“Hollywood at that time was dying. The influence of the French Nouvelle Vague and the demands made by the trade unions had between them dealt a fatal blow to the big film studios … When I started shooting ‘Pretty Maids All in a Row’ for MGM, there was not a single other film being made in any of the six main Los Angeles studios. It was a strange paradox that the only director working at that time in the legendary stronghold of the cinema was a Frenchman.” – Roger Vadim
Who loves ya baby?
Are we supposed to be rooting for Telly Savalas in Pretty Maids All in a Row? I was, and I kept hoping his Police Detective Captain Sam Surcher would catch up with and bust the picture’s hunky-anti-hero-psychopath, Rock Hudson (named Tiger) before Tiger boy could knock off yet another beautiful, nubile student he’s sleeping with (or rather, taking advantage of) in this absurdly good-looking high school. There are so many breathtaking beauties present in this Los Angeles institution, in fact, that their extreme attractiveness becomes something of a running joke for Surcher, who handles it all with Telly-Savalas-readying-for-Kojak-cool. You see, girls at this school, specifically, are being murdered, a terrifying, brutal thing (though the school principal, Roddy McDowall, seems more concerned that good cheerleaders are being wasted), and the first one was disturbingly found in the boy’s lavatory – her body face down on the toilet, a note perversely pinned to her underpants. The note reads: “So Long, Honey.”
A sensitive, sexually frustrated boy named Ponce de Leon Harper (named for the seeker of the Fountain of Youth, in case you don’t know why he’s name Ponce, and nicely played by John David Carson) discovers her as he’s in the neighboring stall, trying to take care of, uh, things. He was turned on by his gorgeous new substitute teacher, Betty Smith (Angie Dickinson) and he suffers from priapism – a nightmare for a virginal high school kid. And now here’s a dead girl (“You’d think I’d do anything else to a dead girl?” he tells the police, “Haven’t even had a live one yet.”). As he runs to McDowall’s pinched principle to inform him of the corpse, we see guidance counselor/football coach Tiger in his office, making love to a naked and willing female student. A deviant juxtaposition. Now we know something else is going on, but we already had a good idea given the movie’s ogling, boy-POV opening credits where the mere presence of girls delights and bedevils the life of Ponce. Enter bumbling, obnoxious Police Chief John Poldaski (Keenan Wynn) who blusters about, yammers on self-importantly, and upsets the crime scene and then … here arrives Telly Savalas/Surcher. He has a smooth voice and a calm disposition and a wry smile and he’s a pro. Is this going to be a serial killer story? A thriller and a romp? What on earth is this movie up to?
Surcher seems to wonder the same question as well, gaining more and more knowledge as the story rolls along, looking and learning in a movie fixed with a purposely male gaze – adolescent and middle aged and that of a surveying stalker (some of the shots look as if shot from Jimmy Stewart’s Rear Window binoculars). As Surcher interview girls about the first victim, they enter the chemistry room as if auditioning for a part in a movie, and his gaze is one that is certainly looking at them but more in an amused manner. It should be all uncomfortable sexual tension as we see them walking in (however you see them walking is often in the eye of the viewer and not the actual carriage of the actress – sway, saunter, etc.), but Surcher is old-school and, in his own way, hipper than the progressive teachers and modern kids, and so he takes on a half-mocking, paternalistic tone. When one lovely girl, Hilda, explains how kid’s her generation are freer in expressing themselves, the conversation goes:
Hilda: Was she raped, Captain?
Surcher: Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll ask the questions
Hilda: I’m surprised that embarrasses you. Well, isn’t sex involved in many of the crimes you investigate?
Surcher: Yes, now and then. Now about those boys Jill used to date. Were any of those boys in the habit of calling her … ‘Honey’?
Surcher: Alright Who?
Hilda: Oh, well probably all of them (laughs) See our generation’s not afraid of feeling affection. Or expressing it. For example, I love you.
Surcher: (sweetly mocking, then melodramatically) And I love you. And the world must learn to love one another.
Why this scene is so funny and even charming is due to Savalas’ special appeal – he’s making fun of her mumbo jumbo, albeit in a bemused manner, while not rattled by her sexuality. He’s not gulping for air or dabbing his sweaty brow or mumbling another question like a character might in another picture when faced with a distractingly sexy young woman. (Of the “Pretty Maids,” the film features Brenda Sykes, Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Joanna Cameron, Aimee Eccles, June Fairchild, Margaret Markov and Diane Sherry) But no one flusters Telly. He’s been around. He’s seen it all. And he shows her out of the room with a flourish before the next ridiculously beautiful girl enters the room. His look is one that matches ours – a sort of yet-another-one-amusement – what is with all of these gorgeous girls in this school? Did Roger Vadim have something to do with this? Oh, of course he did. He directed the film and he auditioned the actresses. As Vadim wrote in his memoir, “Memoirs of the Devil”:
“Most of the girls who applied were aspiring actresses, though some were students who merely found the whole thing amusing. For a man recovering from lovesickness [from Jane Fonda recently leaving him], this succession of young beauties should have been an excellent tonic. It was not unpleasant, of course, but I have never believed in strength in numbers. The heart has its own reasons, which good sense does not understand. I was like a man washed up on a desert island who discovers, on opening a newspaper saved from the wreck, that he has made a fortune on the stock exchange. Good for morale, but of only limited interest in his predicament.”
