NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2019
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, September 6th, 2019 to Thursday, September 12th, 2019
KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
United Artists, 106m
*Presented as it was released in 1955; in 35mm courtesy of Park Circus
"Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad."
—"Remember," Christina Georgina Rossetti (December 5, 1830 — December 29, 1894)
KISS ME DEADLY may be the finest of film noirs released in the 1950s, but author Mickey Spillane was not impressed with what screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides did to his novel. According to event host Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, Spillane said all that remained of his sixth novel to feature private investigator Mike Hammer was the title. The leftist writer Bezzerides obviously did not think much of Spillane's signature character, and went the extra mile to make sure he could not be construed as the hero of the filmed adaptation. Whether one likes the onscreen Hammer figure or not, there is much to admire about the film world he inhabits. Despite adherence to the usual dictates of film noir, KISS ME DEADLY does not look or sound quite like any other noir film. In comparison with other examples of '50s noir, it seems oddly contemporary; its main difference from the modern crime story is the absence of ubiquitous f-bombs. The nihilistic production also benefits from unrelenting toughness, Ralph Meeker's exceptional performance as a marginally likable heel and some quirky female characters that seem plucked from the David Lynch universe.
Director Robert Aldrich (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? ) makes the most of an intense introductory sequence that begins with Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) running barefoot down a dark highway. When Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) narrowly avoids plowing into her, he shows concern only for the preservation of his smooth ride. "You almost wrecked my car," he grumbles in disgust. The tone is set. Next the opening credits scroll backwards over the orgasmic panting of Christina, now attached to Mike in his convertible. She is a fugitive from a psychiatric ward, and soon enough those seeking her make their presence known. In an unforgettably suggestive segment, Christina is tortured with pliers(!) by men who remain anonymous to the camera, while a groggy Mike is helpless to intercede. The apparent leader of the villains calmly speaks with disturbing eloquence after Christina becomes non-responsive. The unlikely noir couple is left for dead, but Mike survives and finds himself absorbed in a mystery he may be ill-equipped to comprehend. Ironically for a good chunk of the film he is perplexed by a clue that reads "REMEMBER ME." That request is a tall order for a self-absorbed man like Mike, who parasitically feeds on divorce cases for his source of income.
The death of Christina draws the attention of the Interstate Crime Commission, and Mike is curious as to why. The cops show complete disdain for Mike, whose detective practice involves capturing evidence of married people breaking their vows. Worse than that, he and his assistant Velda Wickman (Maxine Cooper) get personally involved with the couples they target in the interest of gathering damning information. Mike already had proven in the opening sequence his instinct is to not cooperate with law enforcement officials, so it comes as no surprise when he refuses to play ball and leaves the interrogation room. One man contemptuously comments, "Open a window." These men seem no better than Mike. Lieutenant Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) in particular is one smug little bastard, absolutely impossible to like. Pat personally informs Mike that his PI license and handgun permit have been revoked. Film noir sometimes highlights the determination of effective public servants in examples such as T-MEN (1947), TRAPPED (1949), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1950) and PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), but KISS ME DEADLY finds little faith in public officials. Who are the true villains here?
As Mike stubbornly persists in sticking his nose in where he knows it is most unwelcome, it becomes evident he is an outsider in every way imaginable. He associates best with other outsiders and worst with those who feign respectability. His probable best friend is Nick (Nick Dennis), a fast-talking, affable Greek auto mechanic. Mike is also helpful to an Italian American burdened with what appears to be a very heavy storage chest. When Mike gets loaded in a nightclub, he is the only white face among the black clientele; he has more in common with people of color than other white people. A man easily angered, Mike gets impatient with those who do not cooperate. He delights in pushing people around, and he can take a punch as well as anybody. Sometimes when he gets tough it is easy enough to side with him, as when he is first confronted by Charlie Max (Jack Elam) and Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert). Other times Mike makes it difficult to gain the viewer's allegiance. The deeper he gets into his investigation, the more crude slaps he dishes out, as when he roughs up a meek front desk clerk. The PI is especially mean-spirited when he breaks an opera fanatic's classic record, even more so when he crushes the fingers of Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton) in a desk drawer. In those two instances of highly questionable procedure, the camera captures Mike's admiration for the type of work he enjoys all too well. The film noir often uses narration to smooth over a lead protagonist's rough edges to encourage the viewer to identify with that individual. The absence of narration in KISS ME DEADLY marks a genre in transition, as well as a main character we are not meant to admire. Even if the viewer should not condone Mike's tactics, it is difficult not to empathize a little after the brutal killing of his friend causes the gumshoe to go berserk.
