Derrick Noir: Okies Go Hollywood
The warped minds behind Stark Fear
By Philippe Garnier
Reading time 27 Minutes
“We have our faults, but we try to live right.”
“We have our faults, but we try to live right.”
– Swain and Hockman in Oklahoma: Heartland, U.S.A.
“OKLAHOMA IS OK”
– Registration plates in the 1960s
Fish or foul? What manner of twisted tale is Stark Fear? In 1961, three acquaintances in Norman, Oklahoma, decide they know enough to make a feature film, and at first you would think they do: haven’t they persuaded enough university and chamber of commerce types to part from enough loot to form a company (B.H.S. Productions), to the tune of $150,000? Haven’t they followed this by luring three middling Hollywood stars to come to Oklahoma to play characters in a script they have a hard time understanding? At least the money was there, they must have thought.
The three masterminds couldn’t have been more different. Charles Nedwin “Ned” Hockman was of pure Okie stock, his ancestors having taken part in the famous Land Rush. He had been a photo-journalist during the Depression and a decorated war photographer, then parlayed this to start a film school at the University of Oklahoma after getting a degree in communication and broadcasting. He also ran the film society on campus. Dwight V. (Vreeland) Swain came from the pulps, by way of the Midwest and the Army. He sold his first story to True in 1939, then wrote reams of space opera novels and stories about X-Ray eye-glasses and Super-Solvent for the likes of Fantastic Adventures and Imaginative Tales. In 1949 he joined the film school at the University of Oklahoma, first to write scripts for educational shorts like Mental Hospital (fitting, for someone who once wrote a story called "Bring Back My Brain!" and cooked up Stark Fear’s overheated sado-masochist story), then to teach creative writing, with an accent on commerce and salability. His textbook Techniques of the Selling Writer was in use and in print until recently.
The third man in the equation was co-producer Joe E. Burke, a local businessman who owned a successful advertising agency. You could assume the two self-appointed scholars made Stark Fear to put their teachings to work. But Burke? According to Norman lore, he was the one who said: “How about making a movie with that police gal in Decoy?”
And, at first, this makes sense. All the opening scenes and most of the movie make a fetish of following Beverly Garland’s mincing steps through the hot streets of Norman, Oklahoma City, and raggedy-ass-poor Lexington (Quehada in the film). Whether shopping for black lace or looking for her stray hubby in the high noon heat, she always looks fresh as a daisy, much as she did on the streets of Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side as “Casey Jones,” the undercover police woman she played in the syndicated TV show that ran for 39 episodes in 1957-58. Decoy was very much a New York show, with a lot of location shoots. Here our three friends must have thought they could do the same with her, but on their own turf. The oil pumps and derricks behind the credits announce this much: Stark Fear may be a twisted sex story, but the background is oil. And to say the flick is sometimes crude is an understatement.
As for salability, it was down to three words: Psycho, Psycho, and Psycho, which had been released only the year before. From a frame window similar to Hitchcock’s opening, but in reverse, we follow Garland in the street below, watched by two men in a downtown office: Chris Kane (Kenneth Tobey) and Joe Vincent, both in the oil business, discussing Ellen Winslow (Garland), whom Kane has just hired. And here we already have the Stark Fear conundrum: a fascinating mix of professional know-how and amateurishness. Tobey would have been a familiar face to TV viewers in 1960, whereas the local actor who plays “Joe Vincent,” Kane’s partner and cronie, has the face and demeanor of a real oil man. And he’s easily as credible as Tobey, if not more. As for Psycho hint-hint, nudge-nudge shots: Garland stops at a shop, sees a white bra in the window, and enters. Then we follow her in her convertible, looking anxiously in the rear-view mirror. The music score (also homegrown) is a mix of really lame folksy tunes and more dramatic ones, but at times it pumps up like heavy breathing – just as the camera ogles Bev more often than not. When it's not Hockman's camera, it’s the hicks who leer openly at Ellen's nice figure as she traipses past them in search of her husband's hidden past in his shitty hometown of Quehada.
