Sunday, February 20, 2011
Never Mind About The Evil
I think about Velda, Mike Hammer’s, um, secretary, lying there in bed, perspiring as she tries to sleep off that hangover and so genuinely happy to see him when he wakes her up. She obviously has a full backstory we’re never told that might somehow explain her relationship with Mike Hammer (at least, this iteration of Mike Hammer), as well as why she puts up with a guy she obviously cares for but who has no qualms about pimping her out, not to mention how he freely ogles all the “goodies” walking past him with her right there. Looking at posed stills of the actress who played Velda, Maxine Cooper, in relation to KISS ME DEADLY it seems like the studio publicity department is trying to make her a touch more traditionally glamorous than she ever appears in the movie where it’s a little easier to notice those not-quite perfect teeth and the vague feeling of sleaze that emanates from her, aware of what she’s openly taking part in. Described as “real woo bait” by some wisecracking government suits in what she does to assist Mike in his divorce cases she’s definitely no innocent and yet she totally is, with her strangely caring demeanor coming off as the one porcelain doll in this universe who I never want to see anything bad happen too. Maxine Cooper didn’t make too many films after KISS ME DEADLY was released in 1955, retiring to a marriage with screenwriter Sy Gomberg who she remained with until his death in 2001. She became a photographer, had several children, was involved in various civil rights causes, protested the Vietnam War and marched in Alabama with the Rev. Martin Luther King. When she passed away in 2009 at the age of 84 I was in Santa Fe and reading the obituaries it occurred to me that until then I had never known a single thing about Maxine Cooper beyond her appearance in this movie. As I read about her life my admiration for her only grew and I was surprised to find myself strangely sad that Velda was really gone, with not even the ferocious temper of Mike Hammer enough to keep her around.
The dynamic of Mike and Velda is just one of many things I think about as I watch Robert Aldrich’s now-legendary KISS ME DEADLY and lately I’ve gotten in the habit of making it my go-to movie to put on when it’s very, very late as if there’s some hidden revelation within its mysteries that I’ll only be able to discover at that hour. By this point I’m not even sure that the movie would make any sense to me if I watched it before midnight, let alone during the day and that’s probably the way it should be with noir. At its best, most potent, the vibe films like this can exude as they seep down into you, never releasing it’s grip as you spend just a little too much time imagining yourself as Mike Hammer driving over to Velda’s for a few minutes in his snazzy convertible. The film is ideal for such a late hour anyway, with that Nat “King” Cole number drifting out of Mike’s car radio in the darkness and the frantic attempts by Cloris Leachman’s Christina Bailey to catch her breath over the opening credit crawl. I’d rather have the blues than what I’ve got, goes the song which is heard again later on as Mike starts to do some hard drinking…and by the film’s end there’s little doubt that Mike Hammer would rather have anything than the world he’s stumbled into, one beyond even his hard-boiled sleuthing abilities. Mike Hammer never seems to have the answer to what he’s looking for just as I don’t quite know what I’m looking for when I watch this movie yet again. I just know that a world without KISS ME DEADLY would be a real cause of the blues.
So for those who haven’t fallen under its spell just yet, here’s the plot: While driving one night on a road outside of L.A. private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is stopped by a mysterious woman standing in the middle of the road wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. It soon becomes very clear that this woman who calls herself Christina (Cloris Leachman) has escaped from a mental institution but Mike agrees to drive her to the nearest bus stop so she can get away from whatever she’s running from. Before they reach it, however, she obliquely tells him that if they don’t make it to “remember me”. Immediately as she says this the two are captured by faceless thugs who along with torturing and killing Christina in a manner that we can only ever imagine they leave Mike for dead. He wakes up several weeks later in the hospital to loyal secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) and his adversarial cop buddy Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy). Mike isn’t letting anyone else know what happened, least of all any police, but as soon as he’s released he makes it a point to find out exactly what was behind the plot to catch the woman and why she was running from them. His investigation leads him to Christina’s oddly nervous roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), a mysterious beach house, the meaning of Christina’s last words and the identity of, as Velda herself puts it, “the great whatzit”, something which turns out to be deadlier than Mike could ever have imagined.
