Twentieth Century Hazard
Nudie cutie noir
By William Boyle
Reading time 16 Minutes
One Shocking Moment (1965)
One Shocking Moment (1965)
Ted V. Mikels’s One Shocking Moment starts with Cliff (Gary Kent) and Joanie (Maureen Gaffney) tangled on a bed while party noise drifts in from off-screen. They soon move to the floor, Joanie’s pants undone, her bra strap falling from her shoulder, Cliff getting a little rough. A shadow comes into frame and then we see another woman in high heels. Cut to a close-up of Cliff’s hand (which is actually Mikels’s hand, standing in for Kent’s) as the woman’s high heel stomps just below his middle knuckle. The title fills the screen. It’s a brilliant opening, exactly thirty-six seconds of a movie with a seventy-one minute runtime, and fully indicative of what’s to come: pleasure and pain, carnality and wickedness, a tale of evil blossoming in uninhibited ’60s Los Angeles.
There’s not much out there on One Shocking Moment. It’s the third film by Ted V. Mikels, most famous for later efforts like The Astro-Zombies, The Corpse Grinders, and The Doll Squad. It’s the fifth acting credit for famed stuntman (and director of 1976’s underrated The Pyramid) Gary Kent, billed here as Philip Brady to avoid problems with SAG. It’s the only real credit for leading lady Lee Anna (her bit part three years earlier in Mutiny on the Bounty wound up on the cutting room floor), a Lynchian muse, stunning and heartbreaking as the pie-eyed Marilyn Monroe lookalike caught up in this web of lasciviousness. It’s one of only a handful of credits for former Red Skelton gag girl Maureen (billed with an extra e at the end) Gaffney, who plays knockout temptress Joanie. It’s the sole film credit for the great Verné Martine – on YouTube, you can find her best scene as dominatrix Tanya set to “Queen of Pain” by the Cramps, which pretty much gets to the heart of her fevered performance. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Gregory Sandor was the film’s DP – billed here as Greg Sandor. His next two films would be Monte Hellman’s existential Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (Gary Kent did stunts for The Shooting and was stunt coordinator on Whirlwind) and, in the early ’70s, Sandor would shoot classics including Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop.
The original title of the movie was Suburban Affair. Two Phoenix theater owners, Jay and Robert Fineburg, pitched the idea to Mikels, as he was the only person they’d heard of who could write, direct, produce, and edit. The plot – small towners coming to Hollywood and getting sucked up in a world of vice – was theirs, the only caveat being that they wanted “interesting females” cast in the main parts. Mikels was essentially a hired gun and happy for that to be his role, despite efforts by the Fineburgs to make him a financial partner.
Gary Kent was cast after answering an audition ad in Daily Variety. The film was shot partially in his house and partially in Mikels’s house. It was an independent operation, non-union, but the cast and crew were to be paid, which was unique since most films operating on this scale often required the desperate to work for nothing. Mikels and Kent liked each other from the start. In The Life and Cinema of Ted V. Mikels, Kevin Scott Collier relates Kent’s impression of Mikels: “I thought he was a cool dude. He had a boar’s tooth draped around his neck, obviously a man’s man, and there was that signature mustache! He had a twinkle in his eye, personal warmth, and a passionate approach to the project. He wasn’t into ego trips or temper tantrums. He just worked his ass off, and encouraged his cast and crew to do the same.”
After that opening with the high heel digging into Cliff’s hand
After that opening with the high heel digging into Cliff’s hand, a wave across the screen indicates that we’re going back in time. We’ll return to this (which we do in the film’s hallucinatory finale), but for now we’re in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Cliff and his wife Mindy (Lee Anna) are readying for their move to L.A. Mindy’s mother and father are uneasy about it. After Cliff and Mindy leave for the airport, her mother breaks into tears and her father comforts her by saying, “Come on, Ma. She’s been with us a long time. We’ve been lucky. She’s got to spread her own wings.” The credits play. The plane carrying Cliff and Mindy lands in L.A. Spread her own wings indeed.
