“This question of what makes a ‘bad girl’ is posed by the film’s title and answered by its title sequence – implied in the formal quotations (pinups) that inform each still image: a linking of sex and violence, that sex leads to violence, that sex is violent.”
Bad Girls Go to Hell was made in 1965 by Doris Wishman, one of the few woman producer/directors to work on low-budget sexploitation films in the 1960s, who continued to make films in the 1970s as the sexploitation genre shifted to explicit pornography. As critic Christopher J. Jarmick noted in his 2002 profile of her career, she produced and directed 30 films in total, 26 between 1959 and 1977. Her first film, Hide Out in the Sun (1959), was a pioneering exploitation film of the post-World War II period that would influence later exploitation directors and producers such as David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis.1 Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), described as a “cult classic” by the New York Times in Wishman’s 2002 obituary,2 is a story structured around a series of vignettes in monotonous apartments that all look interchangeable: each setting provides an excuse for the heroine to disrobe and lounge on the sofa, the bed or in the kitchen – the nudity onscreen being the film’s principal attraction (the definition of all sexploitation films, both the early 1960s “nudie-cutie” as well as the later 1960s “roughie” that Bad Girls Go to Hell invented). The two-minute title design for this film was made at New York-based B & O Film Effects, the optical house credited in these titles (see title card no. 5); no specific designer is identified. A similar approach to the title design appears in Wishman’s next film, Indecent Desires (1967), made under her pseudonym “Louis Sullivan.” Its titles were produced by the documentary and instructional film company B & O Film Specialists; these two post-production companies (B & O Film Effects and B & O Film Specialists) are in fact the same company. The unreliability of the credits in both films is a reflection of how common pseudonyms are throughout the exploitation genre, an aspect that continues in later pornographic films, reflecting their marginalization.
While these two title sequences are very similar, the voyeuristic element in the second half of Bad Girls Go to Hell runs throughout Indecent Desires. Although uncredited, both designs may have been created by animator Byron Rabbitt, who designed titles at B & O Film Specialists, most notably for the popular 1964 TV documentary series Decision: The Trials of Harry S. Truman, one of their only productions where the title designer received credit.
The designs for both Bad Girls Go to Hell and Indecent Desires are consistent, resulting in a steady progression through these two-minute sequences. Every “title card” is composed from two distinct elements: a full-frame still image and then the same image with text optically printed over it. The pairing of still image followed by text superimposition gives these title sequences a rhythmic character – all the cards are uniform in length and timing as the superimposed type fades up on each image, giving them a presentational character: the audience sees each still picture clearly before it is partially obscured behind the text. There are eight title card/still image pairs in Bad Girls Go to Hell; five of these title cards, numbers 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8, invoke the typical viewer relationship common to pinups and other voyeuristic photographs: they present what appears to be two (or possibly three) different female models in various states of undress. The first half of the sequence, title cards 1-4, suggests a narrative montage; the second half, title cards 5-8, contains production credits, but unlike the earlier implied narrative, each image is clearly posed and resembles conventional pinup imagery. Title cards 6, 7, and 8 invoke voyeurism via the conventional “direct address” of these women toward their (unseen) audience – they gaze calmly and directly into the camera.
A voyeuristic theme of women being watched – either by a man shown in the title card or implicitly via direct address, or her engagement with someone unseen, present off-screen – runs throughout the entire title sequence of Bad Girls Go to Hell, and is one of the “attractions” offered by the film itself: it is a variation on the nudie-cutie, inaugurating a new subgenre, the roughie. The design of this title sequence around both an implied narrative of voyeurism and violence, as well as the more conventionally recognizable pinup, is an acknowledgment of the formal nature of exploitation films produced during the 1960s. Their primary box-office draw was the presentation of onscreen female nudity: two of the pinup images, title cards 2 and 8, show the same woman in a bathroom scene that implies a spied-upon encounter between that woman and another, unseen party. Yet, unlike the other pinup-styled photographs, this woman does not appear aware of the camera and her gaze does not address the viewer. This spied-upon aspect is part of the implied narrative of the first four title cards. Of the remaining three title cards, numbers 1, 3, and 4 all show the same woman as in title cards 2 and 8. While all the title cards also have a voyeuristic character, this smaller group is distinguished from the others by their implied imminent violence and trauma: two suggest moments immediately prior to a (sexual) assault, title cards 1 and 3, while the third, title card 4, shows what appears to be the assault itself. Coupled with the superimposed text in title card 1, “Bad Girls Go to Hell,” the violence of these images – and the more traditional pinups of the other title cards – reconfigures this entire sequence not as an exercise in voyeurism, but as moralizing about voyeurism even as it employs it: the “Hell” suggested within this title sequence is one where the (very real) fourth wall of photography/cinema collapses and the female models within these images become subject to what might otherwise be imaginary acts by their audience. The looming eruption of sex/violence within this title is linked to both the nature of the film, sexploitation (“roughie”), and to the title itself, “Bad Girls Go to Hell.”
