by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
Femme fatales. Mirror reflections and off-kilter camera angles. Rain-swept streets. Venetian blinds. Crooked cops and anti-heroes. Voiceover narration and flashbacks. Urban settings painted in shadowy black and white.
Film noir, right?
Probably. But not necessarily.
Every movie that contains these elements is not always film noir – and a movie that doesn’t contain any of them can very well be noir.
Unlike westerns, musicals, or horror films, it’s not always easy to identify whether a movie falls into the category of film noir. It’s an often-subjective style of filmmaking; for every indisputably noir feature like Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), or Out of the Past (1947), there are countless films labeled as noir that are questionable at best or, simply, clearly not film noir.
These days, practically any black and white film from the 1940s or 1950s that depicts a crime is identified as film noir. But it takes more than a gat and a fedora to be noir. At its core, film noir depicts a world filled with pessimism, corruption, and hopelessness, and an overarching sensation of doom. Along with the tangible features that are frequently associated with film noir, it’s the tone and style that distinguish this type of picture. It’s easy to understand, then, why the identification of noirs can be such a tricky undertaking. It’s not impossible, though, so we’re going to take a look at some of these pictures to answer the question, is it noir, or not?
For our inaugural film in this series, we give you Jail Bait, released in 1954 and directed by Edward Wood, Jr. If you’re already familiar with Wood, it’s probably because you’ve seen (or heard of) his films like Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), or Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). The subject of a 1994 biopic starring Johnny Depp, Wood helmed a series of low-budget horror and science fiction features characterized by their less-than-stellar acting, technical mistakes, and often-laughable dialogue. His distinctive body of work developed a cult following after the 1980 publication of The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved, in which Wood was labeled the worst director of all time and Plan 9 as the worst film.
Originally titled The Hidden Face and clocking in at an economical 72 minutes, Jail Bait was Wood’s second feature and his first attempt at making a crime picture. The film, shot in less than a week on a budget of $22,000, centers on Don Gregor (Clancy Malone), whose prominent plastic surgeon father, Dr. Boris Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson), has raised him with leniency and overindulgence. Don’s tendency to be “a little wild” has led to his alliance with local hood Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell), and when we first meet Don, he’s being bailed out of jail on a gun possession charge. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Don and Vic are implicated in a theater payroll robbery that leaves one man dead and the police in hot pursuit. With this single act, Don has discovered that a life of crime isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as for Vic – there’s nothing (and I do mean NOTHING) he won’t do to save his own hide. Others in the story include the detectives on the case (played by pre-Code veteran Lyle Talbot and future Hercules star Steve Reeves in his film debut), and Vic’s mistreated but unfailingly loyal moll, Loretta (Theodora Thurman).
So, is Jail Bait noir? Or not?
The film’s opening sequence certainly puts us in the noir mood; beneath the credits, and accompanied by appropriately ominous piano chords, we see a police car driving toward us through the night. As we meet the various characters, their relationships with each other establish the bleak tone of the film. There’s Don and his sister, Marilyn (Wood’s then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller), who Don calls to bail him out of jail. Although Marilyn forks over a thousand dollars for Don’s freedom, she clearly disapproves of her brother’s lawlessness and resents the role she’s forced to play to shield his misdeeds from their father. Don is not only patently unappreciative, but he also childishly baits Marilyn with the knowledge that she will keep his secrets.
Adding to the dark tenor of the film is the duo of Don and Vic; a “hardened criminal,” as Vic is labeled by Marilyn, he’s unmistakably the brains of this two-man operation. It’s Vic who plans the heist that leads to Don’s gun charge, and Vic is the mastermind of the theater payroll robbery as well. Interestingly, while Don obviously wants to emulate Vic, he simply doesn’t have what it takes. He’s like a child playing cops and robbers – he has the outward bravado, but he’s really just an insecure young man with no direction and a woeful lack of parental guidance. For every bold act he displays, he follows it with an expression of reluctance, fear, or doubt. He’s clearly drawn to Vic’s confident disregard of the law until the stakes get too high and it’s too late to back out.
