Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Target #215: Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)

TSPDT placing: #265
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Written by: Mickey Spillane (novel), A.I. Bezzerides (writer)
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) opens with one of the most captivating sequences I've seen in a long while. Dispensing with the credits until a later date, when they scroll slanted and backwards across the screen, the film fades directly into a pair of naked feet fleeing along a roadway, the soundtrack dominated by her amplified breathing and panting, the flicker of passing automobile headlights briefly illuminating her anguished facial features. A passing motorist swerves to avoid the barely-clothed woman, skidding dangerously onto the gravel, and the disgruntled driver, private investigator Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), reluctantly offers her a ride. The credits roll over images of the road ahead, filmed from the backseat of Hammer's convertible, to the soundtrack of Nat King Cole's "Rather Have the Blues" on the radio, the mysterious woman's sobbing and breathing still disconcertingly audible. I was immediately transfixed by Aldrich's directing style - gritty, mean, and yet still very professional - and, had the film maintained this tone for the entirety of its running time, I would have proclaimed Kiss Me Deadly to be no less than a masterpiece.

It doesn't take long, however, for the film to fall into the familiar trappings of a pulp detective novel, not unlike your typical Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett adaptation. This isn't necessarily a damaging characteristic, and the film very much retains its ability to thrill and entertain, but it loses the raw grittiness that, stylistically, made the prologue sequence so damn gripping. The remainder of the story, creatively adapted from a novel by Mickey Spillane, interestingly blends two distinct genres: on the one hand, it's a hard-boiled pulp detective story, complete with a hard-edged private investigator, seedy villains and a scheming femme fatale. On the other hand, it's a science-fiction off-shoot of the Cold War, with a destructive, possibly-nuclear Macguffin for which the film's characters are quite willing to kill. Ralph Meeker is ideally-cast as Mike Hammer, a wry, stubborn and selfish detective whose inability to cooperate with the unsympathetic authorities can only lead to apocalypse. The screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, like many noirs, carries a streak of misogyny, with even the innocent girls (including Maxine Cooper and Cloris Leachman) being neglected and abused at every turn.

Kiss Me Deadly is also interesting in that the filmmakers have obviously become very aware of typical film noir conventions, and the inclusion of the mysterious Pandora's Box - knowingly referred to as "the great whatsit" - is a deliberate satire of what Alfred Hitchcock had called the MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the film's characters, but the details of which are of little or no importance. The influence of this device can be seen in numerous subsequent pictures, from the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to the mysterious glowing briefcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). The DVD release of Kiss Me Deadly includes the film's restored original ending, in which Hammer and Velda escape into the crashing waves, their futures nonetheless still uncertain, as the apocalyptic nuclear device destroys the seaside cottage in a blinding mushroom cloud. I much preferred it to the abrupt, truncated ending that had previously been present in most prints, and Aldrich himself confirmed that he had no part in the somewhat-crude chopping of his film's conclusion.

Currently my #4 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
4) Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
5) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
6) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
7) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
8) The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
9) The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock)
10) Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick)

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1999

What others have said:

"Kiss Me Deadly really didn't resurface in the cinema consciousness until the early 1970s when the French term film noir broke into American film journals. It suddenly appeared in a pantheon of top titles that included Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil and Out of the Past. Previously ignored as an irrelevant addendum to Mickey Spillane's culturally abhorred world of tough guy pulp fiction, Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides' film was heralded as an extreme expression of protest against 1950s conformist complacency. It subverted Spillane by criticizing his brutal avenger Mike Hammer as greedy, narcissistic and infantile."
Glenn Erickson - Noir of the Week, 2007

"It's a thrilling ride through the criminal dregs and overlords of 50s Los Angeles. Even the period detail - from one-piece bathing suits to an enormous, wall-mounted reel-to-reel answer machine - is a joy. But this movie stands, unequivocally, on its merits. Masterful accumulation of tension is accompanied by a smouldering performance from Maxine Cooper as Hammer's assistant and lover, Velda. Ralph Meeker is electric in his understated portrayal of Hammer, the calculating anti-hero; who knows why he never really hit the big time?"
David Mattin - BBC Movies, 2006

