Thursday, August 6, 2015

THE DEVIL'S SLEEP (1949)

The Devil's Sleep is a good example of a grindhouse movie of its time. (I use the word "good" advisedly.) On its surface a "hard-hitting" drama about "the sleeping pill racket", it is, in reality, an exploitation picture taking advantage of its "adults only" warning by tossing around drug slang along with a couple of instances of nudity. 

I mean, look at that poster. One devil and two "teenage" girls in bikinis are the selling point. On the lower left is what looks like an Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water. Did anyone buy a ticket to The Devil's Sleep to get a serious discourse on drug abuse?

But there are lectures a-plenty, alright, from Judge Rosalind Ballentine, Inspector Darnell and Detective Sergeant Dave Kerrigan. It seems the local teens are downing bennies and goofies like Necco Wafers. While Judge Ballentine is rightfully appalled, she doesn't put the blame entirely on the kids: "The teenagers of the new generation grew up in a time of nerves: newspaper screaming headlines of race riots, revolution, earthquake -- back of it all, speed. Everyone rushing nowhere to get nowhere, and for no reason." Was this thing shot in 1949 or 2015?

If this guy spent as much time on
studying as his wardrobe, he
wouldn't still be in high school
at the age of 27.
Kerrigan convinces his girlfriend's younger brother, Bob, to rat out  his friends who seem to be riding on the Phenobarbital Express, eventually asking him to go undercover by getting a job in the drug ring. Sure, all cops put high-schoolers in physical danger in order to break a case. Police have better things to do than investigating crime themselves.

Kids these days, hunh?
Conveniently, Bob is currently dating Margie Ballentine, the Judge's daughter. While unwittingly attending a party at the pusher's house -- hey, it can happen! -- someone slips a goofie into Margie's drink, where she winds up falling naked into the swimming pool. Again, it can happen! 

A little more obvious than an iPhone.
One of the pusher's goons takes a compromising picture of Margie au naturel to blackmail the crusading judge. We're supposed to be aghast at this breach of morality, while being treated to a couple of juicy close-ups of the photo -- a typical grindhouse example of cognitive dissonance that didn't seem to bother anybody at the time, probably because they didn't know what it meant.


Ladies, would you go to a gym run by
these guys?
The leader of the drug ring, Humberto Scalli (gee, I wonder what his ethnic heritage is) uses a woman's gym as his cover, where his overweight clients are also hooked to his "weight-reducing" pills. As his sidekick says, "Those blimps really line your pockets!" Scalli is equally subtle, remarking, "I gotta laugh. They're like trained elephants -- give them a pill and send them on their way." The bit players who were the target of this witty repartee must have loved appearing in this movie. 

"Don't be like me, kids, or you'll wind
up looking like a drag queen."
Many exploitation movies of the '40s and early '50s tried to attract attention by casting familiar names to make their two-bit -- make that one-bit -- productions look more important. The Devil's Sleep offers Lita Grey Chaplin as Judge Ballentine. It's a little rich to see her playing Miss Morality, considering she was knocked up at age 16 by 35 year-old Charlie Chaplin, who was then obliged to marry her -- a union that ended with an incredibly ugly divorce before her 20th birthday. The Devil's Sleep was her final attempt at show business immortality, after decades of third-rate vaudeville houses, where here defining talent was... being Charlie Chaplin's ex-wife.

Wake up, doc!
Then there's John Mitchum, whose older brother, Robert, was already a red-hot movie star. Despite sharing the same parentage, John lacks his sibling's looks, charisma, talent, and whatever else you relate to Robert Mitchum. During his one scene as a doctor, John not only can't keep his eyes off the cue cards, he pronounces "barbiturate" as "barbitooit." Er, thanks, doc, I think I'll go for a second opinion...

Can't he read? No, probably not.
Presumably as eye candy for what few women put down good money for The Devil's Sleep, George Eiferman, aka Mr. America of 1948, appears as himself, taking a job as an instructor at Scalli's gym. Sounding like he's downed a couple of goofballs, Eiferman is even less convincing as himself than John Mitchum is as a doctor. In the least realistic scene in a movie filled with them, he eventually finds the stash of pills by breaking a padlock off a locker with one hand. 

You gotta admit, he's a got a great head of hair.
The Devil's Sleep real star, though, is the legendary Timothy Farrell as Humberto Scalli, a character he played in two other low budget shockers, Dance Hall Racket and Racket Girls. (Starting to see a pattern?) But he's known best as being Robert De Niro to Ed Wood's Martin Scorcese in Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait and The Violent Years. A court bailiff when he wasn't appearing in fly-by-night pictures, Farrell brings a strange piquancy to all his roles. There's no way he could have made it in real movies -- he's only slightly less wooden than a totem pole -- but there's something undeniably hypnotic about him. And whether he's playing a pusher, shrink, cop, or (gulp) gynecologist, you always wonder if he was as sleazy in real life as he is onscreen. 

The Devil's Sleep, like many of its ilk, probably turned up occasionally in Times Square theatres into the  '60s, angering patrons who were looking for real adult entertainment. Today, of course, it's best enjoyed with the mind-altering substance of your choice, an irony that its more wised-up participants wouldn't find surprising. 

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