The career of producer Albert Zugsmith is a useful study in contrasts. When he was employed at Universal in the mid-to-late 1950s, he was in charge of Joan Crawford vehicles (Female On The Beach), Douglas Sirk melodramas (Written On The Wind and The Tarnished Angels), thoughtful science fiction (The Incredible Shrinking Man), and Orson Welles’ last studio assignment (Touch Of Evil). The moment Zugsmith struck out on his own, though, his output became considerably less respectable, consisting almost exclusively of titles like High School Confidential!, Girls Town, and Sex Kittens Go To College, which exploited such hot-button issues as drugs, juvenile delinquency, and the matriculation of sex kittens.
And so it went with 1959’s The Beat Generation, which answers the roar of the MGM lion with a blast of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, then attempts to couch a police procedural about the hunt for a serial rapist inside a stinging exposé of beatnik culture. On the latter front, the film aspires to lampoon the Beat lifestyle in much the same way Roger Corman’s A Bucket Of Blood did the same year, but it’s more akin to the 1959 Canadian independent The Bloody Brood, which starred Peter Falk (in only his second feature) as a real cool cat who gets his kicks from feeding hamburgers laced with broken glass to unsuspecting delivery boys. The Beat Generation’s unhinged villain, the Schopenhauer-reading Stan (an appropriately slimy Ray Danton), stops well short of murder, but his cynical appropriation of the Beats’ live-for-the-moment philosophy (“Right here and now, that’s all there is,” Stan tells a girl he’s spent months stringing along) is more than just a pose. His premeditated assaults on the unsuspecting housewives of upstanding citizens are his way of rebuffing the straight society he openly despises.
An exemplar of that society—with more in common with Stan than either of them would care to admit—is casually misogynistic police detective Dave Culloran (Steve Cochran), whose three years on the vice squad have left him with a jaundiced view of his fellow men—and, significantly, women. Bedeviled by “The Aspirin Kid”—so named after Stan’s habit of leaving an aspirin tin at the scene of each of his crimes—Culloran has an unhealthy obsession with catching him, which has deleterious effects on Culloran’s personal life. And just in case anyone was in danger of missing the parallels between the cop and his quarry, screenwriters Richard Matheson and Lewis Meltzer make sure just about everybody Culloran encounters in the course of his investigation explicitly makes the comparison. That includes his second wife, Francee (Fay Spain). He and Francee seem to have a happy marriage, but he can’t help turning every conversation into an interrogation, especially after she becomes one of Stan’s targets. Even his partner, Jake (a pre-Addams Family Jackie Coogan, on the right side of the law after playing High School Confidential!’s drug pusher), tells him flat-out, “The more I work with you, the more convinced I am that you hate women.”
What hurts The Beat Generation more than anything else is Charles Haas’ failure to maintain a consistent directorial tone. Frank discussions about abortion (it’s illegal, but Francee wants to get one anyway after she learns she may be pregnant with Stan’s child) uneasily rub shoulders with cross-dressing comedy when Culloran and Jake are assigned to stake out Lovers’ Lane as part of “Operation: Sweetheart.” (The sight of the rotund Coogan in a wig and dress isn’t soon forgotten.) A further monkey wrench is thrown into the works when Stan recruits a musclebound beach bum with the unlikely moniker Art Jester (Robert Mitchum’s son Jim, who gets to utter the deathless line “Go bingle your bongo”) to sub for him and throw the cops off his scent. Art’s target: a buxom blonde played by Zugsmith’s go-to sexpot Mamie Van Doren, who throws Art for a loop by coming on to him before the confused kid has a chance to follow through.
But what does all this have to do with those silly beatniks? Precious little, as it turns out. After providing the front half of the film with an intriguing milieu (dig Ed Wood day player Vampira as the poetess with the pet rat), that angle falls by the wayside when Stan drops the act, only to return with a vengeance for its climax, which takes place during a raucous beatnik hootenanny that does its best to try the audience’s patience. Such scenes are the reason The Beat Generation can partially be appreciated as camp today, but on the whole, it’s as mixed up as the “way out” individualists Zugsmith and others sought to immortalize before their cultural capital was all spent.
Beat it, square. There ain’t no extras to be found on this diskeroony.