Review: Female Jungle (1956)

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Director: Bruno VeSota

Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Jayne Mansfield, John Carradine

Release Date: 16th June 1956 (US)

Certain movies function on their own nightmare logic, where events happen simply because the deluded consciousness behind the camera wills them so. Female Jungle is a minor entry in the film noir canon, with the feel of a copy of a copy of a ‘real’ noir film, where the usual elements are crammed together and jostle for space, where nothing is quite right and logic is treated to a little chin music. Indeed, Female Jungle comes across like a film made by film noir characters rather than a professional film crew; it’s the pulp novel Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade might flick through while sitting with a smoke in his office, waiting for the next pretty dame to come along with a case.

Female Jungle was the brainchild of one Burt Kaiser, who wrote, produced and starred, while handing over the directorial reigns to actor Bruno Ve Sota, the rotund guy with the mustache who became part of the informal repertory company of Roger Corman’s films for American International Pictures. Ve Sota had starred in 1955’s beguiling cult film Daughter of Horror, a movie it’s rumored he also helped direct. If he did, then Ve Sota carried a little of Daughter of Horror‘s off-kilter atmosphere into Female Jungle, a film later sold to a company, ARC, which later became AIP.

Before we get too carried away with claiming Female Jungle as a forgotten gem of the psychological thriller genre, we should note the film was made quick and cheap, with an inexperienced director, a producer-writer barely in control of his own script and a cast either on their way down (Laurence Tierney, John Carradine) or just getting started (Jayne Mansfield), all of whose lives had more than a touch of noir in themselves: Tierney, one of Hollywood’s brawling bad boys, barely able to find work by the mid-1950s; Carradine, a great stage actor and one-time John Ford stalwart, by now happy to appear in anything for a paycheck; and Mansfield, the poor man’s Marilyn Munroe, soon to become one of Hollywood’s blondest bombshells with roughly ten tempestuous years left to live.

Speaking of Munroe, Female Jungle opens with the death of a young, blonde movie actress with the initials MM…

Nighttime and in some dark, impenetrable corner of Los Angeles, a youthful woman (Jean Lewis) steps out of a taxi, crosses the street, and is strangled to death by hands unknown. A diamond choker is ripped from her throat.

Later, and a crowd of ghoulish onlookers gather around the body, enjoying the show. “A live one tonight,” mutters one cop. “Yeah, every taxpayer,” sneers Captain Kroger (Jack Hill), a nice little cameo of the traditional American attitude towards taxation. The dead woman’s handbag is presented to Kroger; among the “usual female equipment”, a signed publicity picture confirms the body as that of Monica Madison, who’d attended a film premiere earlier that evening. The soundtrack is wonderfully American and of its time: the police car radio chirps instructions, meaningless to the viewer, unnoticed by the characters, while weak improvised jazz tootles in the background, a smoky audio gauze draping itself thinly around the cast.

Should you ever want to examine the way 1950s America could bifurcate a societal role and celebrate the resulting split personalities, then consider the following scene. Kroger spots a figure leaning in the club doorway. This is Detective Sergeant Jack Stevens (Lawrence Tierney), drunk after a night in the Can-Can Club, much to the disapproval of Capt. Kroger, who’s very much from the Joe Friday school of dedication and commitment. “You reek from booze,” Kroger tells Stevens, and questions him on how long he spent inside the club. Stevens isn’t sure – three, maybe four hours – and protests he was off-duty. Kroger disagrees, telling Stevens “you wear your badge and gun twenty-four hours a day.” Good cop, bad cop – or are both somewhere in between?

Dr Urquhart (Alan Frost) confirms the cause of death as strangulation, with a slight scratch on the neck left by some form of cloth pulled away from the throat. The doctor is suffering from a heavy cold and is only on duty as the regular police doctor is on vacation; Urquhart’s malady is getting “worse, rather than better – these nights…” he splutters, in a world where even the doctors are sick or far away, and suffer the same as everyone else from “these nights.”

Kroger is infuriated when Stevens admits he knows nothing of the murder. “Men like you make a three-ring circus of police work,” growls the captain. “You make me sick to the stomach.” Stevens offers to help solve the case, but Kroger dismisses him and drives away. Did Stevens kill the actress? He looks over Madison’s corpse as the crowd chatters. “How long are they gonna leave her here?” asks one voice. There is no answer.