The title sequence raises and implies the answer to what makes a “bad girl” as well as what constitutes “hell” – in both cases the answer is the same: sex. The voyeuristic elements of this design and the transition to the violent “roughie” that Bad Girls Go to Hell defined make this connection of sex to hell explicit. The narrative emerges because of female sexualization; the plot chronicles the aftermath of the heroine, “Meg Kelton” (played by Gigi Darlene), killing her would-be rapist. The film’s narrative follows her without cutting away to chronicle the other characters she encounters; she is the central (and only) focus of the film. Film theorist Laura Mulvey’s characterization of the female “exhibitionist role” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” while not directly concerned with the sexploitation genre, effectively describes the problem posed by this film made by a female director for a specifically male audience. That her theory’s critical understanding of voyeurism puts the female viewers of such films in a distinctly masochistic position is a fact acknowledged by title card 3, where the audience is momentarily positioned as the woman who is assaulted – an identification in this singular image that is challenged by the other images of this title sequence. This disavowal and simultaneous embrace of these tendencies becomes an issue for Wishman’s later productions in the 1970s – she would pass the direction of the explicit scenes of her pornographic films to her male production crew, literally leaving the set for those scenes.3
Mulvey’s analysis precisely explains the formal organization of the title sequence for Bad Girls Go to Hell, as well as the film’s individual scenes, which are constructed in an idiosyncratic fashion where static shots of objects in the rooms interrupt the actions onscreen, appearing as tangents that disrupt the action, deflecting attention away from “Meg Kelton” – her body – and what happens to her. Yet at the same time, these peculiar cutaways function to make the voyeuristic gaze that much more apparent.4 The intrusive voyeurism that starts in the title sequence is representative of the film as a whole: “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as a sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pinups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.”5
Mulvey’s recognition of the on-displayness characteristic of eroticized imagery is evident throughout the scenario itself, where each scene serves as a new opportunity to see the heroine shed her clothes. However, in spite of its freely displayed female body, the sexuality on display is not a “free” one (in the sense of 1960s “free love”) – it is a trap, a prison, contained. This linkage may seem surprising given the generic affinities of Bad Girls Go to Hell. The transition from “nudie-cutie” into the more violent “roughie” brings the masochistic dimensions of this production into relief: written and directed by a woman, it is focused on continuously threatening “Meg Kelton” (the heroine) with punishment for killing her assailant in self-defense. This dimension of impending violence is overlaid onto a title sequence that is evenly divided between posed, conventional pinup imagery and narrative imagery; title cards 3 and 4 have an explicit violent content, and card 1 suggests violence as a man stands over a naked woman lying in a bed. This impression is developed in/by card 3: a man, “George La Roque” (pseudonym of Charles E. Mazin), with his arms spread open leaning forward in a threateningly direct way; in card 4 he is joined by a second man, assaulting her in a suggestively sexual way that is nevertheless explicitly violent – both sex and violence are linked in this entire opening sequence, answering what a “bad girl” is – one who is sexually available – and implying what constitutes “hell” – the male attention such girls receive. This question of what makes a “bad girl” is posed by the film’s title and answered by its title sequence – implied in the formal quotations (pinups) that inform each still image: a linking of sex and violence, that sex leads to violence, that sex is violent. It gives the development of the titles and the entire film a moralizing tone that runs counter to its production and marketing (sexploitation film), challenging the voyeuristic dimensions of the sexual spectacle that is the primary focus of both titles and narrative.
