Monday, 3 September 2007

Discount Bin Film Club #1: Kiss Me Deadly

I'm starting a new feature where I take a look at recent additions to my DVD collection that I discovered in the discount bin.

Today, we're looking at KISS ME DEADLY, a 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillaine's hard-boiled best-seller featuring Ralph Meeker as hard-ass private eye Mike Hammer.

I'd like to start with a brief summary and then tell you about a feeling that the film left me.

The film opens with Mike Hammer picking up a young Cloris Leachman on the highway.  She's escaped from a mental hospital, wearing only a trenchcoat, and is running from both the law and a mysterious other gang of thugs and killers.  She leaves Mike a cryptic message before their intercepted, she is killed, Mike's injured and his lovely car is trashed.

In fact, here's the scene in question:

This put Mike on a trail of vengeance around Los Angeles, battling various forces vying for posession of a mysterious box.

And now the feeling the film left me...

Director Robert Aldrich did not like Mike Hammer.

In the film Mike Hammer's a sleazy, emotionally cold, rude, often angry, selfish, drunken, sexist, bully who stomps around like a meth-addled elephant in a china shop. He often ignores the often quality research done by his secretary-girlfriend Velda whom he treats like he's a pimp.  His first answer to everything is to dole out the harshness to everyone who dares to piss him off.

He's also not that bright.

There are dozens of times where you're screaming at Hammer to ask another obvious question, or to follow a lead Velda dug up for him, but he just blunders along, playing by his own rules.

And Aldrich punishes Hammer for his ignorance, Hammers gets beaten up, drugged, sapped, burned, and shot, all because of his smack first-ask questions later style.  He not so much an investigator, but a vigilante.

Aldrich also exagerrates Hammer's affect on women, to the point of self-parody.  Just about every woman he meets is making out with him within five minutes.  It's almost as if Aldrich found the tendency of female characters to fawn over Hammer in the novels comical and decided to make it a not so subtle joke.

There's also a sidekick of a Greek mechanic named Nick, whose constant declarations of "Va-voom!" get on your nerves right away, but relax, he gets killed off.

What saves the film is Aldrich's direction, the hyper-noir camera-work and lighting, and the villains.

Cowboy actor Jack Elam makes a pretty good thug in the picture, and Gabrielle the token noir femme-fatale is an interesting change of pace.  Where most noir femmes are cold, sophisticated characters, Gabrielle is portrayed as childish.  No I'm not saying child-like with its connotations of innocence and naivete. 

I mean childish as in she's selfish, impatient, impetuous, and cruel, with often wild mood swings, but she plays Hammer like a sucker.  And (here be spoilers) it causes all kinds of death and destruction when she opens the box.

The main villain is probably the nastiest pair of shoes you will ever meet, torturing, killing and maiming everyone that gets between himself and the box of mystery that is the centre of the story.  And I call him a pair of shoes is because his distinctive shoes are the only thing you see until the last few minutes of the film where everything, Hammer's bullishness, Gabrielle's childishness, and the shoes love of keeping secrets come to an apocalyptic head.

The cinematography swings effortlessly between gritty documentary realism, and hyper stylish noir lighting, making it a visual high point of the film, and always keeps it visually interesting.

Also Aldrich's casting choices are interesting.  Meeker's known for playing stoic, almost stony characters, and he includes just enough anger to bring out Hammer's temper.  To modern eyes he'll come across as stiff, but that's the Hammer character, no so much a human being, but a tool, or more fittingly, a weapon, to get to the solution.  Aldrich also casts more realistic looking women in the female parts over the usual hyper-glossy actresses of the 50s, giving the film a grittier look than the usual studio fare.

The DVD itself has few extras, no commentaries or featurettes, just the trailer, and the original studio ending, which was surprisingly more ambiguous and darker than the director's version on the disc.

All in all, an enjoyable over the top little trip to a genre and an era.

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