"Why They Do It ... For the first time the motion picture screen tells the intimate, authentic personal story of girls like Bobbie Williams -- a truth torn from New York after dark.”
“An Exciting Step Forward into a New Realm of Adult Motion Pictures!” was how Girl of the Night was advertised in 1960 when it was released. Suggested by Dr. Harold Greenwald’s “social and psychoanalytic study,” The Call Girl (1958), it seemed an unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation, especially in the Code-run times of the early ‘60s. In his study, Greenwald analyzed 26 real-life call girls, learning of their childhoods, of their work, piecing together the circumstances that made them “girls of the night.” One of Greenwald’s case studies, named “Sandra,” is the sole, reworked inspiration for the movie.
This little-seen low-budget movie was underappreciated at the time, as it is today, but it contains what is Anne Francis’ best film performance, and her favorite. Anne plays the New Jersey-born Robin “Bobbie” Williams, a young woman molested as a child, feeling worthless, told that “sex is an evil and dirty thing,” manipulated by her boyfriend (John Kerr), who is also her pimp. After being beaten by a customer with a cane – a dark, brutal, but implied scene – she is open to the advice of a psychologist (Lloyd Nolan). He attempts to “make her stand on her own two feet,” to understand that the suppressed memories and problems of her childhood need to be fought for her to be a productive member of society. The first step: To loosen the emotional grip Kerr has on her.
Anne Francis gives a virtuoso, gutsy performance of a girl “beautiful enough to be a model, chic enough to be a debutante, desirable enough to be a wife – and special enough to be none of these. She has no legal occupation. But she lives on Park Avenue and drips mink.” Anne is at her best in the therapy scenes with Nolan, exposing every nerve, experiencing every emotion from her character’s life, as feelings, long held dormant, rise to the surface. She wavers between truly wanting help, to anger, feeling it’s all a waste of time. In these scenes, Anne uses her radio-trained speaking voice brilliantly, deepening it, coloring it, to give certain lines a more persuasive meaning. She totally commands attention in the lead, making this the true feature film showcase of her career, a vivid reminder of her largely untapped acting versatility on the big screen. Charles Stinson of the Los Angeles Times called Anne’s performance a “powerful portrait” filled with “genuine sensitivity and intelligence.” Reviewer Norman Rose wrote that Anne “attacks Bobbie with confidence and a tigerishness that belies her all but angelic appearance.”
As her boyfriend, John Kerr is a surprise. Best known for his colorless second lead in the movie version of South Pacific, Girl of the Night reveals shadings to the actor most film fans are unaware of. Manipulating his girlfriend, coaxing her with a combination of lies, putdowns and proclamations of love, the weasely Kerr is letter-perfect. He wants money, status, and power, and sees Bobbie has the perfect vehicle for those goals. His wholesome, all-American appearance and deceptively gentle demeanor only add to the actor’s effectiveness.
Shot on location in New York City, the film met with a bit of resistance at first because of its touchy subject matter. But, because of the film’s tasteful handling of its subject and its academic source novel, the Legion of Decency gave it a special classification. The film’s director, Joseph Cates, told Variety at the time that his "approach [to the material] is devoid of any lurid, graphic details; instead [it] is a study along psychiatric lines" and that the studio had assured him that the "ad campaign would be marked by an absence of any kind of 'low exploitation sell.'"Today, the script’s frankness is still potent, but it is best summed up by the Oakland Tribune’s Jack Anderson: “The producers’ only recourse is a sort of compromise: a little, but not too much, psychological discussion, a little sex, a little violence and lots of innuendo.” While the script by Ted Berkman-Raphael Blau is, at times, a bit corny, especially in these more “enlightening” times, the acting is sure, steady, and earnest.
“Girl of the Night is special to me because it was such a demanding role,” Anne commented years later. “It really was a tour de force, and wonderful chance to run the gamut. The fact that it was the story of a prostitute under analysis was rather risqué, I guess, at the time, though there were no licentious scenes in the picture. I don’t think there was a love scene, really. However, the studio [Warners] soft-peddled it and it opened without any fanfare, though I was pleased with what reviews we had.”
One of the best scenes in the film comes early on. Nolan, a psychologist trying to gradually and cagily help the young woman; Francis, the frustrated young woman, cautious but ultimately tired of her lonely, sad existence, do some slight sparring:
NOLAN: Fashion or photography?
FRANCIS: All right, doctor. We don’t have to play “What’s My Line.” I’m not a model, doctor. I’m a call girl.
The anguish, sincerity and remorse Anne Francis puts into this revelation elevates Girl of the Night from other exploitation films of its ilk. It seems a pity that such an obscure gem contains her best performance and that film fans instead remember her for her mini-skirted ditz in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. It’s a rich, brave performance well worth seeking out.