The Cohen Case Files: Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969)

Story and Screenplay Co-Written by Larry Cohen

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a good example of how a solid script can stand up to any number of wrong-headed production decisions that would sink a lesser story.

The first act moves at warp speed to lay down the ground work to cover years. First, we meet Cathy (Carol White), a naïve young artist who has just moved to San Francisco from England. The first person she meets is Kenneth (Scott Hylands), a devil-may-care photographer who has embraced the bohemian artist lifestyle of mid ‘60s San Francisco (never mind the fact that he somehow can afford to woo Cathy over dinner at an expensive restaurant on their first date and looks like a Mormon missionary).

Kenneth is charming, funny, and helps Cathy get a job as an illustrator at an advertising firm. Soon after, they’re lovers, living together. But after a year of paying the bills while Kenneth brushes off the idea of getting a job by saying he’s “not ready to sell out yet,” Cathy sees just how selfish and creepy he is under his outgoing surface.

Cathy leaves Kenneth, but is horrified to learn she is pregnant. Not wanting to have a child with Kenneth, she takes the advice of her friend Meg (Mala Powers) and gets an abortion. But Kenneth finds out about her pregnancy and seizes on the news as the joyful event he needs to grow up and get a job. When Cathy tells him about the abortion, it’s fair to say that he doesn’t take the news well.

Months after breaking up with Kenneth, Cathy is introduced to Jack (Paul Burke) at a party. Jack is handsome, kind, and a lawyer considering a run for congress. Despite the fact that he looks old enough to be Cathy’s father, they are soon married and expecting a child. But while they seem to have the perfect marriage (complete with a huge house in the suburbs, a sassy housekeeper of indeterminate European origin, and Jack’s political ambitions taking flight), the closer Cathy gets to her due date, the more nervous she becomes.

Cathy fears that her abortion will be discovered, ruining Jack’s congressional candidacy. But an even stronger sense of unease comes in the form of Kenneth. Cathy starts to see him skulking around in department stores, on crowded streets, and on a train. But Kenneth never approaches her. Is he really there or is the poor dear just seeing things in her state of heightened anxiety? The answer comes quickly enough as Kenneth does insert himself back in her life, but that’s the point where the film dives into darker and more interesting territory, so I won’t spoil any of the second and third act developments.

According to Cohen, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting was developed as a project for Alfred Hitchcock, before the great director passed on it. But the beats of a classic Hitchcock film are certainly there in the script: a blond female lead, the potentially psychotic young man obsessed with her, drawn-out set pieces that exist to heighten suspense to the breaking point, comedic relief in the form of household help, and even a bit of culture clash between the very British Cathy and brash, loud Americans.

After Hitchcock decided not to direct it, the script wound up in the hands of producer/director Mark Robson. A veteran filmmaker who started out making horror films for legendary producer Val Lewton (including the superior Boris Karloff vehicle Isle of the Dead), Robson had a long and prolific run turning out solid, but unspectacular studio films across several genres. By the time he wound up at the helm of Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, he had worked in film noir (The Harder They Fall), war movies (The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Von Ryan’s Express), and soapy melodramas (Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls).

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting was Robson’s follow up to Valley of the Dolls and the resemblances certainly show. The first act is an absolute mess that feels like outtakes from that previous film: an abysmal title song is belted out over the opening credits, Cathy is portrayed as a lost lamb in the big city, Kenneth is the corrupting bohemian force who introduces her to the evils of pre-marital sex, and the horror-tinged scene where Cathy walks into the doctor’s office and sees the gynecological instruments laid out at the ready are presented as melodramatically as possible. Even worse, all of these elements add up to a moral of scolding a “good girl gone bad.”

This uncomfortably regressive view of Cathy continues into the second act. It is implied that Cathy only gets her life together when she marries a bland, older lawyer and gives up her career to be a mother and the trophy wife on her husband’s arm in a political campaign. Of course, there is the subplot that Cathy’s past could jeopardize Jack’s political ambitions, causing her to feel guilt about her relationship with Kenneth and the abortion—as though she lived an insanely amoral existence until meeting him, instead of the fact that she was largely self-sufficient and made a decision that was best for her at that time in her life.

But while the film initially seems to be scolding Cathy at every turn, it eventually reveals itself to be more nuanced in its storytelling. Aside from Kenneth (who often uses the words “kill” and “murder” to describe Cathy’s abortion), no one in the film says anything unkind to her about her abortion. Jack turns out to be as understanding and nice as he is boring. The police who eventually get involved never once bring it up to her. In many ways, the procedure is accepted as just a fact of modern life—an interesting tone for the film to take since it was released in 1969 and Roe v. Wade was not decided until 1973.

For what seems to have been intended as a mainstream thriller about a woman and her family possibly being threatened by an unstable man, having an abortion play such a major plot point is surprising. It is also the strongest dose of Cohen’s personality present in the film, fitting in with his tendency to gleefully push hot-button topics that most mainstream filmmakers fear to approach.

There is a distinct push-and-pull between Cohen’s subversive sense of humor/willingness to push boundaries with the plot and Robson’s attempt to craft a straight-forward thriller with a clean three act structure. Veteran screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. was brought in to rewrite Cohen’s script and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting certainly runs like clockwork once the messy setup is out of the way. But even with some of Cohen’s edges sanded down, the finished film is more thought-provoking and darker (Kenneth’s plan, when revealed, is diabolical) than a lot of the films that came out at the same time.

The muddled gender politics of the film only make it more fascinating. Sure, the finished film is an uneven mixture of very good suspense sequences, dull performances, dated camera and editing tricks (Robson’s go to transition is the zoom in on a random object before panning to what’s happening in a scene), a complete lack of understanding of San Francisco’s art scene in the ‘60s, and alternating scenes of empathy and scorn for Cathy, but it’s always interesting, bordering on provocative. It’s not a film that is easily shaken, even when the outcome is all but assured from the opening scenes.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com, read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter, and keep up with all of my viewing habits by following me on Letterboxd.

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