Stevens joins George (Robert Davis), the Can-Can’s janitor, in a side alley. George notes Stevens left earlier with a pretty blonde before returning alone later in the evening. Worried the blonde was Madison, Stevens asks what time George started his shift: “around the time you started your second bottle” comes the reply. Second bottle – of whisky? I’d be in hospital by then, never mind launching an ad-hoc murder investigation, unless it was mine. Didn’t George want to take a look at the famous corpse across the street? “No thanks, my curiosity ends right here.” George is black and presented as a decent person, perhaps the most decent in the film, and as is often the case with Hollywood films of the time, no reference is made to his color. A positive attribute? Perhaps so, yet think that this is noir, and hand-me-down noir at that, and in only in such blackness is a black man allowed to shine. Noir shows a corrupt world, yet racism is an issue too vast and too accepted for it to deal with, so a guy like George gets a cleaner deal here than in real life.

One of the onlookers, Alex Voe (Burt Kaiser) bumps into a friend, Frank (Bruno Ve Sota), who tells Alex his wife Peggy, a waitress at the club, has already walked home and could be at risk. Sure enough, Peggy (Kathleen Crowley, Miss New Jersey 1949 and who we met in 1954’s Target Earth) is followed home by a tall, dark stranger. Just as she reaches the Voe’s apartment, the stranger approaches the frightened Peggy, who is relieved to see husband Al arrive on the scene. The tall stranger (John Carradine, in one of his few roles at the time not requiring a white coat) apologizes and explains he merely wanted Al, the Can-Can Club’s resident artist, to draw his caricature. At two in the morning. Just after a murder. America, always open for business!

A job’s a job no matter how late it is, and Al invites the stranger in as Peggy prepares coffee. The stranger browses through Al’s portfolios, only to have one snatched away by the artist, saying it contains only rough sketches.

In the kitchen, Al berates Peggy for her attitude; she complains of tiredness after a hectic night at the club. Al counter-complains that Peggy is always complaining, and she tries to cheer her husband with the news she’s collected $14.25 in tips, only for Al, who’s made only $30 all week, to accuse Peggy of demeaning him. One wonders if Ayn Rand ever watched Female Jungle; if so, her heart, what there was of it, was surely cheered by this depiction of dog-eat-dog capitalism, where even husband and wife compete with each other as wage-earners, love is a conflict over cash, and a job is taken on at the dead of night to help meet the rent.

Al, with dreams of making it as a ‘real’ artist, and who’s already described his job as drawing funny pictures of unfunny people, castigates himself for the ultimate 1950s crime against America: “I’m a phony.” Peggy disagrees, and the problems she describes would grant Al Voe entry into the Abstract Expressionism club of troubled artists: Al is too broody, drinks too much, and tortures himself over his art. Maybe Al’s just annoyed he was snubbed by Allan Ginsberg, who was very much the Lawrence Tierney of contemporary US art criticism. Then again, if everyone was concerned over whether they were a phony or not, does make you wonder what people considered as ‘real’. Yet better this dilemma over identity than the bloodless, cruel certainties of communism, or so went the cultural subtext of the time.

Of course, the last thing you should suggest to an artist, or would-be film critic, is to go get a real job, yet that’s just what Peggy, and my welfare office, requests. This goes so well it ends with Peggy telling Al to get out and leave her. Al does so, unaware the visitor has torn out a picture from his ‘rough’ portfolio.

Peggy allows the stranger to persuade her to drive out for a drink. Before leaving, Peggy turns off the oven, where the grisliest coffee in US screen history is brewing, or should I say festering; even Forrest Tucker in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) would baulk at sampling this cup of joe. Does Female Jungle present an America so degraded even coffee is unpalatable?

It’s time to visit the Can-Can Club (so called as it’s as much fun as two trips to the can), meaning, I’m sorry to say, it’s time to meet Joe the bartender (James Kodl). Imagine a human being crossed with The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and a barrel of hog grease, and you’ve got the proprietor of hottest dive in town, if that town was situated in the Aleutian Islands. Forever chomping down on a ten cent cigar, Joe will either make or break Female Jungle for you, depending on how tolerant you are of leering, tubby creeps with the diction of a walrus.

