Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sylvia (1965) Ascent From Hell Woman's Noir

Here is an interesting movie, based on the novel Sylvia by Howard Fast (published as E.V. Cunningham). Fast had been blacklisted by the  House Committee on Un-American Activities, because of his biographical novel Citizen Tom Paine, synopsis here which BTW J. Edgar Hoover ordered all copies destroyed. This was in 1951. If you read the synopsis you wonder WTF was going on in this country back then. He was a script writer, also known for Spartacus (1960), and Mirage (1965).

Directed by Gordon Douglas who gave us Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951), and later known for Westerns (some of my favorites are Rio Conchos (1964), Barquero (1970) and Skin Game (1971)), and Crime films including Sinatra's Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), and Lady in Cement (1968).  The screenplay was written by Sydney Boehm who has eight film noir to his credit.

Sylvia (Carroll Baker)

The cinematography was by quadruple-Oscar-winner Joseph Ruttenberg who gave us a handful of noirs (Crossroads (1942), Gaslight (1944), The Bribe (1949),  Side Street (1949), and Cause for Alarm! (1951)). The music was by David Raksin who began his career in 1936 with Chaplin's Modern Times, was the composer responsible for Laura (1944) and for the soundtrack for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) among many others.

A meeting

The film oozes cinematic memory starring a plethora of Noir, Neo Noir and TV actors. Carroll Baker (Baby Doll (1956), Something Wild (1961), Bad (1977), Ironweed (1987)) as Sylvia West aka Sylvia Karoki. Peter Lawford (The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Ocean's 11 (1960)) as Frederic Summers. George Maharis (Naked City TV Series (1958–1963), Route 66  (1960–1964)) as Alan Macklin.

Supporting cast consists of Joanne Dru (Red River (1948), All the King's Men (1949), 711 Ocean Drive (1950), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)) as Jane Phillips, Viveca Lindfors (Backfire (1950), Dark City (1950), Brainstorm (1965)) as Irma Olanski, Edmond O'Brien (thirteen Film Noir) as Oscar Stewart, Ann Sothern (The Blue Gardenia (1953)) as Grace Argona, Jay Novello (Phantom Lady (1944), Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Sirocco (1951),The Sniper (1952), and Crime Wave (1953)). Aldo Ray (Nightfall (1956), Psychic Killer (1975)) as Jonas Karoki, Lloyd Bochner (was in To Serve Man one of the Iconic Twilight Zone Episodes, and in Point Blank (1967)) as the sadist Bruce Stamford III, Anthony Caruso (Night Editor (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Undercover Man (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), A Cry in the Night (1956)) as bouncer "Muscles,"  Paul Gilbert as Lola Diamond the barracuda, Nancy Kovack as Big Shirley, and Paul Wexler as Peter Memel.

The story is Sylvia West (Baker) is about to marry California millionaire Frederic Summers (Lawford) who has proposed to her. She is gorgeous, smart, financially independent, writes published poetry and seems to be the perfect woman.

Macklin (Maharis) and Summers (Lawford)

home movies of Sylvia
But Summers is cautious and hires a P.I. Alan Macklin (Maharis), to do a background check on his fiancee. From a clue in Sylvia's book of poetry a professor tells Macklin that he should start his search in Pittsburgh, PA. From a spinster librarian (Lindfors), he strikes a spark with the name Sylvia. Sylvia is Sylvia Karoki from a Pittsburgh Ghetto.


Librarian (Lindfors)
She takes him on a tour of Sylvia's old neighborhood. He finds out that Sylvia was raped by her drunk, of a stepfather, Jonas, (Ray) and then, when she ran away terrified from her tenement house she's drawn to the light of a storefront mission. There the a travelling preacher who calls himself "Peter The Healer" takes her under his wing .and unfortunately we find out soon, also between her legs. Nice guy, He drives her all the way to Mexico and sells her into a whorehouse. A white slaver.

Flashback Rape

Jonas (Ray)

teenage Sylvia

More like Peter The Shit Heel than Peter The Healer

The creepy preacher
Baker as Sylvia plays both her adult self and a teen in the flashbacks. Macklin then travels to Mexico where he gets more of Sylvia's story with the help of little kid tourist hustler named Pancho (Manuel Padilla) who takes him to a priest Father Gonzales (Jay Novello).

