Friday, February 24, 2017

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has captivated and intrigued filmmakers for decades, from George Melies’ silent short film in 1907 to the 1997 made-for-television movie starring Ben Cross. The most well-known cinematic adaptation is the 1954 Walt Disney action/adventure classic starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas. I distinctly remember watching this version as a child at a friend’s house and being absolutely terrified by the giant squid battle that occurs at the film’s exciting climax. The film has fascinated me ever since.

It is 1868 and tall tales circulate about a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean, disrupting shipping lanes and creating fear and apprehension among sailors. Not so with Ned Land (Douglas), a brash harpooner with an interest in sea monsters. His introduction tells us all we need to know about the man as he walks through town with two beautiful women on each arm and scoffs at two men warning others about the sea monster. Ned gets into a fight with them and is dragged off to jail by the police.

Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are trying to get to the Orient but their plans are scuttled by the threat of the sea monster until a representative from the United States government offers them transportation if they join an expedition hoping to find it and prove or disprove its existence. Intrigued, he agrees and Ned tags along, eager for adventure.

They search for three months and find nothing. As luck would have it, one night they encounter a ship wreck with no survivors, which fuels rumors of the sea monster among the crew. Sure enough, the “monster” surfaces, evades their cannon fire and proceeds to cripple the ship with ruthless efficiency. Ned, Aronnax and Conseil are thrown overboard and left to fend for themselves.

They happen upon the “sea monster,” which is actually a man-made iron-riveted submarine known as the Nautilus. They board it and find the ship deserted so they go exploring. The interior is a fascinating mix of dirty iron and rivets with Victorian opulence that has inspired countless Steampunk books and films. The sub’s crew returns after performing an underwater funeral service for one of their own and intercept our heroes before they can escape. They meet Captain Nemo (Mason), the cultured and quite mad captain of the vessel. The rest of the film plays out Aronnax, Conseil and Ned’s attempts to derail Nemo’s plans as neither guests nor prisoners.

Not surprisingly, the underwater sequences are among the highlights of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, like when the sub crew take Ned, Aronnax and Conseil out for a “hunting” expedition and the bottom of the ocean floor comes to life with all kinds of creatures big and small, adding to the wonder of this sequence. Aronnax sums it up best: “A strange twilight world opened up before me and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.” Nemo and his men farm the bottom of the ocean for their food. This sequence takes on a quasi-documentary feel as we observe Nemo and his men at work, living off the land.

The centerpiece of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the legendary giant squid attack. After having narrowly survived an attack by a warship that saw the Nautilus take on water and nearly sink to uncharted depths, they are attacked by a giant squid. It’s all hands on deck – literally – as Nemo, his crew and Ned fight the sea creature during a violent storm at night. It is a harrowing sequence that director Richard Fleischer expertly squeezes every ounce of tension out of with white knuckle intensity.

James Mason plays Nemo as an erudite man that believes what he’s doing is right as most men of his kind do. He is as comfortable walking around his sub in a smoking jacket and cigar as he is in a deep diving suit harvesting the sea floor. He’s more than a mad genius but also an accomplished musician, playing the organ while the Nautilus travels silently along the ocean floor, which creates an ominous atmosphere. He doesn’t care for the chaos on land, full of people wanting to control one another, while he only feels truly safe on the ocean floor. There’s certainly a method to his madness as he uses the Nautilus to sink a ship with components that will be used for war and whose crew employ slaves to obtain it. As the film continues, Mason deftly shows Nemo gradually coming apart at the seams, consumed by his own desire for vengeance.

Kirk Douglas is well cast as Ned, the rascally rogue full of charm. He doesn’t have any set plan in life, content to go where the wind blows, much to Aronnax’s chagrin who tries to develop a plan to stop Nemo. Ned is a wild card, an unpredictable force of nature that confounds the professor and infuriates Nemo. Douglas delivers one of his trademark physical performances full of energy and passion.

