I first saw Pretty Maids All In A Row when I was about six, I think, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Got me a DVD of it now, and it holds up well. It’s a very black sex comedy/murder mystery, set in a Californian high school at the turn of the 70s, when all that’s left of the “hippy dream” is sexual promiscuity, and where the scantily clad female students can’t get enough of their hot, moustachioed “guidance counsellor” Tiger McDrew, played by Rock Hudson. I can’t think why it stayed with me.
The plot – such as it is – hinges on the question of whether Rock Hudson is or isn’t a serial killer, and whether one of his students – the sexually frustrated and permanently erect Ponce – will or won’t get his rocks off. Telly Savalas plays the detective investigating the murders i.e. Kojak avant la lettre, although at this stage in his career, it’s hard not to get the image of him as a psychopath himself, one of twelve in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, out of your head.
Pretty Maids All In A Row was directed by Roger Vadim, and may be the best thing he ever made, although he did set that particular bar pretty low. This was on the back of the annoyingly “groovy” and over-rated Barbarella, which starred the annoyingly unsexy Jane Fonda, her very voice an oddly grating form of anti-Viagra. She and Vadim were an item then, but by the time of Pretty Maids they had gone their separate ways, and it is Angie Dickinson who plays the love interest, whose pertly-nippled blouses drive Ponce to distraction. Vadim wanted his earlier enamorada, the National Front-voting, animal-loving Brigitte Bardot, to star, but she was unavailable due to immigrant-baiting commitments.
Good though Angie is, it’s the casting of Rock Hudson that proves the real masterstroke. Even as a six-year-old I was used to Rock as the very embodiment of unproblematic Eisenhower-era masculinity (little did we know!) the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth male leads in action movies like Ice Station Zebra, the string of amazing melodramas he made with Douglas Sirk – Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind – and the less amazing Doris Day rom-coms. Here it really doesn’t matter if he’s the killer or not, cuz he’s a grade-A philandering sleaze ball anyway, and he’s got the gay moustache to prove it. Mind you, if he is the killer (and I’m not saying he is) you could write an interesting thesis on the film’s subtext, how Rock both literally AND metaphorically kills off the women in his (and Ponce’s) life in order to pursue a relationship with the oddly-named Ponce that is more than merely fatherly.
As if that wasn’t enough to entice the adepts of cult/trash cinema, there’s Keenan Wynn, my hero, but he’s not in it not for long, cuz he gets offed by the killer, who evidently mistakes him for a gorgeous young co-ed (an easy mistake to make in fairness – I too thought he was to die for in Dr Strangelove, but perhaps not to kill for). There’s Roddy McDowall, fresh from Planet of the Apes, as camp as a row of Tea’s-Mades in the role of the school principal. And Brenda Sykes, playing a sassy young thing, who would crop up again as a sassy young house slave in Richard Fleischer’s brilliant Mandingo. And best of all, for fans of obscure cinema and elfin beauty, there’s Aimee Eccles, who as Dustin Hoffman’s Native American wife Sunshine in Little Big Man gets killed in the Washita River Massacre. No wonder Quentin Tarantino names Pretty Maids All in a Row in his All-time Top Ten Movies: apart from the endless parade of naked girls and cult actors, it’s edited like the soft-core video version of Debbie Does Dallas, it’s arch, it’s sleazy and at its core is a much better movie, if only it had been directed by Russ Meyer. He would have barred no holds and done the story justice, in the same way Ingmar Bergman would have done M Night Shylaman’s intriguing but ultimately lame pseudo-historical horror movie The Village justice. Or Debbie Does Dallas. Ingmar might have made a fist of that, so to speak.