Her: ‘Do you always sell every car you demonstrate?’
Him: ‘No, but I don’t always get taken for a ride either’
It’s a good bet that any movie made in 1956 called Hot Cars would be another ‘sinsational’ teens-gone-wild pic along the lines of Dragstrip Girl, Teenage Thunder, Hot Rod Gang, Speed Crazy, Hot Rod Girl, Young and Dangerous or Joy Ride.
But you won’t find any messed-up teenagers, street rods, candy-apple customs in this one, just deluxe production sleds and foreign sports jobs that are ‘hot’ because they’ve been stolen - something Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) suddenly gets wise to after a few days on the job as a sales jockey for a string of Los Angeles used car lots.
Though Dunn realizes that owner Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton) is running a big-league chop-shop (Markel likes to call it ‘a refrigeration plant where hot cars are brought to cool down’), Dunn has nowhere else to go.
Fired from his last car sales job for being too straight-up with the customers, Dunn now has a financial gun to his head. His infant son Davy desperately needs an operation which could save the child’s life, surgery for which Markel says he’s prepared to pay if Dunn will play.
But Markel already knows that he will. The crooked car dealer was hip to Dunn’s situation before hiring him and earlier had used a blonde knockout named Karen Winter (Joi Lansing) to bait the hook. Winter arranges for Dunn to take her out on a phoney test drive to get the wheels rolling.
By the time Dunn figures out he’s been duped it’s too late and he goes along with being just another of Markel’s flunkeys. What he doesn’t know is that he’s about to be fitted up as a one-size-fits-all patsy.
Hot Cars a trim little programmer was a release of Bel-Air Productions, a joint venture of 20th Century Fox producer/ director Howard W. Koch, and independent producer Aubrey Schenck. For a time in the ‘50’s the company turned out a trunkful of low-budget, quick-buck features including several titles familiar to fans of B noirs: Big House U.S.A. (1955), Crime Against Joe (1956), Three Bad Sisters (1956), The Girl in Black Stockings (1957), and Hell Bound (1957).
However, other than an abbreviated entry on IMDb, Hot Cars appears to have gone unreferenced and unseen until last year when MGM put it out on DVD as part of a Limited Edition series. Good choice. This is a B entry that deserved to be found, given the full frame-off restoration and put back on the road.
Hot Cars runs fast and smooth on a nicely-tuned script by screenwriter Don Martin whose film and television credits extended four decades. Martin scripted several of the original ‘Falcon’ releases and from 1947 to 1958 contributed to a creditable list of efficient B thrillers, among them: Lighthouse (1947), The Hatbox Mystery (1947), Search for Danger 1949), Destination Murder (1950), Shakedown (1950), Double Jeopardy (1955), Confession (1955), The Man is Armed (1956) and The Violent Road (1958). His pulp novel Shed No Tears was filmed in 1948. Long regarded as a ‘lost noir’, the movie surfaced recently as an Alpha Entertainment DVD.
Despite the poverty-row limitations, Martin could be counted on to deliver some smart plotting and snappy dialog. Hot Cars has plenty of both and much of the pleasure to be had from this movie lies therein.
On the other hand, neither director Don McDougall nor cinematographer William Margulies bothered working up much that’s visually arresting in the film apart from a couple of striking night-time scenes. But by 1956, television had come to dictate an unequivocally flatter style in movies and both McDougall and Margulies to that time mostly had worked in television. In fact, Hot Cars was to be McDougall’s only feature credit as director.
However as mundane as a lot of the set-ups and framing are, they don’t impact much on Hot Cars high-performance. The movie rockets along like a monkey on a zip line, propelled by a hipster jazz track by bandleader Les Baxter. The film’s worth-the-price-of-admission climax is explosive and is a serious treat for fans of back-in-the-day amusement park settings.
