Recently I listened to an episode of the Bret Easton Ellis podcast in which the writer interviewed director Quentin Tarantino, who was in promotion mode for his latest post-modern mash-up, The Hateful Eight. The pair largely discussed movies and during their conversation the 1971 Roger Vadim film Pretty Maids All in a Row was brought up, with Tarantino becoming particularly excited by its mention. To be fair, he’s nearly always excitable when it comes to discussing movies (it’s the reason I enjoy listening to him being interviewed so much) but he seemed a little more excitable than usual when discussing Pretty Maids. My curiosity was piqued.
Though I’d never heard of the film, Vadim was a director whose work I had previously enjoyed so I did the requisite IMDb search for a quick synopsis rundown. I found myself intrigued by the film’s premise: a black comedy-cum-murder mystery set in a high school in which 1950s heartthrob Rock Hudson is a football coach lothario. Colour me amused.
The film opens with a young man named Ponce de Leon Harper (played by John David Carson and yes, that is the character’s name) who is shown riding about on his scooter salivating over the young women he passes on his travels. When he arrives for school he carries on in much the same way, and the camera lingers over the bodies of girls as we take on the sexually immature Ponce’s POV; unsure of where to look and completely overwhelmed by the female flesh around him.
Five minutes in and I must confess that I found myself feeling super uncomfortable. I get that the opening montage is meant to relate the experience of being a sexually frustrated adolescent heterosexual male, and that at this age the female body is perceived largely by young men as mystical and untouchable. With this in mind, the sequence is rather evocative in its depiction of male hormonal giddiness. I also get that the film is rooted in the realm of exploitation cinema and one expects, nay demands, a degree of sleaze in the overall proceedings. But it was all a bit much for me, and that’s probably because I am a woman living in 2016 who gets a little uncomfortable when encountering an excessive amount of upskirt shots in a film involving high schoolers.
Ponce leaves his class after being further worked-up by his attractive teacher Betty Smith (Angie Dickinson) and discovers the body of a teenage girl in the male toilets with a note pinned to her underwear that reads: “So long, honey.” Whilst this is all going down the action cuts to football couch/guidance counsellor Mr Michael “The Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson) who is engaged in some unethical extracurricular activity with a student in his office.
As the film progresses we see McDrew bed a series of teenage girls and Ponce embark on a rather awkward affair with Betty (who has been encouraged by McDrew to instigate the romance), all the while the body count rising and Police Captain Sam Surcher (played by the brilliant Telly Savalas and again, yes that is the character’s name) trying to identify the murderer. In one particularly troubling scene we see McDrew makin’ it in a car with a high school girl near the school’s football oval under the cover of darkness until they are interrupted by Police Chief John Poldaski (Keenan Wynn). Poldaski—apparently unperturbed by the fact the school’s football coach is sleeping with the underaged daughter of the local dentist—eyes off the girl hungrily and jokes, “Doin’ a little homework, huh?” The girl’s young age is further emphasised at the end of the scene when she is shown nervously sucking her thumb.
The more questionable aspects of the film aside, the performances by the cast are all strong with John David Carson in particular standing out in his depiction of adolescent naïveté. Lalo Schifrin’s score for the film is not one of his most successful and lacks consistency; flitting between genres and never really settling on a distinct mood. This could be largely due to the fact that the film itself does not know what it wants to be: murder mystery or teen sex farce? The music does have its moments though, particularly in the more thoughtful scenes. During Betty and Ponce’s post-coital interaction a piece on a solo Rhodes keyboard underscores their conversation and here the music swells beautifully, its dreamy sensuality capturing the feeling of a contented afterglow.
It’s hard to imagine a film like Pretty Maids All in A Row being made today. The film is rooted firmly in the time it was made; when the politics that charged the sexual revolution of the late-1960s had filtered osmotically into the suburbs and their high schools, ushering in a newfound feeling of sexual freedom that would permeate through the 1970s. It’s also telling of the time’s lax attitude towards the depiction of teenage sexuality in cinema that a movie dealing with such subject matter could be filmed at an actual high school with many young extras. For this reason Pretty Maids serves as an interesting cultural document; a window into a time when attitudes to sex in mainstream cinema were less conservative. As a whole the film may have been more successful if it balanced the murder mystery storyline with the black comedy tone a little better (the scenes in which it does this are among the film’s best) but otherwise it is worth a watch if you can get past some of the film’s more sexist intent.