Or should that be DEADLY KISS ME? Just as the opening titles fall down from the top of the screen in backwards fashion much of the film seems to occur in some alternate dimension as well, a Los Angeles that I find almost impossible to believe was ever really there. It’s funny how I look at something like Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (another film where I’ve gone through periods of watching it repeatedly) and for all its Golden Age, Paramount-glossed snappy patter artifice what with it’s dialogue mentions of places I walk by every day and views down towards the Hollywood Bowl it sill somehow seems like a recognizable part of the world I’ve known here all these years. KISS ME DEADLY, released more than a decade later, feels like it’s from another planet, a Weegee-infused world where every new camera angle seems like another punch in the face like Cloris Leachman’s legs hanging down as her piercing screams ring out, something unspeakable happening to her off-camera and it all seems to unfurl like some hazy, alcoholic dream with the oddly flat way all that classical music flows out of speakers (“She always had it tuned to that station,” says Christina’s building super, who presumably has been paying close attention to her activities) that sometimes confuses me if we’re hearing score or not along with those glimpses of the city that I spend half the running time trying to place. Mike Hammer’s address given as 10401 Wilshire looks sort of like a Los Angeles I can recognize if I try hard enough and of course the Bunker Hill landscape of downtown where a fair amount of it is set as he goes on his investigation is long gone now, existing forever in a world I never got to know first hand. Every achingly gorgeous black & white frame of it is somehow a mystery to me—even a brief series of shots showing Mike walking down a quiet street in what appears to be the dead of night (featuring a news vendor and popcorn salesman nevertheless) contains what to me is probably my favorite continuity glitch ever, where within a few shots a prominently illuminated clock in a storefront seems to jump ahead a few minutes each time it’s seen. Was this a continuity error? Do these shots give an indication of how fast they were filming this sequence? Doesn’t it just add to how otherworldly every single moment feels?
This version of Hammer is brutally nasty, forever unstopping in whatever he wants to know from whoever is unlucky to get in his path and hesitate for a few seconds before giving him his answers, much of this emphasis coming not only from director Aldrich but from screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides who in moving the story from New York to Los Angeles, from a mafia-related plot of drug runners to the greater revelation of the Great Whatzit, was admittedly performing a critique of Mickey Spillane’s famous hard-nosed character (he said he had contempt for the book; Spillane, likewise, wasn’t too fond of the movie). It says something how no matter how nasty Hammer gets thanks to Ralph Meeker he remains strangely likable and fierce as he gets sloppy in his methods might be, the actor inhabits this role completely. He may roar through his own movie like a bull in a china shop, destroying everything in his path, but it’s not like he’s totally unthinking in what he does—the mysterious Christina in that trenchcoat who seems to have his number right away is obviously haunting him for reasons even he doesn’t understand, brooding in the dark for hours as he tries to figure out even why (the odd nature of Cloris Leachman along with that mysterious closeup as she briefly talks to the service station attendant totally sells this). I’m not dead, Velda says as she throws herself at Mike. Maybe that doesn’t make her as appealing.
It’s also hard to imagine Mike Hammer ever being nasty to that poor, clearly haunted guy “who drove the truck that ran over Kowalski” in a plot thread I still can barely follow after countless viewings and I still don’t really care (like many detective and noir films that I return to constantly, I spend much of the middle section getting lost in the atmosphere, loving every single moment while still barely following every detail). Not to mention how Nick the mechanic always blurting out “3-D Pow!!” over and over without a care in the world looks up to him so how bad could he really be, right? His gleefully sadistic grin as he smashes that coroner’s hand in his drawer is undeniable but Hammer keeps his nastiness within his own world, only taking it out on those who aren’t going to play by his own script, fully determined to follow that thread that turns into a string which turns into a rope. Whatever else, it’s clear in the scene where Velda wakes up with her hangover that she wants nothing more than to open her eyes and see Mike sitting over her, even if he’s going to ask her to do certain things. And she’ll do them because she loves him, hating that she does it, hoping he’ll ask her not to. She knows what that thread he’s been following could become for him, that it can’t lead to anything good and she’d rather he stay there with her, in their 50s private eye world that they both understand and not leave to search for that atomic future he’ll eventually find in that box, that one he discovers is strangely hot. (“Hot, sir?”) The trail leads to not the crime bigwig that might be expected but to Albert Dekker as Dr. Soberin, who in how he seems to be deliberately overwriting every single phrase he utters for himself ahead of time is the most useless intellectual in the history of mankind, eventually felled by the mystery that he keeps to himself.