Paul Lukas does a superb job of showing Aronnax’s initial admiration of Nemo, which turns to disgust when he sees first-hand what the man is capable of – murdering an entire boatload of sailors – and yet also feels compassion for the man after hearing about his tragic past. Lukas plays the professor as a conflicted man that believes he can reach Nemo but in the process becomes infected by the man’s mania.

Harper Goff was a designer that had worked as a sketch artist for Warner Bros. in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, he had become a freelancer, creating illustrations for various magazines. In 1952, he met Walt Disney while in London, England and he recruited the artist to help design a family park that would be called Disneyland. Not too long afterwards, Disney asked Goff to go to the marine lab at the California Institute of Technology to see footage of marine life that Dr. McGinnity had shot with the notion that it might be integrated into an undersea film for the True-Adventure series.

Goff had been a fan of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea since he was a child. While developing a storyboard for the McGinnity footage, he visualized a sequence for the film involving two divers on the ocean floor and made a series of sketches. Disney saw the sketches and told Goff that he also loved Verne’s classic novel and had contemplated making a film version. Unfortunately, MGM owned the rights at the time and Disney didn’t want to buy them. Later, he and Goff found out that the studio had sold the rights and this, along with Goff’s impressive storyboards, changed Disney’s mind and he acquired the rights.

Originally, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was envisioned as a full-length animated film with Goff placed in charge of production development. His first job was to design Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus. As per the source material, he had to design a vessel that looked like a sea monster and could be strong enough to ram ships at high speed and not take on too much damage itself. Disney didn’t like Goff’s initial design and felt that it should look sleek and futuristic. Goff argued that the Nautilus “was built hastily and roughly at Nemo’s secret base. The only available material was the rough iron that was salvaged from wrecks.” Goff eventually won the argument.

By late fall of 1952, Disney decided to abandon the animated format in favor of live-action because it would be cheaper and not take as long to make. In addition, his other live-action films were modestly budgeted and performed well at the box office. For 20,000 Leagues, a 60 x 125-foot indoor tank was built for $300,000. Many of the water effects scenes were shot there, like the famous giant squid battle.

To write the screenplay, Disney hired Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer, a duo that had success on a few B-movies over at RKO, but it was the Disney-esque comedy The Happy Time (1952), starring one of his contract actors Bobby Driscoll, that convinced Disney they were right for the job. The first challenge was creating a story out of a novel whose American translation didn’t have one, “only a series of incidents,” Fleischer said. The first thing he and Felton did was flesh out Nemo’s background and his philosophy on life, which would then drive the story. They obviously couldn’t include everything from the novel and picked what they felt was the most memorable incidents – the cannibal attack, the giant squid battle and so on. Disney reviewed their work and added moments of levity, like the pet seal, to alleviate the often dark and violent tone.

When it came to the casting of the pivotal role of Captain Nemo, Disney approached acclaimed actor James Mason who actually turned the studio down a couple of times because he was afraid it would be a children’s film with Nemo “being played down to a juvenile level.” He read the script and thought it quite good. He also felt that director Fleischer would provide an “adult point of view,” and decided to do it even if he wasn’t sure how to play the part. He found himself drawn to Nemo’s “cause and individuality…He wanted to build the world according to his own specifications, rather than the specifications of the current powers. This, I thought, would be interesting to deal with.”

In spite of having a newly built indoor tank, Disney felt, for reasons of realism, that the diving sequences should be shot on location with only one sequence completely filmed in the indoor tank. Fleischer and Goff scouted for a good underwater location in the Bahama Islands with its clear water and superior reefs. They found such a location and the production, consisting of 20 tons of equipment and a crew of 54 people, were transported there at considerable cost. Principal photography began on January 11, 1954.