Speaking of Vic, he’s absolutely the most noirish part of the film – he’s a bad boy from way back, complete with the tough guy patter: during the payroll crime, he instructs the security guard to open the safe, telling him, “That safe’s gonna be open, whether you open it or I have to use some juice on it. Your only choice is whether or not you’re around to see it open. Doesn’t make any difference to me one way or the other whether you live another day. It’s all up to you.” But Vic’s not just talk. He’s ruthless and crafty and practically overflowing with a solid sense of self-preservation. He’s the type of guy who wouldn’t hesitate to throw his own mother under the proverbial bus if it would keep him out of trouble, a fact that Don learns the hard way.
Several scenes lend themselves to the film’s tone of impending disaster, including the confrontation with Don and his sister, which ends with Don taking his father’s gun from its hiding place inside a hollowed-out book (“I might be walking down a dark street and a robber might jump at me,” he sarcastically explains. “I wanna be protected.”). Another dread-filled sequence is served up by the payroll robbery; Don’s obvious hesitancy and apprehension serve as the foundation for the events that unfold. And the scene where Don confesses his crimes to his father is not only cloaked in dread but tinged with regret as well.
It’s a safe bet that Jail Bait isn’t like any other film you’ve ever seen, but if you pare the film down to its essence – the plot, the characters, the dark and desperate tenor – and ignore the questionable directing, amateurish acting, and less-than-award-worthy dialogue, then you’ve got yourself a picture that’s worthy of a shadowy designation. I wouldn’t put this one on the shelf with Laura or Night and the City – but I’ll label it a noir.
Other Jail Bait Stuff:
Despite the tagline on the film’s poster that warns, “Danger! These girls are hot!”, the film’s title doesn’t have any connection to the common definition of young women under the age of consent. Instead, it’s taken directly from a quote in the movie, where Don’s sister refers to his gun as “jail bait.”
Don’s plastic surgeon father was played by Herbert Rawlinson, who was a leading man during the silent film era and worked steadily as a character actor throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Jail Bait was his last big screen appearance; he was reportedly suffering from lung cancer and died the day after his final day of shooting on the picture.
A little over 16 minutes into the movie, completely out of the blue, you’ll see a minstrel performance featuring the vaudeville team of Cotton Watts and Chick. Watts, who, along with the musicians in the background, is in blackface, performs a jaw-droppingly offensive skit with his wife, Chick, before breaking into a soft-shoe dance number. The entire bit lasts a little more than two minutes and has no connection to the action of the movie, except that it ostensibly was performed at the theater the night that Don and Vic make off with the payroll. The routine was taken directly from a 1951 movie called Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, which consisted almost entirely of a series of vaudeville performances, including this one. That movie was written, directed, and produced by Ron Ormond, whose production company, Howco, released Jail Bait. (Ormond formed Howco along with drive-in movie owners J. Francis White and Joy Houck; the names of White and Houck appear as “presenters” at the start of Jail Bait.) In the 1994 VHS “Director’s Cut” of the film, released by Rhino, the minstrel routine was replaced with a burlesque-style striptease number performed by a stripper known as Evelyn “$50,000 Treasure Chest” West. This performance, like the blackface number, had nothing whatsoever to do with the plot.
The unique flamenco guitar and piano score that is heard almost non-stop throughout the movie originated in a film released in 1953, a Ron Ormond-directed science-fiction feature called Mesa of Lost Women, starring Jackie Coogan. The same music would be recycled again for the 1963 exploitation film produced by Ormond called Please Don’t Touch Me. The composer of the music was Hoyt S. Curtin, who worked for more than 20 years as the musical director for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio. It should be noted that Curtin’s name in the credits for Jail Bait was misspelled as “Kurtain.” And, while we’re on the subject of misspelled names, Clancy Malone, who makes his film debut as Don in Jail Bait, is listed on the movie’s posters and lobby cards as “Scott McCloud” – the same name he used when he served as Unit Director on Edward Wood’s first film, Glen or Glenda?. Go figure.
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Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.