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‘Sensation Hunters’ is a memorable, quirky morality tale

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Sensation Hunters (aka Club Paradise)

Written by Dennis J. Cooper and Jon Faxon

Directed by Christy Cabanne

U.S.A., 1946

A lone individual passes the gate and walks the pathway leading to a two-story building sequestered among the trees. When no one answers at the door on the first floor, a woman enters the balcony on the second, prompting the man to look up at his admirer and walk up the stairs to convene with the dame. Only moments after entering the second story apartment, gun shots roar!

So begins Sensation Hunters (also known as Club Paradise), with a cold opening that can compete with the best of them. Director Christy Cabanne immediately takes viewers back a few weeks in time to relate what led to the grisly tête-à-tête. It is the story of one Julie (Doris Merrick), a fun-loving, charming young woman still living with her grossly dysfunctional family. She dates Ray Lawson (Eddie Quillan), a trumpet player looking to make big with his band. One evening, while she and her friend Helen (Wanda McKay) admire Ray’s talents at a local, modest night club, they make the acquaintance of Danny Burke (Robert Lowery), a man that has just arrived in town. Good looking, rugged, confident, his looks and attitude have Julie smitten. The attraction is reciprocated, which begins a long line of decisions Julie makes that forgo her simpler, more steady pleasure for more luxurious, sexy ones that incur far greater risks.

Sensation Hunters is an extremely well directed little morality tale that reminds audiences they should always be careful of what they wish for. Another theme is to never judge a book by its cover. In essence, the bedrock onto which the story rests is a collection of cautionary reminders that more people should take into consideration the risks when met with what look to be easy ways out of their troubles. No matter how bad their situation, an easy fix is not always the most efficient fix, and whenever an opportunity feels as though it is too good to be true, it probably is.

Julie, beaten down emotionally by her unenviable living conditions, is seduced by the sex appeal and thin layer of charm Danny exudes. Little does she know that he has serious money issues, owing a significant sum to some loan sharks, to say nothing of the fact that his previous run-ins with the employees at the Paradise Club, among them manager Mae (Isabel Jewell) and lead singer Edna (Minerva Urecal), are cause for concern. In place of cautious optimism, Julie is headstrong in her desire to be with Danny. The energy and gusto that so often accompanies youth gets the better of her judgement, leading her down a path from which it will be terribly difficult to return.

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When her final date with Ray at an illegal gambling racket goes sour, forcing her stubbornly closed minded father to pay for her bail and kick her out of the home, Julie has no choice but to find a job at the Paradise Club. It is at this stage in the story, with her heart dead set on Bobby and making a decent salary at the club, that the reality of Danny’s personality rears its ugly head, turning a potentially sweet dream into a nightmare.

Cabanne demonstrates terrific vim and verve in her direction. Despite whatever limitations, budgetary or technical, existed at the time, he regularly peppers the movie with panache, neat visual cues, excellent cinematography and a great pace that makes the most of the running time. Right from the opening scene viewers quickly get a sense of the confident storytelling inclinations Cabanne possesses, for rather than show the incident via multiple medium shots stitched together in the editing bay, he opts for a wide shot from a certain distance in order to capture the man’s approach to the building and his subsequent march up the stairs to the second-story apartment in a single continuous shot. Not only does it look very good with the moody lighting and handsome set design, it suggests the sort of economy of storytelling so few directors consider when making their films. Transitional and establishing frames in particular benefit from a whirlwind of idiosyncrasies, like the compositional shot at the local factory where Julie works that juxtaposes the towering smoke stacks and the tooting lunch horn, providing information about the sort of place where she works at the start of the film as well as the circumstances under which the scene is to take place: the lunch break.

Doris Merrick, as Julie, makes her role equally deserving of the viewers empathy and pity. Her familial situation is horrendous, what with a stern, whiny father constantly berating everyone in the home and a drunk, careless brother that treats her sister-in-law like garbage, Julie is anything but lucky. On the flip side, her rash, instinctive decisions later on that lead her down a path of sorrow and frustration are frowned upon. Merrick plays this balance very capably, showing hopeful innocence that warms one’s heart and the stupidity and hard-headedness that also comes with being young and inexperienced in matters of the world. She never fully earns the viewers’ hearts because of her silly behavior past the halfway poin,t yet it is also extremely difficult to scoff at her because of her background.

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Almost everybody in the film has their moment to shine. Eddie Quillan, as Ray, is a pure delight, brimming with wholesome confidence. He is a good-natured soul at heart and terribly charismatic at that, earning him the honour of being the most fun loving character in the film. Robert Lowery, seen recently in They Made Me a Killer, delivers a more rounded performance here. There is a very dark charisma to him, a bad side that can easily seduce impressionable young women. Little does the audience know at the start of the picture that is, essentially, one of his many unenviable specialities: ensnaring pretty young girls for as long as he needs them. Special mention should also go to Isabel Jewel and Edna Urecal, who both bring a lot of character to the many scenes transpiring at the Paradise Club. In a nutshell, Sensation Hunters benefits from near perfect casting.

Director Cabanne offers up a quirky little morality tale that shows one person’s descent into depression and self-doubt after a brief but blissful affair with a tall dark stranger. The role reversal between the femme fatale and her victim, in this case it being an homme fatal and his victim, is appreciative and makes for a different dynamic than is usually the case. Men can be just as cruel and manipulative toward their women while exuding alluring sexual tension, as their female counterparts regularly do in these films. Fast paced to boot, Sensation Hunters is a bittersweet pill to swallow that somehow goes down smooth nonetheless.

— Edgar Chaput


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