Joe, every sweaty inch the insular American, complains to anyone who’ll listen (no-one) that he cares nothing about the outside world, only for what happens inside his club, and fair enough, Joe does look like he hasn’t stepped outside of the Can Can Club since the FDR administration. Stevens, downing some awful anti-hangover concoction possibly involving Joe’s bodily secretions, reminds mine host it’s illegal to sell alcohol to intoxicated customers, for example Jack Stevens. “You were loaded when you left,” explains Joe, “but not as loaded as you were when you came back in!”

This further puzzles Stevens, whose memory prior to ten minutes ago is hazy. A waitress, Connie (Connie Cezon) helps Stevens fill in the gaps otherwise overgrown with Four Roses. Connie accidentally cuts Stevens’ hand with a chair and George, having overheard investigating officer Sgt. Duane (Rex Thorsen) explain Madison scratched her assailant, covers for Stevens by mopping up the dripping blood from the floor. Makes a change from mopping up puke and tears, I guess.

Connie explains she put Stevens in a booth at 1 am, a discrete distance from any civilized company foolish enough to stumble into the Can Can Club, after Stevens had earlier left with a mystery blonde. Could Connie be referring to the late Miss Madison?

Peggy and the tall stranger, now mercifully identified as Claude Almstead (thank heaven for American-style post boxes), arrive at Claude’s place, the kind of home that passed for modern in the 1950s, with an indoor garden, an imitation fireplace and a glass dining table. Peggy’s delighted: “I turn down a dozen offers a night for a place like this – and here I am!” Claude prepares scotch and water for them both, because beer wasn’t invented until around 1980.

Keen to show just how cultivated a man he is, Almstead drops a track to impress his guest, a classical symphony played at such a loud volume, the San Andreas fault widens a few yards. Turn it down pleads Peggy, on the brink of suffering the same fate as Mike Nahrgang in Cube Zero (2004). Almstead likes it this way, feeling “completely engulfed, as if surrounded by the orchestra.” As a cultured man, Almstead needs classical music to drown out his brutish surroundings, and as Almstead’s environment includes Joe and the Can Can Club, one can’t blame him. Interestingly, Almstead adds he likes to pick out each particular player of an orchestra, tapping into the American love of the individual over the group.

Jack Stevens comes a-rapping rapping on the chamber door of Connie and husband Frank. By now it’s half-past stupid o’clock and the couple are asleep in an apartment that makes the Kramden’s place in The Honeymooners look palatial. While Frank wallows under the blankets, Stevens asks Connie about the blonde he left the club with earlier: “Miss Adams seems to have disappeared” (a bluff, as Stevens doesn’t know the girl’s name). Connie corrects the cop, pointing him in the way of Candy Price, a woman who lives in the same block as Peggy and Al. After Stevens leaves, Connie voices questions the viewer would like answered about the murder, only Frank looks as if he’s about to – pow! – straight to the moon, Alice. Connie, in a world where women are scared of their husbands, snaps out the light.

Candy Price (Jayne Mansfield) is asleep on her couch when Stevens finds her. Dripping with cheap glamour, Candy embraces Stevens, who learns he left his ladyfriend at the Can Can Club some four hours ago. Ignorant of his actions during that time, Stevens attempts to shake the details out of Candy, because it’s 1956 and women are near as damnit to communists.

Saved by the bell; Candy takes a phone call while Stevens is alerted to the waffle-shaped radio, playing a “transcription” of a show that went out yesterday, when the sun shone and the cops were sober. The broadcast, “for late, late listeners”, is of the premiere for a new film, Blondes on Broadway, starring the new screen sensation, Miss Monica Madison…

We hear our late leading lady interviewed, along with her escort for the evening – gossip columnist Claude Almstead. Neither sound happy, with Madison’s gratitude for Almstead’s support expressed through teeth as gritted as a beach picnic sandwich. Meanwhile, Al arrives home, and ignoring Candy’s stairwell advances, searches through his portfolio and finds he’d recently completed a sketch of his earlier visitor, Claude Almstead. The pair have met before – but when?

