Not Your Typical Girl Gang Flick

A little known and ingenious B-movie delight, GIRLS ON THE LOOSE (1958) stands out from the pack of teenage bad girl movies that became so prevalent in the late fifties. For one thing, these aren’t gum-chewing high school delinquents but a quartet of hardened professionals and damaged goods. Equally surprising is the tough, no nonsense story arc which makes the most of its low budget sets and noir lighting schemes in a compact 77-minute programmer directed by Paul Henreid. Yes, THAT Paul Henreid, the former Warner Bros. heartthrobe from Austria-Hungary who performed that romantic cigarette seduction of Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942). Here is he, directing his incognito cast of GIRLS ON THE LOOSE.      

If you haven’t seen this, I recommend you stop here to avoid any spoilers and catch it TCM’s Underground on Friday, January 29th at 2 am ET. The movie opens with a payroll heist by a masked gang and reveals their true identities during the getaway. The ringleader of this criminal outfit is Vera (Mara Corday), a sexy, hard-as-nails businesswoman who runs a nightclub on the side that spotlights her sister Helen (Barbara Bostock) as the entertainment; Helen sings, does a few dance steps and hustles male customers to buy drinks. Vera’s partners-in-crime are Joyce (Joyce Johanneson), a mean-as-a-snake blonde vixen who works as a masseuse, Marie (Lita Milan), a French hairdresser who also happens to be a kleptomaniac with a drinking problem, and Agnes (Abby Dalton), the neurotic weak link in the chain who worked at the company that was robbed and provided Vera with the inside information.

I especially like the way GIRLS ON THE LOOSE doesn’t waste time on showing us the careful planning of the robbery but simply opens with the heist and follows the inevitable unraveling from that point onward. And things fall apart almost immediately in this noir universe which manages to blend a Mildred Pierce-like scenario (Vera’s obsessive need to control and smother her younger sister and Helen’s attempts to resist it) with the grim crime-doesn’t-pay realities of movies like The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle. Most interesting of all is the way the group dynamic is depicted with Vera and Joyce emerging as the most dangerous and sociopathic of the lot. It’s inevitable that they will be the last two standing for a catfight to the death.

Helen, of course, is the conflicted innocent (she seems to be emulating Shirley MacLaine in dress and pixie cut hairstyle during that actress’s gamine phase in the fifties (The Trouble With Harry, Ask Any Girl). Although she doesn’t participate in the heist, she is fooled into helping Vera in the getaway. When she learns that a guard was seriously wounded in the robbery, Helen begins to question and rebel against her older’s sister lifestyle. But she continues to work at Club Vera where we see her perform two songs, “How Do You Learn to Love?” and “I Was a Little Too Lonely” (by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who co-wrote “Buttons and Bows,” “Tammy,” “Que Sera, Sera” and other movie theme hits). Her performance won’t exactly wow you. Nor would you suspect, if you didn’t read the credits, that the composer of the score is Henry Mancini, who was still learning his craft in B-movies.

Helen is the least interesting character in GIRLS ON THE LOOSE but she is essential to the turn of events which are escalated by her romance with the cop assigned to the case, Lt. Bill Hanley (Peter Mark Richman). Paranoia runs rampant as Vera’s cohorts suspect that Helen will betray them to the detective. Adding further tension is Vera’s plan to bury the loot and not dig it up for two years. Marie and Joyce are greedy and don’t want to wait. Agnes, on the other hand, is hysterical and afraid she’ll break down and confess when the police come to question the employees at the payroll company. Vera’s unique way of dealing with Agnes’ panic is one of the scenes that puts GIRLS ON THE LOOSE in a class of its own. Other standout moments involve Joyce, also no wimp when it comes to take-charge situations, resorting to literal backstabbing in one sequence and in another, using a car to pursue and force her victim off the road and over a cliff.

The performances by the female cast members are surprisingly vivid and sharply drawn for this sort of low-budget endeavor but I have to say that Mara Corday’s Vera practically walks off with the movie. A mixture of sexual swagger and predatory cunning, she can also play the cool hipster and even has a tender side. She also has a way with smartass quips; to Agnes, she says, “Thinking takes brains. Just forget you’ve got them,” while an inebbriated Marie is dismissed with “Talking to drunks is like talking to mud. It gets you nowhere.” Watching her deal with each new disaster that comes along is great fun and you root for her to triumph in the end, though you know it will all end badly.

