Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Exploitation movies are usually pretty singleminded affairs. Sure, the advertising may promise one thing while the film itself delivers another, but that's still usually one particular thing. You don't normally see an exploitation picture with as profoundly split a personality as Charles Haas's Beat Generation. It appears to have started out as a screenplay by the late Richard Matheson. That screenplay, from what we see in the final film, was a noirish affair about a misogynist cop whose wife is victimized by a serial rapist. The cop (Steve Cochran) is on his second marriage, the first having ended badly. The first wife was a tramp, it seems, and three years on vice detail has only hardened Dave Culloran's attitude toward women. We see that in his surly, skeptical interview with a victim of the so-called "Aspirin Kid." The second Mrs. C. (Fay Spain) complains that Dave interrogates rather than talks to her. The rape strains their marriage to the breaking point. The worst part of it is that Culloran unwittingly set his wife up for the rapist. He'd given a ride to the hospital to a man he'd grazed with his car, and this observant fellow (Ray Danton) learned Culloran's address from papers on the car seat. Also learning that Culloran is a cop investigating the rape spree, he calls the detective (during a lineup of possible suspects) and announces his intent to surrender at a certain location. Instead of going there, he goes to the Culloran house, using his usual m.o. (he owes $10 to the man of the house; he has a headache and needs a glass of water with his aspirin) he brutalizes the housewife. Afterward, Dave can't help wondering why his wife let the stranger in. When he learns that she's pregnant, he freaks out further and freezes toward her.

Meanwhile, the Aspirin Kid, who uses several names but most often calls himself Arthur Garrett, tracks down Art Jester (Jim Mitchum), one of the lineup suspects. Figuring that he saved Jester from arrest by phoning when he did, "Garrett" figures that Jester owes him something. To distance himself further from the detectives, and to keep Jester in play as a suspect, he orders him to find and rape a woman using the Aspirin Kid m.o. The attempt is blackly comic in Jester's nervous ineptitude. The comedy is compounded by the willingness of Georgia Altera (Mamie Van Doren) to bed this man or any man after dumping her husband, whose abrupt appearance sends Jester scurrying away -- ten bucks poorer. Eventually Culloran and his fellow detectives catch up with Altera, who doesn't prove particularly cooperative. In fact, she's having an affair with Jester/Garrett, but Culloran intimidates her into giving him up to the cops. Problem is, of course, that Jester is just bait for a trap laid by the real Aspirin Kid, who soon has both Culloran and Georgia in his power....

Not bad at first glance, but producer Albert Zugsmith couldn't leave well enough alone. Matheson's story became the pretext, as embellished by Lewis Meltzer, for a purported expose of the beatnik scene. The Aspirin Kid became a member or fellow-traveler of the scene, reading Schopenhauer, playing bongos, etc. He listens to Louis Armstrong in the jazz clubs (wasn't Satchmo a tad square by then?) and stages hootenanys at his own beachfront hangout. In its portrayal of beatniks the movie goes way over the top -- one might say it jumps the shark as Arthur Fonzarelli did in Milwaukee around the same time in history.

One big problem with Hollywood's approach to the beat scene is its habit of identifying the scene with music. Beatnik movies always threaten to turn into outright musicals, and the hard-boiled crime story described above, once transformed into The Beat Generation, does just that. The film pauses for an occasional song as well as one eccentric poetry reading by an out-of-uniform Vampira of Plan 9 fame. To keep that association in your mind just slightly, I should mention that in a short-lived subplot dealing with a Lover's Lane killer, Jackie Coogan, playing Culloran's partner, puts on drag for a stakeout-- because they can't risk policewomen's lives with a killer on the loose. It's an utterly gratuitous scene, one of many in this movie, and altogether they nearly redeem it.


The Beat Generation builds to a genuinely berserk finish as Aspirin's beatnik pals interrupt him as he contemplates killing Culloran and raping Georgia. They're bored, you see --  so to placate them our villain puts on an impromptu hootenany (ask your grandparents, kids), improvising a song on the bongos until others pick up the tune and start singing and dancing. It gets like A Charlie Brown Christmas in there after a while. Way to break up your drama, filmmakers. But it gets better. After a repentant Jester frees Georgia and Culloran, the ensuing chase spills into the hootenany. The crazed beatniks throw themselves at Dave, dancing around him and teasing him. Of all people, former boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom takes Dave to the floor for a "wrestling hootenany." And during all this time, Aspirin doesn't leave the building! Instead, after Dave finally breaks free of Maxie, Aspiring goes back through the house the way he came instead of taking the nearest exit -- and while pursuing him, Dave gets caught by Rosenbloom again! Maxie just wants Dave to show him the move he used to free himself earlier, but this gives Aspirin time to nearly make good his escape via the ocean. If all this wasn't enough, there's a pretty well-staged underwater fight scene involving a spear gun to come before it's all over. By then, The Beat Generation has reconciled its contradictions into a nearly sublime absurdity. You'll keep asking the film, "Are you kidding?" during the final reel and when it's over you still won't know for sure. Imagine a Beach Party film where the Von Zipper gang actually gets to beat people into bloody pulps, but still suffers their usual sight-gag humiliations, and you get an idea of The Beat Generation seems to be trying to be. I have to say "seems" because I'm not sure, after all was said and done, whether anyone involved really knew what it was trying to be. And the film is probably better off for that.

Epilogue: In these authentic newspaper clippings, Mamie Van Doren reports on her encounter with the beat scene.

No comments: