Tuesday, October 11, 2011

apolcalyptic noir: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

   [editor’s note : Kiss Me Deadly is probably the most written about of all the classic noirs*; the short list - and it is indeed a short list - of films noirs which have inspired a comparable volume of critical commentary might include Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil. Thus, the rather desperate need for a raison d’etre, lest I inspire responses like : horrors! another post on Kiss Me Deadly?!! The reader’s indulgence then is humbly requested as I explore below some issues in the film which have yet to be fully discussed, in particular the cinematic Hammer’s apparent liberal bent. This posting will assume a basic knowledge of the film’s story, thus there won’t be too much in the way of plot summary. -- BCS]

  * Noir commentator Alain Silver writes that "structuralist, formalist, feminist, auteurist, and Marxist critics alike have all found something to admire in it . . . . despite these wide-ranging critical excursions, one never gets the sense that the depths of Kiss Me Deadly have been fully probed.” A good thing, since it seems everyone, this writer included, wants to have his say about KMD, especially so with the Criterion DVD release in 2011, which has inspired a flood of commentary.

Postmodern dick

“How civilized this earth used to be. But as the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.”

 If Kiss Me Deadly were a brand-new film, it would still be shocking in its mean spirit, its happy brutality and its audacious mix of real and surreal elements. That it was made in 1955 makes the picture all the more astonishing. Loosely based on the Mickey Spillane novel of the same name, this Robert Aldrich film is much more twisted and cynical than anything Spillane ever conceived. At its core is not just caustic humor but an uneasiness about the value of human life and the nature of the universe. - Mike La Salle, “Kiss Me Deadly Still Packs Punch”  San Francisco Chronicle 6 October 1995

   The film Kiss Me Deadly can be appreciated on at least three levels. The first is that of a traditional detective mystery with a flawed but likable [anti]-hero, femmes fatales, bad guys, ineffectual police, gunplay and a fistfight or two. The second is that of the cultural-historical, in which the film both reflects and critiques American society in the mid-1950s and the immediately preceding years. This kind of analysis usually stresses the film’s Cold War backdrop and its subversive, contrarian portrayal of American culture as dark, nasty, brutal, and selfishly materialistic, in contrast to the bland optimism and wholesome imagery put forth by official sources at the time. A third approach is simply that of cinematic aesthetics, which emphasizes things like editing and the nightmarish L. A. gothic photography. It's the second and third perspectives that have inspired all the critical huffing and puffing, and one can only wonder how much commentary there would be had the film followed the novel’s basic plot and the mysterious container been filled with drugs, and had the principal antagonists been mob thugs instead of agents of a mysterious foreign power.

When we first meet Mike Hammer in the film Kiss Me Deadly, we don’t know much about him except that he’s youngish, good looking, drives a sports car, wears cool clothes, and is quick with the verbal comeback. He's also cranky with the mysterious blonde Christina for almost causing him to wreck his car. But it’s the very frazzled, half-naked Christina who fills us in on some of Hammer’s character particulars. In a wonderful bit of proto-feminist analysis, she immediately pegs him as narcissistic, self-centered, immature, and a little too fond of his toys and creature comforts, observations that are all spot-on. In fact, she turns out to be the best detective in the film -- after all, she’s the one wearing the trench coat. But the most important part of this opening scene is that he gives her a lift. He also shields her from the watchful eyes of snooping authorities (but ultimately can’t save her from the bad guys). All of this may hint of a chivalrous, even sentimental streak we don’t usually associate with this character. But then again, he may just like what he sees; he has an eye for the ladies, and they for him. Whatever his motivations, Hammer’s small kindness to Christina is the doorway through which we enter the labyrinthine universe of Kiss Me Deadly, a multi-textured vision of phantasmagoric resonances, principal among them being the various shadings of the Hammer psyche.

   Foremost among this cinematic Hammer’s shadow side is the way he makes his living, something the Feds who interview him sniff out right away. His shtick is really a con game with blackmail as its currency. Hammer is, in the lingo of the time, a bedroom dick. He specializes in divorce cases, distracting compliant wives while he sics his hopelessly loyal secretary and sometimes girlfriend Velda on the husbands. And one way or another he gets the goods, allowing him to enjoy a Fifties Playboy fantasy lifestyle, a far cry from the dreary existential emptiness of a Bogart or Dick Powell only a decade prior. He has a spacious, ultra-modern bachelor pad furnished with abstract art and the latest gadgets, he drives the coolest cars, wears tailored suits, and listens to the best jazz radio stations. Velda shares in the loot; she dresses in 50s chic clothes, lives in a trendy apartment, and in her spare time studies modern dance.

