Warner Bros. // 1971 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 17th, 2010
Roger Vadim, the director who uncovered Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda, now brings you the American high school girl...and Rock Hudson.
It's just like life at your high school. Except a lot weirder.
Welcome to Oceanfront High School, where the teachers are hot and the student body is even hotter. Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson, Day of the Dolphin) is a hopeless horndog, taunted everywhere by beautiful classmates but remaining virginal and awkward. His mentor is "Tiger" McDrew (Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk, local football hero and the school's assistant principal who has a special way with the young ladies and even catches the eye of a gorgeous new substitute teacher, Ms. Smith (Angie Dickinson, Point Blank). Unfortunately, Oceanfront's got a problem on its hands (bigger than the fact that all of the teachers seem to be sleeping with students): dead bodies keep turning up and threatening to ruin the school's excellent football season. Enter Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas, On Her Majesty's Secret Service), a detective assigned to the case. Will the murderer be found? Will the football team's season be rescued? Will Ponce ever kiss a girl? The answers to these questions and more will all be answered in Pretty Maids All in a Row.
There's a widespread acceptance of certain critical dogma when it comes to talking about movies that dictates only specific ones be deemed "special." There are no hard and fast rules for what constitutes a special movie, though equal parts uniqueness, mass appeal and commercial success all seem to help. E.T. is a special movie; the same goes for The Wizard of Oz and Forrest Gump. Movies that are lurid or violent or darkly comic are rarely called special. Imagine the chances for a movie that's all three.
And, yet, here is Pretty Maids All in a Row, a movie that still works even though it shouldn't and is, in its way, quite special. What makes it so entertaining is the tension between Roger Vadim's usual brand of leering sleaziness and Gene Roddenberry's very clever script. It reminded me in many ways of a Paul Verhoeven movie -- it's what Basic Instinct or Showgirls might have been if they had any sense of humor or self-awareness. Roddenberry, a guy hardly known for subtlety during his Star Trek days, writes a biting satire of '70s sexual mores and an indictment of sheltered small towns, where the success of the high school football team matters more than a few dead bodies. There are some big laugh lines, too, mostly of a pretty dark variety (some of my favorites include "We never have practice on the day of a murder!" and "My dad's rich. No, I mean my mom's rich. My dad's dead." Also, anything Roddy McDowell says). Vadim, who knows how to create a camp classic (this is the man who gave us Barbarella, after all), plays things fairly straight -- if you overlook the nonstop lingering over the young female bodies and overall tone of rampant horniness. The resulting mix of styles plays like a whole bunch of genres mashed together: it's a murder mystery, a black comedy and a sex movie that won't stop undercutting the fact that it's a sex movie.
To look at the cast list for the film is to be positive that Pretty Models is nothing more than some camp classic: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowell, James Doohan and a bunch of would-be centerfolds fill out the roles (some better than others...barf), no doubt chosen by Roger Vadim himself after extensive casting sessions. But the ensemble is uniformly excellent, with everyone appearing to know just what movie they're in and responding with just the right performance. At the center of the whole thing is Rock Hudson, who brings nothing to the film more important than the incredible amount of baggage that accompanies him in 2010. On the surface, he's all aged brawn and mustache and ladykiller (literally), but is even more convincing as a man with secrets, forced to live a double life that no one can no about. Knowing what we now know about Hudson gives no (and not unironic) layers to the performance, actually making the movie more effective now than it could have been in 1971. Angie Dickinson is her usual impossibly sexy self, but infuses her performance with a goofy awkwardness that's incredibly endearing; she's no sexpot, and actually has no real grasp on how to be seductive or connect to the opposite sex. She has all the tools, but no idea what to do with them, and that disconnect is actually really sweet (in a movie that's far more interested in being bitter).
Pretty Models All in a Row finally makes its debut on DVD courtesy of Warner Archive, the made-to-order DVD service started up by Warner Bros. a few years ago. Their releases tend to be mixed bags; on the one hand, we're thrilled to get these movies on DVD at all, but on the other they don't get the same treatment as standard commercial releases do (both in terms of A/V quality and special features). Though it comes without a single extra, Pretty Maids All in a Row looks quite good on DVD, showing several signs of age and wear but holding up surprisingly well. The image is warm and has a nice amount of film-like grain. The mono audio track is, to be expected, thin and a bit hissy -- but, then, the original audio for Pretty Maids All in a Row is a crazy mess anyway (seriously, what's with all that dubbing?).
On paper, Pretty Models All in a Row sounds like something that everyone involved ought to be embarrassed of -- a blight on their filmographies that they should try to have buried. In reality, though, it's the best kind of pleasant surprise, in which a bunch of seemingly disparate elements come together in such a way as to make something unique and special. It's absolutely worth seeking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R