The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Guns, Girls and Gangsters

The 1950s were the age of the sex kitten blondes, especially Marilyn Monroe and later Jayne Mansfield. Where one succeeds, others follow and beyond Monroe and Mansfield was another bleach blonde movie star, Mamie Van Doren. She never reached the stardom of either Monroe or Mansfield, but became a bit of a cult favorite in the late 1950s and 1960s in some really odd, entertaining and bizarre flicks. Case in point, 1959's Guns, Girls and Gangsters.

Released from prison, Chuck Wheeler (Gerald Mohr) has a plan in mind that will net him some $2 million, a plan he developed with another prisoner in jail. He enlists the unwilling help of the prisoner's wife, Vi Victor (Van Doren), to do a key part of the job while also assembling a small team of crooks to help him pull it off. The objective? Knock off an armored car traveling from Las Vegas to Los Angeles packed to the guts with casino winnings from the New Year's holiday. His plan depends on precision detail, and he's confident he can pull it off, even planning ahead for a smooth getaway. There's a problem though. He wants Vi too and not just the money, quite the issue when his prisoner friend and Vi's husband, Mike Bennett (Lee Van Cleef), escapes from prison following Vi's letter asking for a divorce. Can the plan hold together before Mike comes after them?

My first introduction to Mamie Van Doren is a good one. While she's not a great actor, she fits in well with this hard-edged B-movie. Too often in 1950s B-movies, pretty actresses (often models turned actresses) were able to single-handedly ruin films with their bad acting. So, Van Doren doesn't have a ton of range, and the script doesn't call for any huge action scenes, but she more than holds her own with an almost entirely male cast. She has a good chemistry with Mohr especially, and if there was a question....yes, the sex kitten angle is on display. Van Doren is always in a variety of ridiculously tight dresses, night gowns and/or lingerie, and swimsuits. Yes, her looks don't hurt the appeal here. There, it had to be said. Oh, and she gets two chances to sing and perform so there's that too. Watch them HERE.

As a B-movie film noir though, 'Guns' typically succeeds. As a B-movie, it can get away with following the bad guys and leaving the good guys by the wayside for the most part. Everyone is a bad guy, it just depends on what shade of bad you are. Van Doren's Vi? Bad but almost by default. Mohr's Weaver? Pretty bad dude, but maybe...just maybe...he'll have a redemptive moment. Van Cleef's Mike? Oh, he's doomed. Bet on it. I liked the generally dark take on everything, an uncredited narrator keeping things moving with a brisk pace for a 70-minute flick. It has the feel of an episode of Dragnet, any number of 1950/1960s police procedurals. Mostly filmed on studio sets, 'Guns' does have a couple ventures outside, providing some solid location shooting.

Even starting with Van Doren as the top-billed star, there isn't exactly any star power here. Van Doren is solid, a quasi-femme fatale caught in a sticky heist situation. A tough guy star of countless B-movies and a guest star on TV shows, Mohr is a very good anti-hero in the lead, although I suppose I'm using the 'hero' part lightly. Van Cleef is a scene-stealer, still a relative unknown relegated to supporting parts in westerns and crime stories, his Mike like an exposed wire just waiting to spark. Grant Richards plays Darren, the mobster with money problems (with Carlo Fiore as his main henchman) while the always reliable Paul Fix is Largo, an ex-con working with Weaver to pull off the job. Elaine Edwards and John Baer play Ann and Steve Thomas, owners of a highway motel and fix-it shop who unknowingly become part of Weaver's plan.

The early going can be a little slow as Weaver and Vi meet, fight, talk, fight and then decide to work together. Once the heist is actually brought along, the pace quickens for the better. The heist angle is ahead of its time and most definitely has a hard-edge to it, our main characters ready to dispatch anyone standing in their way. Like any heist movie, part of the fun is seeing an impossible plan come together (and ultimately how it will fail), and 'Guns' does it right. So while not a classic, it is an enjoyable enough B-movie film noir. Worth giving a watch if nothing else.

Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959): ** 1/2 /**** 

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