Corday is well known to fans of such fifties horror films as TARANTULA (1955), THE GIANT CLAW (1957) and THE BLACK SCORPION (1957). As a contract player at Universal-International, she became good friends with Clint Eastwood; although she retired from filmmaking in the sixties to raise a family, she would later return to the screen in small parts in such Eastwood films as The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact, Pink Cadillac and The Rookie. If there is a contemporary actress who bears any similarities to Mara Corday, it would have to be Gina Gershon, who exudes the same kind of tough sexiness in movies like SHOWGIRLS (1995), BOUND (1996) AND DEMONLOVER (2002).

The other actresses in GIRLS ON THE LOOSE, with the exception of Joyce Barker who only made this one feature (what a shame), should be familiar from other B-movies of the fifties, especially Abby Dalton, a veteran of such gems as Roger Corman’s ROCK ALL NIGHT (1957), TEENAGE DOLL (1957) and STAKEOUT ON DOPE STREET (1958). Exotic Lita Milan is probably best remembered for her roles in THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958), opposite Paul Newman, and NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (1958), co-starring Steve McQueen. Yet, the one cast member with the most prolific career is the male lead, Peter Mark Richman, with more than 100 credits, mostly in TV series. Although he is nominally the hero in this flick, that wasn’t usually the case. In his own words, “I got stuck playing bad guys and intense personalities for a lot of my career.”

While I already mentioned that GIRLS ON THE LOOSE was an early career effort for composer Henry Mancini, it also the first feature for cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, a two-time Oscar nominee for The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Earthquake (1974), and the man who lensed Lonely Are the Brave, Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, Point Blank, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They and many more. The unexpected wild card in the whole mix though is director Paul Henreid, who was better known as an actor. Part of the reason he turned to directing was due to the scarcity of acting roles after being blacklisted by Hollywood during the Red Scare of the fifties. He made his directorial debut with FOR MEN ONLY (1952), an exploitation drama about fraternity hazing, and quickly moved into television production and B-movies. Made the same year as GIRLS ON THE LOOSE is Henreid’s LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG, more teenage topic drive-in fodder that sounds promising from its tagline: “The sin-steeped story of today’s “beat” generation.” It stars Mary Murphy, Norma Eberhardt, Mike Connors and Troy Donahue in a store of two wayward sisters, one a sexual abuse case and confirmed manhater, the other a runaway who falls into a life of crime. I’ve not seen it but it’s on my must-see list after the unexpected pleasures of GIRLS ON THE LOOSE. Henreid also went on to direct the entertaining murder-mystery DEAD RINGER (1964) with his former co-star Bette Davis in a dual role, and BALLAD IN BLUE (1964), a rare starring role for singer Ray Charles which has just been released on DVD. Who knew that Henreid was such an auteur?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_Dh50nzrZ0]

While there are plenty of fun girl gang flicks out there – High School Hellcats (1958), Teenage Gang Debs (1966), Switchblade Sisters (1975) – GIRLS ON THE LOOSE, for its era, is pure B-movie gold and highly recommended for those with a fondness for the genre. One can only imagine what John Waters and Divine could have done with a remake of it during their hellion years of FEMALE TROUBLE (1974) and DESPERATE LIVING (1977). The characters and situations would have been perfect for a revisionist spin by them.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqmkU3k_r0o]

18 Responses Not Your Typical Girl Gang Flick
Posted By zincink : January 23, 2010 10:38 am

hehe this looks great..

Posted By zincink : January 23, 2010 10:38 am

hehe this looks great..

Posted By suzidoll : January 23, 2010 5:27 pm

Great film stills!

Posted By suzidoll : January 23, 2010 5:27 pm

Great film stills!

Posted By Helen : January 23, 2010 8:23 pm

You’ve made me want to see this schlockfest.

I usually watch The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene on Retro TV at 11:30 pm central time in my area, but Alfred Hitchcock Presents is on before. I happened to catch the credits the other night (I can’t tell you which episode it was) and Henreid was the director.

Posted By Helen : January 23, 2010 8:23 pm

You’ve made me want to see this schlockfest.

I usually watch The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene on Retro TV at 11:30 pm central time in my area, but Alfred Hitchcock Presents is on before. I happened to catch the credits the other night (I can’t tell you which episode it was) and Henreid was the director.

Posted By michelle : January 23, 2010 8:47 pm

I HAVE to see this movie!

Posted By michelle : January 23, 2010 8:47 pm

I HAVE to see this movie!