Whatever their artistic shortcomings, Swain and Hockman are good on locations and local color. In the early 1950s they had already teamed on a documentary called Oklahoma: Heartland, U.S.A., shot in saturated colors and showing the hot streets of Oklahoma City and small towns like Lexington, which they would later pick to shoot as Gerald Winslow's birth place in Stark Fear: “Quehada, pop. 976.” And here Oklahoma's premier noir writer Jim Thompson comes naturally to mind. In its most tawdry, appalling parts, Stark Fear is the best Thompson flick that he never wrote, oozing sexual frustration and general nastiness like books such as A Swell-Looking Babe, The Killer Inside Me, and After Dark, My Sweet.
The 1976 film version of The Killer Inside Me was filmed in Butte, Montana
The 1976 film version of The Killer Inside Me was filmed in Butte, Montana, but its second, creepy adaptation was shot all over Oklahoma in 2009 by British director Michael Winterbottom in places like Cordell, Enid, Tulsa, Guthrie, and Oklahoma City. Which brings up the question: was Stark Fear the first “Derrick Noir” to come down the pike? Psycho had been shot mostly in Arizona and Studio City, California. In 1953, Fritz Lang had brought Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford to El Reno, Oklahoma, to shoot parts of Human Desire, but he never left the shops and yards of the Rock Island Railroad, and you barely see the landscape. There is a derrick ornament on the bar with the cheesy brick design in one scene of Stark Fear, just as there was in that roughneck lounge where Rock Hudson comes to the rescue of his boss and friend Robert Stack in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind from 1956. But then there is a real steel-and-plank derrick stuck on the lawn in front of the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. It is the totem of the area. Even though filmmakers (notably Francis Ford Coppola and Terrence Malick) filmed in the Sooner State – and excepting John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), which is more of a gangster movie – Oklahoma does not seem to figure much in the American noir landscape.
Which makes Stark Fear both interesting and unique. What filmmaker would use a modern Comanche dance to spice up a chase and a rape in a graveyard? Fresh-as-a-daisy Beverly really does go through the school of hard knocks in this one. First, her framed portrait gets smashed in the family home early in the picture by her resentful, creepy husband Gerald (Homeier). The birthday sequence is fetishistic to a high degree, with objects playing a major role in scenes that are mostly absurd, but also entertaining. She comes back home for this birthday seduction-reconciliation: the cake, the easy-listening record, the black bra under her prim blouse. Candle lit, record set on the turntable, she only gets reproach and abuse for her trouble. When she acquiesces to his demand and makes the phone call to tell Chris Kane she won't take the job at his office after all, Gerald lays her on the couch and they make out under the incredible black and white painting that THROBS like a freaky H.R. Giger dented vagina. The tone is set after this: nothing will make sense in this picture, least of all the psychological motivations that Swain’s script hammers out again and again, dotting all the i’s of the Sado-Masochism 101 textbook.
In Deborah Del Vecchio’s biography of the actress, Garland claims that the Hollywood actors rebelled after a few days, that Hockman didn’t seem to know what he was doing, going as far as walking out after a week or so and forcing Skip Homeier to take the helm for the rest of the shoot. “You couldn't talk to these university people,” Garland is quoted as saying, “they had made up their minds exactly what they were going to do . . .” Ex-child actor Homeier, who died in June 2017 at eighty-six in his desert retreat, never confirmed having taken over. And let us say it is hard to believe, given the professionalism of the final editing. Someone must have had a clear idea what to do with this unseemly material. Given the circumstances, the actors’ performances are not bad. “We were committed,” remembers Garland in Del Vecchio's book, “[and] we couldn't leave.” She forgot all about it and soon was appearing in Robert Altman's “Summer Lightning,” an episode of the Bus Stop TV show.
