Produced by Max J. Rosenberg; directed by Joseph Cates; screenplay by Ted Berkman and Raphael Blau; based on The Call Girl by Dr. Harold Greenwald; cinematography by Joesph Brun; art direction by Charles Bailey; music by Sol Kaplan; edited by Aram Avakian; starring Anne Francis, Lloyd Nolan, John Kerr, Eileen Fulton, Julius Monk. Black and White; 93 minutes. A Vanguard Production. Distributed by Warner Bros.. www.warnerarchive.com
Dr. Harold Greenwald’s The Call Girl: A Social and Psychoanalytic Study (1958) became a surprise best seller in the late Fifties. Since contemporary prostitutes routinely churn out confessional blogs and the sex workers’ rights movement regularly receives attention from the mainstream press, it’s difficult to understand how a revised doctoral dissertation could captivate the general public. Yet during an era when the sexual underground was shrouded in mystery for most Americans, Greenwald’s scholarship, however quaint by today’s standards, served as a provisional guide for the perplexed. A practicing psychotherapist, the empathetic Greenwald tended to view his sex worker patients as members of a highly exotic subspecies of American womanhood. “Like many of their more respectable sisters, call girls frequently, when depressed, will take themselves off to the beauty parlor for a facial, a hair do, a wash, a rinse, a dye, and other complicated rituals of the beauty parlor,” is one of his characteristically underwhelming observations. He also helpfully added that “most of them were avid television fans, especially of programs on which their clients appeared.”
Of course, the deadpan pose of social scientists provides an easy target for mockery. One of Greenwald’s innovations involved assigning half of the twenty interviews (which formed the crux of the book’s case studies) to a team of three actual call girls. (Fun factoid: the late doctor was the father of political documentarian Robert Greenwald, known for crusading nonfiction films such as Outfoxed.)
The Call Girl was republished in the late Sixties under the title The Elegant Prostitute and Greenwald wrote an Introduction in which he expressed amazement that some readers foraged his rather humorless book for apparently “titillating” passages. Given the fact that, some years earlier, his magnum opus had been optioned by Hollywood and made into a film entitled Girl of the Night, this claim seems slightly disingenuous. Even though screenwriters Ted Berkman and Raphael Blau’s scrupulously unfaithful “adaptation” bore about as much resemblance to its source as Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) does to David Reuben’s sober sex advice tract, this film by cult director Joseph Cates (whose considerably raunchier Who Killed Teddy Bear?  enjoys a huge following and is frequently revived at the handful of repertory cinemas that still endure in this country) encapsulates a transitional moment in American movies. Despite being an undeniably minor film—even the copy on the Warner Archive box refers to it as a “curio”—Cates’s film gingerly diverges from a tradition where prostitutes were usually referred to by a host of euphemisms (e.g. “hostesses” or “dance hall girls,” among others) and, depicted, on many occasions, with undiluted contempt. For better or worse, Girl ofthe Night is a prototypical “adult film” of its era: half prurient sexcapade and half sermonizing treatise on a sexual outcast who can be redeemed through paternalistic compassion.
The film opens with the chicly dressed Bobbie Williams (Anne Francis), the film’s call girl heroine, arriving home in a bedraggled and traumatized state. Apparently friendless, she soon finds refuge in her own apartment building at the office of kindly Dr. Mitchell (Lloyd Nolan)—a Greenwald surrogate curiously demoted from psychotherapist to the status of a lowly “psychologist.” The embodiment of open-minded liberalism, Mitchell believes that Bobbie is essentially a good, sensitive girl gone bad. During sessions in which he gives his patient avuncular advice, he unravels the ostensible source of both her self-hatred and hostility towards men. Adhering to the standard variant of American “ego psychology,” Mitchell sees his goal as helping Bobbie conform to the demands of adulthood and middle-class American norms. Although Mitchell shocks the recalcitrant call girl into submission with the shocking statistic that “three out of four call girls attempt suicide” (a transposition of Greenwald’s claim that fifteen of his twenty interviewees attempted suicide), she proves a model patient. While Bobbie anticipates the arguments of the sex workers’ movement by proclaiming that “there’s nothing wrong with The Life…would you prefer me to work in a factory?”, she is, before long, launched on the road to redemption and respectability. Unlike the agonizingly slow progress of the patients featured in HBO’s miniseries In Treatment, she sprints through resistance, transference, and a satisfying cure in the space of a mere ninety-three minutes.
When Bobbie is allowed some breathing room away from her shrink’s couch, the film becomes much livelier. Even though the hooker milieu is no doubt meant to be unspeakably sordid, Bobbie, her boozy madam (Kay Medford), and several dissolute companions hang out at alluringly louche New York restaurants. The film makes good use of certain key Manhattan locations, particularly Central Park; the low-key cinematography bathes New York in a seedy, but strangely glamorous, silvery haze.
Reviewing Girl of the Night in 1960, The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther observed that the less “enlightened” prostitute films of an earlier era—featuring stars such as Barbara Stanwyck—were much more “enjoyable.” Despite Crowther’s reputation as a stuffy old codger, he makes a perfectly valid point. A pre-Code classic such as Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933), famous for chronicling Stanwyck’s trajectory from streetwalker to a scheming wife of a millionaire, is an exhilarating lark that makes the Hollywood version of Greenwald’s liberal moralizing seem tepid indeed. Cates’s film, politically correct in its time, now seems much more dated than Green’s wonderfully un-PC portrait of an unapologetically vulgar fallen woman.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.