Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942, Joseph H. Lewis)

Not nearly as risque as the title suggests, this seemingly throwaway movie from genre chameleon Joseph H. Lewis exhibits quality in the quickie. As ingenuous as he was intuitive, Lewis also treated the B-picture with as much respect as the A-picture. And a B-movie Secrets of a Co-Ed unquestionably is, but one containing the Lewis trademark and a few tricks up its sleeve.

The titular co-ed, Brenda Reynolds (Tina Thayer) is the daughter of crooked attorney James Reynolds (Otto Kruger), and wreaks havoc for the headmistresses at her small college. Spoiled, fiery, but with a look of innocence, Brenda's got all the traits of a classic noir damsel. And running at a brisk 67 minutes, the film wastes no time showing her cards. James is a smooth-talking attorney who spends a significant portion of his career defending Nick Jordan (Rick Vallin), a charming no-goodnik who becomes romantically linked with Brenda. At the height of the Hollywood production code, Lewis always sublimely eschewed convention with intelligent treatment of the material. His characters were often trapped in sexual obsession, however far beneath the table, and Secrets of a Co-Ed is no exception (see: scene where Brenda's father will have none of his daughter dating a gangster and thwarting the relationship by smashing a phallic cigar).

Lewis's unpretentious reputation is on display in every frame of the picture. The sincerity and respect for the genre that bleed through despite the film's obviously low-budget not only exhibits a love for film, but suggests that the reward in a job well done is reward enough.

Studio B-pictures often take inexcusable shortcuts in their screenplays which result in a cardinal sin of the industry--making a 70-minute picture feel like a lumbering, vacuous three hours. Lewis's directorial intuition triumphs in translating sub-par material; spotting the boring patches and letting the camera do the dirty work. Take what reads as an anticlimactic courtroom climax in which prosecutors read circumstantial evidence from Brenda's diary to build a murder case against her while her father feels helpless in her defense. Lewis makes a tense-less scene gripping through choreography, blocking and dialogue delivery, defiantly shooting the nearly ten-minute long scene as a one-shot. The craned camera weaves horizontally between jurors, plays with depth, coming in for close-ups and backing out again, and dances from prosecutor to defender more sublimely than any of the actor performances can pull off. It is a brave move from a director with a unique vision, elevating the material without adding or subtracting a word.

For Lewis, Secrets of a Co-Ed is a B-picture in a career of B-pictures--a minor effort in which he shows he doesn't believe in such a thing as a minor effort. A true auteur in as least elitist a way that term can sound, Lewis refines cheap melodrama and lets the images speak for themselves. Heck, there is even a musical number called "Brazilly Willy." What more do you want? -- **½ / four stars

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