It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when film noir began and ended. Its antecedents lie in the silent era, in German Expressionism and in the Warner Brothers crime dramas of the 30’s. Our teacher Elliot Lavine offers a specific starting point – 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor (which I discussed here) – and will rattle off a title or two to prove the movement lasted into the mid-1960’s.
My early studies into the genre offered another theory: the real guts of film noir came out of World War II, when soldiers returned to an America as alienating as the countries where they had fought; noir showcases that unwelcoming landscape, where the streets are full of shadowy dangers and teeming with enemies, some in pleasing forms, who will sap you of your will and drain you dry. As the urgency to express post-war anxieties in filmic form diminished, new troubles in the form of the HUAC nightmare and the Cold War brought new inspiration – and deeper despair.
We’ve seen this manifest itself over the past few weeks in movies that embrace a coarser, pulpier style and ramp up the violence. I’d like to tell you that this week we’re past that, but it seems that 1955 – the year of my birth, mind you! – saw the darkness that gives noir its name reach an apotheosis. (There, I said it, unaware of what nightmares await us next week!) We’ll get to The Big Combo shortly, which for me amounted somewhat to a triumph of style over substance. But first we must tackle the King of Ugly Noir: Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.
This is a film that I have seen many times. I used to show it each year to my film class, and I have still not gotten inured to its ugliness; in fact, it’s a film that gets harder for me to watch every time, due to its graphic violence and extreme nihilism. Granted that the essence of noir is about the evil that men (and women – let’s not forget the women) do, but normally this is evil that ruins individuals, or maybe terrorizes the Big City. Kiss Me Deadly aims for bigger fry: based on a Mickey Spillane novel featuring his tough guy PI Mike Hammer, the film provides a landscape where violence reigns, where it’s impossible to tell, at least by their actions, the good guys from the bad, and where the ultimate goal is, quite literally, apocalyptic.
Initially banned by the Kevauver Commission as a film “designed to ruin young viewers,” Kiss is now hailed as one of the most influential noirs of all time and is widely regarded as inspiring the auteurs of the French New Wave. Frankly, I can understand both positions: Kiss Me Deadly is made up of socially irredeemable characters doing disgusting stuff; what helps the viewer along, ironically, is that it’s a stunningly made film. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo shot movies of every genre, from Hope/Crosby road pictures to Bette Davis weepers. He filmed the classic noirs D.O.A. (1949) and While the City Sleeps (1956) and would earn eight Academy Award nominations for films such as Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Ship of Fools (for which he won).
Robert Aldrich will forever be associated with two classic schlock films starring Davis: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) are fabulous amalgamations of horror and camp. There’s an over-the-top quality about most of Aldrich’s films, epitomized by Kiss Me Deadly. Using Spillane’s novel as a starting point, Aldrich creates something bigger, sleazier, and ultimately darker than anything that sprang from the author’s pen, starting with the hero himself. Mike Hammer was written to be one of your tough-guy private investigators, good with his gun and with his fists, and dedicated to bringing down crime cartels and awful people. The Hammer of the screenplay, co-written by Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides, is a no-holds-barred horrible person: a low-life investigator who blackmails his clients and sleeps with his secretary Velda so that she will sleep with his clients. As Hammer, Ralph Meeker perfectly embraces the scummy edges and violent impulses of this creep.
I don’t like to quote Wikipedia if I can help it, but the biography of Bezzerides contains a great quote by the screenwriter about this film, just in case we had any thoughts that he was going for something on a deeper level:
“People ask me about the hidden meanings in the script, about the A-bomb, about McCarthyism, what does the poetry mean, and so on. And I can only say that I didn’t think about it when I wrote it . . . I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting. A girl comes up to Ralph Meeker, I make her a nympho. She grabs him and kisses him the first time she sees him. She says, ‘You don’t taste like anybody I know.’ I’m a big car net, so I put in all that stuff with the cars in the mechanic. I was an engineer, and I gave the detective the first phone answering machine in that picture. I was having fun.”
Every change to the novel Bezzerides makes, combined with Laszlo’s camera work, lifts the film from a standard crime movie with a murky, byzantine plot into a non-paralleled study in paranoia, starting with the striking opening scene where Cloris Leachman comes running down the highway, barefoot and breathing hard, and forces Hammer’s hot rod to stop and pick her up. The opening credits (that must have been appropriated later by the folks at Star Wars) roll backwards as Mike and his passenger drive along to the strains of Nat King Cole singing “I’d Rather Have the Blues” while Leachman sobs and gulps air. Shortly, she’ll be tortured to death by a pair of goons as Hammer lies semi-conscious on the floor, listening to her screams. Then he’ll be crammed with her dead body into his little car and sent careening over a cliff.
And that’s just the first five minutes.