And those actors certainly did give it the old college try, even the local talent like the repulsive Chief Pawnee (nickname: Dog Eater) in the pop-up brothel, or the appalling fat yokel who plays “Harvey Suggett,” Winslow’s best friend, who comes on like Oklahoma’s own Slim Pickens (“You ever seen Zelda shoot? Taught her myself.”). “Right out of Tobacco Road,” opines Elizabeth, the shrill woman who opens the door of the party pad to Beverly. This scene alone has a real feel to it, something Jim Thompson could have conjured: casual sex and casual hypocrisy, with all the town swells present. Those boys and gals grabbing each other on beds and couches among the beer cans are for real, just like the cut on Chief Pawnee’s brow when helpless Ellen brings down the boom on him with a lamp. In this scene, Stark Fear shares the same shocking casualness as Tulsa – Larry Clark’s famous 1971 book of photographs of strung out youths.
And to come back to those “university people”: there was a method to their madness, there must have been. For instance, as Ellen Winslow walks the hot streets of Quehada under the leering stares of the locals, she stops for a minute to investigate Pop’s “Juke Box Museum”; you know she'll be back later for the de rigueur arty tour de force, with all machines and mechanical pianos blaring their “scary” cacophony. And she does.
Same goes for the heavy-handed references to Psycho: Gerald Winslow and his mother fixation. “Good to his Ma,” says Elizabeth. “Killed her? No, just cuddled her some more,” jeers Harvey Suggett. Okay, no Bates Motel here, no taxidermy, but there's lots of motels rooms in Stark Fear. The one Kane takes Ellen to after rescuing her from the yahoos, yielding a tire iron, and the room where she disrobes and shows us her bare back. And finally, finally, the louche El Nora Motel, where Gerald is shacking up with his uncouth pal Harvey. And what in the name of Jesus are those two doing in room fourteen? “Little blond here for company,” jokes Jerry to brush off his wife on the phone, a tad lamely. Finally, as if it were not clear enough, Ellen gives it to Jerry, clear and simple, as if we hadn’t got the score yet: “You know there's a name for men like you: Sadist [she says it strangely, with an open A]. Don't I look enough like your mother?” He knocks her down for that one, and Kane saves her again, getting the brush off: “It's not you,” she whines, “it’s me.” She's been used and abused, raped in a graveyard to the drumbeat of surly Indians, she feels soiled and cheap, she can't take this last chance he's offering. Oh my.
The end of the picture gets tiresome with Ellen’s continual finger-wringing. Finally, Ruth saves the day, taking her to the airport where Kane is about to take off for Mexico to cinch his deal with Pemex. Ruth, the confidante and voice of reason, has been around, too. She looks like Gilda Radner on a bad day, but we’re glad to see her buy herself a one-way ticket too, to New Orleans, and maybe a little happiness.
All this to suggest that the making of Stark Fear couldn’t have been the mess Beverly Garland describes; she also allows in the same book that when she saw the picture forty years later at a Hockman tribute in Norman, she was surprised how much she liked it. And nowhere in the contemporary notices or news reports on the shoot is it mentioned that Hockman walked away from it all. Besides, if the Hollywood squares objected to the rawness and absurdity of Swain’s script, they did nothing to temper it; in fact, they played their ass off trying to make it work. Stark Fear remains gloriously raw and absurd, reeking of that Okie icky feeling. There may have been confrontations and rebellions from the Hollywood contingent, but as Garland said to her biographer: “We couldn’t leave. So we did it, and then went home.”
And maybe, for better and for worse but also for our sick delight, the unlikely alliance of Burke-Hockman-Swain then took over again, in the cutting room, where they could safely indulge in what may have been for them an equivalent of celluloid slumming. Because they never did it again, together or separately, but instead remained for the rest of their lives in the cocoon of academia or country clubs.
