Wednesday, April 21, 2010

DVD: Over-Exposed (1956)/Women’s Prison (1955)

How do you solve a problem like Cleo Moore?

The Marilyn Monroe manqué appeared as trouble in tights in a few ‘50s films. Christa Faust saw Strange Fascination at Noir City Los Angeles and noted that Cleo “had an astounding build, but she looks disturbingly like a Cabbage Patch sex doll or a female version of Arch Hall Jr.” This description is both disturbing and weirdly accurate. When Alan K. Rode, an organizer of said Noir City fest, called Janis Carter the Courtyard by Marriott of femmes fatale – “always credible, dependable and frequently underrated” – I asked him who the Hampton Inn in this metaphor was. He said Cleo. I can only assume this means Cleo is close to the highway and offers On The Run breakfast bags.

Several of Cleo’s movies appear in Columbia’s recent Bad Girls of Film Noir collection. Two of them, both directed by Lewis Seiler, appear on the same disc, and they’ve made me a Cleo fan.

In Over-Exposed, Cleo tackles the role she was born to play – and I mean tackled, because the woman had shoulders like Jason Taylor. (Speaking of which: welcome to the Jets, big man!) She’s Lily Krenshka, clip joint honey turned swimsuit model who reinvents herself as fashion photographer/blackmailer Lila Crane. Cleo is saddled with telegraphed plot twists, Richard Crenna as a wheedling boyfriend, and dialogue that indicates a pathological fear of subtext; when given her first camera, she declares, “I can use it as a jimmy. It’ll open doors for me.” It’s vigorous sleaze, and Cleo’s right at home in it.

Cleo has a minor role in Women’s Prison. Even with those shoulders she can’t muscle more screen time from this cast. You’ve got Ida Lupino as the hard-edged and possibly insane warden. Audrey Totter as a married con with a husband on the men’s side of the wall. Phyllis Thaxter as a hausfrau who can’t hack it in stir, a character the movie loses interest in as soon as we do. Future Oscar nominee Juanita Moore as an inmate named after the hospital where she was born, Polyclinic Jones. Best of all is Jan Sterling – the Ramada Inn of femmes fatale, according to Alan – as the brassy blonde who shows new fish the ropes. Even Chez K fave Gertrude Michael is along for the ride as the screw with a heart.

Women’s Prison is a cheesy issue picture, striking the balance between just good enough and just bad enough to be thoroughly entertaining. Watch it for the scene in which noble doctor Howard Duff calls Lupino a psychotic jealous of her charges because they, at least, have experienced a man’s love – and know that the two actors were married at the time.