Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

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Owen
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Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Owen » 24 Oct 2008, 20:01

firstly apologies for the amateurish nature of this post. This isn't a film i've studied a lot or a great favourite. I don't really know much about the director, and Noir isn't really my thing. I've had it sat here to watch for a while and I when the time to pick a film came up I thought it might provoke some interesting chat about Film Noir as a whole

Firstly the basics, it's a 1955 detective story featuring Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, running across, or down, a desperate damaged woman, seemingly on the run from a mental institution and then, after her death, Hammer's attempts to get at the something big behind it out of a mixture of desire for revenge and for the money he believes will be wrapped up in it. It ends as these things do with almost everyone dead and, rather more uniquely, a nuclear explosion in LA.

I enjoyed it although it's rather erratic tone made it hard to totally engage with, it was only really in the climactic scenes that i finally got swept up in it and even then the camp overplayed nature of several of the villains led to me being unsure of what I was actually enjoying it as. Even in 55 a lot of this must have seemed cliched and to me a lot of it reminded me of later TV detective shows, those staples of late 70s and early 80s british TV (where I first saw and took a dislike to Spillane's Hammer I think) that either blanded out the riffs of Noir or every now and again featured a deliberately cliched voice over and homage stylings. Noir is a genre I first encountered via spoofs and retreads and its sometimes hard to take the real thing seriously.

Not that Aldrich seems to be, there's a contempt for the genre and characters in a lot of the film that goes beyond Hammer simply being a violent anti-hero. He's a sadistic thug and his actions, and the still quite powerfully icky opening scenes contrast with the 12 certificate sexuality and the filter of 50 years of bad Noir parody. You are left remembering the frightened Cloris Leachman and her fate even when the twists of the rest of the plot stop really registering. Those scenes really stick with you

Meeker was a strange lead, at times reminding me of Brando in his facial expressions and general look (although just as often visually reminding me of Harry Enfield's Nicebutdim character unfortunately), hyper confident and physical and liking the violence that little bit too much until really he just becomes another part of the scenery and another element of the good looking but cruel world aldrich was shooting.

It looked great, one thing i do love in these movies is the view of Los angeles, and the various people trapped there. I guess that's what I do get from Noir whatever the period and you could ignore the lack of depth and pointless plot and just get into the feel of it all. Even if the feel changed from scene to scene. At times it reminded me more of the Nouvelle Vague takes on american crime than on other american crime movies, it was just too stylised, too tongue in cheek in places.

anyway thats a long enough post, i'd be interested in your thoughts, particularly anyone who is into Noir on a more straightforward, less detached level

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 25 Oct 2008, 00:09

I saw this a few weeks ago for the first time. The whole nuclear thing was quite startling. I didn't see that coming at all. But yeah, amoral, self-centered, insincere and brutal are some of the words that come to mind. There's no code here. And the use of repeated motifs was distinctive, his thing with shoes and feet becomes somewhat of a fetish. I liked all hose wonderfully drawn extras as well, the opera singer, the morgue attendant, the boxing trainer, the old porter carrying the bag on his head, and so on. They help move the plot along but also show LA as a town full of immigrants, giving it a real character. It reminded me of Chinatown in that we get very specific addresses. Actually I used Google streetview a few months ago to find addresses of various places referred to, and sure enough a few of them are still there, looking exactly the same. I wonder if the same is true with Kiss Me Deadly.

And what is it with the clock jumping 5 minutes ahead? That must have been clearly intended, but why. When Hammer's getting tailed by a heavy when he's going to visit that science journalist, he stops to buy nuts or whatever, and the clock's time changes by 5 minutes from one shot to the next. Yet clearly time hasn't changed at all. It certainly points to how skewed and off center this movie is.

It was also great to see Jack Elam playing the ever so dim heavy.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby James R » 25 Oct 2008, 03:17

Owen wrote:Noir is a genre I first encountered via spoofs and retreads and its sometimes hard to take the real thing seriously. Not that Aldrich seems to be, there's a contempt for the genre and characters in a lot of the film that goes beyond Hammer simply being a violent anti-hero.


I don't think it's a contempt for the genre per se, but Aldrich definitely hated the Mike Hammer character, and so did his screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. My understanding is that Bezzerides deliberately made Hammer an even worse monster than he already is in the books to demonstrate how noxious he really is and to undercut any possible reading of him as a hero. Spillane was not impressed.
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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 25 Oct 2008, 07:11

Just watched it. A fascinating film to be sure. I love that strain of 50's films that were beginning to deal with sex and violence in a more explicit way, yet still take place in a world where men wear suits. You can imagine how shocking this film must have seemed at the time.

The word "existential" is thrown around a lot when people talk about noir. In this case it unquestionably fits. After all these characters are almost all chasing after something without even knowing exactly what it is. Does it represent truth, beauty, power, or riches to them? I suspect different characters would give different answers. Was the film meant as a comment on nuclear paranoia? Stupid question. How could it not be? But it could be taken as more. Maybe it was also meant as a comment on modernity itself - as Hammer's car and phone machine speak to the protagonist's irresistible pull towards Pandora's box. Ultimately there's a parable here that is open-ended enough to allow us to draw seemingly endless associations between the world in the film, the time it was made, and our own time.

