Just caught up with the Cleo Moore two-fer Over-Exposed and Women’s Prison from the Columbia Bad Girls of Film Noir series. The term “film noir” gets thrown around very loosely these days, but I’m happy to accept the genre-bending if it makes obscurities available.
Over-Exposed (1956) is the keeper in this double-bill. The next-to-last film in the nine-year career of va-va-voom blonde beauty Cleo Moore, it starts with a pair of shapely legs, a promise of cheesecake to come in the tale of one woman’s rise to the top (or bottom, depending on one’s moral code) of the nightclub- and fashion-photography racket. Once upon a time, it seems, being a “flash girl” (or “Camera Queen of the Clip Joints” as the breathless trailer puts it), i.e., taking pictures of patrons at ritzy nightclubs, was a pretty lucrative gig.
The action begins with some small-town cops hustling a bunch of B-girls onto the next bus for parts unknown. Except that voluptuous Lily Krenshka (Moore) proclaims her innocence: she just arrived in this burg and didn’t know that she had signed on to work at a notorious dive. An elderly tosspot portrait photographer named Max (Raymond Greenleaf), a kind of Richard Avedon before his time, offers Lily a place to crash. She returns the favor by cleaning the studio up and promoting his business. He teaches her how to heft a lens with authority.
Eventually, Lily moves to the big city and tries to become the next Margaret Bourke White, but bumps her head on the glass ceiling at something called Allied Newspapers, although she does meet a handsome if goofy reporter named Russell (Richard Crenna with a squeaky voice). She changes her name to Lila Crane and makes a name for herself wielding her Brownie at swank niteries. She’s not above goosing her clients with the promise of after-hours trysts and even sells scandalous snaps to a weasel of a gossip columnist (James O’Rear, looking more than a little like the young Herb Caen).
Lila works her way up to high-fashion photography, becoming famous enough to appear on something called The Dialing With Diana Show, in which said Diana rings her up and gets a tour of the studio. Behind the scenes, Lila barks at her assistants like Martha Stewart in her pre-prison prime.
While Lila and Russell carry on a deeply dysfunctional love affair based entirely on mistrust and misunderstanding of each other’s motives, Lila also becomes entangled in the business of a local crime boss accused of murder. This leads to a predicament from which only Russell can rescue her just in time for a happy ending, that manages to assert the need for women to take up independent careers while at the same time finally giving in to the equal need to be paired off with a higher-income-bracket male.
The dialogue snaps nicely, particularly since everybody has something nasty to say about Lila’s Gordon Gekko predilections: “You’d use your grandmother’s bones to pry open a cash register!” and “If you saw a nickel in garbage pail, you’d stoop to pick it up.” I also liked an aside about an older man wining and dining a much younger woman: “He’s over there with his granddaughter playing hopscotch with real Scotch.”
In another notch for newspaper nostalgia, reporter Russell breathlessly explains his new position as a roving international correspondent: “I’ve got that job; they offered me more than I wanted—a blank check.” Ah, those were the days.
Over-Exposed is an odd hybrid of noir, True Confessions men’s magazine exposé and woman’s picture—complete with several inexplicable shots of Russell and Lila standing on an ocean-side cliff watching the pounding surf below, usually a clue that (1) somebody’s about to jump or (b) the director needed a handy visual emotion for surging emotions.
Moore is billed high but served up in only a few desultory scenes in Women’s Prison (1955), about the shocking fact that in the 1950s, apparently, male prisoners were housed “just a concrete wall away” from women prisoners.
Jan Sterling, Audry Totter and Phyllis Thaxter try to survive the harsh discipline dished out by femme warden Ida Lupino while pipe-smoking bleeding-heart liberal prison doctor Howard Duff keeps threatened to go to the prison board and get this black hole shut down. The film exhibits the main flaw with prison movies—male or female: you’re stuck in the prison along with the inmates.
Michael S. Gant