From there, Cliff and Mindy are moved into their new furnished apartment by Rick, chief engineer at the metal plant where Cliff will be working; it’s a job transfer that’s brought him west, of course. When they get to the apartment complex, Cliff and Rick leer at a neighbor, Joanie, the woman from the opening sequence. Cliff brags about what a hot dish Joanie is to Mindy, a brief glimpse of the turmoil that’s to come. He’s a gross, impulsive man, and his moral boundaries are already beginning to fade after only a brief time on the ground. The fellas go out for booze, while Mindy stays behind with the boxes. Soon enough, Joanie – who, as it turns out, lives right across the hall, is there to help. The two women, with their bleached blonde hair and champagne struts, settle into getting to know each other. The men return, flirting grotesquely with Joanie. She talks about working at a nearby club run by a woman named Tanya, and the men seem intent on heading there. The party splits up, and we’re left with Cliff spying on Joanie through the barely open door. It’s the first glimpse of flesh we see – Joanie on dramatic display, relatively innocent-seeming like the stuff of a French postcard despite Cliff’s debauched gaze. We launch into a back-and-forth between Rick and Joanie in her apartment (I guess she’ll be late for work after all), and Cliff and Mindy in theirs, an almost tender scene that never devolves into anything explicit. Afterward, Cliff and Mindy wind up at Tanya’s club, with Joanie waiting on them and Cliff complimenting her costume.
The table is set for all that follows: a tale of betrayal and corrupted codes. Once Tanya and the secretary at the plant, Sue, are introduced, the veil of suburban sleekness is drawn back to reveal dark desires, base and primitive behavior, men who can’t control themselves, women who exist in a haze of exhausted uncertainty and performative lust. Tanya, as Theresa Starkey points out, is the devil who initiates this shift in being, bringing temptation to the garden in the form of some kind of knockout punch, though Cliff is the rotten-hearted Adam who deserves to be assigned most of the blame (which makes poor, pure Mindy our sandbagged Eve). The film’s most noirish elements stem from the web of cheating and line crossing that ensues.
Kent is charming even if his character isn’t, but the film really belongs to its three female leads: Lee Anna, Gaffney, and Martine, who infuse their roles with desperation, anger, and mystery. Lee Anna’s performance feels like a precursor for Naomi Watts’s Betty in Mulholland Drive (“Everything’s real fine, Dad”) – but by picture’s end her hopeful idealism is run through the grinder of a morally vacuous Hollywood. She’s really the beating heart of the film – fragile, vulnerable, freighted with sadness. Imagine a broke community college actress getting a crack at a second-rate version of Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn from The Misfits. Mindy’s haunting lament, sung through ribbons of smoke at Tanya’s club, is a portal to another dimension, another time. Her sad striptease at the end of the film is one of the great yearning breakdowns in a decade full of them. “Do you want a good time or oblivion?” Tanya asks Mindy before she starts dancing. Oblivion is the answer. Oblivion is always the answer.
The film’s tagline was The most sensuous picture ever made . . . period! That’s probably a bit ambitious, but there are certainly scenes – particularly featuring Mindy and Joanie – that ooze with sensuality. Whatever the case, despite the ickiness of the male characters in the movie, the movie itself never feels overly icky. There’s real heart, effort, and passion here from Mikels and his performers. And, ultimately, it’s all imbued with a deep sense of sympathy and despair. The characters are, in some fundamental way, lost searchers. On his first day at his new job, Cliff’s boss, after relating the story of the ill worker he’s replacing, says: “Twentieth century hazard. Man busts his guts to make it, and the gears of progress grind him to pulp in the process. It’s our way of life. You have to walk over the fallen and move on.” (I love the double action of fallen here.) In the end, do Cliff and Mindy learn about the pitfalls of bad behavior, to avoid evil at all costs, or do they simply begin to learn how to walk over the fallen?
One Shocking Moment broke box office records at the Monica Theater in Hollywood when it premiered and inspired other producers to edit copycat whipping scenes into their own films. In this beautiful restoration, it’s easy to see what made and makes this film unique. There’s a dash of Kenneth Anger here and maybe some Curtis Harrington, but this is – above all – Mikels’s poetic meditation on love and evil, a deconstructed nudie cutie filtered through a shadowy noir world of booze and broken promises. Drink up.
William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken,The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. His books have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, the New Blood Dagger in the UK, and the Hammett Prize in the U.S. He is from Brooklyn, New York and currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi.