Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Blood Red Kisses" and "White Hot Thrills": Reflections on KISS ME DEADLY

BMFI will screen Robert Aldrich's classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly on 35 mm as part of The Late Show film series this Friday, May 25 at 11:30 pm. Our Programming Intern, Dan Santelli, reflects on the infamous film noir and its history.

The obscure opening title, descending from top to bottom, set the mood for the strange movie to follow in Kiss Me Deadly.

Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, which will be screened as part of The Late Show series on Friday at 11:30 pm, begins with that classic plot jump off point for the crime narrative: the Girl on the Run. Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, in her first feature film appearance), begs to be taken to the nearest bus station and urges the driver, should she not “make it”, to remember her name. The opening titles commence. The madness begins.

A hybrid of old school mystery-thriller, atomic age horror, and hard-edged cinematic nihilism, Kiss Me Deadly culminates to form one of the more perverse, pessimistic, and subversive social/political commentaries of its time. Standing proudly alongside other classics such as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly more than fits the bill as a “textbook” example of film noir in terms of form and atmosphere.

"Remember me, remember my name" pleads Christina (young Cloris Leachman) to Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in Kiss Me Deadly.

Unlike these pictures, however, Kiss Me Deadly was an independently produced feature and directed by non-studio director Aldrich. The resulting film hardly made a dent upon release in America, but the independent factor allowed for greater leeway to include violent content. Furthermore, it allowed director Aldrich to break the genre expectations and incorporate personal observations on the time and culture of the 1950s. What was billed as a “no-holds-barred” crime caper ultimately turned out to be a savage critique of the silliness surrounding ‘50s Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism with strong science fiction overtones in the last act.

Mike Hammer's futuristic looking answering machine in Kiss Me Deadly.

Ignored in the States (its sole champions were film critics Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris), Kiss Me Deadly would go on to be tauted in France for its style by Cahiers du Cinéma then-critics François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Even more important, the film’s radical visual style heightened its importance, as it became a sort-of “template film” for all involved in the French New Wave.

While Kiss Me Deadly is more fun for those who walk into the movie cold, the plot follow private-eye Mike Hammer, a low-life scumbag with a Fascist mentality that makes the hardboiled masculinities of Sam Peckinpah and Lee Marvin seem small and diminutive. After picking up Christina and being attacked by goons, Mike’s misadventures lead him to encounters with beautiful, but highly critical, women and marauding criminals seeking out the great “whatsit”, a small suitcase-like object that became the chief inspiration for the suitcase in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Ralph Meeker as the brutish and sadistic Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.

Kiss Me Deadly, like most films, would've never become the essential classic it’s recognized as without actor Ralph Meeker’s characterization of Mickey Spillane’s popular private-eye, Mike Hammer. Never has a name been more suited to character’s persona. Mark Gross, in his write-up for last year’s home video release by the Criterion Collection, describes Meeker’s Hammer as a “walking, talking, 6 foot, 180 pound sneer”. This is putting it lightly. Meeker’s injection of ultra-machismo into the character makes the misogynistic ramblings of comedian Andrew Dice Clay resemble the lyrics of a Miley Cyrus tune. He’s a tough-talking, no nonsense, borderline psychotic can-of-whoop-ass waiting to be unleashed on the unsuspecting goons.

The irony of the situation, one could argue, is that Hammer himself is perhaps even worse a person than those he’s fighting against. But like all the great antiheros, Meeker’s charismatic charm and humorous approach to nihilism compels one to follow him through the end. Director Aldrich wisely counterpoints Hammer’s intensity in one scene with a tender love scene between him and his girlfriend in the next, highlighting the duality of the character. Sometimes these two extreme opposites occur in the same scene. Ultimately, what might have been a one-dimensional stick figure becomes a dynamic three-dimensional character, albeit seemingly trapped in a world that’s visually and figuratively “black and white”. You may not like him, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

One of Hammer's interrogation techniques: crushing the culprit's fingers in a desk drawer.

While the formal elements of 1950s films might appear dull and televisual when compared to the kinetic camerawork of the current day, Kiss Me Deadly remains unconventionally energetic with an abundance of activity happening in and out of the frame. Photographed by Ernest Laszlo (whose work on Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools would earn him a Best Cinematography Oscar), the frames are filled with hard lighting and obscure shadows. There are hints of the work of cinematographers Nicolas Musaraca (Cat People) and the German Expressionists, most notably Karl Freund (Metropolis). Film noir style might be best known for this lighting convention, but Aldrich’s camera and staging are two of the film’s biggest stars. Filled with fluid tracking shots and meticulous staging of the actors, Aldrich’s rushed production schedule doesn’t seem to have hindered his indulgence in exploiting the cinematic form. In particular, a scene in which Hammer drops in on an opera singing tenant features two long takes of such consummate quality that they rival some of the best staging by Orson Welles.

From left to right: Director Robert Aldrich, actor Nick Dennis, dialogue coach Rick Sherman, and actor Ralph Meeker on the set of Kiss Me Deadly.

Director Robert Aldrich would go on to have a superior career in feature filmmaking with such classics as The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, The Longest Yard (with Burt Reynolds), and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. More underrated efforts include The Killing of Sister George, The Choirboys, and The Grissom Gang. Aggressive masculine nature exists underneath the veneer of most of these works, but never was it more exploited, or more expressively so, than in Kiss Me Deadly.

Kiss Me Deadly serves as a reminder that genre films have the power to transcend the cinematic art form as well as the culture, sometimes even more than the “art” film, by burying social and political critiques underneath the surface in the subtext. The influence of Kiss Me Deadly can be found in a wide range of work like the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut (certain set-pieces in Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player are directly inspired), ’70s Sidney Lumet movies (Dog Day Afternoon), the "cinema du look" films by Luc Besson (particularly Leon: The Professional), the cine-literate work of Quentin Tarantino, and the thrillers of Brian De Palma.

Mike Hammer's (Ralph Meeker) first encounter with the potentially deadly "Great Whatsit" box.

Even though it’s virtually impossible not to have encountered the influence of Kiss Me Deadly, the classic is not generally known to mainstream American moviegoers. This tragedy is understandable, chiefly because its initial 1955 release was very limited due to the Kefauver Commission of Congress's attempted ban of the film. Even in the markets that chose to play the film, audiences didn’t seem to take notice and Kiss Me Deadly eventually drifted into obscurity in America. MGM’s VHS, laserdisc, and DVD releases have helped expose the movie to today’s audiences and the recent Criterion Collection Blu-ray release is yet another attempt.

Very few films made match the exuberant joy in embracing pop-nihilism like seeing Kiss Me Deadly. A masterful combination of art, commerce, and politics, it stands as a high water mark for the American crime film and a step forward into modern movie sensibilities. If this is your first time and, better yet, you know little more than what you’ve read, I envy you. To quote the emphatic mechanic who makes his first appearance at the sixteen minute mark: “VA VA VOOM, PRETTY POW!!!”

Dan Santelli, BMFI's Programming Intern, is a 2012 graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: The Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

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