Sunday, April 8, 2007
The Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-a-Thon: Roger Vadim's PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (Overlooked Classics)
Roger Vadim's 1971 film PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is a lot of things: it is a biting satire of the sexual revolution and the youth culture of the day, it is a politically incorrect sexploitation film, it is a murder mystery and thriller, and it is the blackest of black comedies. It is all these things rolled up into Vadim's most subversive and fun film that remains, along with BLOOD AND ROSES, his finest 90 minutes.
Roger Vadim did himself a major disservice by writing not just one, but two books concerning his love affairs with Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda. By his own pen he successfully buried his importance as a film director by highlighting his sexual exploits with four of the most beautiful women of the century. Vadim will now forever be known for these conquests and the fact that he directed a handful of truly remarkable films is all but forgotten.
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is one of Vadim's most audaciously fun and serious films. Scripted by none other than Gene Roddenberry from a controversial novel by Francis Pollini it focuses on a series of murders taking place at a California high school.
The film opens up with a sunny California day and The Osmond's singing the Lalo Schifrin/Mike Curb tune CHILLY WINDS. The song with lines like, "Everybody reads between the lines" and "We're playing with your mind" is perfect slice of early seventies pop and also tunes us into the fact that all isn't what it is going to seem in the this film.
Shortly after the film's opening moments of young John David Carson's riding his scooter around town watching as girls pass by we are given a shot that clues us into the tone of the entire film. Vadim films two girls walking from behind and then brazenly zooms in on their behinds and places the title card right over them. It is a classic Vadim moment where he quickly points out not just what he as a director and the character of the sexually frustrated Ponce would focus on but also the audience themselves. He uses this zoom to immediately point out that the audience is just as fascinated with sex and the female form as he is and most importantly that there isn't any shame in it.
Later during the loaded opening credits sequence we are given an even more intriguing shot when Ponce flashes the peace sign to a couple of girls who laugh at him and then walk on. The sixties were clearly over by 1971 and this shot shows that the young people throughout the film are becoming less and less interested in the serious issues of the previous decade. These kids want to have sex, get high, enjoy themselves and think about as little as possible. Throughout the film Vadim intersperses classroom dialogue focuses on timely issues such as war and revolution but inevitably the kids focus continually returns to sex and matters of the heart.
We are quickly introduced to Ponce's new substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by the always great and delectable Angie Dickinson. This is one of her best roles and she plays the very 'helpful' and at times naive teacher wonderfully. Within a few years she would land two of her finest roles with the television series POLICE WOMAN and the Corman produced BIB BAD MAMA.
Ponce soon stumbles across cheerleader Jan dead in the boy's bathroom with a note attached to her bottom reading, "So Long Honey". This is the moment where the film turns really funny as we are introduced to Roddy McDowell's clueless teacher who keeps mentioning that Jan, "was such a wonderful cheerleader' and the even more inept Keenan Wynn as Chief John Poldaski. Mcdowell and Wynn are both incredibly funny in this film, Wynn especially steals almost every scene he is in as the well meaning but confused policeman.
As McDowell wonders how a murder could happen when the school's "academic averages are so high" Vadim introduces us to the films two biggest assets, namely Rock Hudson and Telly Savalas.
Hudson was just a few years past being the sixties biggest draw and after his brave and astonishing against type performance in SECONDS his box office appeal had began to slip. His performance here as the Guidance Counselor/Football Coach MIchael 'Tiger' Mcdrew is one of his finest performances. He is funny, charming and ultimately frightening as the charismatic counseler who sleeps with every teenage girl he desires. Savalas, seen here just a few years before his work with Mario Bava and as Kojak on TV, does great work as the homicide detective who is constantly amazed by the inept local police force and the sex obsessed students he keeps having to deal with.
Ponce, played very realistically by Carson, is a frustrated virgin who has more than a little trouble dealing with the opposite sex. One of the film's funniest lines comes early on when he proclaims to a questioning Savalas, "Do you think I'd do anything to a dead girl? I haven't even had a live one yet." Tiger decides to help Ponce out by giving him pointers on handling girls and attempting to hook him up with Miss Smith, who is so infatuated with Tiger that she agrees to 'tutor' Ponce at her house in the evenings.
Vadim has an amazingly clear understanding on what it is like to be a young frustrated male surrounded by beautiful girls nearly all the time. The scenes of Ponce walking around school lonely gazing at his classmates are extremely good examples of how to do successful POV shots. Vadim is able to place us in this boys mind during these moments and fills the screen with an endless succession of female figures and smiling faces. Bill Brame's editing his particularly great in these moments and he gives the film a fitting dizzying feel when needed.