Does the film go over the top? Without question. But this is a cautionary tale and the stakes needed to be high. This is an everything and the kitchen sink film. But not many that I've seen pull it off as well.

Good suggestion. Hope we get a real conversation going on this one.
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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Owen » 25 Oct 2008, 08:19

There was definitely something on modernity there, the villain is a modern art dealer, Hammer's apartment particularly the answer phone was kind of showroomy and modernist.

In recent years I've been getting more interested in that post-war pre-beatles period, a lot of white men in suits who had presumably done their time in the army and were a lot more accepting of violence than other generations and were casually determined to go on and just take what they want from the rest of their lives even if what they wanted was generally limited to cash, cars, martinis and women.

The whole James Ellroy or Mad Men period vibe but you see it even more authentically in the actual films of the time. I'd say this one is definitely commenting on it quite knowingly, asking quite explicit things about Hammer's hero status but it's there in a more accepting way in so many films of the period. Hammer and the police officer here reminded me of a sour version of Stewart and his old Army buddy turned cop in Rear Window, or Bogart and the cop in In a Lonely Place. It's a genre staple obviously but there's also this sense of entitlement, that if you are breaking the law while wearing the right suit then that law probably doesn't have to apply to you. Whereas it's the women and immigrants and working class who will end up beaten about or dead.

I guess it's just the art of the time commenting on the hypocrisy that the next generation rebelled about more explicitly.

I'm glad someone mentioned the incidental characters, there was just something in the faces, of the thugs especially, all the people Hammer met, and even the pumped up vision of Hammer himself i guess, had the stylised look of crime comics characters rather than real people, especially when shot in such harsh contrasts. Each one really embodied what they were in the story for perfectly, going way past cliche, the casting director had been in on the joke I think.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Matt Wilson » 27 Oct 2008, 16:33

Classic noir with Mike Hammer almost reminding me of the kind of ruthless, good/bad guy Clint Eastwood would play years later in the Leone Spaghetti Westerns of the '60s. Tarentino's glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction was a direct lift from Kiss Me Deadly by the way.
Probably in my top ten film noirs though sometimes when I watch it I think it's a tad slow. That's Cloris Leachman in the first scene too.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Owen » 27 Oct 2008, 17:31

Lance Matthew wrote:Tarentino's glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction was a direct lift from Kiss Me Deadly by the way.


Yep,repo man would be another lift, the homage that i was most reminded of watching it was the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the look of horror on the woman's face as she opens the case and the superimposed flames as she burns up.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Matt Wilson » 27 Oct 2008, 17:52

Owen wrote:
Lance Matthew wrote:Tarentino's glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction was a direct lift from Kiss Me Deadly by the way.


Yep,repo man would be another lift, the homage that i was most reminded of watching it was the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the look of horror on the woman's face as she opens the case and the superimposed flames as she burns up.


Yes, you're right!
I'd forgotten about Repo Man. Excellent punky movie--I should pull out my copy and watch it soon.
I'd never thought of Raiders but I'll bet Speilberg was thinking of Kiss Me Deadly when he came up with that idea.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 27 Oct 2008, 19:06

Thematically Raiders of the Lost Ark is
Lance Matthew wrote:
Owen wrote:
Lance Matthew wrote:Tarentino's glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction was a direct lift from Kiss Me Deadly by the way.


Yep,repo man would be another lift, the homage that i was most reminded of watching it was the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the look of horror on the woman's face as she opens the case and the superimposed flames as she burns up.


Yes, you're right!
I'd forgotten about Repo Man. Excellent punky movie--I should pull out my copy and watch it soon.
I'd never thought of Raiders but I'll bet Speilberg was thinking of Kiss Me Deadly when he came up with that idea.


While we're on the subject let's also acknowledge the debt that this film owes to The Maltese Falcon. Essentially both share the same convention - all of the action is motivated by a somewhat arbitrary object of desire. The innovation that Kiss Me Deadly adds (beyond the obvious social commentary inherent in citing nuclear technology) is that the characters themselves don't even know what they are chasing.
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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Owen » 27 Oct 2008, 19:49

Davey Hussein Man-Tooth wrote:innovation that Kiss Me Deadly adds (beyond the obvious social commentary inherent in citing nuclear technology) is that the characters themselves don't even know what they are chasing.


yes, Hammer doesn't even seem that interested in what it might be, it's just that someone wants to keep it from him so he wants to get it. He gets involved in the case because that is what he does, at no point does it seem real that he cares what happened to Leachman or wants to really know what is going on. He gets names as leads and he tracks them down and pressures them with violence for another name and then does the same again.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Matt Wilson » 27 Oct 2008, 19:54

Davey Hussein Man-Tooth wrote: While we're on the subject. let's also acknowledge the debt that this film owes to The Maltese Falcon. Essentially both share the same convention - all of the action is motivated by a somewhat arbitrary object of desire. The innovation that Kiss Me Deadly adds (beyond the obvious social commentary inherent in citing nuclear technology) is that the characters themselves don't even know what they are chasing.


