The Milkman Always Rings Twice

I’ve been hoping to see a good Wolf Rilla film for ages: his work on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is so smart, and yet everything else I’ve been able to see was a letdown. THE BLACK RIDER was the one that used to turn up on UK TV, and it’s really pathetic — a crummy motorcycle film with a Scooby Doo plot. I wasn’t looking for the amusingly bad, but the unexpectedly good. Fiona and I once bumped into the Great Man’s son, Nico, at Edinburgh Film Fest, and he suggested THE WORLD TEN TIMES OLDER was a cult item that might be worth checking out, but I couldn’t get interested. But MARILYN — know in the US as ROADHOUSE GIRL, which sets you up for all manner of disappointment — has been gathering quite a strong reputation.

I guess the setting is, technically, a roadhouse of sorts, but we’d call it a greasy spoon cafe (pronounced “caff”) or maybe a tea-room. It’s that exciting. Vamped up to project class and glamour mid-film, it acquires the name Marilyn, after its owner, an impossible development — a cafe could be called Marilyn’s, conceivably, but not Marilyn. Snack-bars with human names? What’s next, a brasserie called Derek? Perhaps this is a case of the Berlin-born Rilla not being quite familiar enough with British idioms. Certainly the dialogue in his self-penned script is strangely flat and repetitive, and his cast are not resourceful enough to repeat a line two different ways, so whenever they echo themselves it sounds like they’re practicing their lines, or like multiple takes have been spliced together by an experimentally-inclined cutter.

The actors include Maxwell Reed (Mr. Joan Collins), who’s tall, and Sandra Dorne, who’s blonde (they were made for each other!), and Leslie Dwyer, the Punch and Judy man from TV’s Hi-De-Hi! It’s basically James M. Cain at a garage in the Home Counties. Also featuring Count Von Krolock and Hengist Pod. But the movie belongs to Ealing stalwart Vida Hope.

Reed gets a job as garage hand and spends time posing erotically under a sign reading LUBRICATION SERVICE. Dorne falls for him, they bump off the jealous husband more or less by accident, and then she starts pursuing more promising romantic prospects in the form of suave Ferdy Mayne, who must have played suave in a hundred quote quickies of this kind, filmed in a week or two and released to deafening silence in possibly-empty auditoria. Hope plays the waitress/confidante who’s obviously in love with Marilyn, the only daring aspect of a movie that bowdlerizes Cain’s “love rack” narrative at every turn. Even at the end, when the cops turn up, I was racking my brains to figure out if anything seriously criminal has actually been done. It would be a good Cain-style narrative if they ended up being done for murder, when WE saw it was an accident, and insurance fraud when it was basically on the level. But the movie ends, or runs out, before that can be dealt with.

But Rilla directs with admirable intensity — his angles are good, and he cuts to juicy close-ups at the most effective moments. And, As Matthew Sweet has argued, there’s something appealing about the sheer drabness of it all. Even the romantic music is lugubrious, despondent, like the rubber band’s gone on the gramophone. The actors are all road-company versions of the bare archetypes they’re attempting to evoke. The whole affair has a real post-war misery. This is to IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY as DETOUR is to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. To quote Errol Morris’s best line, “Despair enacted on cheap sets.”

Inventive and lively direction keeps us engaged with a production that’s totally “from poverty,” and the script engages with the lack of glamour. Best line is when Dwyer rants about how his wife should show more gratitude: “I work my fingers to the bone so you can have all the comforts. Look around you: a gas fire in every room. Electric light!”

Wow. This is living.

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10 Responses to “The Milkman Always Rings Twice”

  1. The late, great and much-missed Raymond Durgnat was a big fan of “The World Ten Times Over,” comparing it favorably to “Vivre Sa Vie.”