Posted By Al Lowe : January 24, 2010 4:59 am

It is worth mentioning that Abby Dalton starred in two early 60s TV series.

One was HENNESSY set on a Naval base. Jackie Cooper was a Navy doctor and Abby was his girlfriend, a Naval nurse (I wonder if the attractive world the show presented was a factor in my enlisting in the service, in the Army. The moral: Don’t believe TV). The show was not above stealing materials from past movies like MR. ROBERTS. Co-star Roscoe Karns was their boss and James Komack appeared in occasional episodes.

I didn’t watch her second series, THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW where she played Bishop’s wife.

Posted By Al Lowe : January 24, 2010 4:59 am

It is worth mentioning that Abby Dalton starred in two early 60s TV series.

One was HENNESSY set on a Naval base. Jackie Cooper was a Navy doctor and Abby was his girlfriend, a Naval nurse (I wonder if the attractive world the show presented was a factor in my enlisting in the service, in the Army. The moral: Don’t believe TV). The show was not above stealing materials from past movies like MR. ROBERTS. Co-star Roscoe Karns was their boss and James Komack appeared in occasional episodes.

I didn’t watch her second series, THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW where she played Bishop’s wife.

Posted By Medusa : January 24, 2010 1:17 pm

Al, “Hennessy” was a show I used to watch as a kid afternoons after coming home from school — reruns on a network affiliate, I believe. I still remember the jaunty theme song with fondness. I also used to watch “The Joey Bishop Show” and was always kind of amazed that the average-looking Bishop was married to such a dish! Even back then I think I figured out that show business figures could buy themselves into prettier brides than the average joe! Abby Dalton was a capable comedienne, for sure, and I also used to watch her on game shows of the period. I’ll be looking forward to see her as a tough gal in this movie!

Posted By Medusa : January 24, 2010 1:17 pm

Al, “Hennessy” was a show I used to watch as a kid afternoons after coming home from school — reruns on a network affiliate, I believe. I still remember the jaunty theme song with fondness. I also used to watch “The Joey Bishop Show” and was always kind of amazed that the average-looking Bishop was married to such a dish! Even back then I think I figured out that show business figures could buy themselves into prettier brides than the average joe! Abby Dalton was a capable comedienne, for sure, and I also used to watch her on game shows of the period. I’ll be looking forward to see her as a tough gal in this movie!

Posted By Fresca Fisher : January 30, 2010 10:02 pm

I just watched this — did you notice what movie Helen and Lt. Hanley see on their first “date”? (The theater is next door to Club Vera). None other than GODZILLA! It isn’t mentioned by name, but the one-sheet is hanging there clear as a bell outside the theater.

Posted By Fresca Fisher : January 30, 2010 10:02 pm

I just watched this — did you notice what movie Helen and Lt. Hanley see on their first “date”? (The theater is next door to Club Vera). None other than GODZILLA! It isn’t mentioned by name, but the one-sheet is hanging there clear as a bell outside the theater.

Posted By BRIAN : June 14, 2010 6:58 pm

How about
Girls Town(1959)
Mamie Van Doren
Paul Anka
Mel Torme
Ray Anthony
Cathy Crosby
Gloria Talbot

Posted By BRIAN : June 14, 2010 6:58 pm

How about
Girls Town(1959)
Mamie Van Doren
Paul Anka
Mel Torme
Ray Anthony
Cathy Crosby
Gloria Talbot

Posted By kokopop : March 30, 2012 6:13 pm

Thanks so much for this article. I’m a big fan of Henreid’s acing and directing and I’m always puzzled why he was so underrated. So many people aren’t aware of his work other than Now, Voyager and Casablanca and tend to think of him as a one trick pony. He actually showed a wide range as an actor especially as a gangster in Hollow Triumph/The Scar, a bad guy in Rope of Sand and a Dutch pirate in the Spanish Main. I recently watched Ballad In Blue and was impressed by the visual flair of his idrecting. Autor, indeed!

Posted By kokopop : March 30, 2012 6:13 pm

Thanks so much for this article. I’m a big fan of Henreid’s acing and directing and I’m always puzzled why he was so underrated. So many people aren’t aware of his work other than Now, Voyager and Casablanca and tend to think of him as a one trick pony. He actually showed a wide range as an actor especially as a gangster in Hollow Triumph/The Scar, a bad guy in Rope of Sand and a Dutch pirate in the Spanish Main. I recently watched Ballad In Blue and was impressed by the visual flair of his idrecting. Autor, indeed!

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