Another interesting point worth consideration.
And what's with the answering machine? Was that common in the '50s? An earlier post mentioned it as being representative of some modernity theme but I was unaware they even existed at that time.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 29 Oct 2008, 17:11

So what do you all make of the the ending? Of course there is all the talk about the truncated version where the implication is that they die in the house, but that version seems to be roundly discredited by all. More interesting to me is the completely unstated implication that both Hammer and Velda must have been contaminated by radiation (as well as everyone who ever visited the Hollywood Athletic Club I imagine).

Did people know enough about nuclear materials to have this gnaw at them as they left the theater back when it was released? Whether they did or not, modern audiences certainly know - and it makes a bleak film even bleaker knowing what is coming for those two.
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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby Sneelock » 29 Oct 2008, 18:18

I always took the ending to be "pandora's box"
so they run away, so what? something terrible has been unleashed.
I think it's one of my favorite "flim noir"s just because of this atom age fatalism and the fact that Ralph Meeker is such a throwback.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby the masked man » 02 Nov 2008, 16:21

Wow! This film was more of a blast that I remember it as. Davey's earlier point about this representing a period where Hollywood was opening up to more realistic expressions of sex and violence reminds me why this is my favourite era for American cinema. There was a feeling among filmmakers that the Hays Code was looking dated and doddery, and that it might be possible to gnaw at its edges. So, in the opening exchanges with police it's casually mentioned that Hammer makes his cash by seducing gullible male subjects into honey traps with his female assistant. More seriously, there's a bluntness to the portrayal of violence - it's far more in your face than classic 40s noir was ever allowed to be (see also Fritz Lang's excellent The Big Heat). One shot that stays in my mind is a cutaway shot looking the sneering, satisfied look on Hammer's face as he tortures a victim to get information. This still looks shocking today, particularly when it's considered acceptable for Jack Bauer to routinely torture bad guys and still be seen as a hero.

Classic noir had to work round the code, so it developed a romantic, poetic sensibility to mask the underlying moral bleakness. The private detectives played by Humphrey Bogart were flawed, but had an undeniable charm which appealed to audiences. Mike Hammer, however, has none - he's a despicable, sadistic thug. And yet, there is a sense that his bluntness displays a kind of honesty, that gives him a slight moral edge over the duplicitous characters he deals with. Even so, it's a poor deal when you find yourself rooting for someone like this.

The point about modernity has been well made already, and I certainly picked up on the post-war bachelor pad that Hammer inhabits. I think the point that can be made is that this is a modernity defined musically by jazz instead of rock 'n' roll - I found the scene where Hammer is the only white patron of a jazz club fascinating, suggesting that at least he isn't totally uncultured, and also has no truck with conservative fears around race. This is a strand you can see in other US films of the pre-Beatles era (John Cassavetes' early work, for example, specifically Too Late Blues). It's therefore a little disturbing that this tolerance doesn't stretch to the Mediterranean characters - the overly-excitable Greeks and opera-obsessed Italians are straight out of 'The Big Book of Hollywood Ethnic Stereotypes', and this makes the film as dated as it is modern.

It terms of visual look, the film is uniformly superb. Ernest Laszlo's crisp images hark back to classic noir with their high contrast monochrome sheen. The opening sequence is rightly singled out for praise - a ride into literal and metaphorical darkness that is thrillingly set up. But what sticks in my mind also are the shots of the apartment complex where Hammer comes across the film's ultimate femme fatale. The shots of the numerous staircases are disorientating and vertiginous. This was nothing new; the idea of a stairway to hell was already established in films like The Spiral Staircase, but here's it's entirely suitable as a metaphor for a mad chase that could send the whole world down the chute. The camerawork here is marvellous.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the acting. Ralph Meeker, though, is fine as the toxic anti-hero, and steers clear of over-acting, unlike the characters playing foreign stereotypes. Worst of all, however, is Gaby Roberts as the mysterious Gabrielle (or is it Lily?). A femme fatale needs to be sexy and confident, but she's starchy and nervy, barking her dialogue out monotonously.

One final point concerns the film's aural design, which is highly experimental - the overplayed squeals, disembodied shouts and sudden flashes of sound (particularly when the crate of uranium is opened) are startling and expressionistic; they heighten the film's nightmarish qualities.

Aldrich's film is not without faults, but its rude energy and themes of cold war paranoia make it a powerful period piece. I'm really glad I got to see this again.

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Re: Film Club : Kiss Me Deadly

Postby The Modernist » 13 Aug 2010, 11:59

bump for moving