I haven’t written much about Cleo Moore or Hugo Haas aside from an earlier essay on The Other Woman, in spite of seeing the lion’s share of their respective pictures. I’ve always intended to do some sort of magazine length piece about the director and his peroxide muse, but the moment never seems right. However I had a chance to take a look at Moore’s 1956 film Over-Exposed on the Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 2 disc, released by Columbia Classics in 2010. My initial viewing was via a rough bootleg, so the high quality transfer here was a welcome surprise.
This is the rare Cleo Moore outing minus Hugo Haas, and it’s refreshing to see the actress with her name above the title and out from under the big Czech’s pervasive lack of self esteem and his bittered pleas for Hollywood recognition. On the other hand, worn-out Lewis Seiler, who directed Moore the previous year in Women’s Prison (on the same disc as Over-Exposed), is asleep at the wheel. Nobody out there is shouting that this would-be Monroe was a great actress, but surely she wasn’t hopeless — see her sexy splash scene opposite Robert Ryan in Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Throughout Over-Exposed Moore appears to have only just learned her lines, just a take or two away from getting it right, but Seiler is either too easily satisfied or simply too anxious to get the movie in the can. It makes for a frustrating viewing experience.
The story here takes a backseat to cheesecake, with many of the scenes contrived to get Moore into a series of cantilevered gowns and swimsuits by legendary Columbia costumer Jean Louis (picture Rita/Gilda singing Put the Blame on Mame). And although the 5' 3" canary blonde was at best a poor man’s bombshell, Moore never looked better than she does in Over-Exposed, and if Marilyn or Lana saw the move there must have been a few moments when even their eyebrows perked up. Spectacular cleavage aside, Moore plays Lily Krenshka, a small town girl who arrives in the Big Apple only to get busted after she landing a job as a hostess in a clip-joint. Lily’s perp walk is flashpopped by Max West, an aging, drunken photographer who somehow manages to convince her to pose for swimsuit photos in his apartment studio. Intrigued by the possibilities of a life on the other side of the camera, Lily stays on with West, tending to his alcoholism and reviving his flagging business, all while learning the ins and outs of the photographer’s life (via a nice montage). Eventually she leaves the nest with a camera of her own and a sexier name — Lila Crane, but finds career opportunities few and far between. Spurned by the legitimate news agencies, she finally lands a position as a barely-clad picture grabber at a Manhattan nightspot. Before long Lila shrewdly develops herself into one of the top portrait and advertising photogs in the city, but will her reckless ambition and her casual willingness to photograph anyone, at any time, doing anything, bring it all crashing down?
Although Over-Exposed is ostensibly a crime film, it’s a stretch to call it a film noir. There’s no doom, dread, or angst, and with the exception of a scene near the end involving pock-marked love interest Richard Crenna, there’s little in the way of visual style. Most of the scenes are flooded with light, giving viewers a never-ending eyeful of a decked-out Moore, in spite of otherwise cheap production values. In trading Haas for Seiler we get to finally see what Moore could do in an unabashed star vehicle, but at the expense of Haas’s weird, and inherently noirish psychological peccadilloes.
Over-Exposed exploits its star under the façade of a morally upright tale about runaway ambition, but such irony was obvious even in 1956. In the end contemporary viewers will find a film that merely reinforces those same old gendered mid-century stereotypes about “threatening” women who want to work in a man’s world. Faced with desperate circumstances after being arrested as a hostess (prostitute), Moore’s Lily/Lila admirably manages to lift herself out of a deplorable situation through a legitimate professional career. And although the script paints her as a careerist who eschews morality and a place in the kitchen for money and glamour, contemporary audiences will find little fault with her actions. After all, is it fair that Lila lives in a world where the quality of her photographs seems not to matter?
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Screenplay by James Gunn and Gil Orlovitz
Story by Richard Sale and Mary Loos
Cinematography by Henry Freulich
Starring Cleo Moore and Richard Crenna
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 80 minutes