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Promising ideas get lost in attempt at topical exploitation
The Beat Generation exploits that post-war phenomenon of feckless and disillusioned youth as a topical gimmick superficial parody pitched at about the level of Bob Denver's Maynard G. Krebs on `The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,' the TV series which debuted the same year as this movie. Beatniks with bongo drums spout petulant poesy couched in a made-in-Hollywood argot thick with `daddy-o's,' `real gone's' and `cool cats.' (Out of all this comes at least one good line: `I don't need a mother, man I've BEEN born.')
All of which is too bad, because here and there The Beat Generation shows glimmers of higher aspirations, as though it had started out a more ambitious project a better movie than it ended up. (The co-scriptwriter, Lewis Meltzer, has some solid noir credits on his resume, including The Brothers Rico.)
Out of the coffee houses comes rapist known as the Aspirin Kid (Ray Danton) who is terrorizing the community. On the pretext of repaying a debt, he shows up at the door of married women whose husbands are away, pleads a headache, and, while water is being fetched, slips on leather gloves and overpowers his angels of mercy.
On his trail is cop Steve Cochran, whose wife becomes the Kid's next victim. This proves more than Cochran can handle, who starts treating his wife the way he treated the other victims as tramps who asked for it. It doesn't help when she finds out she's pregnant, presumably by the rapist. (And here the movie takes some very odd turns. First, there's discussion of a possible abortion a subject that movies at this time touched upon, if at all, only in the murkiest of terms. Then there's a mini-sermon about the sanctity of life which sounds as if it had been written in Vatican City, though it turns out to be the movie's viewpoint as well.)
The theme of the misogyny shared by Cochran and the rapist remains the most compelling element of the story; if only it had been pursued more consistently or honestly. Instead, the film flies off on its peculiar tangents. One of them concerns Mamie Van Doren, whose assault is rudely interrupted, which is a shame, because she quite explicitly WAS asking for it, and stays miffed for the rest of the movie. Another concerns Jim Mitchum (Robert's son) as the rapist's accomplice; he inherited his father's looks, down to the cleft in his chin, but little of his talent. His idea of acting is to fling out his arms with every line he utters. Charlie Chaplin's son appears as well, not that it matters much, as does a very early Vampira, reciting an ode to parental hate with a white rat perched on her shoulder like a pirate with a parrot.
The Beat Generation suffered too many compromises to be classed as true noir, though it often is. Sadly, its chief interest is in preserving its grotesque travesty of that cultural phenomenon called the Beats a travesty that has become more or less the official line when the beats are remembered at all.
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