Pistol Packin’ Femme Fatales

Mara Corday is Vera, the mastermind behind a gang of female bandits, in GIRLS ON THE LOOSE (1958), directed by Paul Henreid.

Juvenile delinquent films in the 1950s were so plentiful that they became a major B-movie subgenre and the surprisingly thing about that was the number of movies featuring female hooligans. Among some of the more famous titles are Reform School Girl (1957), Runaway Daughters (1956) and Teenage Devil Dolls aka One Way Ticket to Hell (1955) but Girls on the Loose stands out from the pack as a little known and ingenious B-movie delight. For one thing, these aren’t gum-chewing high school delinquents but a quartet of hardened professionals and damaged goods. Equally surprising is the tough, no nonsense story arc which makes the most of its low budget sets and noir lighting schemes in a compact 77-minute programmer directed by Paul Henreid. Yes, THAT Paul Henreid, the former Warner Bros. heartthrob from Austria-Hungary who performed that romantic cigarette seduction of Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942). Here he is below, directing his incognito cast of Girls on the Loose.    

GIRLS ON THE LOOSE, director Paul Henreid on set with masked robbery gang Mara Corday, Joyce Barker, Lita Milan and getaway driver Abby Dalton at rear, 1958 Courtesy Everett Collection.

The movie opens with a payroll heist by a masked gang and reveals their true identities during the getaway. The ringleader of this criminal outfit is Vera (Mara Corday), a sexy, hard-as-nails businesswoman who runs a nightclub on the side that spotlights her sister Helen (Barbara Bostock) as the entertainment; Helen sings, does a few dance steps and hustles male customers to buy drinks. Vera’s partners-in-crime are Joyce (Joyce Barker), a mean-as-a-snake blonde vixen who works as a masseuse, Marie (Lita Milan), a French hairdresser who also happens to be a kleptomaniac with a drinking problem, and Agnes (Abby Dalton), the neurotic weak link in the chain who worked at the company that was robbed and provided Vera with the inside information.

Marie (Lita Milan) gets a rubdown from her partner-in-crime Joyce (Joyce Barker) in the overlooked 1958 crime drama GIRLS ON THE LOOSE.

I especially like the way Girls on the Loose doesn’t waste time on showing us the careful planning of the robbery but simply opens with the heist and follows the inevitable unraveling from that point onward. Things fall apart almost immediately in this noir universe which manages to blend a Mildred Pierce-like scenario (Vera’s obsessive need to control and smother her younger sister and Helen’s attempts to resist it) with the grim crime-doesn’t-pay realities of movies like The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle. Most interesting of all is the way the group dynamic is depicted with Vera and Joyce emerging as the most dangerous and sociopathic of the lot. It’s inevitable that they will be the last two standing for a catfight to the death.

Vera (Mara Corday, left) threatens her devious cohort Joyce (Joyce Barker) in the 1958 B-movie cult favorite GIRLS ON THE LOOSE.

Helen, of course, is the conflicted innocent (she seems to be emulating Shirley MacLaine in dress and pixie cut hairstyle during that actress’s gamine phase in the fifties (The Trouble With Harry, Ask Any Girl). Although she doesn’t participate in the heist, she is fooled into helping Vera in the getaway. When she learns that a guard was seriously wounded in the robbery, Helen begins to question and rebel against her older sister’s lifestyle. Yet she continues to work at Club Vera where we see her perform two songs, “How Do You Learn to Love?” and “I Was a Little Too Lonely” (by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who co-wrote “Buttons and Bows,” “Tammy,” “Que Sera, Sera” and other movie theme hits). Her performance won’t exactly wow you. Nor would you suspect, if you didn’t read the credits, that the composer of the score is Henry Mancini, who was still learning his craft in B-movies.

A publicity photo from GIRLS ON THE LOOSE (1952) shows the four showcased actresses, left to right: Barbara Bostock, Mara Corday, Joyce Barker and Lita Milan.

Helen is the least interesting character in Girls on the Loose but she is essential to the turn of events which are escalated by her romance with the cop assigned to the case, Lt. Bill Hanley (Peter Mark Richman). Paranoia runs rampant as Vera’s cohorts suspect that Helen will betray them to the detective. Adding further tension is Vera’s plan to bury the loot and not dig it up for two years. Marie and Joyce are greedy and don’t want to wait. Agnes, on the other hand, is hysterical and afraid she’ll break down and confess when the police come to question the employees at the payroll company. Vera’s unique way of dealing with Agnes’ panic is one of the scenes that puts Girls on the Loose in a class of its own. Other standout moments involve Joyce, also no wimp when it comes to take-charge situations, resorting to literal backstabbing in one sequence and in another, using a car to pursue and force her victim off the road and over a cliff.