Macklin and Pancho

Macklin and Father Gonzales (Jay Novello)

From Father Gonzales Macklin finds out that a travelling dress salesman Oscar Stewart (Edmund Obrien) picks her up from the whorehouse and makes a deal to drive her to New York City for the privilege of driving dangerous curves across dirty sheets at night. Macklin next tracks Stewart down in New York and threatens to let his wife know about his shenanigans if he doesn't give out with what he knows about Sylvia.

Macklin and Oscar Stewart (Edmund Obrien)

Stewart tells Macklin that Sylvia next worked in a Times Square/Broadway penny arcade making change and bunking with another change booth girl named Grace Argona (Ann Southern). Macklin visits Grace next.

Penny Arcade

Grace (Ann Southern) and Macklin
Grace tells Macklin over an expensive dinner that she really liked Slyvia. She tells him that she would pick up men for kicks and extra bucks/ She tried to convince Sylvia to do the same. But Sylvia wouldn't do it, pretty much just staying at the apartment reading.

Penny Arcade Flashback 

Sylvia,"Muscles" the bouncer (Anthony Caruso) and Stewart

Eventually Sylvia does leave, and Grace hears later that she was busted for prostitution with a couple of other girls and spent 30 days in the slammer with three of them. One of those girls Big Shirley (Nancy Kovack) now works as a stripper, and Macklin questions her about the next phase of Sylvia's life.

Big Shirley

Sylvia, Shirley, and Jane (Joanne Dru) worked in a whorehouse for a madam named Molly Banter (Connie Gilchrist) who the girls called "Mother." Shirley didn't know what happened to Sylvia but she did hear that Jane made it big, married a banker named Hurbert Phillips. Macklin next tracks down Jane.

Dinner with Jane and another piece of Sylvia's puzzeled past comes together

Molly Banter's "Mother" whorehouse

Mother (Connie Gilchrist) center
Jane fills in the whorehouse and raid aftermath details telling Macklin that Sylvia and herself decided after 30 days detention that they would quit the life. They worked as waitresses for four months and were hassled seven different times by vice cops, and afterward they'd invariably get fired and have to find new jobs.

One day Jane gets hit by a truck breaks both legs and is sent to the hospital. To get her a private room and pay for her care Sylvia goes back to being a whore and works as a high priced "hostess" to turn tricks for a cross dressing Pimp/Madam Lola Diamond "the barracuda" (Paul Gilbert) who runs a sort of escort service out of his nightclub where he sings torch songs.

Lola Diamond

Lola (Paul Gilbert)

Sylvia the High Class Hooker
When Jane is about to be released Sylvia turns one last trick who turns out to be a wealthy sadist named Bruce Stamford III (Lloyd Bochner) who beats her up. Sylvia threatens to call the police. Bruce agrees to cough up ten thousand dollars to keep her quiet. Jane ends up marrying a banker and her husband is able to invest Sylvia's money, growing it up to seventy-thousand dollars.

Bruce Stamford III (Lloyd Bochner)


Calling the police

With the seventy thousand, Sylvia splits New York and and heads to The City Of Angels. She changes her name once again to Sylvia West buys a nice house invests the rest and grows prized roses and writes poetry. As you can guess by now Macklin has become obsessed with Sylvia.


"To prepare herself to play the heroine with a checkered past, Carroll Baker actually worked a shift in an all-night diner (where she went unnoticed), made change in a penny arcade booth, visited a Tijuana brothel and so forth - publicity stunt "research" that was documented in a lengthy February 27 1965 Saturday Evening Post picture story called "The Lady Was A Tramp"." from IMDb

Maharis is OK in the role of the dogged PI, Baker is also decent in her complex portrayal. However they don't really shine. The rest of that cast is good, carrying the tale along with interesting cameos. Both leads had their problems, Maharis had a couple of vice squad sexual perversion busts, one with a male hairdresser no less, that sidetracked his career, and Baker's next film Harlow was a flop. Baker relocated to Italy in 1966 while she was having legal problems over her contract with Paramount, along with a dispute with Joseph E. Levine. In Italy Baker starred in Italian Giallos including Umberto Lenzi's Paranoia (1969) and Knife of Ice (1972). In 1977 she was a character actress in  Andy Warhol's Bad (1977).  Paul Anka croons the title song. Screencaps are from an online streaming version of the film. It's worth a look, a café au lait Noir 6.5-7/10

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