Directed by Don McDougall
Produced by Howard W. Koch
Screenplay by Don Martin & Richard Landau
Based on a novel by H. Haile Chace
Photography by William Margulies
Edited by George A. Gittens, ACE
Music by Les Baxter
John Bromfield (Nick Dunn), Joi Lansing (Karen Winter), Mark Dana (Smiley Ward), Carol Shannon (Jane Dunn), Markel (Arthur Markel), Dabbs Greer (Detective Davenport)
Every once in a while, you need a 50s crime picture. Nothing else will do. I recently landed on Hot Cars (1956), a Bel-Air picture produced by Howard W. Koch. Look at that poster — the title, the cast, Joi Lansing as a “stop-at-nothing blonde,” the guy falling off the rollercoaster. Consider that it was shot mostly on location around Santa Monica and it’s only 60 minutes long, and you just know it’s gonna be great.
Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) and his wife Jane (Carol Shannon) are in a bad way financially when their son gets sick and needs an operation, so against his better judgement (and to their quick regret), Nick takes a job at a used car lot run by Markel (Ralph Clanton), Karen (Joi Lansing) and their sinister flunky Smiley Ward (Mark Dana).
They turn out to be a pretty shifty bunch — they’re selling the hot cars of the title, and before you know it, a cop looking into the operation (Dabbs Greer) turns up dead. I probably don’t need to mention that Karen puts the moves on Nick — and that he’s suspecting of rubbing out the cop.
The big finish takes place on the rollercoaster at Pacific Ocean Park (POP) in Santa Monica, with some great POV stuff on the old attraction as Nick and Smiley duke it out. The picture’s location shooting is probably its strong suit, featuring a couple of cool Culver City car dealers (Big John’s and Johnny O’Toole’s) and Jack’s At The Beach, a Santa Monica restaurant near POP that you might recognize from The Rockford Files.
Koch and Bel-Air excelled at these low-budget, lurid little crime pictures — Shield For Murder (1954), Big House USA (1955), Three Bad Sisters (1956), Untamed Youth (1957, with Mamie Van Doren and Eddie Cochran!) and so on. A few of my favorite 50s movies came from Bel-Air.
John Bromfield made quite a few cool B movies, stuff like The Black Dakotas (1954) and Revenge Of The Creature (1955). He starred in the TV series The Sheriff Of Cochise, which was also called US Marshal. He retired in 1960 when the show was cancelled and became a commercial fisherman. He’s quite good in Hot Cars, appearing in about every scene. Joi Lansing does what’ she normally does in movies like this — stand around and look sultry. She’s really good at it.
Director Don McDougall stayed plenty busy doing TV, from the 50s well into the 80s. Lots of cool shows, from The Roy Rogers Show to Bonanza and from M Squad to The Night Stalker. He also did the Star Trek episode “The Squire Of Gothos.” Hot Cars is one of only a handful of features he directed, and while it’s nothing flashy, he and DP William Margulies avoid the studio-bound staginess of a lot of cheap movies from the period. They must’ve had a blast manning those cameras on the rollercoaster! Margulies spent the bulk of his career at Universal, where he shot tons of TV, Gunpoint (1966) with Audie Murphy and the great Ghost And Mr. Chicken (1966).
Hot Cars also boasts an ultra-cool jazzy score from Les Baxter. Baxter composed music for quite a few Bel-Air movies, and some Regalscope pictures, before hitting his stride at American International. Of course, at the same time, he was making great records like 1958’s Space Escapade. Wouldn’t you love a big fat CD boxed set of Baxter’s 50s an 60s movie work?
Truth be told, Hot Cars is cooler than it is good, and its appeal might be limited largely to fans of cheap noir. But if you fall into that group, you’ll find it quite a thing. You can get Hot Cars on DVD as part of MGM’s MOD program. It’s full-frame, but it looks pretty good. A Blu-Ray would be terrific.
* This map post-dates Hot Cars.