Hot on the heels of their much welcomed HD remastering of Albert Zugsmith’s cult classic HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, Olive Films, under license from Paramount Home Entertainment, gives Zug’s less notorious but equally interesting follow-up THE BEAT GENERATION its first legitimate home video release on both Blu-ray and DVD.
Pseudo-intellectual nihilist, jargon-spouting con artist, and serial rapist Arthur Garrett (Ray Danton, THE GEORGE RAFT STORY, director of DEATHMASTER)—known as the Aspirin Kid for his habit of leaving a pocket-size aspirin tin behind at the scene of his crimes—targets, sexually assaults, and frames another unsuspecting victim (Margaret Hayes, GIRLS TOWN, HOUSE OF WOMEN), setting out lunch dishes to make the rape look like an affair gone awry. He brazenly hitches a ride with embittered L.A. detective sergeant Dave Culloran (Steve Cochran, I MOBSTER), who’s answering the police call, surreptitiously lifting Dave’s home address from an envelope in the car. As Culloran relentlessly pursues the investigation, mercilessly grilling Garrett’s victims and openly implying that they were women of easy virtue who were “asking for it,” his wife Francee (Fay Spain, DRAGSTRIP GIRL, HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN) and even his partner Jake (Jackie Coogan, EIGHTEEN AND ANXIOUS) begin to suspect that his past years on the vice squad, coupled with an adulterous ex-wife, are causing Dave to misogynistically take his lingering anger and frustration out on the Kid’s innocent victims.
Like HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, THE BEAT GENERATION treats us to a campy “beatnik” club scene featuring Maila Nurmi (billed as “Vampira” but garbed in her street clothes) reciting a bit of free verse while holding a white rat, unfortunately intercut with scenes of Garrett conning his way into the Culloran home. The Kid assaults Francee, leaving behind his signature aspirin box to taunt and torment Dave, then follows up with mocking phone calls. Dave tries to question Francee about the crime, but she breaks down, accusing him of interrogating her and treating her like a suspect. In one of the movie’s few moments of intentional humor, Dave and Jake are assigned to Operation Sweetheart, a police operation to snare the Lovers Lane Bandit, with the cops in drag posing as necking teens. But when Dave returns home, he’s hit with a bombshell: Francee is pregnant.
Garrett then hatches a plot to drive Culloran nuts and further complicate the police investigation by having local beach bum Art Jester (Jim Mitchum, RIDE THE WILD SURF) make a few calls posing as the Aspirin Kid. Art’s first stop, at man-hungry Georgia Altera’s (Mamie Van Doren, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, UNTAMED YOUTH) residence, initially proceeds almost too smoothly, then hits a snag when her irate ex-husband Harry (Ray Anthony, THE BIG OPERATOR) shows up. Not knowing who her unborn child’s father is, Francee wants to terminate the pregnancy, but Dave is violently opposed on both moral and legal grounds, and finally, frustrated by Dave’s obsession with nailing the Aspirin Kid and his endless hours on the job, Francee walks out. Culloran promptly goes into overdrive, proceeding to further harass Hess’s previous victims, even accusing Georgia of harboring the Aspirin Kid. After promising to lead him to the Kid, she and Culloran are kidnapped by Garrett and Jester, and all paths ultimately cross at a strange “beat hootenanny” where the “beatniks” sit around listening to sound effects records and Dick “Daddy-O” Contino (GIRLS TOWN) sings a poem penned by the sociopathic Hess.
What just a few years earlier would have been a standard crime thriller is here set in the world of the “beatniks” (well, Hollywood’s version, anyway) in order to capitalize on the then-current phenomenon, which was primarily a media creation only tangentially related to the writings of “Beat Generation” authors Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The term “beatnik” (beat + Sputnik) was coined in 1958 by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, and detested by the Beats themselves. Zugsmith reportedly copyrighted the term “The Beat Generation” out from under Kerouac, who originally coined the phrase, and used it as the exploitable title for his movie, which has no connection to the literary beat scene, and precious little with the fake beatnik scene, for that matter (there is a conspicuous scarcity of beret-wearing hipsters in sunglasses, sandals, and black leotards).
While produced only a year after HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, THE BEAT GENERATION is worlds away in tone, the former’s slangy patter and high-camp hijinks giving way to an overall serious, even disturbing examination of misogyny, sexual assault, and its ugly aftermath, including unwanted pregnancy, abortion, and slut-shaming of rape victims. While occurring mostly off-screen, the rape scenes still pack a punch, and Fay Spain in particular earns kudos for her tortured portrayal of Francee’s pain, shame, and ultimate redemption. The sometimes inexplicable antics of the ersatz beatniks and the drag police operation provide some slightly out-of-place “comic relief” (you’ll wish you could un-see Sid Melton [LOST CONTINENT] and Jackie Coogan in a wig and dress) but the film treats its primary subject with the seriousness it demands—underplaying its more salacious aspects, unlike Zugsmith’s typical late-period output—and remains overall one of his more satisfying MGM-era productions.
As usual, Zug’s “stunt casting” approach is in full effect, the cast rounded out by members of his eclectic stock company of near-actors and non-actors, including Louis Armstrong (who sings the title song), Ray Anthony, and Dick Contino (musicians), Jim Mitchum, Cathy Crosby, and Charles Chaplin Jr. (offspring of famous stars), Irish McCalla and Vampira (TV icons), and Norman “Woo Woo” Grabowski (hot rod kustomizer). Guy Stockwell (ADVENTURES IN PARADISE), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), and Bara Byrnes (GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS) also appear in brief bit roles.
THE BEAT GENERATION has never had a legitimate home video release (there was a laserdisc bearing this title, but it’s a documentary, not this movie), and the only “gray market” copy I’ve ever been able to lay hands on was Video Beat’s middling looking 1.85:1 letterboxed DVD-R of unknown origin (interestingly, not a pan and scan of the CinemaScope frame, but a radically different crop, clipping a small chunk off the right side of the frame, a much larger chunk off the left side, and adding a significant strip of information along the bottom to achieve a 1.85:1 aspect ratio). Needless to say, the Olive Blu-ray is a vast improvement.
Olive’s definitive presentation features THE BEAT GENERATION in its original 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, the near-pristine 1080p transfer exhibiting deep, solid blacks, rich grayscale, and brilliant highlights, with a sheen of tight, fine grain providing a nice filmic texture but never becoming distracting. Skin, hair, and clothing textures are impressively crisp and detailed, and I noticed no evidence of any heavy-handed DNR or other manipulation. There is a bit of very light speckling and blemishing in evidence, but overall the transfer is pretty gorgeous, better than I’d have dreamed of for this elusive title. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio is clean and clear, with no artifacts or issues to speak of. Despite the lack of any extras, typical of Olive’s output, this is still a five-star release in my book, and a worthy addition to any exploitation fan’s video library. Olive has announced Zugsmith’s THE BIG OPERATOR as being in the pipeline; I’d love to see them give Zug’s GIRLS TOWN a proper digital release as well, so far available only on VHS. (Paul Tabili)
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