Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Baby Love (1969)

Baby Love, released in 1969, is an overheated domestic melodrama which is notable mostly for the extraordinary debut performance by 16-year-old Linda Hayden. It’s a performance that could fairly be described as explosive.

Luci Thompson is a poor working-class 15-year-old girl until her mother Liz (played by the great Diana Dors) commits suicide. Liz’s last action is to send a letter to wealthy London doctor Robert (Keith Barron) asking him to take care of Luci. Robert and his wife Amy agree.

The big question is, why? It’s clear that Robert and Liz Thompson had a history, and that that history was both murky and messy. Robert had been in love with Liz. But he left her. We suspect that there’s a possibility that Liz was a woman who played the field. We also suspect that there’s a possibility that Liz was a prostitute. Whatever the reason, Robert had left her. But they kept in touch. Another possibility that will of course occur to the viewer is that Robert is Luci’s father, or that he suspects that there’s a chance that he’s Luci’s father.

Having moved from a working class slum into Robert and Amy’s luxurious London home Luci is a fish out of water. She has no idea how to behave in an upper middle class environment. An added complication is that, whatever her mother’s faults may have been, Luci did love her and she’s having trouble dealing with her bereavement. A further complication. Robert and Amy have a son named Nick. He’s a bit older than Luci, he’s as girl-crazy as any normal teenaged boy and he’s almost certainly a virgin.

There’s a final complication - the marriage between Robert and Amy is very very tense indeed. There’s a scene of Robert and Amy in bed together. It’s a bed so big that two people could share it without ever coming within six feet of each other. And they seem to be putting as much distance as they can between them. There’s a pretty strong implication that Robert and Amy may have an unsatisfactory, or possibly non-existent, sex life.

It’s an explosive situation and it’s not long before Luci lights the fuse.

She teases and flirts with Nick, with Robert, with Amy, with Robert’s friends and with random strangers. If teasing and flirting don’t work she’s prepared to take more drastic steps. She doesn’t have a clear game plan, she just improvises, which makes her more dangerous.

What helps the film a great deal is that Luci is a complex character. She’s both victim and schemer. Her sexuality is starting to bloom and she has no idea how to handle this without leaving a trail of devastation behind her. She’s frightened and vulnerable, and she’s a teenage sexpot who knows how to use sex to start emotional wildfires but doesn’t know how to keep those wildfires under control once she’s started them.

Linda Hayden is simply superb, giving a performance that is astonishingly ambiguous (not easy for a 16-year-old actress in her first major rĂ´le). Luci is playing dangerous games and she’s doing so consciously but given the awfulness of her life she really doesn’t know how else to survive. She’s aware that sex is the only weapon she’s got and she doesn’t have much choice other than to use it, but it’s not a weapon she can control. She’s playing games that she’s not emotionally equipped for.

Robert is complex as well. He’s very tightly wrapped. We feel that he behaved badly towards Luci’s mother but we also feel that he may have had what seemed to him at the time to be valid reasons for doing so. And at that time of his involvement with Liz Thompson he was obviously very young. In his own way he’s trying to put things right, but he’s also essentially selfish. He’s not a very sympathetic character but he is interesting and tortured.

Amy has some depth as well. Her marriage was probably a mistake. She likes Luci and genuinely wants to help her although her motivations may have something to do with the fact that she believes her husband had behaved badly.

It’s the fact that we can’t make definitive moral judgments on the characters that makes the film so interesting. They’re not fully in control of their own actions once Luci has caught her sexual spell over them, and they’re victims of their own past mistakes.

It sounds like a recipe for a sleazy exploitation movie but that’s not how it plays out. It takes its subject matter seriously and approaches it with sensitivity. On the other hand the exploitation elements are certainly there. This was 1969, a time when the boundary between exploitation cinema and serious cinema was being systematically undermined. In 1969 you could make a movie that was part exploitation potboiler, part serious emotional drama and even part sex comedy.

The mix works surprisingly well, with some fine comic scenes (such as Luci creating havoc in a dress shop) putting us off our guard and then we get some searing emotional drama and the it will switch again to almost unbearable sexual tension.

The film was very controversial (and very successful) at the time. Today it simply couldn’t get made.

Despite it’s incredibly lurid subject matter and a fair amount of nudity it doesn’t feel anywhere near as sleazy as you’d expect. It is a film about sex and by 1969 even British film-makers were realising that if you wanted to make an intelligent movie about sex you couldn’t pull your punches too much. The sexual heat in the movie is not gratuitous - it’s the core of the movie.

Network’s DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer.

Baby Love is very provocative and it will shock modern viewers (who are not accustomed to sex being tackled intelligently and honestly) even more than it shocked viewers at the time but it’s a very effective and very good film. Highly recommended.

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