Talking of Claude, he’s watching Peggy swim in his private swimming pool, when he takes a call from the police, requesting his presence at the Can Can Club. The call is made by Stevens, who Sgt Duane berates for his interference. Stevens doesn’t want the glory of solving the case, he just wants to set matters straight and prove he’s on the side of right (not to mention proving to himself he didn’t murder Madison). Although Jack Stevens is the hero of Female Jungle, we shouldn’t forget he’s acting primarily out of self-interest and self-preservation, typical characteristics of the genre. Duane agrees to let Stevens assist.

Stevens phones radio DJ Larry Jackson (Gordon Urquhart), who’s manning a threadbare pre-rock and roll station and treats his audience of insomniacs and harlots to bossa nova b-sides. Larry tells Stevens Almstead and Madison argued before the broadcast interview, with the rumor afoot that the actress intends to dump Almstead now she’s made it to the big time.

Al Voe arrives at the Can Can, which Sgt Duane, much to Joe’s chagrin, is using as the base for his investigations. Al informs the police he now remembers seeing Madison and Almstead at the club on a previous occasion and shows his sketches as proof. Joe isn’t allowed to look, as he thinks art is something scrawled onto the bathroom cubicles. “I can’t read in my own joint?” he complains. “You guys aren’t like the cops on TV!” Out of the mouths of babes and slobs – Joe touches on a key difference between TV and cinema’s portrayal of the law around this time, with television shows self-censoring and promoting law as honest and inviolate; cinema, as with literature, was freer to demonstrate otherwise. Again, America promotes its capacity for healthy, democratic contradiction and so keeping everyone (un)happy.

Sgt Duane learns from Al of Almstead’s twilight caricature request and his wife’s subsequent vanishing act. Joe grunts and paws the ground until Duane takes notice; it’s almost as if the barkeep is trying to tell us something. Indeed he is – a photograph of Al drawing Madison in the club as Almstead scowls in the background. One dreads to think why Joe is taking photographs of the more attractive and female of his clientele; let’s be kind and say Joe recognized Madison from a film.

Al admits he was drunk the night of the photograph, and didn’t recognize Almstead when he visited the Voe’s apartment earlier, though how one can fail to recognize a man who looks like John Carradine is anyone’s guess. Expressing concern for his wife, Al is told by the police to wait until morning and then contact the Missing Persons Bureau. I mean, it’s not like there’s a murderer running around, is there?

Outside, Al finds Candy waiting for him, and angrily pulls her to one side. Turns out Stevens isn’t the only man who likes a piece of Candy, as it’s soon obvious Al and Ms Price are conducting an affair. “Why are we always hiding?” asks Candy. “Why not tell your wife?” Peggy refuses to divorce Al, preferring the ups and downs of life with a depressed, drunken bum of an artist. The pair kiss passionately, with Candy declaring “you’re trouble Al…but I’ll come along to give you a taste of your own medicine…We’re wrong for each other.” It’s a pairing made in pulp heaven! Al goes cold on Candy, feeling a mite awkward exchanging spit with a floozy while Peggy is possibly dead in a ditch someplace. Candy points out that Peggy is just yonder in some guy’s car.

One might think Al would feel pleased his wife is alive, but not a bit of it. Handling Peggy roughly, Al demands to know where she’s been with Almstead, only for Peggy to run away again.

Almstead escorts himself to the club: “This is him!” cries Al to the cops, but Almstead refuses to answer any questions until his lawyer arrives. This infuriates Duane; noir cops hate lawyers, solicitors, the DA, and anything at all pertaining to due legal process. “The time for courtesy is over,” Duane declares to Stevens, but before Duane can ‘question’ the suspect, another cop returns from the premiere party (still in full swing, with the good times as ever elsewhere) and confirms Madison and Almstead fought all night. Madison left the party around a quarter to two, after receiving a phone call, with Almstead hard on her heels.

Sgt Duane, ever the professional, wants to “get to work” on Almstead, but Stevens persuades his colleague to allow him ten minutes with the column-like columnist. Duane, against his better judgement (he must really hate gossip columnists, heaven knows what he’d do with Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons), allows Stevens to question Almstead using non-punching techniques.

