KITTEN WITH A WHIP: Pulling Sleaze Off On Attitude Alone

Attempts at edgy filmmaking during the pre-ratings system era of Hollywood were often very interesting because they had to work very hard to create the illusion of being sleazy.  Denied the option to show explicit violent or sexual content, filmmakers working in this system had to find ways to suggest the presence of this forbidden content via characterization and dialogue.  When this aesthetic sleight-of-hand worked, the result could have a palpable intensity that was as exciting as the forbidden content being hinted at.

A great example of this approach is Kitten With A Whip.  This Ann-Margret vehicle features the bombshell as Jody, a troubled teen who we first meet as she’s running from would-be captors.  She sneaks into the home of aspiring politico David Stratton (John Forsythe), a married man whose wife is on vacation.  He’s a decent guy who tries to help the troubled girl, only to discover she is a violent escapee from a detention home.   Even worse, the decidedly bipolar Jody threatens to blackmail him with false rape charges and put an end to his career if he tries to send her back.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse nightmare where David tries to find a safe, non-career-threatening escape from his waking nightmare as Jody keeps upping the dangerous ante.  For starters, she invites a group of thuggish friends led by the beatnik-talking nihilist Ron (Peter Brown).  Before long, a further pileup of trouble results in a nighttime road trip across the border into Tijuana where David is forced to make one last bid for freedom before he ends up dead or in jail.

The end result has to basically bluff the audience into thinking they see and hear more dangerous content than they actually do – and Kitten With A Whip manages to pull off this impossible task.  A lot of it has to do with the savvy of writer/director Douglas Heyes, a t.v. veteran who is best known in the film world for penning the script to Howard Hughes’ favorite film Ice Station Zebra.  He uses fantastic black-and-white photography by Joseph Biroc to create a shadowy, fatalistic noir mood and crafts his dialogue exchanges so they  moves at skittery, nervous pace that seems to hint that sudden death is just around the corner.  The bombastic sleaze-jazz score, assembled from Universal Films library stuff by composers like Henry Mancini and Bill Loose, add the perfect final touch for the film’s swinging-yet-dangerous style.

That said, it’s the performances in Kitten With A Whip that really seal the deal.  Forsythe nails his good-guy-in-a-bad-situation character, using his natural gravitas to sell us on the character’s innate decency and communicating the character’s strained nerves in the later scenes via subtle facial expressions and body language.  Brown, who would later become a favorite with exploitation fans via turns in flicks like Act Of Vengeance and Foxy Brown, has a ball delivering his character’s twisty hep-cat dialogue and hamming it up in his best “young Method actor” style.

The cherry atop this sleaze sundae is provided by Ann-Margret’s unhinged turn as Jody: the role requires to play everything from lost little girl to sneering hell-cat and she throws herself into it with hip-swinging, nostril-flaring fervor.  She’s a marvel to watch as she blazes across the screen with total abandon – and the fact that she was in her sexbomb prime makes it all the sweeter.

The end result is a delightful blast of pre R-rating fun that still packs a punch despite its content limitations.  Kitten With A Whip proves that sleaze, like sexiness, is a matter of the proper attitude.

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