Noir Nook: Noir Vets on Mystery Science Theater 3000
I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to get into cinematic obsessions. One week, I won’t want to watch anything but William Holden movies, another week, nothing but westerns. You get the idea. Well, I’m currently in the midst of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) obsession – for those of you who don’t know, it’s a cult classic TV series that aired during the 1990s, first on Comedy Central and then on the Sci-Fi channel, the original premise of which involves two mad scientists who launch a hapless janitor into outer space, force him to watch bad ‘B’ movies, and monitor his thought processes as part of their plot for world domination. While watching these lousy films, the janitor – and a pair of robots he constructs for company – rake the movies over the coals, hilariously “riffing” and making fun of the plots, the acting, the writing, and whatever else they come across. Ever seen it? I’ve always been a huge fan – a proud MSTie, if you will – and I recently discovered that the streaming service Pluto has a channel that airs MST3K 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So I’m in heaven. It provides the perfect backdrop while working from home!
Anyway – what does this have to do with film noir, you might ask? Well, during my daily back-to-back (to back) viewings of the show, I occasionally run across a familiar face starring in one of these “cheesy” movies – I’ve seen such notables as Martin Balsam, Ann-Margret, Beau Bridges, Peter Lawford, Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Palance. It’s always a little startling, at first, to see these stars in these, shall we say, less than stellar vehicles. But then I settle back and enjoy the show – somehow, the skewering that these movies receive only serves to make me appreciate the performers all the more.
In addition to the aforementioned celebs, some of my favorite MST3K episodes feature movies starring some well-known film noir veterans. This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at two of these noir stars, some of their best noir offerings, and, of course, their best-loved (by me) Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie!
I love Marie Windsor. I love her impressive, commanding physique. I love her ultra-sassy line delivery like she’s spitting out something that doesn’t agree with her palate. I love that, while a student at Brigham Young University, she won the beauty contest titles of “Miss Covered Wagon Days” and “Miss D. & R.G. Railroad.”
Born Emily Marie Bertelsen in Marysvale, Utah, Windsor was drawn to acting from an early age: “At the age of eight, after going to a movie with my grandmother, I wanted to be another Clara Bow,” she said in a 1984 interview with Drama-Logue magazine. During a career that spanned five decades, Windsor starred in two of my all-time favorite noirs – The Narrow Margin (1952), where she played a brassy gangster’s widow being shuttled by train from coast to coast to testify against her dead husband’s cronies, and The Killing (1956), Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant time-bending feature about an intricately planned heist, in which Windsor was a standout as a duplicitous housewife. Her other noirs were Force of Evil (1948), with John Garfield; The Sniper (1952), helmed by Edward Dmytryk; and City That Never Sleeps (1953), which depicts a single night of drama and crime in the city of Chicago.
On Mystery Science Theater 3000, Windsor stars in Swamp Diamonds (released as Swamp Women in 1956, the same year as The Killing). In it, she is one of a trio of feisty felons (and one undercover cop) who breaks out of prison and head for the swamps of Louisiana to unearth a stash of diamonds they buried there before being sent to the pokey. Along the way, they take a young couple hostage – the male half of which is played by Mike Connors (billed back then as Touch Conners), best known as the titular star of TV’s Mannix. Windsor is top-billed as Josie Nardo, the level-headed leader of the group, who seems to spend half the movie breaking up battles between her comrades, but still finds time to deliver lines like: “Sit down – it’s just an alligator.“
The film – directed by Roger Corman, who is famous for his low-budget exploitation pictures – runs a concise 67 minutes and is fairly overflowing with catfights, ridiculously short shorts, alligator battles, double-crosses, and rivalry over the one man in the group. It’s an experience all on its own, but given the MST3K treatment, it’s a positive scream.
I interviewed Coleen Gray by phone for my first book, and had the honor of meeting her in person at a Turner Classic Movies film festival several years ago; needless to say, she has a very special place in my heart. But even before my personal encounter with her, I was a big fan. On-screen, she could be a sweet as peach pie and innocent as a baby, or a pleasant and charming murderess, with equal skill.
Gray was born Doris Bernice Jensen in Staplehurst, Nebraska, and moved with her family at an early age to Hutchinson, Minnesota, where she attended grade school and high school. Like Windsor, she had dreams of becoming an actress from an early age. “In seventh or eighth grade, our English teacher had each person voice their ambition in life, and most of the girls wanted to be a teacher or a nurse or a housewife,” Gray once recalled. “I said I wanted to be a movie star and they laughed at me – boy, did they laugh – so I never said it again, ever. But it was in my consciousness.” She appeared in a total of five noirs during her career, including Kiss of Death (1947), where she was the young wife of ex-convict Victor Mature, The Killing (1956), where she was seen in a small part as the devoted girlfriend of Sterling Hayden. Her best noir performances came in Nightmare Alley (1947), The Sleeping City (1950), and Kansas City Confidential (1952) – in each of these wildly divergent roles, her talent and versatility was on full display.
On Mystery Science Theater 3000, Gray was in two separate episodes; in The Phantom Planet (1961), she played a supporting part as the devious daughter of a planetoid ruler, but in The Leech Woman (1960), she was the star. In the title role of this film, Gray portrayed Jane Talbot, an unhappily married alcoholic whose scientist husband wants to use her as a human guinea pig in his quest to find an anti-aging formula. As it happens, a necessary ingredient of the formula is the secretions from the male pineal gland – and extracting the secretions necessitates a fatal procedure. As you can imagine, this minor detail doesn’t stop Jane from killing (and killing again) in her never-ending quest for youth and beauty. Co-starring Phillip Terry, Grant Williams, Gloria Talbott, and Kim Hamilton, The Leech Woman is actually quite watchable – but it’s also perfect fodder for the treatment on MST3K.
You can find Swamp Diamonds, The Leech Woman, and The Phantom Planet on YouTube – if you want to see a couple of film noir vets like you’re never seen them before, tune in and check ‘em out!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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