vt Playgirl After Dark
UK / 93 minutes / color / Wigmore, ABPC, Warner-Pathé Dir: Terence Young Pr: C.P. Hamilton Marshall Scr: Herbert Kretzmer Story: Harry Lee (idea) Cine: Otto Heller Cast: Jayne Mansfield, Leo Genn, Carl Boehm (i.e., Karlheinz Böhm), Danik Patisson, Christopher Lee, Kai Fischer, Patrick Holt, Martin Boddey, Sheldon Lawrence, Barbara Windsor, John Salew, Tom Bowman, Ian Fleming, Penny Morrell, Katherine Keeton, Susan Denny, Judy Bruce, Elizabeth Wilson, Shari Khan, Bill McGuffie, Michael Balfour, Larry Taylor, June Elvin, Morton Lowry, Martin Sterndale, Harry Lane, Robin Chapman.
Gentleman Johnny Solo (Genn) runs the upscale Pink Flamingo strip club in London’s Soho, directly across the road from the Diamond Horseshoe, the joint run by his main rival, Diamonds Dinelli (Lawrence). Johnny’s right-hand man is Novak (Lee); his both-hands woman and chief “exotic dancer” goes under the name of Midnight Franklin (Mansfield), although he often joshingly calls her Twelve O’Clock.
Today he’s hired two new strippers, the schoolteacher-like Marjorie Adams (Denny) and the naive, manifestly underage Stephanie Swanson (Windsor, later to be the bubbly little sexpot in countless Carry On movies), who soon decides that her stage name should be Pony Tail. He also agrees to let a French journalist, Robert Jouvel (Boehm)—wrongly called “Jouvet” in the closing credits—hang around the club for a few days for the purpose of writing an article for a Paris magazine.
Robert (Carl Boehm) does his best to ignore the rear of Midnight (Jayne Mansfield) . . .
. . . but is captivated by Lilliane (Danik Patisson) in rehearsal.
Robert is instantly much taken with one of the strippers, the mysterious Austrian dancer Lilliane Decker (Patisson), who has a touch of tragedy in her eyes and is clearly running from something or someone, because she throws a tantrum when Robert’s photographer, Flash Gordon (Bowman), tries to take a picture of her. She also, unlike all the other strippers with the arguable exception of Jungle (Khan), is a fairly accomplished dancer. This is no accident: Patisson, who was in real life French rather than Austrian, trained early as a dancer before opting for modeling and the screen. She appeared in a number of minor French noirs, including L’Accident (1963), which is slated for treatment here at some stage.
The treacherous Novak (Christopher Lee).
But back to the Pink Flamingo. Dinelli appears one day in Johnny’s office with a threatening telegram he claims to have received. Johnny gives him fairly short shrift—after all, why should he care if someone’s trying to extort his rival?—but his tune changes next morning when he finds the villains have broken in through his office window and used a hatchet to fasten to his desk a note demanding £500.
How to make sure people get the message.
The instructions for the dropoff of the money are conveyed to Johnny over the phone, and the dropoff scene itself is quite adroitly managed. As Midnight loiters with the dosh on the pavement (sidewalk) outside Lambeth Palace, watched by Johnny, Novak, Dinelli and others, two obviously suspicious characters drive up. But the real bagman (Chapman) has disguised himself as a vicar and joined a pack of tourists being guided around the sights of London by Michael Balfour. He grabs the briefcase with the money and bolts to the side of the river, where a powerboat is waiting. One rather wishes some of the Flamingo’s acts could have been as well orchestrated.
Novak (Christopher Lee) looks extremely unobtrusive outside Lambeth Palace.
Midnight (Jayne Mansfield) looks girlishly unobtrusive on someone’s lap.
We’ve already found out that Novak is betraying Johnny to Dinelli, as is Johnny’s major investor, Mr. Arpels (Boddey, in a neatly sleazy performance), who’s accustomed to using the strippers as his own informal supply of call girls. Eventually, after a gang of thugs invades the Flamingo one night and beats Johnny up and he receives a further extortion attempt, Johnny works it out too, and swears a vicious revenge. By then he’s effectively pimped out the underage Pony Tail to Mr. Arpels. Unknown to Johnny as he sits in wait for Novak, murder in mind, Arpels—whose sexual tastes are decidedly sadistic—is discovering that Pony Tail is a more innocent girl than he imagined, and, enraged by her resistance, strangles her.
Arpels (Martin Boddey) kills Pony Tail in a fit of sadistic fury.
The stage is set for Inspector West of the Yard (Holt) to arrive at the club and start the demolition of Johnny’s little empire and his relationship with Midnight.
I did cover this movie in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir, but only cursorily on the grounds that really it’s just an exploitationer dressed up in noirish guise and otherwise has few redeeming features. However, on learning this morning of Christopher Lee’s death I thought it might be fitting to rewatch it and treat it in a little more detail.
And I’m glad I did so. It’s still a fairly bad movie, but not as unmitigatedly so as I’d recalled. Windsor and Lee affect American accents for some reason that’s opaque to me; we are, let’s remember, in early-1960s London. Genn is hopelessly miscast as the seedy strip club owner; a couple of brief digressions attempt to explain him as an army officer demobbed without a shilling after the war and who’s had to fight his way up tooth-and-claw to where he now is, but the explanation doesn’t really wash because he’s still the same old cuddly Leo Genn we know from his other movies, and his snarl is more a teddy bear’s than a tiger’s. He’s also miscast as the paramour of Mansfield; they make the oddest of couples, and the brief scene of snoggery between them that we see seems like something done as a stunt for Comic Relief.
