A relatively well-received exploitation number when released in 1961...and worth a look today. M-G-M, through their M.O.D. ("manufacture on demand") Limited Edition Collection (now distributed through Warners' own M.O.D., the Archive Collection), has released A Cold Wind in August, the 1961 indie May/December sex drama starring wowzer Lola Albright and Scott Marlowe. Somewhat daring for its time, A Cold Wind in August wouldn't make a Sunday school teacher blush today, nor is it very successful in creating a truly believable romance between the supposedly 17-year-old Marlowe and the 30-something Albright. However...fans of this type of nostalgic exploitation will consider this much sought-after title quite a find in this bare-bones presentation.
Las Vegas burlesque headliner Iris Hartford (Lola Albright), now "semi-retired" in New York City―through the financial help of slavish "friend" Juley Franz (Herschel Bernardi)―gets a visit from her sweaty, hipster ex-husband, Harry (Clark Gordon), at her swank, well-appointed apartment. Harry, a two-bit promotions man, is on the hook to provide big-name talent for a cheap burlesque house he's working―in the Big Apple―and he needs Iris to help him out of his jam. The lithe, sensuous Iris, incredulous that she could have once been married to such a weak, charming worm, enjoys putting off the scrabbling Harry, telling him she's not sure she can help out since she doesn't want anyone recognizing her at home base. Meanwhile, down below Iris' apartment in the building's dirty alleyway, 17-year-old Vito Perugino (Scott Marlowe), is enjoying his summer vacation from school, running around with his squeaky-voiced friend Al (Skip Young), and making out with girls up on the apartment building roof. Vito's father, Papa Perugino (Joe DeSantis), the building's super, isn't opposed to Vito having fun with girls...as long as he's careful. So when Papa sends up Vito to fix Iris' wholesale air conditioner, he tells the boy he's doing him a "favor." Little does Papa know, though, that Vito's naïve, boyish manner and killer good looks will trigger in Iris a psycho-sexual obsession that led to tears for everyone involved.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS ALERT!
Prior to seeing this film for the first time this week, I had read about A Cold Wind in August for some time, with writers and critics and fans claiming it was one of the best low-budget exploitation films from that era when it came to "frank" explorations of adult sexuality. Hardly. Not knowing which side of the street it wants to be on, A Cold Wind in August strives for art house seriousness packaged in an attractively dirty wrapper...and comes up short on both counts. Certainly the storyline of an older stripper taking up with a young man wasn't exactly fresh in 1961; only the overt suggestions of what was going on between the two, along with Iris' occupation as a stripper and kept woman, made this steamy for the Kennedy era. And sense that degree of "steaminess" is measured by the rules of early 60s cinema, viewers watching A Cold Wind in August today can't fall back on the sickly-sweet smell of dirty sex in order to ignore the film's serious faults.
Chief among those faults is author Burton Wohl's (from his same-named book) and uncredited schlock-meister John Hayes' (Mama's Dirty Girls and Jailbait Babysitter are two particular favorites) failure to adequately explain Iris' transformation from slutty man-eater to sock-hop steady. Now, it doesn't take a shingle outside your door and piece of sheepskin on your wall to figure out the obvious Freudian subtext within this storyline. Putting it plainly, Vito grew up without a mother...and he's attracted to this sensual yet maternal-acting older woman, and childless, aging Iris is attracted to this sweet sensitive boy...who also happens to pleasure her sexually as no man has ever done before (paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Oedipus!). Director Alexander Singer, a terrific, sensitive director with numerous TV and film credits to his name (he helmed some of the best The Fugitive episodes in the entire series), wastes no time in establishing something off-kilter in Iris' behavior the minute Vito steps into her apartment. Openly snide and matter-of-fact and cynical with her grotesquely-weak husband, Iris suddenly turns this side of "disturbed" when she gets a load of Vito, coming on to him like gangbusters as she pets and paws at the jangly kid, fiddling with his hair ("You need a haircut, boy...didn't your mother tell you?") and getting too close to him too often, before she really lets loose. Offering him five bucks for temporarily fixing her air conditioner, Iris drops the money on the floor...and then steps firmly on his hand with her foot, telling him, "Now you're trapped!" as she then lifts up his face with same-said foot (nice). At their next meeting, she seductively makes herself up in front of her vanity mirror, talking to herself and warning the absent Vito, "Oh, you're asking for it, doll," before she makes him light a cigarette for her, making him place it in her mouth, as well ("Now you can sit down," the dominating Iris tells the sheepish, confused boy). Goggle-eyed Vito, ready to explode, gulps down the Bloody Marys she forces on him, as she coos "Beautiful baby," and "My poor, sweet baby," before thoroughly nailing him (off camera, of course).