   [Post]modern, nihilistic, and devoid of sentiment or sentimentality, this Hammer’s ethos is a long way from Raymond Chandler’s compassionate knight and Dashiell Hammett’s dispassionate operative. His motivation is pure mercenary self-interest; for him the payoff is literally the payoff -- how and when he gets paid. This über materialist version of the Hammer character suggests the success of novelist and Hammer creator Mickey Spillane, who laughed all the way to the bank while his critics howled. Befitting a character who’s often referred to in Neanderthalesque terms, KMD’s Hammer is a kind of missing link between the traditional gumshoe of the Forties and the James Bond figure of the swinging Sixties [1]. He’s also something of a sadist, but then again nobody’s perfect. If you ask me he’s much more of a Bond than a Philip Marlowe, and KMD - while retaining all the trappings of a detective story - has more of an espionage feel, complete with duplicitous females, aforementioned fast cars and gadgets, eminently Cold War-esque MacGuffin, and ersatz intellectual arch-villain. Because of his extra-legal style, disdain for authorities, and fondness for violence and intimidation, some commentators see in him a proto-Dirty Harry figure. In any case, it would seem that the Hammer of KMD lacks the chivalry and personal code of a Philip Marlowe -- but then again does he?

   The Ralph Meeker character was a sleazy PI, but after his encounter with Christina, and his near-death at the hands of her killers, he is a changed man. Is it so strange that he wants to hunt down those who tried to kill him? Is he driven solely by his need to track down the The Big What’s-it? Or maybe he is haunted by Christina’s admonition to not forget her? So he slaps around a couple of guys, snaps a vinyl record, and crushes the hand of the creep at the morgue? Is he any more immoral than the Feds? Gimme a break. -- Tony D’Ambra Is Mike Hammer Really Such a Bad Guy?

Is Hammer a closet liberal?

   The Mike Hammer of the novels is politically an arch-conservative, with a generous helping of the old-fashioned vigilante thrown in for good measure. He hates liberals, gays, commies, bleeding heart judges, and all those who sympathize with them. Rather than relying on the vagaries of the American legal system, he prefers to dish out rough and ready justice to the to the well-deserving low-lifes and effete Red appeasers he comes into contact with.

   By contrast, the film version of KMD doesn’t have an overtly political agenda. Yes, Cold War paranoia is ever lurking in the shadows and the bad guys are in confederacy with some vague foreign power, but this is not a message movie [2], and, one is tempted to add, this accounts for much of its power and resonance. To wit, if KMD is a Cold War parable with a McCarthyite subtext, as it’s sometimes described, then is Hammer a victim or victimizer? It hardly matters; Hammer’s apolitical worldview even extends to conventional patriotism. Near the end of the film when he defers to the authorities it’s not out of any sense of civic duty (don’t bother waving the flag at him), it’s that he finally understands - several dead bodies later -  that he’s out of his league

You know you've arrived when you're staying at the Jalisco Hotel.

    If there is a contrarian thread running through KMD, then it’s expressed through the people Hammer hangs out with and way he relates to them. As much as anything else, it’s the positive images of women, immigrants, African-Americans and poor people, along with Hammer’s getting on with them so well, especially the folks at the jazz club, boxing gym, and auto repair shop, that gives the film much of its leftist edge. Skeptics might say that Hammer’s particular choice of friends doesn’t make him a liberal any more than his fondness for classical music, modern art and poetry does. But then again maybe it does. How may movies from the 40s and 50s can you think of where the white main character hung out at an all-black jazz club and a boxing gym with a black manager? Is it a coincidence that the only people Hammer has any chemistry with are the non-WASPs and/or the powerless and dispossessed? Hammer certainly has zero chemistry with any of society’s power elite, be they the mafia don, FBI, or effete villain-in-chief, all of whom, coincidentally, hound him with about equal vigor. Despite his trendy lifestyle, Hammer’s proletarian roots are never very far beneath the surface. 

   Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Hammer’s treatment of women in the film, which on the whole is rather gentlemanly, thus belying his supposed misogynistic bonafides [3]. To be sure, he rebuffs their spirited advances, most notably that of said mafia don’s alcoholic, nymphomaniac half-sister, whom Hammer gently lectures on the merits of playing hard to get. All this has inspired some commentators to read into KMD a gay subtext, which seems to me wildly off the mark. This Hammer is conspicuously straight, oozing a conventional machismo which is coupled with a propensity for male violence that’s shocking even by noirish standards. Other sources have commented that he’s so obsessed with the now unreachable Christina and solving the riddle of her death that he can’t respond to other women.

   Whatever the case, and regardless of his actual ideological, or for that matter psycho-sexual leanings, based on the clues that we’re given we can infer that Hammer’s sensibilities are that of a mild progressive, especially in the context of the mid-1950s. Indeed, compared to his literary antecedent, he’s a flaming liberal. Mickey Spillane must be turning over in his grave as I pen these blasphemous words.

   And we could go on and on . . . as referenced above, writers have gone on and on. Such a great movie, and so much to say. We haven’t even talked about the mid-1950s L.A. backdrop and those creepy Bunker Hill houses; or the great supporting cast, especially Albert Dekker as Dr. Soberin, Cloris Leachman as Christina, Gaby Rodgers as Lily/Gabrielle, Paul Stewart as Carl Evello, and Maxine Cooper as Velda; or cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s inspired work which makes Citizen Kane seem like just another movie. Speaking of which, what about KMD’s historical status? Is it the last film noir, or the first neo-noir, or maybe simply the first ‘modern’ film. Whatever the case, KMD is eerily prescient, anticipating the win at all costs ethos of a decade or so later, as well as the capitalist excesses, materialistic self-indulgences, and surveillance state gestalt of our own times.