After eight weeks of location filming, the main unit returned to Burbank, California for four months of principal lot photography. For the giant squid attack sequence, sculptor Chris Mueller (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and mechanical effects expert Robert A. Mattey (King Kong) created the creature with the former designing its body and the latter bringing it to life. The sequence was originally shot at sunset and after a week of filming, Fleischer stopped because the footage looked too artificial with the effects of the squid being visible and the deck of the Nautilus looking like an obvious set. Second unit director James C. Havens took over and decided to shoot the sequenced in a rainstorm, which would solve their problems and be more exciting. It also cost Disney $200,000 and a six-week delay in shooting.

While Douglas and Mason were well-behaved on set (they both had a reputation for being mercurial performers), Paul Lukas clashed with Fleischer. Initially, they got along fine but according to the director, the actor “was going through some kind of crisis” and had trouble remembering his lines. He was good friends with co-star Peter Lorre but by the time principal photography had ended on June 19, 1954, they were no longer talking to each other. Lukas even threatened to sue Disney, Douglas and Fleischer!

In the past, Disney had his films released through RKO who had taken a large cut of their grosses at the box office. With 20,000 Leagues, he created Buena Vista, distribution subsidiary that would lower the costs and give total control to the promotion of his films. A preview was shown on December 9th to several hundred exhibitors in New York City. Everyone loved it, sensing it would be a hit. Two weeks later, it opened in 60 theaters across the United States to generally positive reviews and performing well at the box office but was also Disney’s most expensive film at that time - $9 million!

Ostensibly, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a rousing action/adventure film. It also acts a warning of the dangers of man’s inclination for war and the futility of such pursuits. “There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new, better life – all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time,” are Nemo’s sage words that he utters towards the end of the film and then again at the very end, resonating even more powerfully after everything that has happened.


SOURCES


Frazier, Joel and Harry Hawthorne. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Cinefantastique. May 1984.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Moonlight Mile

Brad Silberling got his start directing television shows like Doogie Howser, M.D. and NYPD Blue before making the jump to feature movies with studio fare like Casper (1995) and City of Angels (1998). It wasn’t until Moonlight Mile (2002), however, that he finally had something personal to say. The film was loosely inspired by the grieving period he went through after his then-fiancée, actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1989. It featured then-up-and-coming actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Ellen Pompeo alongside veteran actors Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon delivering thoughtful performances in this moving story.

It's in 1973 and Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) is staying with Ben (Hoffman) and Jojo Floss (Sarandon) after the death of his fiancée and their daughter. Ben copes by keeping busy, micromanaging the funeral and the reception afterwards while Jojo suffers from writer’s block. Joe sticks around because he doesn’t know what else to do, feeling like he’s the last link to their daughter, even staying in her room. While trying to retrieve wedding invitations from the local post office, he meets Bertie Knox (Pompeo), who helps him out. They gradually become attracted to one another but they both harbor painful secrets that hold them back.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon are believable as a married couple from the short hand they have between each other, like how Jojo frequently reminds Ben to lower his shoulders. It is these little, personal touches that provide valuable insight into their relationship. It is also interesting to see how they cope with the grief of their child’s death in their respective ways. Ben is all nervous energy and tries to keep busy, pushing the grief down deep so that he doesn’t have to deal with it. Jojo, however, channels her pain through anger and bounces it off Ben in little ways that are familiar to anybody’s who’s been married for a decent amount of time. Sarandon excels at playing this no bullshit kind of character and it juxtaposes well against Hoffman’s internalized bundle of energy.

Jake Gyllenhaal is decent as the bewildered fiancé trying to make sense of it all – his feelings for his fiancée, his responsibility towards her parents and what he’s supposed to do next – and Bertie comes along and shakes it all up. Joe is wracked with guilt over a secret he’s keeping from Ben and Jojo and it’s tearing him up inside. Gyllenhaal does an excellent job conveying this internal conflict. He delivers an impressively nuanced performance and at such a young age.

The lovely, pre-Grey’s Anatomy Ellen Pompeo plays Joe’s alluring potential love interest that is harboring deep, personal feelings of loss herself. Like Joe, she’s damaged and adrift in life and this draws them together. The actress conveys a fragile vulnerability under a tomboy façade that is intriguing to watch.

