Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Flesh is Weak (1957)

The Flesh is Weak is a 1957 British production which seems on the surface like it’s going to be a lurid expose of the prostitution racket in England. And it is quite daring by the standards of the time. It has perhaps some very slight claim to be a film noir, or at least a film likely to be of interest to noir fans due to its fairly gritty approach to its subject matter.

Marissa (Milly Vitale) is just the latest in a long line of innocent girls ensnared by vice racketeer Tony Giani (John Derek) and his brother Angelo (Martin Benson). Marissa has only been in London a few days when she is offered a job as a hostess in a club. One of the patrons starts to get a bit too sleazy with her and she is rescued just in time by a handsome white knight. He will take her away from such sordid surroundings. He offers her fun and romance. He’s a terribly nice guy and of course Marissa falls for him. There’s only one slight problem. They can’t get married until his divorce comes through.

Yes, it’s the oldest line in the book and Marissa falls for it. In fact her handsome and sensitive white knight is Tony Giani and he’s a pimp. He’s persuaded her to take the bait and now he’s reeling her in.

Lloyd Buxton (William Franklyn) has been taking a particular interest in the activities of the Giani brothers. He’s a journalist and he’s working on a book. He wants to uncover the truth behind the vice racket but to do that he has to persuade the girls to talk to him, and that is easier said than done. The girls know that talking to cops or reporters is something that is likely to be very bad for their health. 

There’s little the police can do, since it’s impossible to make any charges stick as long as the girls are unwilling to talk. It’s slightly unusual for a 1950s British crime movie to portray the police as completely impotent and not overly interested.

Tony Giani believes in taking his time before putting a girl to work. He spends weeks grooming them, sweet-talking them and making sure the fall in love with him, and then he uses some ingenious emotional manipulation to persuade them that they’re actually doing it for love. The idea is to get them to be entirely willing recruits to prostitution.

Tony’s grooming of Marissa occupies a very large chunk of the film and I must confess that I found that it stretched credibility a bit. No-one could possibly be as dumb as Marissa. No-one could be that innocent. I also found it a bit difficult to buy the idea of Marissa as a completely innocent victim. After all she believed that Tony was married but she was quite willing to start an affair with him (and the movie makes it very plain that they are sleeping together). So she was quite happy with the idea of stealing another woman’s husband, but then we’re supposed to believe she’s as pure as the driven snow. To my way of thinking this movie is a bit too determined to portray the girls as totally innocent victims, bearing no responsibility whatsoever for their own actions, to an extent that isn’t quite believable.

In other words it’s a bit like so many of those awful American social problem movies of the same era, presenting a simplistic good vs evil view and emotionally manipulating the viewer into accepting that simplistic view.

Lee Vance’s screenplay is somewhat plodding. Director Don Chaffey does his best but he is unable to inject any real suspense or sense of urgency into the proceedings. A major problem is that the characters we’re supposed to feel sympathy for are extremely annoying. Lloyd Buxton is a typical do-gooder. Yes he is doing the right thing but he’s terribly earnest and he’s a bit of a bore. Marissa is difficult to take seriously, for the reasons I alluded to above.

John Derek as Tony is the movie’s saving grace. He really is incredibly charming and incredibly sinister and slimy all at the same time. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance and although he’s the chief villain he’s a lot of fun. 

The other characters are all clichés. There’s Freda Jackson as Trixie, the whore with a heart of gold. There’s Angelo, a generic gangster figure. There’s Shirley Ann Field as Susan, another of the girls who is almost as unbelievably dumb as Marissa.

OK, maybe I’m a hard-hearted cynic, but I just didn’t buy the premise of this movie and (apart from Tony) I just didn’t buy the characters. I didn’t care what happened to Marissa because I didn’t believe in her.

This is a message movie and that’s always a red flag. It’s trying so hard to be hard-hitting and sensitive and non-sensationalistic. Actually if they’d made it as an out-and-out exploitation movie it would probably have had more impact. 

Although there’s no nudity or actual sex scenes the fact that it’s absolutely up-front about the fact that Giani’s girls are prostitutes gave it considerable shock value at the time and it was a major hit.

The Flesh is Weak has been released on an all-region DVD by Odeon Entertainment in the UK. It’s a pretty good transfer.

I was decidedly underwhelmed by The Flesh is Weak. I can’t really recommend this one.

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