Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)
Release Date: February 26th, 1971 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Roger Vadim Actors: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowall, John David Carson, Susan Tolsky, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron, Margaret Markov, June Fairchild
ex-crazed Oceanfront high-schooler and football waterboy Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) struggles getting through class with substitute teacher Miss Betty Smith (Angie Dickinson) as she accidentally brushes against him with her shapely rear (later, she unintentionally pokes him in the eye with a breast). Excusing himself to the restroom, he discovers the body of a female student slumped over a toilet. Principal Proffer (Roddy McDowall) doesn’t demonstrate quite enough panic, but quickly calls in law enforcement, headed by racist, incompetent Chief John Podaski (Keenan Wynn) and commandeered by state police investigation division captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas), a no-nonsense man with an uncompromisingly stern voice. He conducts interviews in the chemistry lab, bringing in one libidinous schoolgirl after another for a series of pointless (described as “intensive”) questions about sexual advances.
Vice Principal, football coach, and guidance counselor Michael “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson) steps in with concern, but more for nervous Ponce than the victim. Tiger seems the likely candidate for the murder, especially considering he regularly sleeps with the students, in both his classroom and office, despite being married to the young and beautiful Jean (Barbara Leigh). He has a master’s degree in psychology, and puts it to good use when analyzing (or seducing) his subjects – markedly when he convinces Miss Smith to befriend Ponce (inviting him to her apartment) in an effort to cure his impotency and immaturity with women. Some clues point to the quarterback Jim Green, but McDrew fiercely defends him because he’s black; Surcher also doesn’t want to push racial tensions with an unfounded accusation. When more bodies start piling up, it’s clear there’s a serial killer loose – and Ponce might be closer to the truth than anyone else.
The Osmond’s song “Chilly Winds” unexpectedly opens the film with a decidedly dated, upbeat tune that couldn’t less prepare the audience for the bizarre approach of this dark comedy. Nudity and suggestive material abound, both in humorous manner and erotic indelicacy. Every female student has the body of a model – it’s a fantasy world of gorgeous bimbos, in which a fish-out-of-water youth can hope to achieve sexual maturity, rather inappropriately. It’s also incredibly absurd, with laughs arriving mainly because the actors take the material too seriously. Both a subtle black comedy and a guilty pleasure, with a slow pace, anticlimactic murders, and an awkward approach to romance, “Pretty Maids All in a Row” uniquely examines a creepy, calculating, manipulative serial killer through controversial themes and a curiously satisfactory conclusion.
The dialogue is frank, wry, and wittily offbeat, but delivered in a generally earnest way, more notable and odd because “Star Trek’s” Gene Roddenberry wrote the screenplay (from the novel by Francis Pollini). What’s not entirely unexpected is Roger Vadim’s role as director, known for his provocative cinematic triumphs with sex symbols Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda. The performances are actually quite natural, though wildly cast against type; gathering together the distinguished selection of Hudson, Dickinson, and Savalas for a story so deliciously eccentric is perhaps its greatest success. Nonetheless, it wasn’t well received by critics or audiences, dropping into obscurity for a time before acquiring something of a cult status.
– Mike Massie