In 1989, Brad Silberling was a film graduate with a promising career directing T.V. he was engaged to 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer. One day, she was shot and killed by a crazed fan. Silberling remembered, “The moment this happened, there was a voice in my head saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’” He moved into her parents’ house in Oregon, staying there for several months while he tried to figure out what to do next and comfort them during this dark time.

Four years later, he channeled this experience into the screenplay for what would become Moonlight Mile (originally entitled, Babies in Black). Silberling said, “Like the girl in the film, Rebecca was an only child with parents who were vital and interesting. I didn’t know them very well and, suddenly, we were thrust into a unique type of intimacy in which the boundaries were unclear and the expectations hazy.”

He didn’t have an easy time of getting it made. Even after back-to-back hits with Casper and City of Angels, it took years for Moonlight Mile to get made. Four studios passed on it, including DreamWorks who felt it was too close to American Beauty (1999). Studio executives didn’t know how to market it as Silberling said, “They’re stumped by stories that are character-driven and don’t box themselves up neatly.” It wasn’t until Susan Sarandon and then Dustin Hoffman agreed to do it that financing came through. Initially, Hoffman turned it down in 1998 but changed his mind two years later when the filmmaker pitched to him again. The actor said, “Hearing Brad talk about it – I detected a yearning in him. He wanted to make this movie to figure something out.” Silberling’s agent contacted Disney’s studio chief and gave him 24 hours to decide on the $20 million film. He agreed to bankroll it in the fall of 2000 with principal photography taking place in the spring of 2001.

Moonlight Mile received mixed reactions from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Moonlight Mile gives itself the freedom to feel contradictory things. It is sentimental but feels free to offend, is analytical and then surrenders to the illogic of its characters, is about grief and yet permits laughter.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Yet somehow the director has put together a collage of period music without succumbing to the usual classic rock clichés, and he has a good instinct for the ways people use pop music to communicate and to express emotions they can’t quite articulate. In fact, if they articulated them a little bit less, Moonlight Mile would be a stronger movie.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Silberling has crafted a good number of strong, memorable moments—a barroom dance set to the Rolling Stones title song is particularly nice—but finally the presence of real feelings underlines what’s missing when they’re not there.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Joe’s cleaving to his replacement parents, letting himself replace the child whose loss they have yet to confront, is a sticky, fraught situation that Silberling reduces to a pileup of TV episodes.”

I’ve always been a sucker for small-town American slices of life stories and Moonlight Mile is one that stayed with me for days. Even though it’s set in ’73, Silberling doesn’t hit you over the head with period details, letting the soundtrack, populated by Sly and the Family Stone, T-Rex, Van Morrison, and others do that instead. He focuses on the characters and their dilemmas, which are compelling in their own right. The music compliments them and so we get a touching moment when Joe and Bertie slow dance to “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones or when they drive off to an uncertain future to the strains of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.”

What makes this film distinctive from others of its ilk is how personal it feels, from the song choices to the specific behavior of the characters. This doesn’t feel like some generic studio movie – it is a personal statement from someone that had to make it. It’s a film that features characters dealing with grief and guilt and trying to communicate these feelings with others. It also explores the real need for personal connection and how that can help people open up and be vulnerable, which helps deal with their personal traumas. How does one go on with their life after the death of someone close to them? Everyone has their own way of dealing and Moonlight Mile shows several coping methods – none of them are easy. This film was a highmark for Silberling and after its commercial failure (it was the victim of a studio regime change), he went back to standard studio fare and directing T.V. It’s a shame he hasn’t found anything as personal and moving as this film but it remains a poignant tribute to Rebecca Schaeffer’s memory and that part of his life.


SOURCES

Diaconescu, Sorina. “All the Way Back.” Los Angeles Times. September 22, 2002.

Ojumu, Akin. “The family that grieves together…” The Guardian. February 15, 2003.