It says something that the blonde named Friday (because she was born on Friday—she’s played by Marian Carr who played Sam Wainwright’s wife in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, of all things and somehow it seems right that there’s a direct connection between these two movies) Mike has a moment with by that pool where he goes to meet Paul Stewart is the most traditionally glamorous, yet still somehow the most totally unmemorable female in this world with the likes of Velda (so cute when she’s doing that workout in her apartment), Christina and the almost unspeakably odd Lily Carver with her genuinely dangerous eyes much more intriguing. Each one of them get giant close-ups at various points--so do the men, for that matter and Wesley Addy’s cutting, no-bullshit “just a few harmless words, scrambled together” speech absolutely kills. Aldrich seems to love the full-on examination of these faces, so as a result rarely has a screen presence like Gaby Rodgers come off this way. When she makes her move on Mike in a wide shot of the two of them in comes off as a little goofy but by the time we get that giant view of her face leering “Kiss me, Mike…” there’s never been anything else every like it with the effect seeming genuinely unhinged. On a traditional level it might not even be considered a good performance but here it becomes something somehow other, totally frightening and alluring, which is the exact same thing that could be said about the film as well.
Part of the ongoing legend of KISS ME DEADLY has to do with how for years the film seemed to exist in a version where the finale was cut off somewhat abruptly as if presenting some sort of pre-Godardian narrative apocalypse to substitute for an appropriate conclusion. This wouldn’t have been the only time Aldrich ever attempted an ending with a full-fledged narrative breakdown (just check out his THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE some time for the evidence) but that was never meant to be the case for KISS ME DEADLY and the current DVD presents the film’s ending as it was always supposed to be according to the director. As it stands now the final moments are still pretty abrupt and we never even find out for sure if Mike Hammer is out of danger (he has been shot, after all) but the power of that run along the beach as they try to get away from those flames, from that noise, from that scream, is undeniable. From a purely narrative perspective the information we get here is minimal but it pays off how much Mike has never been fully aware of the truth what he was really looking for and in many ways he still doesn’t know. Truthfully, I still haven’t seen every Robert Aldrich film that I need to see but by now I’ve seen enough to know that sometimes what he does in making his films comes together amazingly well and other times…not really at all. In this film, every single nasty image is absolutely beautiful. By this point I think there are few films I love quite as much as it continues to pummel me over and over again.
“What’s in the box” asks Lily Carver of Dr. Soberin several times and it’s a mystery that carried over decades later into the likes of BARTON FINK and SEVEN among others (not to mention PULP FICTION of course—Tarantino is an unabashed Ralph Meeker fan and though her part was cut from the final film it seems notable that he also used Cloris Leachman for a bit in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) just as the house can be visible in the finale of Aldrich’s own WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE several years later. Maxine Cooper can be spotted as a bank teller in that movie too. For me, KISS ME DEADLY survives. Mike Hammer survives. Velda survives. I’m not sure I could ever imagine it any other way. Not when I still don’t know how my own personal film noir set in Los Angeles may someday end. Within certain women I’ve known here I suppose I see pieces of the ones in KISS ME DEADLY, causing me to wonder even more about the great whatzit in my own life. And I think it’s sometimes harder to keep from thinking of them than it is for Lily Carver to keep from finding out exactly what’s inside that box. They’re the women I still can’t forget any more than I can stop watching KISS ME DEADLY once again in the middle of the night, something I’ll likely continue doing for some time to come. I guess like that message Christina leaves for Mike I want them to remember me but in the end maybe all that matters is how much I remember them.
This has been Mr. Peel’s contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, as hosted by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, which is raising money to restore the 1950 noir THE SOUND AND THE FURY. For more information visit the Siren and to donate go here.