There is virtually no let-up to the hurt and the hate that permeates this film. Compare it to The Big Heat, where Glenn Ford’s murderous rage is leavened by the soft moments with his wife and the sympathies of Gloria Grahame, whose own evening of the score brings Ford back to humanity. Mike Hammer cares for little but Velda’s caresses and a big score. He snarls when he picks up Christina (Leachman) because she nearly wrecked his car – and he gets angrier and meaner as the film proceeds. In a way, that’s good, because all the bad guys are such cold and sadistic monsters who delight in inflicting pain on others that we embrace Hammer’s passion. Sure, he gets a kick over the pain he inflicts, but at least he’s pummeling the bad guys. Right?
In the end, everyone gets their comeuppance, starting with Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers), one of the most unappealing femmes fatales you’ll ever meet, but it’s hard to enjoy the justice of it because the scenario presented suggests that, as the bad guys go, so goes the world. And here’s where things get a little ambivalent, thanks to early TV producers, who edited the end of the film in order to fit it in their prescribed time slots.
SPOILER ALERT: the action is propelled by the villains’ search for the movie’s McGuffin, a very scary black box known as the “Big Whatsit.” At a beach house where Hammer has been tortured and now returns to save Velda, he finds Gabrielle with the Whatsit, which she has been warned by a scientist NOT to open. Of course, she kills the scientist and opens the box, unleashing pure nuclear energy on all and sundry. Gabrielle screams and bursts into flames, whereupon Mike and Velda flee the beach house and rush into the sea, just as a gigantic explosion levels the beach. The words “THE END” are superimposed on the screen. The End.
The TV producers cut 82 seconds from the final scene, the part where Mike and Velda escape. Thus, for years, viewers figured that everybody in that beach house perished in the explosion. Critics consider this edited version to have deeply apocalyptic overtones, unlike the original where we get to see Mike and Velda hightail it out of there. I will hear the entire story in tonight’s class, but evidently our very own Elliot, who spent years programming and elucidating the public on film noir, had a major hand in restoring the original ending.
However, the idea that the film as originally made ends on a more hopeful note is ridiculous. As our hero and his girl make for the waves, a nuclear explosion occurs behind them. Let’s face it: Mike and Velda are toast, whether it happens today or after several weeks of soaking in the juices of radiation poisoning. And just how well will Los Angeles fare when the Santa Ana breezes carry that nuclear gas and spread it over the City of Angels? Bezzerides may have just been “having fun”, but he and Aldrich here successfully tap into the growing fears of a nuclear Armageddon that had been gripping the nation since the end of World War II.
This is Must See and Can’t Watch filmmaking, rolled into one.
* * * * *
The Big Combo, which came out the same year as Kiss Me Deadly and Baby Friedman, was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, known for the earlier noir classic, Gun Crazy, but its greatest asset is its cinematographer John Alton who shot some of the most significant films we watched in our 40’s film noir class and who here turns a pretty standard crime drama into something beautiful to behold. Once again, I’m drawn to comparisons with The Big Heat which shares a similar set-up to the one found here: a crime syndicate with a stranglehold on the Big City is led by the cruel Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) who directs his goons to commit all sorts of horrible crimes; unlike the head of the mob in the earlier film, Brown is perfectly happy to get his own hands dirty if it will profit him. (And Conte is deliciously evil throughout.)
Brown’s nemesis is another clean cop, here a police lieutenant named Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Diamond is a clean cut, by the books sort of policeman – up to a point. He harbors a yen for Brown’s girl, a lissome blonde named Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace, who was married to Wilde at the time), and he hopes to both win her heart and blatantly use her to capture and imprison the cagy Brown and bring down The Big Combination that is strangling the city.
The screenplay is . . . just okay, and it’s hard to know who to blame because the credited writer, Philip Yordan, served mostly as a front for blacklisted talent. Basically, the story comprises a series of set pieces where Diamond seeks out one lead after another in order to get the goods on Brown, laid side by side with a series of horrible crimes committed by Brown and his goons. Folks get tortured, gunned down, blown up, and generally brutalized for 87 minutes. A sterling cast, including Brian Donlevy as Brown’s faithless Number Two and John Hoyt and Ted de Corsia as doomed witnesses, helps bring it off, but it’s Alton who makes each scene shine with his glorious camera work, creating stylized moments that make the endless violence, not bearable exactly but oddly riveting. Lewis contributes some amazing ideas as well, such as his utilization of a hearing aid – twice – to glorious and quite different effect.
Combo is also striking for its sexual frankness, both in its dialogue and its imagery. The relationships between Brown and Susan and between Diamond and his sometime girlfriend, a dancer named Rita (Helene Stanton) is crackling with sex; it’s clear that both women are torn between their knowledge that the man in their life is Mr. Wrong and their carnal desire for him. And then there’s the all but overt presentation of queerness in the characters of Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman), Brown’s hitmen/bodyguards who share close digs and even closer feelings. Sure, the things they do may be terrible, but they also provide some of the few moments of tenderness in the film. It’s quite stunning for a film made in ’55!
Every scene in The Big Combo looks terrific, even if the story it tells feels a bit stale. It culminates in a shot at an airport that owes everything to Casablanca and ranks as one of the iconic images of film noir. For Alton’s sumptuous work alone, this one is worth a close look.