To start with, Almstead ignores Stevens’ questions, only for the cop to get under his skin once Stevens asks about Monica Madison. Almstead admits he loved the actress, but when asked why he left a “party full of big shots,” Almstead states he wanted a caricature. It’s no ‘if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit’and the cops know it. Duane produces Joe’s photograph showing Almstead at the Can Can only for the columnist to clam up. Tensions boil over like Peggy’s coffee and Duane and Stevens fight after the sergeant attempts to ruffle Almstead’s cravat in a rather vigorous fashion. Sounds exciting, yet it’s arguably one of the weaker points in the film, not helped by some poor lines and weak delivery. What makes up for it though is Joe, who peppers each of his scenes by asking when he can go home (while deep-throating his cigar), once again requesting if he can close the club. “SHUT UP!” is Duane’s reply, as the cops are more interested in chasing Almstead as he hoofed it out the door while no-one was looking.

Despite all this grim behavior, there’s a moment of humanity from George the janitor as he watches Duane and Stevens give chase: “they’re gonna hunt him down like a dog,” he comments, echoing the last words of Josef K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). “Don’t make sense to kill. Don’t make sense to kill anyone.” A moment of sanity, or a patronizing Hollywood’s equivalent of ‘the noble savage’?

Al phones Peggy and tells her to lock herself inside the apartment as a killer is heading her way. Too late – Peggy locks the door only to find Almstead already inside the apartment. After a scuffle, Peggy escapes from Almstead, who gives chase. By now, the initial dislocated feel of Female Jungle has ebbed away into the usual thriller trappings of fights and chases, spoiling what had started as an excursion into the tormented psychology of film noir.

Peggy runs into her husband, but relief soon gives way to terror as it’s clear Al’s tortured genius act has lost the genius part. Al threatens to kill Peggy, only for Candy to intervene. Unable to find the caricature of Monica Madison, Al demands Candy tell him where it is, though Candy doesn’t know and at this stage, the viewer isn’t much better off. “You’re lying!” cries Al. “You’re lying like the paint on your face!” Candy pleads with Al to allow her to help him, and perhaps to remove his hands from her throat. Al continues: “I did it for us baby. I’d get money from Monica and we’d go away together. Al’s (possible) depression has crossed over into full blown psychosis however, and he strangles Candy to death. “You’ll help me, won’t you?” asks Al of a dead woman.

“I’ve got the picture, Voe – and it’s evidence that will hang you!” Almstead doesn’t flinch when Al produces a knife, as Stevens is close by and runs after Al. After a chase through a warehouse, Al runs into Duane and is gunned down. The killer has been killed.

Female Jungle has left a lot of threads loose however, and it’s up to the cast to tie them together as best they can, with John Carradine doing most of the donkey work. It’s the sign of weak writing when the final scene is an ‘info-dump’, and even Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) doesn’t get away with it, so Female Jungle doesn’t have much of a chance, even if Carradine could entertain an audience by reading the ingredients off a bottle of Sunny Delight.

First, Almstead apologizes to the sobbing Peggy. “I was hurt,” he explains, “I wanted to explain what was going on behind your back…I tried to force myself on you.” Meanwhile, Duane phones HQ with the good news that there’s two more bodies to collect: “yeah,” he chuckles, “I guess it is a record for one night!” Boy, LA cops are tough.

Almstead explains the background to his involvement with the case. Madison and he were lovers, until the actress met Al Voe on the set of Blondes on Broadway, with the artist hired to draw pictures of the cast. Getting dumped for the “good-looking artist” (Burt Kaiser sure likes himself, eh?) shocked Almstead, not least because Madison usually goes for producers and film executives, “anyone who could do her any good in the business.” The columnist tried to keep Madison interested with expensive presents, such as the diamond choker worn by Madison in Al’s caricature. Stevens has found the choker, wrapped around one of Al’s portfolio pictures. Madison’s response to Almstead’s gift: “Thanks. Al will really like it on me.” Ouch! That’s a choker, all right.

