A couple of days ago, after I posted my review of Born to Kill, a friend asked me what my favorite film noir was. I really had to stop and think about it and had a hard time coming up with one. I just love the film noir (and neo-noir) genre itself (if you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you can probably tell —- I’ve watched a ton this year alone) mostly because they’re the movies that feel the most classically cinematic to me. Every genre has its own conventions but the noir conventions seem to be about subverting the expected. What we’re certain of going into any film noir is that no matter who the protagonist is, he or she will be tempted by evil both in the world and within their souls. Damnation and hell on earth are very real qualities to these movies, and even though they’re often very stylized, their bleak, pessimistic outlook often makes them startlingly realistic, especially for older Hollywood produced fare. None of this is to say that every film noir is always surprising, or even any good, just that in whatever limited predictability exists, there’s typically a bleak sense of disarming unexpectedness mixed with the genre comforts. Unlike, say, a western or a musical (which almost always end triumphantly for the protagonist), noirs punish their characters for their lack of morality just as that lack of character morality criticizes a decline of a connected moral society. So even an average film noir is fascinating because it’s at least taking a critical eye at regular citizens and the way we live our lives, the way we’re tempted for more and how that temptation can be a slippery slope into destruction and damnation, not just for us individually but as a society.
But favorite film noir? The first I can really remember watching comes to mind, Double Indemnity. Picture this; I was a young teenage kid who only knew Fred McMurray from the DisneyFlubber movies. Then I see him as a smart insurance agent being charmed into murder by Barbara Stanwyck (and I mean come on, wouldn’t you be tempted)? Suddenly, I was open to a whole new world of classic cinema, and as I investigated the genre more and more, I collected other favorites (Out of the Past, Night and the City, The Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, and more recently; The Narrow Margin, Scarlet Street and Odds Against Tomorrow). But I’d have a hard time thinking back on all those film noir classics and choosing one that I felt truly stood as a true representation of the genre while also transcending it.
Then, the other night, I watched the new Criterion blu-ray of Kiss Me Deadly, a most welcome birthday gift from my brother. I’d never seen it before, but I knew I wanted it desperately because I’d heard nothing but rave things about it. Many consider it a highlight of the noir genre. But my reaction to finishing this film was wanting to immediately watch it again, something I haven’t felt in quite some time. Have you ever had the feeling of watching a movie and just getting drunk off it, just lapping it all up? That’s the reaction I had to Kiss Me Deadly. I just fell for this movie. Hard. While it at first might have the appearance of a routine but solid hard boiled detective yarn, this movie is not just a film noir, I’d argue it is the film noir; audacious, uncompromising, apocalypticly bleak, and hauntingly evocative of the cold war and post-World War II paranoia. Seriously, if you love cinema, this movie needs to be seen at some point before you die.
Consider the way the film starts; a pair of bare legs running desperately down a highway. A woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman, in her screen debut), wearing only a trench coat is throwing herself in front of cars, hoping for a ride. She gets one from Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who almost hits her and decides to drop her at the next stop for the trouble. A car almost runs them off the road, forcing them to swerve into a ditch. They stop for gas and the attendant assumes, after pulling a broken branch from under one of Hammer’s tires, that the pair parked off road for some frisky business. Then they’re off again to the bus stop, Hammer acting cold, distant, tough and uncaring. “I hope we make it to the bus stop in time,” the hitchhiker says. “We will,” Hammer coldly replies without a tinge of doubt. “If we don’t,” she says, “remember me.”
They don’t. The same car as before runs them off the road and well-dressed thugs drag them to some shack where they drump a passed out Hammer on a bed frame while they torture Christina to death. This scene is viscerally violent and disturbing, but also brilliant in how it forces us to imagine the worst. All we see of the torture is Leachman’s legs dangled over a table and all we hear are her ear-piercing screams. But boy, do we imagine the worst and whatever Hammer sees haunts him enough to want to figure out why this girl was killed (that, and the fact that she asked him to remember her, which he obeys mostly out of curiosity). As the investigation continues though, he gets tangled up in a conspiracy involving Christina’s roommate Lily (Gaby Rodgers) who begs Hammer for protection, claiming that the same men after Christina are after her. Whatever the reason these women are in danger, it has to be for something valuable and Hammer wants in on whatever that is. But this is no Maltese Falcon, this is not the stuff that dreams are made of but nightmares. What these characters are after might be valuable, but it’s also dangerous and the careless morality, greed, sadomasochistic tendencies (Hammer particularly gets off on violently bullying victims) and all around sleazy corruption hint at a much larger societal problem. All of this evil in the world is nothing compared to the object in the suitcase everyone is after, which might as well be Pandora’s Box itself. And once it finally is opened, all hell breaks lose in a literal, jaw-dropping cataclysmic finale.
The way Kiss Me Deadly consistently challenges your expectations is like no other noir I’ve seen. The opening (which you should check out here) is constantly mixing sex and violence, suggesting a lewd parallel between the two. Leachman, mostly naked and panting as she runs down the highway almost gets run down. Then the credits begin, and the huge, bold type runs backwards, which suggests this is not going to be your typical noir. As Nat King Cole softly sings on the soundtrack (“Rather Have The Blues”), Leachman moans throughout the titles. Is she upset, or is she turned on? Unclear, and the ambiguity mixed with the jarring credits throws us off again. Then there’s the suggestion that the two have had sex off the highway by the gas station attendant; a natural enough assumption given the circumstances, but we know the reason why the car was off-roading it was to avoid a nasty (and violent) car crash. Finally, even the torture scene could be considered sexual, with it’s lewd, grated bed frame, dangling feet and ear-piercing shrikes. This movie is as hard boiled as it comes and it’s out to mess with you from the get go and it’s barely even started. By the end, this nasty, lurid torture sequence will seem like small potatoes.
Mickey Spillane wrote the original Mike Hammer novels and knew exactly what they were; well written trash that put cash in his pocket. He reportedly hated the movie because it deviated from his mafia-based book and added so much of what makes it interesting. His loss is our gain. This is a film noir masterpiece, no question about it, but it’s also a staple of cinema that deserves to be seen and re-watched, studied in film classes, programmed in revues and played constantly on TV. Robert Aldrich was a do-it-all kind of director whose work ranged from noir to The Dirty Dozen to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, but based on this movie you’d think that he was a great film noir auteur. Although Aldrich directs admirably, much of the credit deserves to go to A.I. Bezzerides who took the bare bones from Spillane and just shot the moon with a screenplay that didn’t hold back. If The Maltese Falcon dared to suggest that the American dream was a hollow, meaningless gesture, Kiss Me Deadly tells us that it had blown up in our face, perhaps deservedly slow. I know, I know, this review is long, glowing and sounds hyperbolic, but seriously, see this movie.