Waxman, Sharon. “A Director’s Longest Mile.” Washington Post. September 29, 2002.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bonfire of the Vanities

“And I think if you look at the movie now, and you don’t know anything about the book, and you get it out of the time that it was released, I think you can see it in a whole different way.” – Brian De Palma, Empire magazine, December 2008

Has enough time passed that Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) can be judged on its own merits? Has enough time passed that its critical and commercial failings don’t matter (if they ever did)? And has enough time passed that its troubled production history, as chronicled in Julie Salamon’s tell-all The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, no longer matters? Perhaps this is a case of going into a film without having read the source material being a good thing as it allows the film to be judged on its own merits.

De Palma starts The Bonfire of the Vanities in typically audacious fashion with a long take with no edits as we follow alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) from an underground parking garage up through the bowels of a building, interacting with several people, including a chatty P.R. woman (Rita Wilson), and going up an elevator, getting changed, and finally arriving at the premiere of his own book. You have to admire the seamless choreography of this sequence (courtesy of cinematographer extraordinaire Vilmos Zsigmond) as we get crucial insight into the drunken letch that is Fallow.

His voiceover narration informs us that he’s not really the hero of this story – Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is – and a feature-length flashback tells his story. Sherman is a wealthy Wall Street bond trader and we first meet him taking his dog outside his apartment building for a walk on a dark and stormy night. He meets a man (Kurt Fuller) outside and their exchange feels off as they awkwardly speak stylized dialogue – the first indication that perhaps Tom Hanks was miscast in this film. It’s painful to watch and painful to listen to even in a stylized film such as this one.

The actor fares even worse in a scene where his wife (Kim Cattrall) confronts him over his cheating ways. The initial tone is a comedic one and then awkwardly downshifts to a serious tone so fast that it induces whiplash. The other woman is Maria (Melanie Griffith), a gold digging Southern belle. One fateful night, he picks her up from the airport and accidentally gets lost in the Bronx where he and Maria get to see how the other side lives much to their panicked disdain. They’re accosted by two young African American men and manage to escape, running over one of them, which puts him into a coma.

Fallow is all washed-up and one story away from being fired from a tabloid newspaper until he gets a lead on a story about a hit-and-run involving the same African American man that was run over by Sherman and Maria. He writes about it, which makes Sherman understandably very nervous. With her coaxing he does nothing, figuring it will go away but of course it doesn’t. The rest of the film examines how this crime is exploited by the local community leaders tired of being screwed over by the powers that be time and time again, the media looking for the next sensational story that will sell papers, and the district attorney (F. Murray Abraham) looking to score points with voters as he’s up for re-election.

The main problem the film has is the miscasting of Hanks as a ruthless Wall Street trader. The actor can do many things but ruthless and unlikable is not among them. Even in his darkest roles – Punchline (1988) and The Road to Perdition (2002) – there is always an inherent empathy. He can’t help it as it is in his DNA. This goes against the character of Sherman McCoy who is supposed to be an unpleasant son-of-a-bitch and the casting of Hanks was clearly a move to dilute the character and make him more relatable. What he does do well is sweaty desperation when the cops come calling and casually grill Sherman.

Morgan Freeman kills it as a tough-talking, no-nonsense judge in the South Bronx who schools a naïve assistant district attorney (Saul Rubinek) on how things work in his court via a fiery and masterful monologue – the kind that Samuel L. Jackson usually gets in Quentin Tarantino films – that is a sight to behold and makes me wish the veteran actor would get juicy roles like this again. This is merely a warm-up for the film’s climax where it goes all Frank Capra as Freeman delivers a powerful speech condemning all the parties involved, calling for decency as the judge represents the lone voice of reason.

At the time of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bruce Willis was at the height of his Die Hard (1988) / The Return of Bruno smarmy charm phase and this role lets him lay it on thick while also showing his willingness to play a deeply flawed character in search of redemption. He’s also not afraid to play up the less likable aspects of Fallow, the high society suck-up and the alcoholic lush.

