Appellate Judge Tom Becker isn't poor or pretty, but his lemony zest and hint of almond make him pleasing to the palate.
He does all the things you like…to forget!
"Famous recording star" Liz Wetherly (played by famous recording star Leslie Uggams, Roots) needs a break from her hectic schedule, so like any self-respecting famous recording star, she heads off to the backwoods of Redneck County, USA. The fact that she's a famous African-American recording star seems not to give her pause as she tools around this traditionally intolerant environ in her expensive foreign car.
Said car breaks down near a roadhouse that, unfortunately for all involved, isn't located near any kind of road, at least not a paved one. The roadhouse is owned by one-time entertainer and current "old chippie" Bertha (Shelley Winters, The Night of the Hunter) and her hunky, decades-younger lover, Eddie (Michael Christian, Wasteland Justice).
When he's not keeping Bertha liquored up and happy, Eddie brushes up on his performance skills. He'd like to be country and western star, with a heavy dash of Elvis thrown in, and he's thrilled that a "famous recording star" is stuck at his establishment.
But Liz is not just disinterested in Eddie and his extended family of yokels—including a leering, dimwitted sheriff (Slim Pickens, The Alamo) and a kindly hired hand (Ted Cassidy, The Addams Family)—she's downright rude to them. Eddie, however, sees her condescending attitude as a come on, and so makes sure her car is going to stay broken down for a while…and then, he pays her an unexpected and unwelcome night visit.
Poor Pretty Eddie is one of those films that more people have heard of than seen. It had a brief, unremarkable drive-in run and was later re-released under different titles, including Black Vengeance, Redneck County Rape, and Heartbreak Motel, for which many of the film's more lurid aspects were edited out and unused footage substituted.
I don't know that Poor Pretty Eddie is exactly a lost treasure, but it's not without interest. It's an odd and uneven brew, its mix of hicksploitation, raceploitation, and sexploitation jumbled into a macabre story of madness with an undercurrent of pathos. It's far better acted and shot than the average exploitation film, and it offers up its grotesque and ghastly shenanigans with a curious dollop of restraint.
Now, "restrained" might not be the first word that comes to mind when discussing a film in which the female protagonist is raped by the leading man while a country ballad plays on the soundtrack and shots of dogs mating are intercut with the assault.
But for an exploitation film in which race and rape are the two major exploitees, Poor Pretty Eddie plays its sensationalism cards fairly close to its poor pretty vest.
For one thing, the film lacks that staple of '70s exploitation: gratuitous nudity. I'm guessing that Uggams, already established as a singer, TV personality, and Tony-award winning actress, drew the line at just how far she'd go here, so multiple scenes of assault and degradation were OK, but flashing her breasts was not. This leaves only Shelley Winters' ample cleavage for those who want their exploitation served up with a pound or ten of flesh.
Then there's the race angle, which on the one hand pervades the whole film, and on the hand, is downplayed to the point that it's barely there. Liz's race really has nothing to do with her predicament; it's more that she's an attractive woman in an unfamiliar place who catches the eye of a loon. The few comments concerning her race are presented more as ignorance than blind and hateful bigotry. Eddie himself apologizes to Liz whenever someone makes a borderline offensive comment, such as, "You don't see a lot of folks like you in these parts." Truly offensive epithets are never uttered, and Liz is regarded as "different" more for being a sophisticated outsider than for the color of her skin.
Winters' racist strumpet is far less virulently racist than her previous bigoted characters, like Rose-Ann D'Arcey in A Patch of Blue or "Mommy" in Cleopatra Jones. Interestingly—and this is not a complaint, just an observation—for all the overheated racial underbridlings, the dreaded "N-word" isn't used once in Poor Pretty Eddie, thus giving us a mercifully more enlightened brand of inbred cretin than we might normally get in such a film.