  2. You know, Noah Isenberg’s book on DETOUR has challenged the “despair on cheap sets” thesis. It turns out that Detour while still pretty cheap in absolute terms of big budget movies, in fact had a pretty decent budget in relative terms of poverty row, and it also had more money behind it than Ulmer’s other films of that time. It also had a pretty good marketing campaign because the producers believed that the film had quality. None of which exactly diminishes the achievement of DETOUR just like Bicycle Thieves being Italy’s most expensive film (beating out Paisan) doesn’t diminish it’s importance in world cinema and inspiring location shooting masterworks.

  3. Hi Mr. Cairns

    A bit late to the Village of the Damned party, but here’s a lovely piece of writing on the film from Chris Fujiwara (re the finale):

    “Why is this scene so memorable? The answer is clear. If the filmmaker’s goal were merely to show the object of the character’s thought, a shot of a simple brick wall would have been enough. But the scene also shows the process of thought:- the gradual erosion of the man’s concentration – through the metaphor of the crumbling. If I were to encounter Village of the Damned for the first time, I might find this metaphor academic and literary. Having seen the film as a child, the idea seemed wonderful to me, and it still does”

    A lot of people who love this film seem to have encountered it as kids as well, and it clearly left a mark. Any idea why this phenomenon (apart from it being a good film?)

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Andre: Any film were children are empowered — even if they’re evil — leaves an impression on other children. As a kid I enjoyed Shirley Temple films despite Shirley being a girl. She was a fellow kid, and in her movies the adult world revolved around her and her concerns. “Treasure Island” puts a small boy at the center of the drama, and best tellings (for young audiences, anyway) keep the focus on his viewpoint and feelings. We didn’t want anyone telling us whether Jim Hawkins should trust Long John Silver; it was us and Jim struggling to sort it out. We may have liked “Family” movies where a token kid or two tags after the stars, but they weren’t the same thing at all.

  5. Matthew Davis Says:

    I remember the latter section of Willa’s “End of the Road” (1954) being better than one might expect. Grandfather Finlay Currie has been forcibly retired, and eventually has a nervous breakdown wandering the local canals all day and into the dead of night, with dutch angles, expressionist mist and steam. It was quite atmospherically shot, Currie was good, and since throughout the earlier part of the film he had a good relationship with his grandson, when he starts to go senile and querulous the grandson’s fear and disorientation following him has a little more grit to it. The rest of the drama was rather clichéd, the son and daughter-in-law were more middle class than northern working class (but that’s british film for you), and the deus ex machina is the frustrated paternalism of factory-owner Edward Chapman

  6. Alas, The End of the Road seems unavailable anywhere.

    Very curious to look at The World 10X Over now, though.

    Empowered children is one thing, but I think part of what seemed exciting to me as a kid was that in this film, kids were in no way presented as empathetic or sympathetic figures. They were alien and scary. Which my own peers seemed to be most of the time. The film encourages an adult perspective. Of course, kids as monsters wasn’t particularly disturbing to me, as it was to adult viewers…

    Detour certainly LOOKS more expensive than other Ulmers of the period: you can tell he had at least time to move the camera…

  7. Matthew Davis Says:

    I watched End of the Road last year on Talking Pictures TV so it’ll probably come around again in the next few months.

  8. I’ll be watching out for it!

  9. I would have thought that if Wolf was the son of Walter Rilla then he would be very familiar with British idioms since his father was a refugee from Hitler and did appear in many films in the 30s and 40s. THE SCAMP (1957) is nauseating but THE WORLD TEN TIMES OVER is worth checking out.

  10. The Scamp keep turning up on Talking Pictures TV… I have a good copy of TW10XO now so will check it out. Also got Cairo, another one with George Sanders, which doesn’t look particularly interesting but I’m sure will be nicely-handled.

    Wolf was born in Berlin, and I’m not sure how old he was when he made Britain his home. At any rate, the Marilyn cafe weirdness may just be the kind of oddity that comes from inexperienced writing rather than cultural unfamiliarity, I guess.

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