Leo Genn and Jayne Mansfield — a match made in Surbiton?
Mansfield herself was only in her (later) mid-twenties at the time she made Too Hot to Handle, but it’s generally agreed that the movie marked the start of her plummet from the superstardom she’d earlier enjoyed. Curiously, she seems to be trying to act far older—maybe forty?—than her natural age, and this makes her onscreen presence quite confusing here. She must have actually been pregnant with her third child, Zoltan, while making the movie, and certainly her figure comes across as that of a more mature woman. On the other hand, in her act she often behaves much younger, and some of this leaks through into her off-stage persona.
A couple of the Flamingo acts are quite well staged, despite my snarky remark above. Lilliane is given an interesting dance as a sort of primitive maiden awaiting sacrifice to a beastly ancient god (it looks just like someone out of the Flamingo’s audience); the staging is elaborate enough, with rainfall an’ all, that one wonders how on earth it was supposed to be put on in a Soho strip club. Overall, though, the acts—including even Mansfield’s own song numbers—lack the flair and pizazz that a bit more money in the budget might have been able to effect. They also suffer greatly from the fact that, despite there being all sorts of shock–horror conniptions at the time over how risque this movie was, no one is allowed to take anything very much off. The audience of ghastly old men might well go wild at the supposed raunchiness (Playboy published some stills from this movie of Mansfield, who’d been a 1955 Playmate of the Month), but even in 1960 you’d likely have seen women on the average beach wearing less than the strippers here wear at their nakedest. It’s tempting to come out with the easy snidery that this is a T&A movie without any T&A—tempting, because fairly accurate.
But those are all the reasons why Too Hot to Handle is a bad or at best mediocre movie. There are some good things, too. Among the best of them is Patisson, who seems to have strayed in from another, far better movie. Luckily she’s paired much of the time with Boehm, likewise a more than competent actor, so the disparity isn’t too obvious. There are some nice bits of staging, too; I’ve mentioned the orchestration of the dropoff, but equally good are the sudden arrival in Johnny’s darkened office of a quartet of thugs, their faces masked by stockings, and the murder of foolish little Pony Tail.
Thugs invade the Flamingo.
And sometimes the screenplay takes flight. Here’s Midnight trying to dissuade Pony Tail from “going to dinner” with Arpels, who’s persuaded the girl he has contacts in the movie business and can give her career a rocket launch:
Midnight: “There’s not enough milk of human kindness around here to fill a baby’s bottle, but there is a little.”
. . .
Ponytail: “I mean, what future has a girl got [where I came from]?”
Midnight: “Future? I’ve seen a hundred girls go out those doors with creeps who called themselves producers, impresarios and the rest. Little Mr. Fixits, all of them. Some of the girls came back with promises as long as a slide trombone. One came back with a baby. Some of them never came back at all. But nobody ever came back with a future.”
The fresh-faced Pony Tail (Barbara Windsor) can’t believe anyone might want to do bad things to her.
Although it’s not the most original piece of dialogue in the world, there’s many a fiction writer who’d have been happy to capture that sense of hardboiled wistfulness. In other places it doesn’t work nearly as well, as when Johnny waxes philosophical on his own place in the scheme of things:
“You see how it is, Mr. Jouvel? You just can’t keep them all away. Nurses, models . . . even schoolteachers. Housewives by the dozen. All in line to take their clothes off. Psychological, I call it.”
So really he’s not someone exploiting women with his club and his occasional near-pimping, he’s someone performing a kindly service for all those women who want to take their clothes off in front of a drooling, cat-calling horde of pot-bellied, middle-aged, drunkenly appreciative bottom-grabbers. And I have a bridge to sell you.
There are some good one-liners, too, as when Dinelli says to Midnight: “That’s a very nice dress you’ve nearly got on.”
Midnight (Jayne Mansfield) wonders if she should tell Johnny of Novak’s perfidy; the scripters did a moderately good job of explaining why this might be a dilemma for her.
The movie’s title, Too Hot to Handle, is the same as that of Midnight’s trademark song; it’s a surprisingly good song—the movie’s music is generally pretty good. One oddity is that Too Hot to Handle was apparently made in color and shown thus on first release; I’ve only ever seen it in bw, which is the way it was released to TV, VHS and DVD. Watching it today, it’s hard to imagine how it would work in color; perhaps the decision to decolorize was taken for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps in an attempt to beef up its meager film noir credentials.
The original US poster was a masterpiece of subtle nuance.
This was hardly Lee’s finest hour; on the other hand, because of his stated policy of acting in any movie that’d produce a reasonably paycheck, Lee had plenty of less-than-finest hours—surprisingly many for such an accomplished actor. He appeared in a few noir and borderline-noir movies; of these, I cover the following in the encyclopedia:
- CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS (1948)
- PAUL TEMPLE RETURNS (1952; vt Bombay Waterfront)
- ALIAS JOHN PRESTON (1956), perhaps his only noir proper
- TRAITOR, THE (1957; vt The Accursed)
- FORTUNE IS A WOMAN (1957; vt She Played with Fire)
- TASTE OF FEAR (1961; vt Scream of Fear)
- DIAGNOSIS: MURDER (1975)
Amazon has this on DVD as Too Hot To Handle. On the other hand, Amazon never (despite promises) sends me money for recommendations from this site (somehow I never make the monthly quota), so if I were you I’d go to Jimbo Berkey’s site and download a fairly adequate (not wonderful) copy of this public domain movie for nuffink.