Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
In 1950s Los Angeles, three cops with very different styles, try solving a multiple homicide. Along the way, they face off against each other, as well as the corruption that runs rampant in the City of Angels.
The screen adaptation by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland (Payback), beautifully translates a very complex multi-layered story, based on the crime novel by James Ellroy. The characterization is very strong, the dialogue is razor-sharp, and the plot structure is intricate, but aptly realized. The two men won an Academy Award for their efforts.Continue Reading
I enjoyed Pillow Talk but I’m wracking my brain on how to justify why I liked it. It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a colossally stupid movie to be sure, but then is profundity really the hallmark of a well made Hollywood film? A lot of the best movies produced under the studio system were always the end result of a delicate interplay between cynical studio ridiculousness and genuine artistry. No one would confuse Pillow Talk for a work of art even by Hollywood standards. Frankly I’m not even sure I’d call it a smart romantic comedy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson aren’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. She is frighteningly perky and he has no comedic instincts whatsoever. What they embody isn’t really depth or wit or chemistry, but instead I think what sold the public on them is how happily “normal” they seemed during a tumultuous era in American history. They were movie stars for the age of television. They weren’t so much of the 1950s as of a perrenial 1950s mindset. If the fifties were the decade where conformity was next to godliness then conventional wisdom has it that Day and Hudson were its thoughtless, grinning poster children—Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy Era.
But their first onscreen pairing in Pillow Talk wasn’t until 1959 which leads me to conclude that instead of being a kind of cultural apex for a dull decade, Pillow Talk was really a last gasp of a reactionary hold over Hollywood. Bonnie & Clyde and the rise of a more sophisticated European art house influenced American cinema were only 7 years away. By 1959 Americans in-the-know were already getting their first taste of cinema in a radically different idiom from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman to name a few. Pillow Talk, then, is retrograde even by 1959 standards and, as such, was already shorthand for how out-of-touch Hollywood filmmaking had become, fair dismissal or not.Continue Reading
Sweet Smell of Success
I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”
Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.Continue Reading
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.Continue Reading