Abby Dalton plays Agnes, the least stable member of an all-girl gang of armed robbers in Paul Henreid’s GIRLS ON THE LOOSE (1958).

The performances by the female cast members are surprisingly vivid and sharply drawn for this sort of low-budget endeavor but I have to say that Mara Corday’s Vera practically walks off with the movie. A mixture of sexual swagger and predatory cunning, she can also play the cool hipster and even has a tender side. She also has a way with smartass quips. To Agnes, she says, “Thinking takes brains. Just forget you’ve got them,” while an inebriated Marie is dismissed with “Talking to drunks is like talking to mud. It gets you nowhere.” Watching her deal with each new disaster that comes along is great fun and you root for her to triumph in the end, though you know it will all end badly.

Corday is well known to fans of such fifties horror films as Tarantula (1955), The Giant Claw (1957) and The Black Scorpion (1957). As a contract player at Universal-International, she became good friends with Clint Eastwood. Although she retired from filmmaking in the sixties to raise a family, she would later return to the screen in small parts in such Eastwood films as The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact, Pink Cadillac and The Rookie. If there is a contemporary actress who bears any similarities to Mara Corday, it would have to be Gina Gershon, who exudes the same kind of tough sexiness in movies like Showgirls (1995), Bound (1996) and Demonlover (2002).

A glamorous publicity shot of Mara Corday from the 1950s.

The other actresses in Girls on the Loose, with the exception of Joyce Barker who only made this one feature (what a shame!), should be familiar from other B-movies of the fifties, especially Abby Dalton, a veteran of such gems as Roger Corman’s Rock All Night (1957), Teenage Doll (1957) and Stakeout on Dope Street (1958).

Exotic Lita Milan is probably best remembered for her roles in The Left Handed Gun (1958), opposite Paul Newman, and Never Love a Stranger (1958), co-starring Steve McQueen. On a strange side note, Milan retired from film acting in 1959 after marrying Ramfis Trujillo, the son of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. After Rafael was assassinated in 1961, the couple fled to Madrid. Milan continues to live there today but shuns any contact with the press.

The one cast member with the most prolific career is the male lead, Peter Mark Richman, with more than 100 credits, mostly in TV series. Although he is nominally the hero in this flick, that wasn’t usually the case. In his own words, “I got stuck playing bad guys and intense personalities for a lot of my career.”

Peter Mark Richman in a publicity still from GIRLS ON THE LOOSE (1958).

While I already mentioned that Girls on the Loose was an early career effort for composer Henry Mancini, it also the first feature for cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, a two-time Oscar nominee for The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Earthquake (1974), and the man who lensed Lonely Are the Brave, Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, Point Blank, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They and many more.

The unexpected wild card in the whole mix though is director Paul Henreid, who was better known as an actor. Part of the reason he turned to directing was due to the scarcity of acting roles after being blacklisted by Hollywood during the Red Scare of the fifties. He made his directorial debut with For Men Only (1952), an exploitation drama about fraternity hazing, and quickly moved into television production and B-movies. Made the same year as Girls on the Loose is Henreid’s Live Fast, Die Young, more teenage topic drive-in fodder that sounds promising from its tagline: “The sin-steeped story of today’s “beat” generation.” It stars Mary Murphy, Norma Eberhardt, Mike Connors and Troy Donahue in a store of two wayward sisters, one a sexual abuse case and confirmed manhater, the other a runaway who falls into a life of crime. I’ve not seen it but it is on my must-see list after the unexpected pleasures of Girls on the Loose. Henreid also went on to direct the entertaining murder-mystery Dead Ringer (1964) with his former co-star Bette Davis in a dual role, and Ballad in Blue (1964), a rare starring role for singer Ray Charles. Who knew that Henreid was such an auteur?

While there are plenty of exceptionally great girl gang flicks out there – High School Hellcats (1958), Teenage Gang Debs (1966), Switchblade Sisters (1975) – Girls on the Loose, for its era, is pure B-movie gold and highly recommended for those with a fondness for the genre. One can only imagine what John Waters and Divine could have done with a remake of it during their hellion years of Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). The characters and situations would have been perfect for a revisionist spin by them.

Girls on the Loose does not appear to be currently available on any format in the U. S. although it has shown up before on Turner Classic Movies so check their listings on a regular basis. It seems a perfect fit for TCM Underground.

A publicity photo from GIRLS ON THE LOOSE (1958) starring Joyce Barker (blonde with knife) and Mara Corday.

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