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Female Jungle

Posted by martinteller on February 4, 2014

The rising star actress Monica Madison has been found strangled to death outside a nightclub, following the premiere of her latest picture.  Lingering nearby, still recovering from a drunken blackout, is off-duty detective Jack Stevens (Lawrence Tierney).  Stevens gets a chewing out from his captain (Cornelius Keefe) and is told to go home and sleep it off.  But Stevens can’t shake the feeling that he himself might be the killer… there’s the reports of the blonde he left the club with, the hours he can’t account for, and the mysterious cut on his arm.  Meanwhile, caricature artist Alex Voe (Burt Kaiser) gets an unusual late-night visitor: gossip columnist Claude Almstead (John Carradine), wanting his portrait done in Voe’s comic style.  But Alex gets in a fight with his wife Peggy (Kathleen Crowley) and storms out, leaving the two of them alone.  And then there’s the voluptuous vixen (Jayne Mansfield) who lives downstairs.  How do all these pieces fit together?

That’s a crummy plot summary, but the film — like many noirs — is really convoluted.  Not confusing really, just twisty and full of coincidental connections.  The resolution is rather unsatisfying, with a lengthy explanation of the events that doesn’t hold up too well under close scrutiny.  And unfortunately the problems don’t end there.  First-time director Bruno VeSota (a B-movie player who also makes a brief appearance here as a waitress’s grumpy husband) has a fairly poor grasp of editing, often inserting odd spaces at either end of a cut that disrupt the film’s flow.  Most of the supporting performances are pretty bad (especially James Kodl’s unfunny shtick as the bar owner) and Tierney isn’t being used to his strengths.  And I’d wager a good sum of money that no other script contains so many instances of the word “caricature”.  It gets to be weirdly distracting, and makes you wish someone had reached for a thesaurus.

But the movie has some unexpected strengths.  Carradine does an excellent job with a confusing role, playing it with pathos, menace or Max Von Sydow-esque gravitas as the script requires.  Tierney may not be the intimidating figure he is in more memorable parts like Born to Kill or The Devil Thumbs a Ride, but he can still carry a film.  Mansfield makes her film debut with style, oozing sexuality without coming off too much like a Marilyn imitator.  And the movie has a lot of terrific noir stylization.  Cinematographer Elwood Bredell (The Killers, Phantom Lady) bathes the screen with rich shadows, making the city truly feel like a “jungle” with figures emerging out of the darkness.  Nicholas Carras’s smoky score complements the visuals nicely.

It’s a movie that does the atmosphere so well that I hate to dock it points for the lackluster plot, rough edges and uneven acting.  Amidst the mess is a would-be classic.  For noir junkies, it’s worth hunting down.  Rating: Good (74)


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