The Bonfire of the Vanities works hard to make Sherman sympathetic when it should be roasting him. He embodies entitled white privilege, which was big during the materialistic 1980s and is making a comeback with Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. In one scene, De Palma makes a point of juxtaposing the African American protestors outside Sherman’s apartment building with the dinner party inside populated by his white rich friends as they metaphorically circle the wagons and show support for one of their own. These people are portrayed as arrogant racists that don’t care about anyone but themselves. If they get into any trouble they just make it go away with money.

The film also exposes the hypocrisy of the justice system. The D.A. doesn’t want to punish Sherman because he’s guilty but because it will help him get re-elected. He’s an opportunist that sends out his minions to do his bidding. Then there is the media that are portrayed as a mob of vultures feeding on the latest story of misery, adhering to the ago old credo, if it bleeds, it leads. Sherman is just the latest headline to sell papers – nothing more, nothing less. If Freeman’s climactic Capraeseque monologue seems too gee whiz of an idealistic ending, De Palma ends things with a brilliant visual punchline that hints at how great the film could have been if the studio hadn’t messed with him behind the scenes.


The Bonfire of the Vanities is a cynical take on modern society with everybody available for a price, from the D.A. vying for re-election to the mother (Mary Alice) of the young man in a coma suing the hospital for $10 million. Divorced from its source material, De Palma’s film is a biting satire that attacks the rich, those that exploit tragedies, and the media. At times, it is also a light farce and, as a result, the film is all over the place tonally as it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Yet, for all this sloppiness and the miscasting of Hanks (who actually does get better as the film goes along), Bonfire is not the complete disaster it is commonly portrayed as and is actually quite entertaining. It deserves to be re-visited and regarded on its own merits.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Kiss Me Deadly

After the classy film noirs of the 1940s, Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled crime novel Kiss Me Deadly (1955) pushed the boundaries of the genre as far as it could back then. It was as tough and uncompromising as its protagonist Mike Hammer. The film reflects the Cold War paranoia that was rampant during the 1950s and fuses it with an apocalyptic science fiction climax in a way the critiques the decade in surprisingly unflinching fashion.

The film begins with a barefooted woman (Cloris Leachman) running breathlessly along a stretch of highway road at night. Hammer (Ralph Meeker) nearly runs her over. He picks her up and it’s a decision he will regret later. The opening credits play over an odd audio juxtaposition of Nat King Cole’s silky smooth singing playing over the car radio and the woman’s frantic breathing and crying. This creates an edgy vibe that is a hell of a way to start a film.

Even though Hammer gives the woman a hard time he lies for her at a police roadblock when he finds out she’s escaped from a mental hospital. Cloris Leachman makes the most of her screen-time as her character happily critiques her savior: “You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, his self,” and follows it up with, “You’re the kind of person that never gives in a relationship. Who only takes.” These are rather odd things to say to someone who just saved her life.

Three unidentified men subsequently run them off the road and over the soundtrack we hear the woman’s terrified screams, which carry over to the next scene where she’s being tortured. All we see are her dangling feet, leaving the frightening rest to our imagination. The men attempt to get rid of Hammer and the woman by staging a car accident that he somehow survives. Once he gets out of the hospital, government officials unsuccessfully grill him in a scene absolutely dripping with sarcasm and contempt that is also quite funny to watch, especially with the punchline at the end when Hammer leaves the room and one fed says with obvious disdain, “Open a window.”

Why are the Feds involved? Who was the mysterious woman and why was she killed? Intrigued and understandably pissed off at almost being killed, Hammer decides to get some answers – ones that lead to something bigger and more dangerous than he could have possible imagined.