Those title cards that follow this opening scene of primal violence assume an almost fetishistic quality in their disavowal of both nudity and the violence that accompanies it: in the first two title cards, female nudity is emphatically on view, even when it has been mitigated in each case either by her pose (seen from behind) or by holding a prop (the towel she holds in front of her body); in title card 4, she is dressed in the same transparent garment worn in both cards 6 and 8. Yet even when she is “dressed,” the effect of these stills is of nudity – the conventional nature of the pinup is to be “dressed” in such a way that the “clothes” perform a seduction, implying their imminent removal if not their insubstantiality (via transparent fabrics and/or lace). This is a title sequence (as well as a film) that could never meet the Hollywood Production Code’s restrictions that literally begin with a prohibition of any suggestion of nudity:
(1) The more intimate parts of the human body are male and female organs and the breasts of a woman.
(a) They should never be uncovered.
(b) They should not be covered with transparent or translucent material.
(c) They should not be clearly and unmistakably outlined by the garment.
Obviously, both the narrative content of the film and the still photographic backgrounds to the titles would be immediately censored by this restriction on any suggestion of nudity; the actual nudity readily apparent in the titles (and appearing throughout the film) was forbidden a priori by the Production Code. The sexploitation genre was defined by precisely this difference with the Hollywood studio productions – the depiction of what was repressed6 in studio production is these film’s commercial “attraction.” The restrictions imposed by this code are all directly flaunted by title cards 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, all of which present situations that directly violate 1b and 1c of the code, quoted above. In designing a title sequence constructed around such immediately apparent violations of this code, these titles announce a transgressive quality that is both challenged by and reinforced through the apparent violence and voyeurism of the sequence as a whole.
While nudity was entirely forbidden, an explicit invocation of voyeurism in a title sequence was possible, but rare prior to the end of the Hollywood Production Code in 1968. The titles for Michael Curtiz’s melodrama Flamingo Road (1949) are one of the few examples, other than those titles created for the James Bond films by Robert Brownjohn (From Russia with Love, 1963; Goldfinger, 1964) and Maurice Binder (Thunderball, 1965); there are few parallels to the Bad Girls Go to Hell title sequence from Hollywood studio productions, and none that include nudity prior to 1968 when the Production Code of 1934’s enforcement ended. The James Bond titles’ voyeurism was remarkably risqué for a Hollywood studio production under the Production Code with their suggestions of nudity onscreen, an element that was always a problem that might provoke censorship of the designs7; Maurice Binder’s design for Barbarella (1968) is a notable example of nudity in a title sequence produced during the interregnum between the production code and the MPAA ratings system coming into effect.
In the case of Flamingo Road, the voyeuristic element is contained by a single title card – the main title – designed to resemble a romance novel. This title sequence is typical of “storybook” designs where the film literally opens with a book cover and the credits are written on the pages inside. It is a strategy employed in a wide range of films as diverse as the animated film Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1939), an adaptation of the novel Jane Eyre (1943), and the comedy Abbott and Costello in Jack and the Beanstalk (1952) to signal the adaptation of a novel or literary work into a motion picture. Unlike these examples whose typography suggests the staid nature of a classic story, the cover design for Flamingo Road evokes the lurid pleasures of the romance novel and melodrama. While this is not a cover actually used on the book (the first edition features only text and colored bands), it is a cover design that presents a specific conception of the genre of the story contained within: a busty woman is posed in a doorway, her low-cut, skin-tight dress revealing her slim form. The typography cuts across her body, obscuring part of it but leaving her breasts and lower legs clearly visible. The quotation of these conventions in the Flamingo Road title design can be understood as simply a reflection of the conventional illustration style expected for the women’s romance novel, a genre that continues to use variations on this type of illustration to announce the nature of the story to its audience.
