Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Weird Noir: THE NAKED ROAD (1959)

According to gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, William Martin's independent feature, now included in Something Weird Video's Weird-Noir collection, was inspired by an Edward R. Murrow radio report on prostitution rings operating near the advertising industry district on Madison Ave in New York City. Writing in July 1959, Kilgallen predicted that The Naked Road would "cause quite a stir" in the metropolis later that summer. This was probably the best publicity the film ever got. If it caused a stir anywhere it played, it was probably nothing a square-up reel couldn't fix. An exhibitor would have been wise to have one on hand, as Naked Road is a textbook case of delivering much, much less than a movie might promise.

The ad-industry angle consists of an agency man taking the heroine, Gay Andrews (Jeanne Rainer), out on a date, only to learn that she won't put out. Taking her home, our Mad Man is pulled over for speeding and conducted to the home of a local justice of the peace, who levies a stiff fine. Mr. Big Businessman doesn't have the ready cash, but the judge lets him go get the money, as long as Gay stays in his custody until the driver returns.

The Majesty of the Law

Hours later, another sympathetic speeder sees that Gay's been abandoned, confined to the judge's couch. Taking pity on the girl, he pays the ad guy's fine as well as his own so the girl can be let go. This Wayne Jackson (Ronald Long) takes Gay to a fancy restaurant (see below), but it soon becomes apparent that his motives are even more ulterior than those of the ad guy. Wayne intends to recruit Gay into his "public relations" racket, enticing her with a promise of $1,000 a week and threatening her with "the Treatment." Gay has a pain in her arm when she wakes up in Wayne's apartment. That pain was the first prick of the needle, the first round of the Treatment. But if she agrees to become a whore voluntarily, Wayne will spare her the horror of drug addiction.

Wayne takes his victims to the finest places.

A waiting game now begins that rivals Beckett for existential futility. Wayne and his stooge impatiently await Gay's surrender, going so far as denying her food -- though cigarettes are still okay, since they'll help her think. The threat of the Treatment always looms, and Gay finally surrenders. At this point Wayne sets up an impromptu training session, ordering Gay to show his stooge a good time. As the jazz music builds on the soundtrack, Wayne steps into the other room, and we watch him wait until Gay screams. Back in the bedroom, she's smacked the stooge in the face, and Wayne sends him away. Angrily, Wayne reminds Gay of the Treatment, but then informs her that the initial shot had only been penicillin. The waiting game resumes, and might go on forever were Wayne's stooge not caught by an eyewitness, one of Wayne's own hookers, dumping a dead girl's body out a window to simulate suicide.  Wayne rightly chides his flunky for letting someone see him, and warns him that the consequences will be dire if the girl talks -- but the thought of silencing the girl never takes root in either mind. Finally, it's only a matter of waiting for the cops to come....

After an hour or so of Naked Road,
you'll probably be ready to chuck it.

The weird thing about this would-be noir is how absolutely ineffectual its villains are. Their recruitment process for prostitutes stops short only at saying "pretty please with sugar on top" to poor Gay, whose torture by tedium can only inspire empathy from audiences who watch it, so long as they stay awake. Martin may have convinced Dorothy Kilgallen, without showing her the film, of its relevance, but Naked Road is more nearly a film about nothing.  It appears to have been filmed in people's houses, various rooms passing for offices and restaurants, apart from the closing coup de cinema, for which Martin arranged for the denouement, settling the fate of Wayne's official co-conspirators, to scroll across a New York TV station's electronic sign. If Something Weird deems it "Weird-Noir," that's in spite of Martin's effort to purge the tale of any weird vitality. I suppose there is something weird about Wayne's desultory attempts to dominate Gay, but it's dumb-weird, not weird-weird, if you appreciate the distinction. Naked Road is a truly bad movie, a celluloid void that friends and intoxicants are unlikely to redeem -- though that probably won't stop people from trying.

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