Friday, April 26, 2013

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The private investigator is an often used character in film noir. Well-known examples are Sam Spade ('The Maltese Falcon') created by Dashiel Hammett and the iconic Philip Marlowe ('Murder, My Sweet', 'The Big Sleep') created by Raymond Chandler. Number three on the list, and the main character of 1955's 'Kiss Me Deadly', is Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. First appearing in 1953 in 'I, The Jury', Mike Hammer became a popular character, even becoming the main character of 3 TV series (Marlowe got only 1 TV series, Sam Spade 0).

For 1955's 'Kiss Me Deadly', screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides ('Thieves' Highway') based the story loosely on Spillane's novel 'Kiss Me, Deadly', removing much of the original story in favor of adding a lot of 50s paranoia to it, especially the nuclear and cold war fears of those years but also (in a much more subdued manner) McCarthyism. He also turned Mike Hammer into a selfish, mean person who seems to enjoy inflicting pain on others. Whereas the original Mike Hammer was tough and hard-boiled, like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe before him, Bezzerides' Mike Hammer took it to a new, and pretty unsympathetic, level. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe might not always play by the book, Bezzerides' Hammer doesn't read so the rules in the book simply don't apply to him. A moral code only gets in the way of things. Mickey Spillane was heavily disappointed with the overall result and especially the way Mike Hammer was portrayed in this movie. The movie however was a success.

The movie was produced and directed by Robert Aldrich ('The Dirty Dozen'), with cinematography by Ernest Laszlo ('D.O.A.', 'Impact') and music by Frank Devol ('The Dirty Dozen'). All three would work together on another noir, 'The Big Knife', that same year.

In the movie Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a private detective who specializes in divorce cases. He typically accepts a case from the wife, and then finds out dirt on the husband to get some more money from him as well... And if that doesn't work, he gets his assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper, in her first motion picture) to put them in an embarassing situation so he get extort some money out of them anyway.

This is the Mike Hammer that almost runs over a woman on a dark road at the start of the movie, while driving a fast Jaguar. The woman, barefoot and wearing nothing but a trenchcoat, is Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, also in her first motion picture). Hammer begrudgingly gives her a ride to the nearest busstop. Christina gets a pretty clear picture of Mike based on his car and sneering tone of voice:
'You have only one real, lasting love. [..] You. You're one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. But you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard... [..] You're the kind of person who never gives in a relationship, who only takes.'
That's Mike Hammer in a nutshell, and maybe the nutshell as well: hard, bitter and tough to crack. Before they reach the busstop however, a gang corners the car and ambushes them. They interrogate and torture Christina until she dies, and they push Hammer, Christina in his Jag down a hill. Hammer ends up in a hospital and is out for three days. Obviously Hammer thinks there's something big in Christina's death, and hoping there's something big in it for him, he starts to investigate. The story then becomes this long and twisty road where paying attention is necessary, as persons get introduced quickly and disappear again quickly, but in some cases are still crucial to the plot. Essentially, Christina had knowledge on the whereabouts of  a mysterious small suitcase, 'the great whatsit', and an even more mysterious Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) is after it. Soberin has enlisted the help of suave upper-class gangster Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) to get his hands on the suitcase. And then there's Lily Carver (Gabrielle Rodgers), Christina's roommate who seems slightly crazy and naive but is anything but. Hammer has to make sense of it all, and via a complex sequence of events and interviews, and a poem by English poet Christina Rossetti, slowly finds out what is going on and what this 'great whatsit' is that everybody is after.

Mike Hammer has no real friends in this movie, except a Greek mechanic, Nick (Nick Dennis), who provides the only genuinely sympathetic character in this movie with his upbeat, bright personality and 'Va-va-voom!' exclamations. And it isn't until Nick is killed that Hammer really starts to get personally involved in the case, before it was just a possible opportunity to make some money. The only other person that he 'cares about' in this movie is Velda ('cares about' is used in the most liberal sense here, because he has no problems pimping her out for his divorce cases), his loyal assistant. She knows she will never be Hammer's love, but she's content with it. She knows that whenever he is in trouble, he'll come to her, and that is good enough for her. She is also the one who dubs the secret everybody's after 'the great whatsit', before Hammer or Velda even know they're looking for a suitcase. And then there's police lieutenant Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), who despises Hammer despite having a weird sort of professional working relationship with him.

Dr. Soberin makes appearances throughout the movie but his face isn't shown until the last part of the movie. But just by showing his shoes and trousers and by using Dekker's natural dominant voice he brings a lot of menacing and foreboding weight to the mythical Soberin character. When he's torturing Christina with pliers and later on when he gives Hammer a shot of sodium pentathol (the truth serum) in the leg in a casual manner and then pats him on the leg in an almost friendly manner, with the camera only showing Soberin from the waist down in both cases, not seeing his face only adds to the threatening and menacing nature of Dr. Soberin.

There are a couple of scenes that are done as single shots, but are done in a naturalistic way and are heavy on dialogue, you almost don't notice it. And despite them being dialogue-heavy scenes and done in a single shot, there's also a lot going visually, which makes these scenes so great. There's also a lot of attention in the way shots are framed and styled, it's really a gorgeous movie if you just look at the cinematography, directing and staging. And while it is essentially a B-movie, the actors are almost without exception giving great performances and the (many) important characters are fairly complex and 3-dimensional, even if they're not exactly sympathetic.

The opening credits are shown moving top-to-bottom, going backwards. So for instance, it first reads 'Robert Aldrich' and then 'directed by'. It's quite original, here's a shot of the title of the movie, courtesy of the wonderful Movie Title Stills Collection:
It seems pretty ridiculous now the way 'the great whatsit' is portrayed, and I still am a bit puzzled by how 'sensationalist' this movie becomes right at the end. It does take away quite a bit of the film's appeal to me, even though the movie as a whole is pure noir greatness. I'm sure it felt quite different when this was released, but it is just plain comicbook silly now. But, I would say that despite that flaw, it is still a highly enjoyable film noir that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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