It’s not fair to the movies of the 1950s but, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s remark about this being one of the worst decades in American cinema, as well as a handful of recent duds on the List that show the influence of a TV aesthetic (The Phenix City Story manifesting the most grievous offense), Kiss Me Deadly is really cementing the idea that Tarantino was right, that this whole decade of American movies is kinda weak–which the List itself seems to confirm because, in looking back over the collected titles of the 1950s so far, I’m noticing that the List is going more international than ever. Pather Panchali and Seven Samurai and The Wages of Fear and Diabolique aren’t just the best of the 1950s so far, they’re among the best movies to appear on the List at all. So I’m wondering: is this recent globalization of the List mostly to do with respect for these foreign titles of the 1950s, or a disdain for the domestic ones?
Whatever the case: I really don’t like Kiss Me Deadly. I finished it and thought it was fine, but that it was interesting almost exclusively as like an example of a 1950s aesthetic and a portrait of how film noir has progressed, but I don’t have much to say about it otherwise and so I’m reading about it, both reviews from back in the day and some modern essays about its significance, and I’m seeing that Kiss Me Deadly (whose title I think warrants repeating) is a popular, subversive, influential movie—it seems, on paper, like the kinda movie I would totally enjoy, like the kinda thing I’d wanna study and buy posters of.
But it just feels like such a dud.
I hate the protagonist, a dude named Hammer who’s played by Ralph Meeker, a classic noir hero who says things like, “Lemme guess, he thought ‘no’ was as three-letter word,” which is great, I dig that kinda dialogue, but there’s something about him that’s just loathsome, hopelessly devoid of charisma, which is kinda what I felt about—sigh—Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) in Asphalt Jungle and about Robert Mitchum’s character in Out of the Past. We tend to think mainly of Bogart when we imagine a typical film noir hero, clad in white over a lonely bottle of gin in Casablanca or outfitted with a trenchcoat, fedora, high-waisted slacks and pudgy necktie in Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.
In reality, these film noir heroes lumbering oafs with stupid haircuts who are overly confident and possess some inexplicable sexual allure for the women around them—which was different with Bogart because I guess he had that oft-mentioned “It” factor, a natural kinda star power; I think Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca and Mildred Pierce, is the one who asked Bogart how it’s possible that a man so ugly can be so handsome. (Another exception is Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. He’s actually really charming, an interesting alternative to Bogart in the role of Philip Marlowe. Also, the movie’s great.)
But no, these dudes suck, and the fact that our hero here, in Kiss Me Deadly, is so fucking unlikeable and oafish and crass is somehow exacerbated by the look of cheapness that plagues the whole production—and it’s a look that might not actually indicate cheapness! Maybe this is just what the 1950s looked like. Who the fuck knows? But the dudes all have the same kinda suit and haircut and eyeglasses, and the rooms seem to be square-shaped and scarcely decorated—I know this is an independent movie, so its budget would naturally be comparatively low beside finger Hollywood fare of its time, but I’m wondering if it isn’t the case that the 1950s was just an fashion-challenged decade. It delivers plenty of colorful spectacle with movies like Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and Rebel Without a Cause, Carmen Jones, A Star is Born—plenty of others.
But for the most part, shit from the 1950s looks bland.
My movie-watching is way ahead of my movie-writing, so I’ve gone through a good chunk of movies from the 1960s at this point, and while it’s common for writers of that generation to say, afterward, that the images and sensibilities we associate with that decade (sexy angry rebellion) really only began to manifest in the mid-late 1960s, and that for the first few years it was basically just an extension of the 1950s’ sensibilities and aesthetics, this doesn’t really appear to be the case with movies. We see a rebellion that begins with the focal appearance of jazz, as we saw just a moment ago in The Man with the Golden Arm, and as we’ll see again in 1959 with the conventional-sounding but subversive courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. Howard Hughes and John Wayne, in response to what they considered the un-Americanness of a McCarthy-era western like High Noon, give us the overstuffed, colorful, violent Rio Bravo.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Psycho, Lolita, The Apartment—Hollywood in the early 1960s appears to be rushing into a new decade, eager to shed the niceties of the ’50s.
So this middle-‘50s period is like a purgatory where, apart from the Hollywood spectacle of Bible epics and the now-flaccid allure of Cinemascope, filmmakers are churning out movies that’re politically motivated and, yeah, kinda edgy at times, but the risks they take seem to reside mostly in their subtext. There isn’t much in High Noon or Johnny Guitar or The Day the Earth Stood Still that feels overtly subversive or dangerous. These filmmakers are pushing up against authority in an ideological way whereas filmmakers of the ‘60s seem to be pushing against conventions of form, style, censorship.
I see the value, but it’s just so fucking boring.
And Kiss Me Deadly, for all the splendor of its title and relevance to the film noir genre, just seems like more shit about The Bomb, the commies, etcetera. I don’t have anything to say about it except to complain and so I went on Criterion’s website and read an interesting essay by J. Hoberman saying that the movie, based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, is almost in bed with McCarthy. That it celebrates the idea of a guy who stops at nothing, who bends the rules and maybe inconveniences or hurts innocent people, in order to expose (and kill) any goddamn fuckin lowlife commies he can find.
Not my cuppa tea.
The photography here is often really gripping, and I see that much has been made about it’s striking opening shot in which a barefoot woman, dressed only in a trenchcoat, is running, panicked, down an empty highway at night. Interesting shots of stairwells and the like, lots of angularity.
It’s a well-made movie, fine, but it’s just coming at me when I’m in this malaise about the aesthetic of like the whole fucking decade so. Yeah. Hard pass. Fortunately the whole thing is on YouTube, though, in case you wanna watch it without having to pay.
I have an interesting thought experiment.
You know that scene right after Mike Hammer discovers what’s in the box, and goes to tell the chief of police – and the chief of police finally tells him it has to do with the Manhattan project, and THAT’S why he’d been telling Mike he shouldn’t have got involved, and he chews Mike out some more and then leaves, letting Mike just sit there with a “whoa” look on his face?
If the movie had ended THERE – would that have changed your opinion any?
There’s no way it would have done – but I wish it had, because that scene was coming across like, film noir filmmakers were admitting that the Cold War was changing the rules and the old noir way of doing things wasn’t going to work any more. And it seems like the filmmakers at least considered something LIKE that – Mike and Velda were also supposed to die in that scene at the very end.
I’ve been weirdly fascinated with the notion of “boy, if they’d ended the film THERE it would have been PERFECT”.