"Producer/director Aldrich's brutal, fast action, paranoid film with a series of disconnected scenes, was based upon pulp fiction writer Mickey Spillane's 1952 sensationalist detective best-seller of the same name... The film is a low-budget, B-grade film (at a cost of about $400,000) without recognizable actors. As a counterpoint to the hard-boiled film, cultural allusions abound: the Christina Rossetti poem "Remember," and a Caruso vocal recording - to name a few. Its posters heralded: BLOOD-RED KISSES, WHITE-HOT THRILLS!... Kiss Me Deadly is rich with symbolic allusions, labyrinthine and complex plot threads, and Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb. The film, shot over a one month period in late 1954, is a masterpiece of cinematography, exhibited in the disorienting camera angles and unique and unconventional compositions of Ernest Laszlo. It has all the elements of great film noir - a stark opening sequence, destructive femme fatales, low-life cheap gangsters, an anti-hero, expressionistically-lit night-time scenes, a vengeful quest, and a dark mood of hopelessness."
Tim Dirks - Filmsite

Other classic film noir:

"Who killed Owen Taylor, the replacement chauffeur? I don't know; Philip Marlowe doesn't know; screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman certainly don't know. Indeed, even Raymond Chandler, the author of the original novel, was once asked to explain his story's many murders, double-crossings, twists and turns, and replied that he had absolutely no idea. In any other situation, I might consider this a solid detraction from the quality of the film, but, strangely enough, here it almost acts as a positive. The Big Sleep (1946) is so doggedly obsessed with showing us the dark, seedy underbelly of human existence that any scenario, however shocking, is quite conceivable; the murderer could have been any one of the characters, and this would have been wholly consistent with the general tone of the film."

"In a Lonely Place (1950) has only now been lauded as one of the finest entries into the film-noir movement, and Humphrey Bogart's performance has emerged as among the most intense and profound in his distinguished repertoire. A brooding study of aggression, trust and success, Ray's film meticulously deconstructs the Hollywood myth, revealing a frightening world where the man you love could very well be a murderer... It's this notion of creativity – or, rather, the lack of creativity in film-making – that forms the heart of In a Lonely Place. There's no doubt that Dixon Steele is a talented screenwriter, but his reluctance to allow his work to be influenced by popular opinion makes him feel trapped and alone, as though Hollywood is attempting to stamp out his genius. His frustration with the film-making business is allowed to accumulate steadily within, before being unleashed in adrenaline-charged explosions of aggression and violence."

"One might suggest that Welles did everything possible to ensure that The Lady from Shanghai (1947) would fail at the box-office: he filled the screen with bizarre, unlikable characters, and effectively diluted the star-appeal of then-wife Rita Hayworth by shearing and dyeing her famous red hair... The film's climax is absolutely unforgettable, a gripping and innovative shoot-out in a carnival house of mirrors. As each character blasts away at illusory images of their enemies, the bullets shatter their own reflected profiles, fulfilling Michael's foreshadowing anecdote that compares Elsa (Hayworth) and Arthur (Everett Sloane) to sharks gnawing feverishly at their own flesh."


J Luis Rivera said...

Sorry, I must say I freaking love this movie. It may be my favourite Noir film (wll, one of the Top 5) merely because of its pulp feeling. It's like watching a comic book moving, I think. No wonder why Tarantino took a lot from it's feeling...

I always found Aldrich's movies to be quite influential even if they weren't masterpieces, have you seen "Vera Cruz"? To me that's Leone's blueprint for the Spaghetti Westerns...

ackatsis said...

Like I said in my review, I absolutely loved the opening sequence, but the remainder of the film - while very well done - was largely no different from what Hawks or Huston were doing a decade earlier.

That was my first Aldrich, but I'm interested in seeing some more. Top of my list are "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)," "The Dirty Dozen (1967)" and "The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)" - none of those appear to be noir, though. "The Big Knife (1955)" also sounds interesting.