Following Madison to the Can Can Club one night, the actress pointed out Al to Almstead, then sat for the drawing. Finding out Al was married, Almstead broke the news to Madison, who threatened the artist with the police if he bothered her again, with Voe later threatening to expose Madison’s affairs. Not that this helped Almstead; at the premiere, Madison told him she’d soon be off to Italy to film a picture, and intended to marry the producer. “I could have killed her myself,” he mutters, not the best remark to make to police conducting a murder investigation.

Following yet another row – Almstead’s got some great material for his next column – at the after-show party, Madison left Almstead after a phone call (from, we are left to presume, Al Voe). Almstead followed her, only to get caught up in traffic. After looking for her in the Can Can (should’ve checked on the Can Can, ha ha) Almstead did find Madison, albeit in a condition best described as dead.

What about the choker, I hear you and all reasonable-minded people ask. Observing the choker missing from the body of his argumentative sweetheart, Almstead made his 2am visit to the Voes to check through Al’s portfolio, his suspicions heightened when Al became jumpy around one set of pictures in particular. Almstead swiped the picture while the Voes argued in their kitchen, believing he could use it against Al in some way. A shrewd move as it wasn’t possible for Al to make such a detailed picture of the choker when, in Joe’s photograph, Madison is wearing a plain necklace, so thereby disproving Al’s claim he’d only seen Madison once in his life. I think.

Almstead and Peggy are led away by experts in narrative analysis to see if their stories make some degree of sense. Stevens asks George how he came to have scratches on his hand, thus creating a loophole in the script were there wasn’t one. George tells Stevens the scratches come from a tussle with some “young hoods” in the side alley (Jeez, this is a rough neighborhood). Whaling on these goons, Stevens left half an hour later with the mystery blonde, who couldn’t have been Candy Price, as she made her own way from the club to her apartment. I guess Stevens got his blondes confused.

What Stevens did after dispensing of the mystery blonde he, and ourselves, will never know. Satisfied he’s accounted for most of his missing time, and probably didn’t murder anyone, Stevens declares the case closed, and Joe and George can finally close the club for the night. Don’t forget tomorrow night is happy hour, Joe!

“Why the artist killed the actress,” laments Arthur Lyons in his 2007 book Death On The Cheap! “and why a big-time actress would fall for such a loser, are left unexplained”, adding Female Jungle is “shoddily written, produced and directed.” As far as I can ascertain, Al killed Monica Madison after hearing of her plan to marry the Italian film producer, sending Al into a lethal jealous rage. As for why she lusted after Al in the first place, that’s what happens when the scriptwriter casts himself in his own picture, but a film really shouldn’t have to make the viewer work so hard for explanations as it trips itself up over its own plot.

Female Jungle would have worked a lot better as a more experimental film, dealing with characters trapped in a night-time world of suspicion and murder, where trust is rare and love comes at the cost of death, but it gets too involved with conventional techniques which require a different set of skills other than those it can provide for itself. Ve Sota’s direction is too drafty and creaky for a thriller, ending up with something less like Daughter of Horror and more akin to Dance Hall Racket (1953), although it’s greatly superior to the latter.

Some of Female Jungle‘s problems stemmed from a troubled production, during which, according to some sources, Kathleen Crowley reported late for work one day claiming she’d been raped. Whether this horrible event actually took place seems unclear; asked for her memories of Female Jungle many years later by interviewer Tom Weaver, Crowley merely commented “Oh Lord, that was terrible, a very bad experience” while relating anecdotes about Carradine and Mansfield. What’s certain is Crowley’s scenes were cut back and Mansfield’s extended to cover up Crowley’s absences. A different source suggests Crowley got a better offer on another film and left for that reason. Maybe we’ll never know.

What could have been a fascinating trip into the outer fringes of film noir runs itself into the ground and barely gets away with it, kept going by Carradine making the most of a good role, Mansfield’s fresh screen presence and the delicious boiled coffee sleaze of the scenes at the Voe’s apartment and the Can Can Club. As far as coffee goes, Female Jungle is a cheap shot best downed in one, and sometimes, that’s just about good enough. If only it had been made with a little more time and some of that scarcest commodity of film noir – care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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