So, a heartbroken Roger Vadim, still stinging over the loss of Jane Fonda (off to one of her greatest performances – Bree Daniels in Klute) made a movie about an older, married man sleeping with beautiful teenage girls, only to murder them when they threaten his marriage. On a metaphorical level (Vadim, whom I’ve often defended, never seemed like a man who hated women, you can argue about his pictures – from And God Created … Woman to Barbarella – two of his best, with iconic performances by Brigitte Bardot and Fonda), this is interesting, to say the least. And the movie is interesting – for a variety of reasons – as a curious time capsule, as a movie that could not be made today, as a strange, offensive, racy youth offering from MGM in a transitional moment, as an intriguingly sinister role for a still charming Rock Hudson, and as a movie with a bizarre set of tones and messages – comic but not that funny, sexy and sick, dark and satirical, amoral and libertine but, strangely, not gleefully amoral. It’s not a romp (like How to Murder your Wife), it doesn’t have the macabre sense of humor and heart as Harold and Maude (released that same year), but it’s entertaining and unsettling in a way that makes you look into the picture for deeper meanings.
The attraction and destruction of women (literal murder here) and that their sensuality or, really, anything (girls sitting in a chair in the clothes a teenager would wear, and braless – it’s not that big of a deal unless you’ve never seen breasts) can provoke both lust and rage – that’s right on the surface here. There is no subtext. And it’s out in the open so much and with such aggressive leering, that many who want to see a fun, transgressive sex comedy often feel too disturbed by it, which is the point, I think. Also, the most obvious: that the older Hudson’s handsome hunk of man who is a football coach and a thoughtful, cool guidance counselor with a beautiful wife and an adorable kid and a lovely house on the beach – the envy of all – is not only a guy who sleeps with his students, but one who actually strangles them to death. A psycho can be anyone; indeed, it can be the man you admire most, and the film plays with one’s identification – is he the hero? Are we supposed to cheer on his transgressions? How do we feel when he murders the girls? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with this movie? Where’s Telly? He’s our moral compass.
There is also the teacher who is sleeping with Ponce (yes, Ponce will have a relationship with Betty, losing his virginity, becoming a “man,” sitting on a chocolate duck, getting an Angie Dickinson bath, etc.) and at least she isn’t going to kill him. Betty is gentle and patient and… well, this is wrong too (though I don’t think the filmmakers believe it’s wrong.) Ponce, and in many ways, Betty, are mentored by Tiger, and both are in awe of him while nervous in their own skin, reticent of him and his all-consuming charisma. Dickinson plays her character a bit insecure and lonely – there is a touching quality to her, and she and Ponce’s initial awkwardness isn’t so much playful as embarrassingly real. And Tiger’s creepiness seems to loom over everything she and Ponce do. Tiger certainly guides the future of sweet Ponce, the kid who once yelled at the Principal for valuing the dead’s girls cheerleading skills over her actual life as a person. You get the sense that by the end of the picture, Ponce will become a real … lady killer.
And killing ladies under the nose of the authorities is part of the film’s dark humor – that’s how much men think of women, that’s how much society values these girls, it seems to say. Does the film agree? Surcher doesn’t seem to, perhaps he’s a stand-in for Vadim. Tiger is getting away with these awful crimes as the Police Chief is not only clueless to his violence, but in admiration of Tiger’s conquests, and with his students. When the Chief catches Tiger at night, in his car, in the act, he only talks about the girl’s father – who is both of their dentist – and does nothing about the girl (we’re not surprised). And the Principal (McDowall, who earlier starred in the daring, masterful teen comedy Lord Love a Duck with Tuesday Weld) is more concerned with the football game or losing students with a good A or B average, than the aftermath of murder, or the loss of the girls. People in authority, teachers, police, they don’t really care.
But back to Telly/Surcher, who does care, or at least he’s doing his job correctly enough to make some kind of difference. He even spots that Tiger has likely taken off for Brazil and vows his next vacation will be there (too bad there wasn’t a Thomas Harris style sequel). As I watch this movie (and I’ve seen it three times, once with a man who said all of the girls in his high school looked like these women from the perspective of his then virginal eyes, a hormonal fever dream) I’m always awaiting Surcher’s arrival, eager for his wry humor, hip patter and the sunglasses he keeps perched on the top of his bald head (a double kind of droll gaze). Surcher knows a player when he sees one, he knows a dissipated middle-aged hipster as he’s working the same mojo. I’m not sure if Vadim and writer Gene Rodenberry (adapted from the novel by Francis Pollini, Rodenberry’s only feature film writing credit) were crafting a film for an audience that would go all in for Surcher (Team Telly, as I am), but part of the movie’s strength are these dueling older sensualists, one with a porn stash, the other attractively bald, no toupee for Telly, he’s confident in his masculinity – how far up the creep factor is one going to go? Rock goes to a ten plus psychopath. And the older Hudson is incredible here – playing a progressive alpha male with charm and menace mixed together so seamlessly, that one shivers when the sociopath peeks from his alternately sparkling, ominous eyes. He’s intimidating both as a football coach, and as a sensitive listener, but he laughs and carries on like all is OK in the world, when of course it is rotten. Surcher knows this all too well. It is rotten. Hell, even The Osmonds, who sing the movie’s theme song (written by Lalo Schifrin, the film’s composer, and Mike Charles) know this, summing up how one feels once the movie is over: “Chilly winds may blow, chilly winds they come and they go. Chilly winds may blow, oh, oh, oh. And I don’t know.”