“The Rebel Set”: Coffeehaus beatniks engaged in a crime caper & a million dollars worth of murder!

By on April 13, 2017

Gene Fowler Jr.’s 1959 beatnik-noir b-movie The Rebel Set — which was later re-released as Beatsville — was actually a suspense-filled crime caper/heist flick that actually had very little to do with the way it was marketed to younger audiences (“Today’s Big Jolt about the Beatnik Jungle!”). You can watch it streaming in our Something Weird collection over on Night Flight Plus.

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As it turned out, the beatnik craze existed for a fairly brief time — mainly 1958 and ’59 — and it seemed to have been focused mostly on the west coast, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and just about the time that middle America was finding out about the so-called beat generation, it was nearly already over, pushed aside by the burgeoning hippie subculture already starting to take place in the mid-Sixties.

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There were a number of mostly low-budget movies that movies that had at least something to do with beatniks — The Beat Generation (a.k.a. This Rebel Age, directed by Charles Haas, 1959); the comedy-horror flick A Bucket of Blood (Roger Corman, 1959); Beat Girl (a.k.a. Wild for Kicks, a British movie directed by Edmond T. Greville, 1959); Hallucination Generation (a.k.a. Hallucination a.k.a. The Drifters, directed by Edward A. Mann, 1966).

However, there were also cash-in movies too, like The Beatniks which we’re also offering over on Night Flight Plus — and be sure to read our blog about it, (“The Beatniks”: Hollywood hoodlums on a rock ‘n’ roll rampage that has absolutely nothing to do with beatniks”) — that tried to lure audiences to movie theaters by tricking them into thinking they were going to actually see some real beatnicking.

However, many Americans found out about beatniks not from the movies, but from magazine articles, like one that appeared in LIFE magazine a few months after The Rebel Set was released theatrically.

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On September 21, 1959, LIFE published an article contrasting the habits and values of middle-class Americans who were living in Hutchinson, Kansas, and beatniks from Venice, California, a suburb west of Los Angeles.

The staff of the magazine decide to run the article, “Squaresville U.S.A. vs. Beatsville,” along with illustrations, after hearing that three young women in Hutchinson, KS — Kathy Vannaman, Anne Gardner, and Lucetta Peters — had sent a letter to Lawrence Lipton, the author of a recently published book about beatniks, The Holy Barbarians, playfully inviting Lipton (and some of his beat friends) to come to their boring midwestern town boasting a population, at the time, of just 38,000.

“This town is Squaresville itself,” they told him, “so we as its future citizens want to be cooled in.”

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To their shock, Lipton accepted their invitation and had actually made plans to travel to Hutchinson (the people in central Kansas call it “Hutch”) until members of the community became hysterical at the thought of what their offer represented and demanded that the girls withdraw their request before they were invaded by beatniks.

Lipton never traveled to Hutchinson, but the proposal itself attracted the attention of local newspapers — and eventually LIFE, who wrote about the offer and the aftermath, comparing the midwestern town to the west coast enclave, as “the clash between the squares and the beats [was] taking place in many small ways all over the U.S.”

The article was accompanied by two photos, one of a pleasant and clean household in Hutchinson, a married couple and their two children gazing happily at a family photo album, while in the other, shot in an unkempt “hip pad” in Venice, artist Arthur Richer and his wife and daughter were seen pondering abstract portraits that decorated their walls.

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A few months later, in November of 1959, LIFE helpfully provided an annoted illustration of the “well-equipped” Beat pad — with beer cans, a copy of Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue and other items necessary to live a beat life — in an article titled “The Only Rebellion Around.”

The Rebel Set is actually pretty light on the beatnik stuff, and is really more of a melodrama heist film, no doubt influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s much more interesting film The Killing, which was released three years earlier.

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The action starts right off when a chess-playing beatnik coffeehaus owner named Tucker, a.k.a. “Mr. T” — played by Edward Platt, best known today as agent Maxwell Smart’s boss on TV’s “Get Smart” — recruits a struggling out-of-work beefcake actor named John Mapes (Gregg Palmer), an unknown, unpublished wannabe writer named Ray Miller (John Lupton), and the spoiled “poor little rich boy” son of a once-famous film actor, George Leland (Don Sullivan), to help him pull up a million-dollar armored car robbery.

The plan — hatched in an after-hours scheme after the coffeehaus closes up for the night — is to then escape aboard a train, heading from L.A. to New York (or Newark?), and the caper goes off as meticulously planned during a four-hour train layover in Chicago, but then Tucker double-crosses the other three in what amounts to a tautly-plotted, suspenseful b-movie crime thriller.

We’re supposed to believe that the deep-voiced Tucker — Platt sports a dark, beatnik-y beard in the film’s early scenes — is a kind of criminal mastermind, aided by his Mephistophelian lackey, played by the great character actor Ned Glass (West Side Story,Charade, TV’s “Bridgette Loves Bernie”).

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Meanwhile, his recruited cohorts are presented as down-on-their-luck losers who seem to be excelling at living a bohemian beatnik lifestyle (Mapes even brings along his wife, but ditches her in the station so that he can go help with the robbery). The plan is to steal the money, bury the evidence, and get out of town on the train before anyone knows what happened.

