Monday, August 17, 2009


Given the state of exploitation filmmaking in the 1960s, Doris Wishman would be historically noteworthy simply by virtue of her chromosomes. Women simply didn't do what she did when she did it. She wrote, produced, directed--the whole schlemiel--and in a field that was an almost exclusively male preserve. She never struck it rich but she did well enough to make a lot of movies over the years and tonight, I got my first look at one of them.

The flick was INDECENT DESIRES, an odd little gem from 1967, and though it's true Wishman would have been one for the books simply for doing what she did while a woman, I learned by watching this film what I suspect is the real reason the cult around her work has only grown over the years: She's very good at what she does.

Pretty Ann has a good job, a good man and her future is looking pretty bright, until, one day, into her life comes a creepy little slug she meets at random on a street corner. The slug never speaks a line of dialogue and is never given a name but he's played by a fellow named Michael Alaimo and "creepy" is an understatement--sleaze practically oozes from this guy's pores. He walks the streets during the day picking up odds and ends, things people have lost, thrown away, left laying around. He swipes them and takes them back to his apartment, for no apparent reason other than that he has a serious screw loose. One of these objects is a doll he finds in a trash can. Another is a ring, which turns out to be possessed of magical properties. When he meets Ann on that street corner, he's immediately smitten and associates her with the doll.

Here's the rub: when he dons the ring and handles the doll, Ann can feel it too. Realizing this, he begins working out his fixation with her on the doll. He caresses it, molests it, fondles it and, when angry, beats it and burns it. Ann can feel it all and having no idea what's happening to her, she slowly begins to lose her mind.

As odd as that sounds so far, it doesn't even begin to do justice to how truly bizarre INDECENT DESIRES really is. It's shot on a small number of sparse sets through a constant barrage of crazy, off-kilter camera set-ups--there's barely a "normal" shot in the film--and the soundtrack never stops moving. This is an exploitation picture, so there's copious nudity, but none of that pubic stuff that would have gotten the censors so full-frontally outraged and Wishman has a delightful sense of the fetishistic which she indulges through the camera with some regularity.

This isn't just a weird film though; it's a good one, a perfect example of effectively realizing an utterly personal vision on screen in an unique way with virtually nothing with which to work. The ending is particularly good and has probably left a lot of slack jaws in its wake over the years.

It's been said of Wishman that if she was some Euro-director and her films were subtitled imports, instead of home-grown underground films, she'd be widely hailed as a bold, innovative filmmaker. I've read about her work for over 20 years. I've always been curious about it. I'd just never gotten around to seeing it. In general, it seems impossible that anything could even live up to that much stored up anticipation, much less surpass it. It has, nevertheless, happened a few times with me. With Wishman, it has just happened again and if the rest of her filmography is of the caliber of the one I just watched, I'd say whoever offered that "what if" scenario about her films as imports was probably right.


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