Sunday, January 19, 2014

Screaming Mimi

The black-and-white B-movies of the 50's and early 60's have always been dear to my heart. There's something about the glossy monochrome cinematography and high heels/maquillage style that breathes class, yet the plotline and characters often exude sleaze. They bridge the time between noir's slightly sordid grace and exploitation's vaguely glamorous seediness. And so we have Screaming Mimi.
Strippers! Serial killers! Weird overtones of bondage, bestiality, dominance and voyeurism, not to mention all manner of insanity and a whole lesbian sideplot they don't even try to obscure. And if the glorious pulchritude of Anita Ekberg isn't enough to provoke you, there's also the wit and glitz of Gypsy Rose Lee and the swingin' sounds of the Red Norvo Trio

Screaming Mimi is based on the pulp novel of the same name by Frederic Brown.
So the film opens with our heroine, Virginia (Ekberg) rising up out of the ocean like Venus, hair streaming, bosom heaving. She immediately takes a shower in a nearby outdoor stall when -- BAM! -- an escapee from the local Hospital for the Criminally Insane jumps outta nowhere waving a knife. (Exactly the thing that you always fear will happen when you take an outdoor shower. And, yes, this does pre-date Psycho.) She screams until her brother (stepbrother, actually) rushes out of the house and shotguns the lunatic. Just like Joe Biden would.

Anyway, irony of ironies Anita herself gets locked up in the same mental hospital. She spends some time sedated and straitjacketed (That actually sounds kind of relaxing...) and then having a little talky therpy with her doctor, who insists through glassy eyes that he'll "do anything for" her.
In what is obviously a commonly accepted theraputic move, the not-so-good-doctor is now "managing" his patient in her new gig dancing in Gypsy Rose Lee's club, one of those fabulous clubs with cabaret acts and a happening band that only exists in old movies of a certain era. Not only do they have the Red  Norvo Trio, vibes and drums a-clangin', but they have singing bartenders and dancing waiters, but in a way that isn't annoying. Gypsy Rose Lee barrels though, looking svelte in sequins, boisterously exhorting customers to "Drink up! You're on an expense account and my rent is due!" Hell, make it a round for the house and doubles to boot!

Our heroine, now calling herself "Yolanda Lang" is headlining doing a sort of fetishy sleepwalk with manacles and ropes. Despite her bodacious dimensions, Ekberg is easily dominated by her Buscemi-esque Headshrinker/Svengali, who won't let her talk to anybody, but is happy to take the cash she makes writhing in front of strangers. Fucking typical. 

Here we meet our sorta hero, a reporter who covers nightlife and, as such, is quite interested in nightclub dancers. He's especially interested in Anita....

"How tall are you?"
"With heels?"
"With anybody."
Walking home after this obviously Pulitzer-quality interview, Anita is attacked by (yet another) knife-wielding psycho, but this time her loyal, giant, vicious dog runs the guy off. Then Ace Reporter fortunately shows up (he happened to be riding along with the cops, Weegee style) to handle the dog. And point out to us that there's a "ripper" slashing blonde burley dancers. Blonde burley dancers who all seem to own the same tchotchke of a screaming woman, the "Screaming Mimi" of the title.
 Ace Reporter chases the statue around for a while, as we drum our fingers on the armrest and wonder when someone's going to remember that Joe Biden Stepbrother is a sculptor. So we watch him dick around, groping toward the obvious. The highlight of this is a visit to Gypsy Rose Lee's sleek mid-century pad, where she drinks cocktails in a fur-trimmed hostess gown while the teenage cigarette girl she obviously keeps dances around in ponytail and fishnets. If that wasn't wild enough, it's made pretty clear that Gypsy and Jailbait have been not just banging, but kicking the gong around as well, as indicated by Ace Reporter's comment on the smell and Gypy's blase, "A maiden lady aunt of mine just visited San Francisco, brought me some incense. From Chinatown."

"How's your psychosis today?"
"I just came up for a little gin and... sympathy."
Gypsy Rose Lee dons her beaded fringe gown (the one Dita Von Teese recently bought at auction) and shimmies through a rather tepid "But the Blame on Mame." One sees a flash of what made her great during the vibe solo, when she forgets the "singing" and displays her flair for flipping her fringe and her fox fur. Afterward this bunch of gorgeous swingers in their posh club have a party with cake and barbershop quartets. Ekberg ducks out, later to hook up with Ace Reporter -- their love scene, lit by the alternating brilliance and darkness of a neon sign is a clever and stylish, yet touching piece of cinematography. Creepy obsessive Ace Reporter is marginally better than creepy, obsessive Headshrinker but, either way, the amount of hairgrease that these guys wear alone should have set off red flags for even a chick playing with a half a deck.
Headshrinker keeps menacing Anita -- "You want to go back to being locked in a cell?!... You're nothing without me!" Little tchotchke statues come and go, various story twists and gaping plot holes, disconcerting moments and lovely tableaux. Ekberg isn't the best actress, but she is supposed to be foreign and somewhat out of it, which neatly covers her shortcomings. This is apparently the film that Fellini saw that inspired him to cast her in La Dolce Vita and one can see why: She has the lauded "flesh impact" of other movie bombshells, although on a slightly larger scale. As Dashiell Hammett said in Red Harvest, "it was like someone set out to paint a picture of a beautiful woman and ended up with a mural."
The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography (photographed by four-time Oscar nominee Burnett Guffey) and hip, vibe-heavy jazz soundtrack give Screaming Mimi a polish that other sexploitation flicks lack. But while the gloss on top may have a bit of the A, the confusing plot, seedy milieu, sleazy menfolk and erratic performances place it firmly among the Bs. Screaming Mimi is a throwback to glamorous, subtext-heavy noir that also looks forward to the psychological exploitation flicks and Giallos of the next decade.

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