Why Tucker chooses them — how on earth on they going to successfully pull of a million-dollar heist when then they can’t even keep themselves employed — is the overall question that hangs in the air as thick as the acrid cigarette smoke in Tucker’s beatnik coffeehaus.

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Speaking of which, it’s always fun to see the beat generation portrayed during the actual time it existed, and so the movie’s first scenes that take place at Tucker’s beatnik haunt — accompanied by xylophone-rich west coast jazz, an all black leotard-clad dancing girl, abstract expressionist paintings on the walls, and all the silly little goatees and beards — are really an outsider’s exploitative look at the beat generation (movie producers would treat the hippies pretty much the same way ten years later).

Tucker, to his sleazeball friend Sid: “Are you beat?”
Side: “Oh, sure, man. Cool, way out, and long gone, dad!”

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If you’re already a fan of 1940s and ’50s-era film noirs which take place in and around trains, train stations and railroad yards (Human Desire, The Narrow Margin, Union Station, many others) you’ll recognize that the director must have wanted to create the same kind of trapped setting for the characters, where they’re closed-off and trapped in a claustrophobic world of their own making, one that won’t be easy to escape from.

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The sounds of the trains — slowly moving out, shifting their weight on rail joints, the clatter of the train iron dark and terrible with its steel-on-steel sound, the blur of streaking lights — adds considerably to the ambience.

There are memorable bits of thrown-away dialogue too that prove to have some significance, like a beatnik poet, reading a poem while a percussionist on bongos adds the appropriate soundtrack, saying “The passengers on this sad train are the five senses,” or Mapes reciting lines from William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew while listening to an album on his record player.

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The movie’s multiple poster taglines are quite revealing (even misspelling “beatnik”) in terms of Allied Artists’ marketing campaign goes: “B-GUYS! (The Beatnicks) Living and Loving for strange kicks! JET DOLLS! Ready and willing to go into orbit! KING OF BEATSVILLE! Master mind behind a million dollars worth of murder! THE “WEIRDIES”! Nobody knows what makes them tick!; The DRIFTERS, the HIPSTERS, the Hot SISTERS! Today’s big jolt about THE BEATNICK JUNGLE!; THE BIG JOLT from BEATSVILLE! Free-living world of the over-teens!

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The screenplay was written by Louis Vittes and Bernard Girard (real name: Bernard Goldstein), the former being a longtime associate of the director’s who had a long, successful career in radio and TV, while the latter was an Emmy-award winning TV scribe who’d also punched out a few noir-ish screenplays for b-movies like The Big Punch (Warner Brothers, 1948) and Waterfront at Midnight (Paramount, 1948), although he is probably best known for penning the stylish 1966 comedy-thriller Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.

The film’s director, George Fowler Jr., meanwhile, was better known as a film editor, which is one reason the editing on The Rebel Set is so good.

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Pipe-smoking writer Gene Fowler, with a parrot named Chester perched on his shoulder, typing a screenplay

Fowler — the son of Damon Runyon-esque styled journalist/dramatist Gene Fowler (seen above), who authored more than a dozen books and screenplays — edited It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Hang ‘Em High, and directed numerous TV programs and just seven films, some of them very good, including two sci-fi movies, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1956), and the luridly-titled I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1959).

Fowler studied at USC, taking the only film course they offered at the time, which was cinematography, before he ended up at Fox, where he worked with film editor Marjorie Johnson on The Ox-Bow Incident, although he received no screen credit.

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Fowler — who became acquainted with director Fritz Lang, working on Lang’s Western Union — later transitioned over to the General Service Studio as an independent editor, and then worked on editing movies for the OWI (Office of War Information) during World War II, editing some of the training films for pilots (he also worked on the Why We Fight series).

Fowler ended up bouncing from job to job in the Hollywood editing world, landing a deal with Regal Productions to make b-movies which were distributed by Fox. He first worked with longtime writing partner Louis Vittes on Showdown at Boot Hill, starring Charles Bronson as a soul-searching marshall in a screenplay penned by Vittes.

They continued working together right up through The Rebel Set until his final movie, The Oregon Trail (which he co-wrote with Vittes), a film that was largely assembled around available stock footage.

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The wonderful cinematography on The Rebel Set was by Karl Struss, who had also worked with Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and other well-known directors.

The film’s score, by Paul Dunlap, is also quite good, as was the art direction by David Milton.

Not everyone loved the movie, of course, especially the critics, with Leonard Maltin calling it a “perfectly dreadful crime drama [that] is not without interest as an artifact of its time, with its message that ‘intellectuals’ are inherently corrupt and not to be trusted.”

The Rebel Set — we should point out — was later re-released to theaters as Beatville, the new title no doubt referencing the LIFE article.

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In the early 90s, the fine folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooned The Rebel Set (Episode 419), although truly the film is much better than most of the movies they mock-dubbed with silly dialogue of their own and it deserves to be seen without the MST3K funny stuff at least once before you watch it being trashed.

Check out The Rebel Set and The Beatniks — both are part of our Something Weird collection of weirdo teensploitation titles, and much more! — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.