    But there’s only so much bending of a reader’s ear we can do and keep a blog post within reasonable limits. Some final thoughts, however. True to the detective tradition, the convoluted story arrives at a more or less satisfying conclusion. To be sure, it all comes about extra-legally and at a horrific cost to Hammer and those around him. Was it worth it? Well, maybe and maybe not, but there weren’t a lot of good alternatives. As Bill R. writes, and please excuse the rather lengthy quote :


    Aldrich’s Hammer is an evolving beast, a man whose ape-like savagery slowly gives way to a human confusion, grief, even regret, and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way not just in a search for answers and skulls to bust, but in an attempt to save Velda (Maxine Cooper), a woman he cares about. This is not something critics of Kiss Me Deadly tend to allow for, in their rush to condemn the film’s version of Mike Hammer as completely as they’re able to.
   Regardless, I still have to question Aldrich’s stated anti-vigilante motivation here, because where are we at film’s end? With justice, of a very bizarre and chilling sort, but it was not only not brought about by the police (if he knows so much, where was Wesley Addy’s judgmental cop when Hammer was braving nuclear fire?) but might not have occurred without Hammer. If he’d taken no action in this, the Great Whatsit would still be in the wrong hands, the same greed and betrayal would still fire the cylinders of a certain dumb psychotic blonde - a woman not entirely unlike Hammer, minus his sudden burst of self-awareness - and Hammer’s cop friends would still be sitting around with their thumbs up their asses. Dumb sadistic ape he may be, but at least Mike Hammer took his shot. The Great WhatsIt

   Reportedly director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides wanted to create in Hammer a greedy, opportunistic, out-of-control thug. For roughly the first half of the film this is pretty much what they got, but as the story progressed, in spite of themselves, it would seem, they ended up with something closer to a knight.

style ****
substance ****


Gaby Rodgers
was a girlhood friend of Anne Frank.

Maxine Cooper also appeared in the TV series Philip Marlowe (1959-60).



  [1] Another fictional character often cited as a transitional figure was TV’s 1950s private detective Peter Gunn, who had many similarities to the KMD Hammer except that he was smarter, smoother, and far less inclined to violence.

  [2] KMD’s leftist slant is expressed in both socio-economic as well as racial terms. It can’t be any accident that in this film the black and ethnic characters are cool and sympathetic, while everybody else (i.e. the White power elite) is nasty, sleazy, corrupt and decidedly un-hip, and this would include even marginal members of the dominant class, most conspicuously the ethically challenged Hammer and Velda. In fact, aside from Christina, who disappears from the movie early on, Hammer and Velda are the only white folks in KMD worth rooting for, and even in their cases we sometimes we have our doubts. On the other hand, if there’s a topical political message to KMD, then it’s got to be the dangers of nuclear radiation, but then again this same message could apply to half the movies made in the 1950s, so no points here.

   [3] In this incarnation Hammer is supposedly a self centered sadist worried about little else than getting paid, preserving his sweet lifestyle and satisfying his criminal impulses. Yet throughout the film he’s pushing away the very women who come onto him, and at the same time putting himself in harm’s way to help them out, even when he’s under no obligation to do so.
   In the one miscalculation in her otherwise brilliant analysis of Hammer’s psyche, Christina comments that he’s the kind of man who never gives in a relationship, only takes. But in a perverse irony, throughout the film Hammer does little but give to Christina, through his obsession of her memory and his desire to atone for her death. His apparently opportunistic quest for a big payoff may in fact be more of a penance; his  fascination with her is due to his feelings of responsibility for, if not exactly causing her death, then in not sufficiently protecting her from her abductors and eventual assassins.
    Hammer's chivalry is 
misplaced only once, with the psychotic femme fatale Lily Carver, who in any case is eventually dispatched, not by Hammer, but by the radioactive flames which consume her as we watch with grim approval. Lily's violent demise notwithstanding, the gentlemanly side of Hammer is further reinforced in that his slapping and other rough tactics are reserved only for the men in KMD, most of whom, happily, have it coming.

   Much has been made of the four principal women characters as not being very sexy, a fair enough comment. But maybe this is a nod to their modern-ness. These women are capable, strong, independent and eminently practical; they don’t have to depend upon the old fashioned wiles of an Ava Gardner or Jane Greer. To wit, Velda sweats a lot, another thing a traditional noir temptress doesn’t do, on-screen anyway.

   The only other female character of note (not counting the cheesecake beauties who appear in the swimming pool scene) is the exquisite Mady Comfort, who appears as the torch singer at the blues club. Arguably the most beautiful woman in the film, she only appears for a minute or two, though sometimes in the background we hear her singing the film’s unofficial theme song, “I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got.” (I like her rendition better than Nat King Cole’s). She’s a black woman, but the supposedly reactionary, misogynistic Mike Hammer treats her with as much, perhaps more, respect than any other woman in the picture.

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