Her: ‘Do you always sell every car you demonstrate?’
Him: ‘No, but I don’t always get taken for a ride either’
Going by the title, it'd be no big surprise if 'Hot Cars', released in 1956, turned out to be another ‘sinsational’ teens-gone-wild flick, joining the likes of 'Dragstrip Girl', 'Teenage Thunder', 'Hot Rod Gang', 'Speed Crazy', 'Hot Rod Girl', 'Young and Dangerous' or 'Joy Ride' on the drive-in screen.
But it's not. There's not a greaser or street rod in sight, just deluxe production rides and foreign sports jobs that are ‘hot’ only because they're all stolen - something Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) finds out after days on the job as a sales jockey for a string of Los Angeles used car lots.
Dunn realizes that owner Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton) is fronting a chop-shop (Markel calls it "a refrigeration plant, where hot cars are brought to cool down"). But Dunn now has nowhere to go. Fired from his last car sales job for being straight with the customers, Dunn has a gun to his head. His infant son Davy needs an operation for which Markel will pay if Dunn will play. But Markel already knows that Dunn's done. The dealer was hip to Dunn’s plight before hiring him, using a blonde knockout named Karen Winter (Joi Lansing) to bait the hook. By the time Dunn figures out he’s been duped it’s too late and Markel moves to fit him up as a one-size-fits-all patsy.
The film runs fast and smooth on a tuned script by screenwriter Don Martin whose film and television credits extended four decades. Martin scripted several of the original ‘Falcon’ releases and from 1947 to 1958 contributed to a list of B-thrillers, among them: 'Lighthouse' (1947), 'The Hatbox Mystery' (1947), 'Search for Danger' (1949), 'Destination Murder' (1950), 'Shakedown' (1950), 'Double Jeopardy' (1955), 'Confession' (1955), 'The Man is Armed' (1956) and 'The Violent Road' (1958). His pulp novel 'Shed No Tears' was filmed in 1948. Once a 'lost noir', the movie was found a few years back by Alpha Entertainment.
A chunk of 'Hot Cars' was shot on location, offering some tantalizing sightings of mid-century Los Angeles e.g. the iconic 'Jack’s at the Beach' restaurant and lounge where Joi Lansing first begins stroking John Bromfield to see if he’s up for the ride. Lansing was on the scene in Hollywood from the day the bus pulled up. She was a teenage model then moved into films and TV. Well-known as a party girl, she had affairs with many of the usual suspects including George Raft, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra and was still good for four marriages along the way.
But Lansing also had her head screwed on straight when it came to her career - though she wasn’t that much of an actress and was never encouraged to be one, given her famously alluring pout and purpose-built figure. Her movie appearances were limited mostly to bit parts (including 'Touch of Evil') but she did better on television, landing smaller supporting roles plus regular stints on 'The Bob Cummings Show', 'Klondike', and 'The Beverly Hillbillies'. 'Hot Cars' is worth it for Lansing alone. She’s sexy and something to watch, especially when she goes to work on the straight-arrow Dunn:
Him: ‘I told you already, I’m married’.
Her: ‘I have a terrible memory’.
The film also provided a better-than-usual part for John Bromfield, himself a ready-made leading man who never really found solid footing in hollywood. Though tall, dark and athletic, he had to warm a bench that already held hunks like Rory Calhoun, Ray Danton, Brad Dexter, Steve Cochrane, Richard Egan, William Campbell, Jeffrey Hunter, Vince Edwards and John Russell.
He had started out encouragingly enough in tryout roles for Paramount in 'Sorry, Wrong, Number' and 'Rope of Sand'. As a featured actor he soon had to settle for an assortment of cheap westerns, horror titles and crime programmers like 'The Big Bluff', 'Crime Against Joe', and the exuberantly trashy 'Three Bad Sisters'. Bromfield was a capable enough performer, just not a very interesting one, evincing no particular charisma, sexual intensity or dark places. He was what he was: a handsome, rugged straight-shooter and that’s how he was cast. Well-suited for the role of Nick Dunn, he's just fine in it.
'Hot Cars' presents more as a conventional crime thriller than film noir. It doesn’t bother itself much with moody atmospherics and much else visually. Karen Winter arrives as a femme fatale but fails to damage or destroy. Nick Dunn is neither a doomed protagonist nor chump. He’s not a victim of his own device. While he is a man in a trap, he’s able to find his own way to an escape. That said, 'Hot Cars' still feels like noir. The basic constructions are there, needing only to be framed slightly differently as they would have been a decade or so earlier. In that way the movie is not so different from others now seen as ‘late-period’. However, none of this much impacts much on the film's high-velocity performance as it rockets along like a monkey on a zip line, propelled by a hipster jazz track by bandleader Les Baxter.
In all 'Hot Cars' is just one very cool ride that’s definitely worth taking out for a drive.