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The MGM Limited Edition Collections brings us Vice Raid, hoping for some interest in the '50s sex star Mamie Van Doren. The last time we saw Mamie, she was a rock 'n' rolling 'tough girl' fighing injustice on a prison honor farm, in Untamed Youth. Three years later, her character isn't directly called a prostitute, but every possible method of identifying her as such is brought to the fore. Vice Raid is also interesting as the last gasp of Hollywood's B-movie system that had really died off seven or eight years earlier. But it also has a surprise for B-movie fans, fine cinematography by a certified industry legend.
In faux-docu style we witness the "Big Crackdown On the Call-Girl Racket!" Savvy Vice Squad police Sgt. Whitey Brandon (Richard Coogan) is on the job when a syndicate punk transports a hooker (gorgeous Jul Reding of Tormented) across state lines for work in a local "modeling agency." But the hood tries to get away and is shot dead by Whitey's partner Ben Dunton (Joe Sullivan). Across town, the powerful racketeer Vince Malone (Brad Dexter) decides that it's time to eliminate Whitey, whose investigations are gettiing too close to the truth. Vince brings in out-of-town call girl Carol Hudson (Mamie Van Doren), who quickly frames Whitey as a shakedown artist, preying on honest models for money and sex. Ben testifies against Whitey, wrapping up the case -- he's on Malone's payroll as well. With Whitey fired from the force, Malone moves Carol into a swank apartment and makes her his special girlfriend. But the tables slowly turn on the ruthless gangster. With the help of his ex-superior, Captain Brennan (Frank Gerstle), Whitey sets himself up as Vince's competitor in the call-girl racket. Carol remains loyal to Vince until the sleazy hood Phil Evans (Barry Atwater) rapes and beats her innocent younger sister Louise (Carol Nugent), who thinks Carol is a real model. Together Vince and Carol plot to take down Vince Malone for good.
The above synopsis doesn't describe the sordid vibe given off by Vice Raid. When B-movies finished their place was taken by exploitation features, made just as cheaply as the old second features but more energetically sold to appeal to specific markets and interests. Sometimes getting away with more latitude than features from big studios, these movies took on salacious content -- tabloid crime stories, juvenile rebellion tales, rock 'n' roll, monsters, teen horror. United Artists picked up many independent productions but also bankrolled a couple of low-budget outfits like the one run by veteran screenwriter Robert Kent. Between 1957 and 1963 Kent, sometimes working under exec. producer Edward Small, ground out B&W programmers at a pace that matched Columbia's Sam Katzman, and even the cheapie output of PRC ten years earlier. Kent's director of choice was Edward L. Cahn, another veteran who specialized in finding ways to shoot entire features in a little over one week. Film fans know their horror an sci-fi efforts, which include The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, Curse of the Faceless Man and the rather good It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
Vice Raid has a tough cop go up against a professional prostitute who specializes in framing authority figures. But naturally she has a heart of gold and a younger sister to protect. The inquest is a joke because the cops don't bother to show that Carol is not a model but a veteran hooker. And it should be obvious to more than just Whitey that the miserable Ben has been bought by the mob; he's been keeping Whitey from making progress against the gang for years. The shallow story has no surprises. Lending a veneer of "realism" is a stentorian narration, which has a habit of restating the jist of scenes we've just seen. The bits of "official" narration also pad the film out a bit, helping it reach its lean running time of 71 minutes.
Platinum-tressed Mamie Van Doren is not bad, mainly because her role doesn't force her into any campy extremes. It's obvious why the men flip for her -- although bit player Juli Reding looks twice as attractive! Brad Dexter is his usual slimy self, while online resources tell us that the relatively unknown actor Richard Coogan was actually a big Broadway Star before moving on to mostly TV work. Young Carol Nugent had been acting since childhood and had a featured role in Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men. She retired after marrying Nick Adams. The creepy thug-rapist Phil Evans was played by Barry Atwater. The IMDB tells us that Atwater was an associate professor at the UCLA film school teaching sound recording and mixing, until he appeared in Denis Sanders' thesis film A Time Out of War and became a busy TV actor as well.
Cahn was able to knock off Kent's movies quickly through some rather severe methods. Most sets are basic boxes with one wall missing, and screen direction never changes. Shots are not often blocked in depth, which takes more time and more coordination with focus pulls, etc. Scenes in one set are all shot at the same time, so for continuity's sake only the main female star will have real costume changes to keep track of. In Captain Brennan's office, Brennan always seems to be sitting behind his desk in the same way, and his two cops stand in roughly the same place when they enter. If we examine their clothes, they're probably wearing the same pants with the same creases, and their ties tied exactly the same way, in scenes supposedly taking place weeks or months apart.
Vice Raid has two kinds of exteriors. One is a city street set probably hired for one day. A few passersby are seen but the set isn't dressed. Marquees have nothing written on them and stores don't have anything displayed outside, etc. Alleys, parking lots, the rear of a hospital are all filmed right on whatever studio lot was rented -- obvious sound stage walls look just like what they are. It's up to the actors to bring these scene to life, but director Cahn often plays entire scenes in one-take wide shots that don't allow for creative choices.
Most of Robert Kent films were shot by competent cameramen who worked fast and didn't make many mistakes, even though the pictures normally didn't feature complex trucking shots or really any kind of expressive camera motion. But Vice Raid's Director of Photography is the legendary Stanley Cortez, who filmed such great and artistic pictures as The Magnificent Ambersons, Secret Beyond the Door, Since You Went Away and The Night of the Hunter. It's one thing to do great work under genius directors with creative ideas, and another to grind out good work on a Robert Kent budget. Vice Raid is still blocked and directed in the plain-wrap Ed Cahn style, but the overall lighting is far better than most any of the U.A. cheapies of the time -- characters are modeled and studio shots look more real than usual. The average New York city set in a cheap movie will use a rented canvas backdrop to serve as a view out a window. For Vice Raid Cortez overexposes the backdrop, making it look as if he was exposing for the darker interior of the room. We buy it.
Vice Raid has no memorable dialogue or action, with the possible exception of a rather good dummy that takes a fall in the final scene. But is a great example of what passed for Hollywood sleaze when ads could proclaim, "Syndicate Owned Sin-Center Smashed! Phony model agency exposed as B-girl headquarters!", when the films themselves were only allowed vague allusions to salacious content. Fans of vintage exploitation pix will be impressed by Vice Raid's relatively classy cinematography.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Vice Raid is a good transfer unfortunately formatted incorrectly. With the top and bottom exposed of what should be matted to 1:66 or 1:85, we see acres of shabby carpeting and set walls that go up twelve feet, even in cheap rooms. The right way to watch the film is blown up and cropped off on one's widescreen TV. MGM's presentation includes a not-bad original trailer, which nevertheless let audiences in 1960 know that the movie is not a class-A attraction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vice Raid rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.