Friday, September 27, 2019

Hot-Rod Girl

Hot-Rod Girl
Leslie H. Martinson

Jeff (John Smith) loses his brother in an illegal street race. He blames himself and drops out of the local legal drag racing scene which causes other kids to drop-out too. Detective Merill (Chuck Connors) has worked hard to give the kids a place to race safely and now everything is in danger of falling apart. The situation becomes even worse when Bronc Talbott (Mark Andrews), leather-clad punk, shows up to cause even more trouble.

For a movie called Hot-Rod Girl, it has very little to do with Lisa Vernon (Lori Nelson), the hot-rod girl in question. She plays a minor role in coaxing Jeff back into showing-up at the local dragstrip and setting a good example, but the fact she is given the film title is more to due to exploitation film trickery than anything else. To be fair, the film does give her the opening race and shows Lisa as a confident and skilled driver, but then the story just drops the character to focus on the tribulations of Jeff, which is a shame but not unexpected for something from the 1950s.

"Say, can you pass the Oops All Berries?"
The film's hero, Jeff, is an upright fellow who is 100% square and down to help bridge the gap between the police and the errant hot-rodding youths of the town. The death of his brother shakes that resolve and turns him inward. I find that a refreshing approach from the normally indefatigable heroes that often pop-up in the 1950s. One of the strengths of juvenile delinquent films, in general, is its flawed heroes.

Jeff’s nemesis is the amusingly named Bronc Talbott, who is as one-dimensional as you can get. He’s a handsome yet maniacal jerk who wears a leather jacket and is rude to authority and peers alike. Talbott is the crystallization of everything that parents feared about kids in the 1950s, he’s reckless, beholden to no one, and worst of all he’s very attractive to the women in town because of it. Bronc is too unpleasant to be any fun to watch, and too flimsy a villain to become invested in. Even just a moment of humanity or some kind of reasoning behind his actions would have gone a long way to making him a compelling antagonist, but alas that is beyond the reach of Hot-Rod Girl.

Spy vs. Spy 1956
For all of Hot-Rod Girl’s flaws, it does offer a surprisingly hard edge at times and an ending that might qualify as happy, but only just so. Every time there’s a crash, illegal street race, or game of chicken, it’s a big setback for the fragile alliance between the kids and cops. Hot-Rod Girl successfully keeps that tension up for most of the film and it does give those action sequences more bite. I was also very surprised that the story featured the death of a child, it could have easily kept the kid alive but injured and the impact (sorry) would have played out on Jeff and Bronc exactly the same, but a death ups those stakes and brings the actions of these teenagers into a much more serious place.

Hot-Rod Girl initially seems to offer some illicit thrills with wild girls, car racing, and general untamed youth running rampant. It’s a much more conservative film than that, approaching the acceptance of youth culture only through proper lawful behavior because the other option is reckless destruction by the kids and severe measures by the police. It is a reactionary outlook that has changed very little since the 1950s.

"I'm not going to riddle you anything, you freaking weirdo."

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