Thursday, November 19, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM: VIOLATED! (1953)




Violated! looks at times like the work of rank amateurs. This feature, the first from a fledgling company called Panther Productions, shot on location in various New York neighborhoods, starring some of the stiffest performers you’ve ever seen, vanished almost as soon as it was released on December 11, 1953. Yet, if you saw it, you’d swear there was a good movie inside this bad one, a movie that despite being mired in unprofessionalism has a pulse and personality distinctly its own.

It’s the story of a serial murderer, a deranged photographer named Jan Verbig, played by Wim Holland as a rubbery faced maniac. He invites burlesque dancers to his studio and takes art shots of them. He’s not without talent, and the subjects like his pictures. Of course, he falls in love with the girls; when they don’t return his sticky overtures he offs them with a pair of scissors. Then, he cuts their hair off. He likes the hair.

Verbig has no trouble luring models to his Greenwich Village studio. He seems worldly, dresses well, and has a slight accent, like he might be Bela Lugosi’s nephew. The first time we see him, he’s sweet-talking a young modeling student into posing for him. She’s soon asking her mom, “How would you like to be the mother of a cover girl?”

Verbig has his eye on bigger prey, though. He’s been shooting pics of Lili Damar, played by real life stripteaser Lili Dawn, and hopes the photos will win her over. Like the others, Lili isn’t interested. She says something along the lines of “Keep your dirty hands off me you no good stinking creep,” which is enough to send him back to the studio for his trusty scissors.

Like a wolf tasting blood, Verbig can’t stop killing once he’s started. He’s soon jumping out from the bushes in Central Park to attack women.

The police, meanwhile, are interviewing every pervert and weirdo that has ever been busted in New York, and meeting with a local psychiatrist who specializes in said perverts and weirdoes. Doctor Jason (played with peculiar √©lan by Jason Niles who was, according to some early press releases, an actual psychiatrist playing the role under an assumed name) is not only an expert on hair fetishists, but is handy with the occasional bromide, such as “It’s not the darkness of prison that cures, it’s the light of understanding.” The cops just want to break some heads.

As for the young woman Verbig met early in the film, we see her at home reading newspaper stories about “the ripper,” and still dreaming of her future as a model. As we might expect, she’s eventually in the embrace of Verbig. “You have such nice hair,” he says. But just as she pulls away in horror, the cops bust in. They soon have Verbig on the floor, thrashing around like a wounded, rabid animal. The scene of Verbig’s capture, which followed an intense late night chase through the streets of the city, is so realistic that it’s disturbing, as if Holland took it upon himself to make this cut-rate crime story into something memorable. He did.

Violated! was filmed on the cheap, with a handful of actors who moved through their scenes with the liveliness of wooden Indians, but there’s something here to be appreciated. The brooding guitar score, for instance, was by jazz legend Tony Mottola. I imagine he was going for the sort of jagged, abrasive sound of Anton Karas' zither in The Third Man theme, which had come out two years earlier. At times Mottola plucks at two alternating strings, creating the rhythm of a clock, or a heartbeat. His jarring chords could be the noise in Verbig’s head.

What fascinates me about Violated! is the way it straddles the line between low budget exploitation and film noir, sitting awkwardly between both styles. The cops in Violated! are not troubled men, as they might be in a noir film. Instead, they’re grim, with no apparent personal lives. Verbig, though, is as odd and multi-layered as some of Peter Lorre’s great characters, particularly resembling Lorre’s child killer in M. Also, the movie is daring enough to show its villains in a somewhat sympathetic light. I especially liked the deviants at the first police roundup. They look like beaten men, worn down by their own filthy minds. You wouldn’t find a worse looking group of losers in a Fritz Lang movie.

The film’s reception in 1953 was uneven. Understandably, critics picked at the film’s flimsy look, the bad acting, and the unsavory subject matter. Brooklyn Eagle reviewer Jane Corby wrote that the film “lacks the professional touch and most of the cast seem unfamiliar with their roles.” As for Holland, Corby felt his performance as Verbig was “too repellent for the entertainment screen.” Meanwhile, a Buffalo Courier critic called the film a “violent shocker,” but applauded its social message that “psychopaths are at large in real life” and deserved “better facilities for their care.”

The film does, in its way, reach for something that was slightly beyond its grasp, namely, a last scene mea culpa where Verbig is given truth serum and then regresses to his childhood. Holland weeps and writhes as he recalls a traumatic moment involving his parents. It feels a bit pat, but it’s a challenging scene. Here’s an amateur film crew making a commercial thriller about a lurid subject, and they’re trying to explain the killer’s twisted motives. The concept of the “sex maniac” was gaining traction as a national scourge, and here’s a screenplay dipping naively into Krafft-Ebing and Freud, explaining the killer as having been wounded by a painful upbringing. It doesn’t really add to the film, but there’s something noble about the scene. Holland, incidentally, was the film’s co-producer, and may have had some input into portraying Verbig as pathetic, and not entirely evil.

He never acted again or produced another film, but Holland put everything into his maiden effort. He showed his chutzpah when a newspaper strike occurred during the week of the film’s debut. Rather than suffer a loss of advertising, Holland stood in the middle of Times Square handing out flyers. The handbill said, “Did you get a good look at the man who just handed you this? You don’t know him now, but after Dec 11, he will be the most despised man in town.” Rightfully so, Holland was proud of his work and wanted people to see it. His sprint through the city with the police on his trail is incredibly effective, the look on his face one of absolute fear and shame. Few killers on film have been portrayed with their self-loathing so close to the surface. I’d compare his performance to Andrew Robinson’s turn as the killer in Dirty Harry.

The movie’s budget hurts it, but the film can be looked at now as an exercise in guerilla filmmaking, with many shots taken on the fly at various New York locations. Passersby wander into shots, almost glancing at the camera. It’s as if Panther Productions was so strapped they couldn’t even afford a fourth wall. Yet, cinematographer Pat Rich and director Walter Strate occasionally go in for a camera angle that is downright expressionistic; for a moment you’re fooled into thinking this is an actual noir film with German expats at the helm. But then the actors start talking, and everything turns to shit.
Only producer William Mishkin, who co-wrote the script with Holland, continued in the business. Staying true to his exploitation roots, he spent the next two decades producing soft porn and horror flicks, including a few collaborations with seventies low budget horror maven Andy Milligan (The Man With Two Heads; The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!).

As for the rest of the cast, most never worked again. Lili Dawn, of course, appeared in some of Irving Klaw’s 8MM fetish films, but she was no Bettie Page. Mitchell Kowall and William Martel, the main investigators, continued acting in movies and television, though they weren’t much more convincing than the rest of the unknown cast. And where did these unknowns come from? I imagine some were friends of the filmmakers, and others were plucked from the Greenwich Village neighborhood where much of the filming was done.

I always wonder about the people who appeared in films like this one. What did they think of the finished product? Did they just do it for fun? Did they know it was about a killer hair fetishist? Did they care? Was the allure of being in a movie so strong that they’d do it regardless of the subject, even if they risked becoming the most despised people in town?







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