And seldom did she get to merge those two sides as in the go-for-broke, nil-budgeted film noirs she did for PRC Studios at the end of World War 2, such as I ACCUSE MY PARENTS and THE LADY CONFESSES. Poverty Row’s commercial formula of hijinks and hi-de-ho wrapped in meager, flea-bag packages were a perfect environment for her screen persona that played itself out at a peculiar intersection of Gee Whiz and World Weariness. In her role as Vicki McGuire in THE LADY CONFESSES she’s a bride-to-be who goes undercover at a nightclub to smoke out the killer of her fiancé’s wife, declared legally dead after seven years’ disappearance yet who turns up on Vicki’s doorstep to put the kabosh on her wedding plans; then later that night the ol’ ball-and-chain is again declared dead, but this time by the coroner standing over her not-yet-cold corpse.
The script was one of two written for B Movies by American Negro Theater co-founder Helen Martin. (She also penned Joseph H. Lewis’ loopy and unsettling INVISIBLE GHOST.) A veteran stage actress, she later found a groove playing sassy grandmas in films like REPO MAN and BULWORTH. Unlike her work on Broadway under Orson Welles’ direction or articulating Jean Genet’s ideology in The Blacks, Martin’s shooting script is only so-so, as is Mary Beth’s performance and as is the movie and as are almost all B Movies.
But that’s not important.
Due to their bare-bones nature, Poverty Row films remind us of basic agreement in watching movies: that a lot of our satisfaction is derived from how deeply we project ourselves into a movie. Workaday aspects are more apparent in classic-era B Movies due to the limited amount of film stock budgeted for the production, meaning less options down the line in the film editing and its magical abilities to make an audience lose itself in harmonics generated by its splintering realities. Optically, B Movies’ cramped sets give no breathing room for filmic illusion while the yard-sale furnishings offer no portal of escape from the everyday. These scarcities block us from being sucked into a B Movie’s world: the bait just isn’t tasty enough.
Yet — like a NO ENTRY sign that makes us ponder what’s on the other side — this distancing allows us to explore what goes into the process of engaging in a movie. The viewer has a choice: to sit in his seat and be bored or, like a dissatisfied soul who begins psychotherapy, to embark on asking questions as to why his or her needs and wants are not being met.
This is how B Movies speak to us: though a simplistic world of optimism and coincidence, which exist in contradictory and threadbare surroundings that concurrently implode the creative idea’s brightness. If ever there were a Beat film aesthetic (in Ginsberg’s original iteration of the word as a notation for psychic exhaustion), the B Movie embodies it.
THE LADY CONFESSES works as an example of this embodiment. Directed by the 500-dollars-a-picture wonder man Sam Newfield (whose total movie output logged in at 273), the film never rests: shot after shot contains characters walking to the left or right of the screen, with cutting that matches shots as they enter and exit rooms. Newfield’s work could be literally called ‘Pedestrian Cinema’ in every sense of the word.
It’s this move-in-a-little-closer, back-and-forth aesthetic that keeps THE LADY CONFESSES watchable. Plus the film offers all the usual cultural rhizomes a movie offers: ever wonder what the actor Dewey Robinson did when not being a Preston Sturges ensemble member or the bouncer at Humphrey Bogart’s establishment in CASABLANCA? In THE LADY CONFESSES he shows up as Steve the Bartender. Claudia Drake (Tom Neal’s girlfriend in DETOUR who disappeared so early from its narrative) again plays a girl singer in this film, and gets to stick around for a while. And pre-LEAVE IT TO BEAVER Hugh Beaumont is Vicki’s beau. The inky, layered cinematography (in that way that only Film Noir can look) was by the youngest man voted into the honorary society of A.S.C., Jack Greenhalgh.
Even with all this support, it was up to Mary Beth Hughes to carry the film with her undoubtedly unique cinema presence that could represent simultaneously a corn-fed Gee Whiz sensibility with a well-worn and lived-in sensuality. She could shine under great directors, such as her brief appearances under William Wellman in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT or Mike Curtiz in YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN. But here it’s the lack of time and paucity of film stock that prevents her and the movie from being better. In the climactic scene where she’s trapped in a room with a serial killer, there’s no shot addition to allow expansion of time in the movie’s peak dramatic situation. The killer is off’d and Mary Beth rescued in a couple of wide shots: just two tableaux and it’s over. The audience is ripped-off again since a simple establishing shot and concomitant reaction shot in gunning down the serial killer doesn’t give the catharsis the audience is due after investing an hour in the proceedings.
Yet movies are both experience and testament, and even a broke-ass production like this demonstrates what can flower from the labor-and-creation matrix Bazin called “the genius of the system” at even the lowest tier of Hollywood’s studios.
If you read the testament more than seek experience, THE LADY CONFESSES can speak to you.
PS — The movie can be downloaded from the Internet Archive, or you can watch all 64 minutes here…