Much of the Hot Cars was shot on location offering interesting, sometimes tantalizing views of mid-century Los Angeles - from Santa Monica’s scenic Ocean Avenue and beach fronts to Culver City’s signature commercial strips (special thanks is given by the film-makers to Big John’s and O’Tooles Used Cars!).
And who wouldn’t kill to be sitting at the bar at the fabulous Jack’s at the Beach restaurant and lounge where Joi Lansing first begins stroking John Bromfield to see if he’s up for the ride.
Lansing, another very good reason to get hold of a copy of Hot Cars was ‘on the scene’ in Hollywood from the day the bus pulled in. She was a teenage model then moved into films and TV. Well-known as a party girl, she had affairs with many of the usual suspects including George Raft, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra and was still good for four marriages along the way.
On the other hand, Lansing had her head screwed on straight as far it went as pursuing some kind of a career - though she wasn’t that much of an actress and likely was never encouraged to be one given her famously alluring pout and stunning purpose-built figure. Her movie appearances were limited mostly to bit parts (including Touch of Evil). She did better on television, landing smaller supporting roles plus regular stints on The Bob Cummings Show, Klondike, and The Beverly Hillbillies.
However, Hot Cars offers Lansing a memorable movie outing. She’s sexy and real and delicious to watch, especially when she goes go to work on straight-arrow Dunn:
Hot Cars also provides a better than usual part for John Bromfield, himself a ready-made leading man who never really found solid footing in movieland. Though tall dark and athletic, he joined a deep bench that already held Hollywood hunks like Rory Calhoun, Ray Danton, Brad Dexter, Steve Cochrane, Richard Egan, William Campbell, Jeffrey Hunter, Vince Edwards and many, many others.Him: ‘I told you already, I’m married’.
Her: ‘I have a terrible memory’.
Bromfield had started out encouragingly enough in tryout roles for Paramount in Sorry, Wrong, Number and Rope of Sand. However, as a featured actor he soon had to settle for an assortment of undercard westerns, horror titles and second-rate crime programmers such as The Big Bluff, Crime Against Joe, and the exhilaratingly trashy Three Bad Sisters (of which the late Bill McVicar wrote, ‘script, acting and production boast no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except excess and sheer effrontery. In regard to those qualities, Three Bad Sisters offers an embarrassment of riches’).
In 1956, Bromfield managed to land a minor television cop series, Sherriff of Cochise (retitled U.S. Marshall after two seasons). But at the end of four years, the show was cancelled and John Bromfield walked away from Hollywood to become a commercial fisherman and big-time outdoors show organizer.
Bromfield was a capable actor just not a deeply interesting one, evincing no particular charisma, sexual intensity or dark places. He was what he was: a handsome and rugged straight-shooter and that’s generally how he was cast. Bromfield’s both well-suited for the role of Nick Dunn and very good in it.
Also on set are a number of favored character actors including Dabs Greer as a coyly guileless police detective who knows what the scam is and who attempts to offer Dunn a way out; also, Robert Osterloh as ‘Big John’ Hayman as the boss who who fires Dunn. The versatile Osterloh apeears in many iconic noirs e.g. 711 Ocean Drive, Gun Crazy, Criss Cross, White Heat, The Prowler. Although his part in Hot Cars is a smaller one, Osterloh as usual makes everything out of it.
Hot Cars presents more as a conventional crime thriller than classic film noir. It doesn’t bother itself much with moody atmospherics and visual stylisms. Karen Winter arrives as a femme fatale but fails to damage or destroy. Nick Dunn is neither a doomed protagonist nor chump. He’s not a victim of his own device. While he is a man in a trap, he’s able to find his own way to an escape.
That said, Hot Cars still feels like noir. The basic constructions are there, needing only to be framed slightly differently - as they perhaps would have been a decade or so earlier. But In that way the movie is not so different from others now regarded as ‘late-period’ noirs.
But beyond all that Hot Cars is just one cool ride that’s definitely worth taking out for a drive.
Written by Gary Deane ‘Night Editor’