And all of that hyped perversity is great, regardless of any initial doubts the viewer might have. Sure, Marlowe leaves a lot to be desired as the teen lover here. Marlowe, who is supposed to be 17-years-old...but who clearly looks all of his actual 29 years and then some, isn't a good enough actor here to get across either restless, sexually-frustrated adolescence (Marlowe's idea of this is to drop his head a lot and flail his hands and arms), nor that terrible all-consuming―both physically and emotionally―teen love (the curiously flat, distant Marlowe doesn't come anywhere near the rutting goat-horniness or the sweetly ridiculous, over-inflated devotion we all remember from teen love affairs). His participation here seriously unbalances the film. However, good actress/sexpot Albright, white-hot erotically and quite good at these early scenes of psycho-sexual disturbance, is right in synch with director Singer's weird, objectified framing, with peeping shots of Albright's alluring body parts that border on the perverse with their rigid fetishism. And who can blame him, with such an attractive subject as Albright? With Iris's cruel put-down of her spineless husband (she also questions his manliness, saying he was "harmless" with "no action"), and then this sudden detour into obsessive sexuality, I was primed for A Cold Wind in August to either get seriously (and deliciously) weird, or to evolve into an interesting psychological examination of a compelling female character (certainly Singer was adept at such explorations, particularly in his superior The Fugitive episodes where female characters were delved into with great sensitivity).
Alas, once we're told the exact nature of Iris' salvation at the unskilled-but-potent hands of Vito ("It's never been like this before," she pants after sex. "The way you make me feel...my god! I never knew!" she orgasmically exclaims), the "disturbed Iris" is largely abandoned in favor of "high school cheerleader Iris" who plays in the park with her high school lover and moons over his absences. The ups and downs of their relationship at this point are distressing familiar to anyone even remotely accustomed with the typical conventions of the May/December romance subgenre (she's scared she's robbing the cradle; he's embarrassed by her neediness; he feels dirty being "kept," she initially shies away from his true love). And the potential to explore a truly unusual female character is abandoned, leaving exploitation expectations behind while substituting clichéd pretentiousness for truly problematic drama (the over-done jazz score by Gerald Fried doesn't exactly help, either, with its "wa wa wa wa!" warnings and too-ripe blares of stripper horns and drums at inopportune moments).
Luckily, despite the too-familiar path of her character's evolution after the script abandons the (more fun) disturbed Iris, Albright is working with a degree of skill that shouldn't surprise fans who rightly consider her one of the underutilized talents of 50s and 60s filmmaking (who else but Albright could compete as the mother of dangerously-sexy Tuesday Weld, in one of my '60s favorites, Lord Love a Duck?) Good support also comes from familiar character actor Joe DeSantis, who puts a nice spin on his loving father role, showing an understanding father who may have gone too far in encouraging his son to be a man...but who also tellingly warns his son not to become hard, not to make jokes about his own feelings. And Herschel Bernardi is frustratingly interesting in the undeveloped, unexplored Juley, who also tried to satisfy Iris sexually but failed, and who now lavishes unwanted attention on her (Bernardi is so good in his underplayed scenes, I wished the story had jettisoned dopey Vito and concentrated on the triangle of Iris, her ex, Harry, and desperate Juley). These performances, along with some of director Singer's odd flourishes―as well as the inherent interest in early exploitation subject matter―make the problematic A Cold Wind in August still desirable.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.