A similar process of quotation is operative in the design for Bad Girls Go to Hell, but without the framing as “book cover”: those conventional representations employed by the lurid dust jackets and book covers of vintage “sleaze paperbacks” inform the style of imagery used throughout this title design; this subgenre of publishing exaggerates the (restrained) voyeurism of the romance novel cover into imagery that borrows the form of the pinup. The reiteration of these tropes in the design for Bad Girls Go to Hell is what makes this design both critical of and complicit with its voyeurism: while the viewer relationship with the imagery reaffirms the typical (male) spectatorial position that Mulvey describes, it is also one where the audience is put in the position of the woman being assaulted, if only momentarily, in title card 3: “George La Rocque” stands in a confrontational posture, advancing in a gesture of direct address. The only narrative “position” that makes sense for this particular shot is that of the woman’s point of view. By momentarily positioning the audience as the subject of the assault, rather than in the position of the man doing that assault, it challenges the more traditional framings of the other shots in the sequence. Title cards 1 and 4 have a different valence in context with title card 3, even though they do not escape from the traditional modeling of woman-to-be-looked-at. The awareness of what the man-who-looks’ desires are and what they entail for the woman undercuts these title cards’ subversive character: when the woman looks back we do not see her gaze, a fact made emphatically clearin title card 2.
The intractability of the traditional depictive relationship of the onscreen woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, modeled for (both) male characters onscreen and the male audience limits the critical aspects of this title sequence before these critical dimensions develop: the challenge posed by the first half of the sequence is effectively disavowed by the second half’s replacement of narrative with pinup imagery. While the entire sequence alludes to the designs of “sleaze paperbacks,” it is the insistent reassertion of standard voyeuristic structures and imagery that forestalls the critique from progressing. Instead, the dynamic of male voyeurism followed by disavowal, then violence, structuresnot only the title sequence but the narrative itself: the seemingly random insert shots of objects within the rooms where the action of the film plays out act as disavowals of the voyeurism even as it continues, transitioning to violence, as Mulvey notes in her analysis:
The male unconscious has two avenues of escape: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the repressed figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star).8
What is striking about the insert shots (identified as a feature of Wishman’s style common to all her sexploitation films) is that their function in the film is not as a substitution or fetish, but as an interruption of the voyeuristic imagery itself; the reversion to voyeuristic structures contained by the narrative sequences demands a violent repudiation that also appears in the structure of the titles themselves – it is thus not an accident that the violence is directly followed by a recourse to what Mulvey describes as “fetish” imagery (“pinups”), where the female subjects directly address the (unseen) viewer in a display of sensuous (optical) availability essential to the “pinup” as a particular visual form.
The organization of both titles and narrative in Bad Girls Go to Hell is homologous: the critical dimensions of this production are simultaneously countered by its complicity with its own voyeuristic spectacle. The relationship it has to traditional depictions of women on display for an (assumed) male audience – the pinup, the “sleaze paperback,” Hollywood’s “glamor shot” are the raison d’être of both the title sequence and the film narrative – is simultaneously structured in the film as trauma: Bad Girls Go to Hell conceives of “hell” as at once female sexuality and the attraction it has over men (and other women), causing the devaluation, punishment and violence that defines this film as a “roughie.” The collapse of the initial critical dimensions of the title sequence into pinup photography is repeated by the insert shots that interrupt the narrative flow in a drama where the anxiety prompted by active female sexuality becomes punishment – the “hell” of dislocation, abandonment, and loss of family and friends the heroine experiences over the course of the film.
- Jarmick, Christopher J. “Great Directors: Doris Wishman,” Senses of Cinema, issue 22, October 2002; http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/wishman/, accessed April 1, 2014. [↩]
- Martin, Douglas. “Doris Wishman, “B” Film Director, Dies” in the New York Times, August 19, 2002. [↩]
- Jarmick, Christopher J. “Great Directors: Doris Wishman” in Senses of Cinema, issue 22, October 2002; sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/wishman/ accessed April 1, 2014. C. Davis Smith, her cinematographer on these films, stated, “One thing, though, Doris would not shoot the explicit scenes. She would say, ‘Go ahead and do what you have to!,’ retiring to another room until we told her we were done shooting.” [↩]
- Jarmick notes that the idiosyncrasies of the cutaways were used to avoid technical problems with sync sound; however, they also function as disruptions in the spectacle of female nudity onscreen. “Great Directors: Doris Wishman” in Senses of Cinema, issue 22, October 2002; sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/wishman/ accessed April 1, 2014. [↩]
- Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) p. 837. [↩]
- Maltby, Richard, “A Brief Romantic Interlude” in Post-Theory. Ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) pp. 434-459. [↩]
- McGregor, Don. “Maurice Binder: Sighting Down a Gun Barrel at 007, Part One” in Starlog, no. 74, September 1983, pp. 23; 60. [↩]
- Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) p. 840. [↩]