Friday, April 30, 2010


Cleo Moore quit movies early and has been largely forgotten by now, but she was kind of a big deal in her heyday. She worked hard for someone who never really broke into A pictures. While I was searching for newspaper ad art for Lewis Seiler's Over-Exposed I learned that she promoted the picture with an extensive personal-appearance tour. As a further publicity stunt, she announced a plan to run for governor of Louisiana, having once been married to a son of Huey Long. The year before, when Women's Prison came out, some territories promoted it as a Cleo Moore movie because she was going to be appearing with it, or had been in town recently enough to be a bigger draw for locals than Ida Lupino. As the box copy for Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 2 says, "Moore was often the 'bait' in movie publicity campaigns." You can see that in the Women's Prison poster art, which features her more prominently than her role warrants. Over-Exposed, meanwhile, is her own star vehicle. For all I know, it was the biggest showcase she ever got from Hollywood.

This time out Moore plays Lily Krenshka, who has the misfortune of getting arrested on her first night on the job at a clip joint. She claims that she didn't know what went on there, but the cops don't care as they warn her out of town. She flies into a rage when someone snaps her picture outside the police station, but ends up trusting the old drunk with the camera when he invites her to his apartment so he can develop the rest of the roll before surrendering her shot. The old rummy is too good to be true. He makes no advances on her, but offers to teach her his trade. She's a quick study, and soon enough she's off to the big city to earn an honest living.

Strange to report, but the wire services don't just hire people off the street without a portfolio. But Lily perseveres with the encouragement of reporter Russell Bassett (Richard Crenna) and snaps some hot pictures of a burning building. The news service buys them but won't give her a full-time job. To make ends meet, she tries commercial work and takes glamour shots of herself before ending up in one of those wonderful obsolete trades, that of the nightclub photographer, the person who immortalizes your night on the town for a fee. She makes an important contact with a gossip columnist who wants shots of whoever might be slumming at Club Bomba. When he asks her to take a compromising shot of a well-connected man, she proves a smart cookie. She uses the picture as leverage so the subject will help her land a job at the new Club Coco, a ritzier, more mobbed-up venue where the camera girls dress far more glamorously.

As Lila Crane, Lily proves a master photo-psychologist. She knows exactly what to say to manipulate people into the most flattering poses. After impressing one grand dame of high society, she rises rapidly to become a leading society and fashion photographer. All the while, Russell pleads with her to return to photojournalism, her true calling. This tension between Lily's social climbing and her alleged vocation reminded me of Irving Rapper's Bad For Each Other from Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 1. In that picture, Charlton Heston is a physician (but not a bad girl) who betrays his vocation to become a society doctor and "ghost surgeon" rather than tend to his town's needy miners. There's probably a generic term for this kind of story, but "film noir" isn't it. On the other hand, Over-Exposed takes a more positive view of professional women, for the most part, than Women's Prison did. In that film, Ida Lupino's career as a cruel prison warden is implicitly blamed on her inability to feel love the way a real woman would. In this one, the leading lady isn't condemned for having a career, but exhorted to do more challenging work. There's also a kind of gender-role reversal, as Richard Crenna comes across as the emotionally needy partner in this particular couple. He actually gets a bit annoying as he constantly lectures Lily against selling out, and when he asks her to accompany him on some global reporting tour, his ulterior motive is all too obvious.

Over-Exposed is basically a social melodrama in a film noir shell. The opening promises something more sleazy than we get for the next hour, but things get rougher in the final 20 minutes. Lily has accidentally taken a picture of Club Coco's gangland backer that could ruin his alibi for a murder. Her first impulse when she realizes what she has is to suddenly take up Russell's offer of a vacation in Maine. Once she returns, her career collapses after the gossip columnist steals a not-for-publication pic of a dowager dying on the dance floor for use in a Confidential-style rag. Blackballed by her old society patrons, who blame her for the photo's publication, she desperately decides to blackmail the gangster in order to get one more big payday. Had this been a film noir, she would have blackmailed him instantly, especially since the film has told us that money is her only interest. But since this is a social melodrama, her mercenary motives lapse into complacency, leaving her content to make a fool of herself on some Person-to-Person style TV interview show. Only when she's kicked off the social ladder does she become once more the reckless mercenary we saw in the early reels. Only this time she's in over her head. While she plans carefully and sets up safeguards to deter the gangster from killing her, she doesn't anticipate being kidnapped outside her home as she leaves for the crucial rendezvous.

What we didn't anticipate is that Russell would suddenly turn into a young Col. Trautman, single-handedly taking out a gang of gangsters to save Lily from torture or worse. This twist is pretty unconvincing, as is Lily's last-minute submission to her rescuer. You get the impression that she's giving up any kind of photography for good in order to be Russell's wife, but not his partner. It makes you think that neither Russell nor the screenwriters really meant that talk about Lily doing serious work, and it ends the movie on a sour note.

Cleo Moore was 27 when she made Over-Exposed, her penultimate film. While this is her latest appearance in Bad Girls Vol. 2, I think she looks her best here, more svelte and definitely better dressed than in her other pictures. I also think she gave a decent performance this time, despite Sony's "earnest, if stilted" estimate of her talent. She seemed to be improving as she went along, but for whatever reason, she quit the business. She died of a heart attack shortly before her 45th birthday. Bad Girls Vol. 2 is the nearest thing to a monument she's ever gotten from the movie business. For extricating her out of oblivion, it should go down as one of the most interesting DVD releases of the year.


dfordoom said...

Over-Exposed sounds like movie I should definitely check out. In fact the boxed set sounds pretty tempting.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Color me also tempted by the boxed set, and this movie. I am unfamiliar with Cleo Moore, and with gams like that, I can see it's a shame. Also, that fencing shot is six kinds of awesome. Great review!

Comment verification: "in vire." Doesn't that mean something close to "In real life"? My Latin is faulty.

Steve Eifert said...

Hi there. I was wondering if you'd be interested in letting me use this piece on Overexposed at Noir of the Week? Let me know. Of course I'd link back to your excellent site.


Samuel Wilson said...

Steve: as long as I'm duly credited I'll be honored by inclusion on your site.