Kiss Me Deadly is saturated with a paranoid vibe, like when Hammer comes home from the hospital and carefully checks out his apartment for intruders. Later on, his sexy secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper, who always seem to be sweaty when on-screen), warns him to stay away from the windows because “somebody might blow you a kiss,” which implies that someone is trying to kill him. Aldrich employs shots of Hammer talking to people as if someone else is spying him on and this keeps the viewer on edge. Later on, things get serious when Hammer finds dynamite and a bomb rigged to blow up his car. Aldrich also doesn’t skimp on the violence, which must’ve been shocking for its time. Hammer viciously beats a man who tries to kill him with a switchblade by punching him down a flight of steps. In another scene, Hammer disables a henchman so quickly and efficiently that he scares off his cohort.

Ralph Meeker anchors the film with his uncompromising performance. Hammer is a crude, sexist man with a deep distrust of authority, anticipating Dirty Harry by several years as a righteous avenger with his own brand of justice. This is typified by the perpetual smirk affixed to Meeker’s face but that expression changes over time as his life and those close to him are repeatedly put in danger. Meeker is a good-looking tough guy that does a fantastic job of portraying Spillane’s protagonist.

Kiss Me Deadly is populated by a colorful assortment of characters, like Nick (Nick Dennis), a gregarious Greek mechanic who punctuates his speech with words like, “Va-va voom!” and in the next breath proclaims Hammer’s exit from the hospital, “like Lazarus rose out of the grave!” He’s a good friend that gives the private detective hot tips and genuinely cares about him. There’s also Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), Hammer’s cop friend with a droll sense of humor as evident in the singsong way he tells him that he’s revoking his gun permit and if he catches him with one he’ll throw him in jail. Wesley Addy has a deliciously dry delivery of dialogue that is excellent. The film also presents a multi-ethnic Los Angeles with many memorable locations that no longer exist anymore or have been radically changed, from the low city of Bunker Hill to the high with Beverly Hills. You really get a sense of place from this film and the city almost becomes another character.

Robert Aldrich worked for RKO in 1941 as an assistant director and got his solo start on the anti-American film Apache (1954) and the cynical western Vera Cruz (1954). He teamed up with producer Victor Saville to make Kiss Me Deadly, based on Mickey Spillane’s novel of the same name, in 1954 and hired A.I. Bezzerides to write the screenplay. At the time, Spillane was one of the most popular writers in the United States but Aldrich was not a fan of the novel. He and Bezzerides discarded most of the original story, shifted the location from New York City to L.A., and kept the title. The latter wrote it quickly “because I had contempt for it. It was automatic writing. Things were in the air at the time, and I put them in.”

The edgy Kiss Me Deadly ran afoul of the MPAA during the script stages for its depiction of drugs and violence as well as “sexual suggestiveness.” Aldrich removed the drugs but the violence remained and it was eventually approved. On the eve of its release, the Legion of Decency condemned it, demanding 30 changes, cuts and deletions. It weathered that particular storm with only a few minor cuts.

Kiss Me Deadly presents a harsh and cruel world and in order to survive it Hammer has to act accordingly. He thinks he has it all figured out but the deeper he digs into the mysterious woman’s past the more dangerous his life gets as he finds himself dealing with serious men that are able to scare anyone they come in contact with – even a boxing manager Hammer has known for a long time. They are serious enough to kill those close to him, which raises the stakes considerably. As a result, Hammer’s tactics become more savage: crushing a coroner’s hand in desk drawer for a key and slapping around an athletic club manager for more information on said key.

Kiss Me Deadly features a smart, cynical screenplay by Bezzerides who tweaked the book’s setting and removed the first person voiceover, but retained the hardboiled attitude. Aldrich’s film takes us on a journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles culminating in an explosive finale that would influence the likes of Repo Man (1984) and Pulp Fiction (1994). It came out around the time that other grim, bleak noirs, like Pickup on the South Street (1953), were starting to appear, and anticipated films like Touch of Evil (1958) Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964).


SOURCES

Hoberman, J. “The Thriller of Tomorrow.” Kiss Me Deadly DVD. Criterion Collection.


Stafford, Jeff. “Kiss Me Deadly.” Turner Classic Movies.