a real woman playing herself.
Along with the usual string of pop culture references, invoking everyone from Eric von Stroheim to Marian McPartland, the episode's main running gags involve Joan Fontaine's harsh voice (the show claims you could shave with it), the stiffness of Carl Anthony's performance (he's compared with Hymie, the robot from Get Smart), and the resemblance of actor Dino Fantini to a young Bob Dylan. There are also some jokes about Ed Wood's tendency to pad his films with dull, extraneous shots, like people parking or getting in or out of cars. (A typical riff: "Film it all, Ed!") A few token references are made to Ed Wood's transvestism (he is said to have dressed like the aforementioned Ms. McPartland), but these do not get out of hand.

There are also a number of jokes about the character of Officer Kline (Fred Mason), a complete nonentity who pops up periodically throughout the film. Mike and the 'bots pretend to be hugely excited by Kline's utterly unexciting appearances. Weirdly, The Sinister Urge ends on a shot of Kline, who stands guard over the bodies of Dirk and Johnny as Lt. Carson takes Gloria downtown. So maybe this character really was of great significance to Ed Wood.

At one point during the recycled Hellborn footage, Mike Nelson comments: "I think Ed Wood has directed himself into a corner." Wood himself is onscreen that very minute, literally standing in the corner. Moments later, Tom Servo (Murphy) exclaims, "I think these scenes are from a completely different movie!" "Maybe," replies Crow (Beaulieu), "but they work so well here!" Is it possible that the MST3K writers knew this footage had been repurposed, or was it just a lucky guess on their part? Or was it so obvious that they figured it out on their own?

By the way, it seems initially that the episode's host segments, i.e. the scenes that take place outside the theater, have little to do with The Sinister Urge. There's an episode-long plot about the character of TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) becoming a mad bomber after seeing too many violent movies. But, eventually, even this cycles back around to Ed Wood. Sort of. Mike Nelson and the robots decide to crack the case, and Tom and Crow start talking and dressing like the cops in the movie. "Don't play schoolgirl with me!" Crow barks to an informant (Chaplin). "I've got so much on you, I'll send you so far up the river, you'll think you were a salmon!"

As Grade B dialogue goes, that's Grade A.