Beverly Garland, nee Beverly Lucy Fessenden, grew up in Glendale and was a drama student of Anita Arliss at Glendale City College. After honing her acting skills in summer stock theatre, she started appearing in low budget pictures, often playing tough, resourceful women: she debuted in Rudolph Maté’s 1949 classic noir D.O.A., next to another first-timer, the scary Neville Brand. She played a female town marshal in Gunslinger, a work farm escapee in Swamp Diamonds, and a scientist’s wife who fends off an alien in It Conquered the World, all three directed by cheapie maestro Roger Corman. She then became a familiar face on TV, starting in 1955 with the seminal series Decoy, a New York show that featured directors like Stuart Rosenberg and Michael Gordon, and for guest stars Ed Asner, Peter Falk, Diane Ladd or Albert Dekker. All through the ’50s and ’60s, she appeared in most of the popular shows like Gunsmoke, Laramie, Rawhide, Medical Center, and Charlie's Angels. Divorced from actor Richard Garland in 1953, she then stayed married to businessman Fillmore Crank for thirty-nine years until his death in 1999. In the ’70s, Crank built and developed a two hundred and twenty-five room Spanish Mission-style hotel in Studio City. Originally part of the Howard Johnson chain, it became known as Beverly Garland's Holiday Inn (rebaptized as The Garland in 2014). The actress retired in 2003 and died in her Hollywood Hills home on December 5, 2008.
George Vincent “Skip” Homier
George Vincent "Skip" Homeier was born in Chicago on October 5, 1930. At the age of eleven, he started to play on radio shows, and from 1943 until 1944 starred as Emil in the Broadway play Tomorrow, the World, in which he played an indoctrinated Nazi child adopted by a well-intentioned American family. Hollywood brought it to the screen, but with Fredric March and Betty Field replacing Ralph Bellamy and Shirley Booth as the father and sweetheart. In spite of the emotional ending where the child breaks down in tears, “Skippy” Homeier was so effective as a puny Nazi skunk that the part branded him for the rest of his career. He played a lot of delinquents and surly G.I.s in war films like Halls of Montezuma, Beachhead, and Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets. In one of William Whitney’s best westerns, Stranger at My Door (1956), he played an outlaw on the lam taking refuge on an isolated ranch, and its occupants as hostages. The rancher is a pastor who wants to preach by example, putting his family and farm at risk (but it is a formidable black stallion who destroys just about everything around it, including the dog and the doghouse, in one of the most unforgettable animal scenes ever put on screen). Budd Boetticher was another director who recognized Homeier’s natural creepiness, in westerns like The Tall T (1957) and Comanche Station (1960). But in 1976, he was already too old to play Charles Manson in the TV film Helter Skelter. He played Charles Older instead, the ex-fighter pilot judge who tried Manson and his cohorts. Homeier died on June 25, 2017, in Indian Wells, California, at the age of eighty-six.
Kenneth Tobey was born in Oakland in 1917. Graduating from University of California’s drama school, he joined New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates were Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, and Gregory Peck. This led to a lot of theatre and live TV work in New York. Tobey also played a lot of police detectives and TV sheriffs, as well as authority figures like military officers and the likes. He played in just about every TV show in the 50s and 60s. He died on December 22, 2002, in Rancho Mirage, at the age of eighty-five.
NOTES ON THE VIDEOS
Stark Fear was the only narrative feature that director Ned Hockman and writer Dwight V. Swain ever made, but—as professors at the University of Oklahoma—they were both responsible for many short instructional videos, mental hygiene films, and sponsored videos. One of the weirdest and most interesting of these is Oklahoma: Heartland USA, a tourism video commissioned by the Oklahoma Planning and Resources Board, which sings of Oklahoma’s greatness. Others include Mental Hospital, Time Out for Trouble, and Ulcer at Work, all of which--in ways large and small--play as sorts of companions to Stark Fear given Hockman and Swain's penchant for seeking to understand human frailty.
Philippe Garnier is a veteran French journalist, writer, and translator. He is the author of the preeminent work on noir novelist David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White, and seven books in France, including Honni soit qui Malibu (about writers in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s), published in the U.S. by Blackpool Productions as Scoundrels and Spitballers. His biography of actor-writer Sterling Hayden just came out in France. He lives in Los Angeles.