Rather than full-on exploitation, then, Poor Pretty Eddie is more Grand Guignol with roughie edges. Eddie decides Liz is his ideal woman, the slack-jawed townsfolk celebrate his happiness, and Bertha fumes at being replaced by a younger rival. Were it not for the fact that all this lunacy is happening without Liz's consent, this would be just another Southern fried potboiler.
But director Richard Robinson is ultimately going the exploitation route, which means violence and silliness must ensue, including a particularly nasty bit of business concerning Eddie's "Gotcha!" for Ted Cassidy's character.
By the end, the combination of backwoods high jinks, nasty violence, and macabre emoting comes crashing down, and we're left with the sort of berserk and bloody fillip that ends most exploitation films. It sneaks in the whole vengeance thing, but it's not wholly satisfying. Ultimately, Poor Pretty Eddie shoots itself in its poor pretty foot by being a little too grand with its guignol.
The film sports an interesting performance by Christian as the charming yet dangerous Eddie and a rather dour one by Uggams as the initially snotty and condescending Liz. Cassidy is solid as the seemingly sane hired hand, and Pickens and Dub Taylor, as a smarmy justice of the peace, have a good time sending up their stock redneck characters.
Then there's Winters. By the '70s, whatever subtle charms Shelley Winters might have at one time possessed as an actress were obliterated by ham-fisted turns in lower-tier offerings like What's the Matter with Helen? and Bloody Mama—and, Oscar nomination notwithstanding, The Poseidon Adventure. Her work here is far from understated, but there's a strong undercurrent of poignancy that humanizes her character, sapping the joy out of the degradations she dishes out and receives. We first see Bertha getting out of bed (late in the day, we assume) in some ridiculous bosom-heaving get up, having a drink and a smoke in a room filled with pictures of her younger self. OK, fine, she's a cartoon floozy. But then, Winters sits in front of a mirror, examines her face, and growls, "You are one ugly bitch." I guess this line is supposed to be funny or maybe shocking, but the fact is, she is one ugly bitch, and Winters makes this declaration with such abject honesty that we're taken aback, but for the wrong reasons: exploitation grotesques are not supposed to be that self-aware. Between the insane Eddie and the clueless and callous Liz, Winters' Bertha emerges as the most sympathetic character rather than the least, and while this makes the film more interesting than the usual exploitation programmer, it also makes it less sleazily fun.
This is the third Blu-ray release I've reviewed from HD Cinema. The company has been "cleaning up" older public domain films and releasing them in Hi-Def, with mixed results. Like Dementia 13 and The Terror, Poor Pretty Eddie has been heavily DNR'd to get rid of scratches and imperfections, and in the process, has ended up looking too smoothed out and not especially film-like. While it's DNR'd five ways to Sunday, the print still sports its fair share of scratches, at times it's unsteady, and some scenes feature missing frames, causing those annoying jumps so prevalent in PD releases.
Note that the above stills were taken from the DVD copy that comes with this set.
Despite these complaints, it's a reasonable image and far better than the various PD versions that have been floating around. Audio is a weak Dolby stereo track that occasionally sounds scratchy.
Supplement-wise, HD Cinema has put together a surprisingly strong package. Like the other discs I've seen from them, there's the trailer, a DVD copy, a restoration demo, and a post card-size reproduction of the poster, but the Poor Pretty Eddie package also boasts a commentary from David Worth, who shot this; an on-screen essay giving lots of background on the film, including some entertaining stories about Winters; and a production stills gallery. Granted, this last one is a bit weak—we get a grand total of two production stills—but the essay and commentary are very nice additions. This also adds a few bucks to the price, but it's still available online for well below $20.
HD Cinema has taken a fair amount of online heat for its releases, and while none has exactly represented Blu-ray at its finest, these are acceptable renderings for films that the larger companies weren't exactly falling over themselves to release. With Poor Pretty Eddie, they've stepped up their game by adding a respectable slate of extras. Throw in the affordable price tags, and the complaints dwindle even further. This is a solid release of an obscure film, and low-budget weirdness is your thing, it's worth picking up.
The film is pretty guilty, but HD Cinema is on the path to redemption.
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