Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Female Jungle (1955)

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Female Jungle is a grimy little low-budget 1955 crime movie with a distinctly noir atmosphere to it.

Fast-rising Hollywood starlet Monica Madison is found dead outside a bar, a bar that seems a bit too down-market to be one of her regular haunts. Also drinking at the bar that night was off-duty cop Detective-Sergeant Jack Stevens (Lawrence Tierney). Stevens’ problem is that he’s had one of his presumably regular alcoholic blackouts and he can’t remember a thing that happened during the course of the evening. Since the murder was committed during the period of the blackout he’s understandably a trifle concerned.

Detective-Sergeant Duane (Rex Thorsen) is assigned to the case. Stevens offers to help him out, but what he really wants to find out is what he himself was doing during those hours that preceded the murder.

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Also mixed up in the case are Alex Voe (Burt Kaiser) and Claude Almstead. Voe is a failed artist who ekes out a living drawing caricatures of customers at the bar. One of his caricatures will emerge as a vital piece of evidence. Almstead (John Carradine) is a gossip columnist who was responsible for launching Monica Madison’s career. He’d also established himself as her lover although it appears that she wasn’t exactly the faithful type and that she was tiring of the affair now that her career had started to take off.

There’s also Candy Price (Jayne Mansfield). She’s been having affairs with both Alex Voe and Detective-Sergeant Stevens. And Alex Voe’s wife Peggy also gets involved. After Claude Almstead invites himself back to the Voes’ apartment at 2 a.m. Peggy and Alex have a fight, Alex walks out, and Peggy and Almstead set off for a night on the town.

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As you may have gathered, the plot is rather involved and offers a multiplicity of suspects.

Actor Burt Kaiser provided the story and co-wrote the screenplay with director Bruno VeSota, for Kaiser’s own production company. Unfortunately the screenplay is at times a bit on the muddled side and certainly stretches credibility, although to be fair Hollywood starlets have been known to get themselves mixed up with low-lifes and losers and become the victims of blackmail, as happens to Monica Madison.

This film marked Jayne Mansfield’s film debut, albeit in a supporting role. She’s the femme fatale of the piece. Candy clearly has a healthy appetite for men. She doesn’t seem to much care who she ends up with, as long as she ends up with someone. Mansfield was an  underrated actress who gave some good performances in this type of movie, and she’s effective in this one.

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Lawrence Tierney gives a typical Tierney tough guy performance while John Carradine is excellent as the suave but slightly slimy and vaguely sinister gossip columnist.

The entire action of the movie takes place over a few hours in the middle of the night. The characters are people who rarely venture into the sunlight anyway. They’re all creatures of the night, giving the movie a very seedy and very noir feel. The story might not be particularly noir, but the environment is definitely noir.

This is a movie from a minor independent outfit so it doesn’t have the production values associated with B movies made by the major studios in the 40s and early 50s. But low budgets, cheap sets and a generally tawdry atmosphere can be a positive asset to a film like this, and Elwood Bredell’s gritty cinematography captures the perfect mood of sleazy alcohol-fueled nightlife. The movie was later re-released as The Hangover, a title that neatly nails the mood of the film.

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The Region 2 DVD from an outfit called Direct Video offers an acceptable if hardly pristine transfer. Luckily this is the sort of movie that is actually enhanced by a less-than-stellar transfer.

Female Jungle has its flaws, especially in the script department, but it’s a nicely moody crime film that film noir fans should certainly enjoy. Recommended.

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