The film reaches it's comedic and satiric height during the interview segments with Savalas and the 'maids'. Vadim really lets each actress shine here is small but fully drawn out moments that most films wouldn't have given much thought to. Particularly sharp is beautiful Aimee Eccles hilarious scene and the tragic June Fairchild's scene. Savalas looks more and more bemused and bewildered with eceh interview, he is brilliant in these scenes.
One thing that keeps the film so strong (and I think shields it from possible labels of misogyny) is the detail and emapthy given to the girls. Vadim and Roddenberry presents these girls as human beings, each individually well played and drawn. The film has a remarkable level of sympathy not just for Ponce's plight but also each girl and you can understand why they would be so drawn to the handsome and intelligent Tiger. It has to be remembered that this film is taking place in 1971 when the Sexual revolution was exploding but that the very straight laced morals that might seem extremely closed off were just a few years before this. The film suggests that the kids are within their rights to experiment but that they haven't yet learned to realize the possible consequences. PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is not a condemning film of conservative or liberal thinking, in fact it is not a condemning or judgemental film at all.
The peace sign is again later flashed in the film in one of its most telling and chilling moments. Hudson's Tiger is reading Shakespeare to his students while Savalas watches and he slyly flashes him the peace sign. It is a great moment in a film filled with them, the two understand each other and they ultimately both understand how futile the gesture has become.
It is pretty apparent early on that Hudson's Tiger is the killer, what isn't known though is how the film is going to play out. The last ten minutes are among the finest that Vadim ever directed. There is aneffective dialogue scene in a car where Ponce and Tiger discuss the murders. Ponce knows Tiger is guilty and Tiger knows that Ponce has found him out. Vadim brilliantly uses some flash forwarding here of Tiger attempting to strangle Ponce and then Ponce running away. We, as an audience, expect the scene to play out this way but Vadim quickly shows that we are once again seeing things from Ponce's point of view, we are seeing the future played out in his mind and not as it really is. Hudson is brilliantly chilling in this scene and when he says that he made a horrible mistake killing Jan we believe him.
The film ends ambiguously with Savalas discovering on oversees plane ticket in Barabara Leighs (Tiger's wife) purse suggesting that Tiger isn't in fact dead but has escaped completely. Savalas gives a brilliant closing look that suggests he is done with the case no matter what the 'truth' might be. Ponce in the mean time has learned much from Tiger and the film ends with him driving beautiful June Fairchild off on his bike and a revamped faster CHILLY WINDS plays the film to darkness.
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW won't go away. It often mentioned among the great missing dvds and Tarantino recently featured it at his Grindhouse film festival. Turner Classic Movies has even shown it a couple of times. I think the reason it still hasn't found a home on DVD is because it does deal with underage sexuality. America has a hard time with that subject and this film could turn a lot more heads now than perhaps it did in the more open period of the early seventies. One would be hard pressed to imagine a remake, even in our present remake crazed cinemas.
The cast would all have varied careers after the film opened up to lukewarm reviews and box office. June Fairchild would only appear in a handful of films after this but would immeasurably add to all of them, she was tragically reported in 2002 to being homeless. I hope things have turned around for her. Many of the other 'maids' would find minor success throughout their respective careers.
Dickinson, as mentioned, soon found herself in a popular tv series and still lights up the screen to this day. Brian DePalma would give her one of her great roles less than a decade after PRETTY MAIDS in DRESSED TO KILL. Savalas would also soon become a television icon and he is loved by genre and film fans all over the world.
Rock Hudson never got his due. A fine actor and a reportedly warm and giving man whose career was hampered first by an image forced on him and then by personal tragedy. PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW remains one of his finest roles and the guy in my book will always be one of the great ones.
Vadim's career is frustrating after PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW. Some memorably flawed films such as the last Bardot collaboration, DON JUAN IS A WOMAN and the underrated Sylvia Kristel film GAME OF SEDUCTION are mixed in with some truly unfortunate productions like NIGHT GAMES and the ill-advised AND GOD CREATED WOMAN remake. He died in 2000 and most of the obituaries focused on the female leads of his life and work. A career that features films as good as PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, BLOOD AND ROSES, LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, and WARRIOR's REST is in serious need of reappraisal.
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is one of my favorite films of one of American cinema's greatest years. It is a proudly un pc sexploitation, thriller, comedy, murder mystery whose time has come. Search it out.