Summary: Thematic consistency and focus elevate low-budget production
"Jail Bait" (1954) has come in for more than its share of deserved ridicule over the years, but biographer Roy Craig in his book "Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films" balances the account by pointing out the artistic integrity that suffuses this film. The budget of the film was only $21,000 for a 4-day shoot. Within these limits, a lot of hustling was done, much of it by Dolores Fuller, to use an actual police station, an actual night club, the automobiles and the outfits worn by the ladies. The luxury of multiple shots and takes was simply unavailable.
"Jail Bait" is a film noir. We can tell this in the first few seconds as the credits roll above an oncoming police car, but the story also develops as a tragedy. The story takes place on several nights. The music, which is frequently handled by a solo guitar, lends an other-worldly or dreamlike quality to the picture. The character who is most disconnected or alienated is the son "Don" (Clancy Malone). He's alienated from both sister "Marilyn" (Dolores Fuller) and plastic surgeon father (Herbert Rawlinson). The arch-criminal of the piece "Brady" (Timothy Farrell) is coldly nihilistic. Alcohol, the 50s drug of choice, plays a notable role throughout the story, uniting characters on both sides of the law. Craig points out numerous references both to Biblical figures and to the Egyptian Osiris legend. These connect to the lost morality of Don and his attempted reconciliation with his father, as well as the latter's responsibility for the breakdown between him and his son.
In short, there is more here than meets the eye, making the story competitive on a thematic level with many a far more costly movie. It builds up very good suspense and irony toward the end. As a noir fan, I liked the look of the film, especially the night exteriors. The cinematographer, William C. Thompson, would go on to film the deeply noir "Dementia" (1955). I also liked the music by Hoyt Curtin. Even if he didn't score it specifically for this film, it is still better than many a modern film's clichés.