Though critics and fans often brand Mike a stupid individual, I think he is better described as a boorish, egocentric character who is out of his element, a type of man whose time has passed. He is intelligent enough and experienced enough to know a big case when he stumbles onto one, and he proves his street smarts on numerous occasions, especially when he correctly deduces what became of a small artifact associated with Christina. He also predicts the location of two incendiary devices placed within the automobile he was gifted by those who would celebrate his violent demise. In a wonderfully intense conversation, Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) admits his organization has underestimated Mike repeatedly. Mike's instincts prove less reliable when he encounters a package equipped with far superior firepower compared with what was found in his newest car. The air of fatalism that chokes film noir characters comes neatly packaged, but dangerous to the touch. Mike's first exposure to "the great whatsit" as Velda describes it creates a painful brand on his wrist (we know it is serious when the proven tough guy Mike winces!). That event marks Mike for death.
"If you had not stopped to pick up Christina, not any of these things would have happened..."
KISS ME DEADLY features about the oddest assortment of revisionist femme fatales ever to grace a noir film. Christina latches onto Mike in the opening sequence, despite his immediate disdain for her highway obstacle act. Would he have invited her into his car had he not imagined her naked under that trench coat? Probably not. Interestingly, only after Christina pokes Mike about his self-centered masculinity does he begin to loosen up a little in front of her. But in most prime examples of noteworthy noir themes, Mike would have been the wiser to allow Christina to fend for herself (she may have been better off as well). His chance involvement with Christina leads to a deadly connection with the mysteriously mousy Lily/Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) that has consequences far greater than anything Mike may have considered. And though her screen time is brief, Friday (Marian Carr) strikes a chord as perhaps the most weirdly amorous dame to appear in a noir film. In another example of his better judgment, Mike shows some restraint when confronted with her aggressive advances.
|Point that thing somewhere else|
The "good" girl has her share of baggage, too. Velda is always hot for Mike, and she certainly is an attractive brunette, but the sadomasochistic Mike would prefer to pimp her out in service of his trashy detective enterprise. She puts it well in the hospital sequence in the first act when she tells him, "You never need me when I'm around." The hotter she gets, the cooler he treats her, and his head usually turns when another skirt walks by. That is not to suggest he harbors no attraction to Velda, but her ability to seduce any other man means more to him than whatever feelings he holds for her. During the opening scenes, Christina correctly identifies Mike as a man who cares only about himself, a man who cannot give, only take. Ultimately that quality condemns him. In light of the film's devastating concluding sequence, Mike (and many others) would have been grateful had he granted Velda the alone time she always desired and steered clear of crazed blondes. But upon repeat viewings of the film, Velda's neediness is a little pathetic. She wants Mike more than any man would wish to be wanted.
The fine screenplay is complemented by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (IMPACT , D.O.A. ), who relies heavily on the use of oblique camera angles, particularly in the early going. A nice touch I noticed for the first time at this event's screening is the emphasis given to the hydraulic floor jack used to quickly service Mike's vehicle after he picks up Christina—one of those devices has a role in a gruesome murder later in the story. Laszlo's coverage of complex stairways, both interior and exterior, stands for the complicated and hazardous noir labyrinth through which Mike travels. Many of the interior staircases are ornamentally fabricated; most exterior staircases are unusually high and would make for an exceptionally painful way to take a tumble (as a thug tailing Mike learns). That stairway fall always makes me gasp—somebody did that stunt! According to Eddie Muller, that scene utilized an actual staircase with no special padding.
The conclusion of the film intended by director Robert Aldrich was not reinstated until 1997. The truncated ending in which nobody escapes the beach house may have been less open to interpretation, but neither version suggests a different end result for the lead protagonist, who forfeits his future when he opens the modern equivalent of Pandora's box. In any case, I do not think Mike should shoulder the blame for the catastrophic event that ends the film. All the blame should go to Dr. G. E. Soberin (Albert Dekker), who fails to take his own advice. Soberin has a lot to say about the huge mistake Mike made when he got tangled up with Christina, but in the film's final sequence Soberin makes a far greater error when he treats Gabrielle like a child; the intellectual is somehow completely oblivious to her potential danger. As the doctor's name implies, KISS ME DEADLY's ultimate takeaway is sobering indeed.