Saturday, May 16, 2020

Kitten with a Whip (1964)

Kitten with a Whip is a very underrated 1964 juvenile delinquent melodrama which was a perfect star vehicle for the always awesome Ann-Margret.

David Stratton (John Forsythe) is a rising politician with senatorial aspirations. His wife and daughter are out of town at the moment. That doesn’t mean David has been up to no good while they’ve been away. David’s idea of a wild time is a round of golf. And with his political ambitions he is ultra-sensitive to even the slightest breath of scandal (this was 1964). So he’s a little bit disturbed one morning when he glances into his five-year-old daughter’s bedroom and finds a 17-year-old girl fast asleep in the bed. A very attractive blonde 17-year-old girl in a torn nightdress. The girl is Jody (Ann-Margret) and she has a good explanation. She had to run away from home because her mother’s drunken boyfriend tried to get her into bed and being a good girl and being very protective of her virtue well naturally she had to get away. It was just pure good luck that she found David’s front door open. Well actually it was a window and she had to break in but she was really scared and what else could a poor innocent girl do?

For a politician David is rather naïve. He swallows Jody’s story hook, line and sinker. Of course he will try to help the poor girl. He buys her a new dress, gives her some money and puts her on a bus. He’s now feeling very pleased with himself. He handled the situation adroitly and he helped a damsel in distress.

So it comes as a shock some time later in the golf club when he sees the TV news and discovers that Jody actually broke out of Juvenile Hall after stabbing the matron (who may well die). Still he can console himself with the thought that Jody is now on a bus so it’s not his problem. Therefore it’s more than disconcerting when he gets back home and there’s Jody, clad only in a bath towel. Of course she has another really good explanation ready to go. David’s not falling for her line this time. He’s going to call the police. At least that what he intends to do until Jody informs him that if he does she’s going to cry rape.

At this point David starts to know how a trapped animal feels. Jody is an adorable kitten but she’s holding the whip and she won’t hesitate to use it.

David’s problems have only just begun. He’s about to take a roller-coaster ride and there’s no getting off. Jody’s friends turn up, there’s a knifing and eventually the crazy circus that David’s life has become ends up in Tijuana where the roller-coaster is going to stop but will there be any survivors?

Writer-director Douglas Heyes is better remembered for his television work. He was responsible for some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. The film was shot in black-and-white which works, nicely enhancing the B-movie feel.

While this is a juvenile delinquent movie it’s not one of those ultra-cheap Z-grade movies of that genre that enjoyed such a vogue in the 50s. Kitten with a Whip is a lot more slick and polished. It was made by Universal with a reasonable budget. It’s an odd hybrid - it has the camp and even kitsch qualities of a typical juvenile delinquent movie combined with high production values and a very good cast.

The first half of the movie is high camp outrageousness and it’s also very funny. There is some dazzlingly bizarre dialogue. Then the game becomes more dangerous. It’s still outrageously camp but with more and more of a film noir sense of impending doom. But you can never be sure if it’s going to end in tragedy or farce.

Kitten with a Whip is based on Wade Miller’s 1959 novel of the same title which I reviewed here.

Some elements of the novel certainly had to be softened for the film version. In the book David sleeps with Jody and there’s always a touch of lust mixed with his bewilderment and mounting horror of the train wreck that Jody is making of his life. That element is eliminated in the film. An aspiring senator having sex with an under-age girl was not something you were going to get away with in a major studio production in 1964. The surprising thing is that apart from that the movie is a reasonably faithful adaptation and even the ending is pretty close to the feel of the book’s ending.

John Forsythe was a good casting choice. He plays David as a decent kind of guy who’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud and a bit naïve. Forsythe nicely captures David’s sheer bewilderment. He’s like a deer caught in the headlights. He has never met a girl like Jody and didn’t even know such girls existed. He has absolutely no idea what to do. We can’t really despise him. He’s too fundamentally decent. But we can’t quite respect him - he’s too helpless. Forsythe’s performance might seem stilted and colourless to some but he’s playing a guy whose whole life is stilted. He’s a politician. He’s as phoney as Jody.

Ann-Margret pulls out all the stops. She was a competent actress but not exactly subtle. Fortunately subtlety is not required here. What she does manage to do is to make Jody convincingly complex and unpredictable. Jody doesn’t have enough self-awareness to be truly evil. She’s more like a wild animal, frightening because she herself doesn’t know what she’s going to do next, or why. But there is an edge of cruelty. She’s a wild animal but with enough human cunning to be much more dangerous. And she has zero capacity for comprehending the harm she can do. She’s a cat playing with a mouse and David is the mouse.

Critics have generally entirely missed the point of Ann-Margret’s performance. They have complained that while it’s fun it’s too histrionic and artificial and fails to be convincingly real. But that is exactly the point of it. Jody has no understanding whatsoever of real human emotions. All she can do is mimic actual feelings. Jody emotes the way she sees people in movies and on TV emote. She is entirely artificial. We do eventually realise that there’s a real person in there somewhere but Jody herself never realises this. Jody can’t tell the truth because she doesn’t know what it is. She can’t project real feelings because she’s never developed any. She just switches back and forth from one rôle to another, from one piece of make-believe to another. Ann-Margret captures this perfectly. I doubt if any other actress could have played this rôle. They would almost certainly have made the mistake of trying to be real. Ann-Margret does not make that mistake. She is histrionic and artificial but it’s not bad acting, it’s the right acting for the part. Whether this was consciously her intention or whether it was just pure luck doesn’t matter. Her performance is perfect.

Kitten with a Whip is deliriously over-the-top but while it’s often dismissed as a so-bad-it’s-good movie that’s not quite fair. It’s consciously and deliberately over-the-top but that’s the only way it was going to work. Had it tried to play things straight it could have been a dreary Social Problem movie instead of the delightful feast of fun and kitsch with a dash of noir that it turned out to be. It’s obviously a must-see for Ann-Margret fans but it’s also amazingly entertaining. Highly recommended.

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