Saturday, March 25, 2017

157. Secret File: Hollywood

157. Secret File: Hollywood (1962)
Director: Rudolph Cusumano
Writer: Jack Lewis
From: Cult Cinema
A disgraced PI gets a job as a photojournalist for a Hollywood scandal mag, but realizes he might be involved in a deeper criminal conspiracy.
Maxwell Carter is a down-on-his-luck PI in Hollywood. He gets caught taking pictures of a man cheating on his wife and, as the two of them fight, the cheater pulls out a gun and a passer-by is killed. As a result, Max loses his PI license. Don’t imagine, by the way, that there’ll be any further consequences for a random person getting shot and killed. The only value this scene will have will be in how it’s echoed at the end.

Anyway, Nan Tor and Hap Grogan, a pair in charge of local scandal magazine Secret File: Hollywood, get an order from their superior telling them to hire Max. Hap runs a gambling ring and Max owes him $3,000, so they decide to use that to pressure Max into taking the job if he resists. Except he doesn’t. He signs on as a photographer for the magazine and then. . . disappears from the movie for a bit.

Instead, we see Hap and Nan working to manufacture celebrity scandals to turn into stories for their own magazine. Meanwhile, a TV pundit, the “Conscience of Hollywood,” is railing against magazines like Secret File: Hollywood saying they’re destroying lives and careers.

At this point, I started wondering if this was anti-paparazzi propaganda. It’s a bit of an odd thing to take a stand against, but this felt a lot like an overtly moralistic Ed Wood-style film (except semi-competent). From the tone, I expected the story to take an anti-Communist turn positioning these magazines and their ability to ruin careers as being part of a Communist plot. To be fair, when I say “I expected,” I mean, “I hoped in the deepest recesses of the dark, cavernous, cynical hole where my heart once was,” because that would be super campy and super fun. Unfortunately, despite Nan and Hap getting orders on reel-to-reel tapes, there’s no Communist conspiracy in the movie and no red-baiting at all.

The voice on the tape instructs Nan and Hap to go after famous director James Cameron (the name’s just a coincidence). The voice wants him caught in a compromising situation so his life can be ruined. Nan sends an aspiring actress to Cameron’s house to try out for a role and sends Max to surreptitiously take pictures. Nan takes the photos and uses them to blackmail Cameron. He pays, but they run the pictures anyway and, when his wife sees the magazine, she kills herself.

Now Max is back in the film. He and the actress are brought in by the cops and team up to try to take the magazine down. Nan and Hap were running the blackmail scheme without the voice’s permission, so he’s angry at them, and things start falling apart. Max breaks into Nan’s apartment, finds the tapes detailing all the plans, and sends them to Cameron via the actress. Max gets caught by Nan and Hap, though, and Hap tries to kill him. Max drives his car off a cliff and jumps free at the last second, killing Hap instead. As Nan hears the news of Hap’s death, the voice comes into her apartment and murders her. Max and the actress return to Nan’s place, get her last words, and rush to the TV studio where Cameron is about to confront the Conscience of Hollywood because, surprise, the Conscience was the voice. He’d worked with Cameron years before, had gotten in some kind of accident because of him, and had always wanted revenge. Honestly, it’s a lot of backstory to all come out at the end. Cameron and Conscience struggle, Conscience pulls a gun, gets shot himself in an echo of the initial shooting, and dies. Max and the actress leave to get married, because apparently there was something there, and the movie ends.

This is another one of those movies that’s interesting for all the things that it’s not. It’s clearly a 40’s/50’s-era pseudo-noir, except it’s from 1962. It’s obviously going to say that tabloids are a Communist front, but Communism never comes up at all. The PI is going to immediately figure out something’s fishy and start working to turn the tables on his bosses, but he actually just disappears for the first half of the movie. I guess you could give the movie credit for subverting expectations, but it so rarely meets any expectations that it never has the opportunity to subvert them.

Overall, the movie feels half-baked, like there was a germ of an idea that needed just a touch more time to develop. “A blackmail ring using a tabloid as a tool. Great idea! What will we do with it? Oh, we’ve already started shooting.” Or, “A disgraced PI gets sucked into the seedy world of tabloid journalism. Great! And? Oh.” Even the movie’s message isn’t completed. When the Conscience of Hollywood rants about celebrity tabloids, that’s the movie pausing to tell you it’s moral message. The movie’s literally going, “Hey, audience! This is what the movie’s about.” When the Conscience turns out to be the mastermind behind the tabloids himself, the message is seriously muddled. Was he making that claim just as a cover? Is Hollywood so corrupt that even its moral scolds are in on it? Are the moral scolds themselves no different from the gossip they condemn? What are you trying to say here?

The core idea is fine. I’d even like to see a story about celebrity gossip magazines that really played with the layers of artifice—the magazine manufacturing scandals, celebrities and their publicists manufacturing scandals, the scandals or threat of scandal being used as blackmail. That seems compelling and potentially a layered and nuanced story. It’d have to be set before TMZ, of course. Nothing kills the titillation of gossip like gluttony. “Want celebrity secrets? Here’s all of them! And here’s us snickering over developing the story! Nothing entertains like seeing the sausage get made.”

The movie itself is watchable enough, but it’s nothing special. It’s really stripped-down and never goes as far as it could or as far as you want it to. It’s neither in the public domain nor, if a cursory Googling isn’t misleading me, readily available online for free the way a lot of these are. I can’t really take a stance on recommending it either way: it’s not good enough to hunt down nor bad enough to avoid. If you want an instructable on where to push a story further, it’s useful. Otherwise, there are other films to watch.

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