PICKS OF THE WEEK
Kiss Me Deadly (A)
U.S.: Robert Adrich, 1955, Criterion Collection
Something went dark and sour and more than a little crazy in American culture in the post-World War II era. And more than a little of it comes bubbling up like hell-froth in Robert Aldrich's and A.I. Bezzerides' hard-boiled, high-style masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly.
One of the great film noirs of the '50s, this gut-grabbing movie -- almost as visually baroque as an Orson Welles thriller and as mean as a pair of brass knuckles cracking a jaw -- takes Mickey Spillane's ferocious detective thriller and twists it inside out. Aldrich's show, in an amazing piece of narrative/political subversion, turns Spillane's ultra-tough but justice-minded private eye, Mike Hammer into a brutal, greedy gun-toting lecher with the morals of a pimp and the ethics of a swindler, while transforming Spillane's hard-edged, dirty-minded, right-wing mystery novel into a stylish, taut, left-wing investigation of some of the sleazier sides of American pop culture and the underworld.
Kiss Me Deadly is about urban America at its seediest and most dangerous. It's about the atomic age, and corruption, and misogyny, and boxing, and crummy divorce work, and phony psychiatrists, and gangsters and gunsels, and murderers who seem to get away with it.
And it's just about as cinematically inventive and inky-noir as a 1955 Eisenhower-era movie thriller can get. Watch it and you're descending into a Great American Nightmare -- beginning with that first breathless night-on-the-highway view of a beautiful blond mental institution escapee (Cloris Leachman as Christina) racing down the road, breathing hard, nude under a trenchcoat, flagging down Hammer's sports car by standing right in its path. (We don't see it, but, according to Hammer, Christina opens up her coat and "uses her whole body" to thumb the ride.)
The jittery, screw-loose feel of that wild opener continues through the movie's bizarre backward rolling credits, unscrolling like Star Wars' opening crawl, but with all the words and names dropping down from the top in reverse order, while Christina cries and Nat King Cole purrs the Frank DeVol ballad "Rather Have the Blues." 106 breathless minutes later, Deadly Kiss Me ends with another woman opening up a Pandora's box in a beach house, and hell finally catching up with the movie's unsavory crew.
There are several constants through all this: sex and death and money and classic black-and-white photography. Both these women (one good, one evil) want Hammer -- though Christina subjects him to a scathing personal critique in the car. Upshot: He's good at sex, bad at love, just like '50s America. Hammer has also been stripped of his good-vigilante rationale in this film. But he's still the same brutal guy who, at the end of Spillane's first novel, I, the Jury, blasted a femme fatale with his smoking rod, and when his dying victim asked him why, answered "It was easy."
All the women seem to want Hammer, especially his faithful Girl Friday and sometime divorce case bed-bait Velda, played by Maxine Cooper. And all the bad men want him crap-beaten-out-of or dead, including Albert Dekker as the suave villain Dr. G. E. Soberin, Paul Stewart as the smooth gangster Carl Evello, and those two memorably ratlike torpedoes Sugar Smallhouse and Charlie Max (played with maximum evil by ace bad guy hechmen Jack Lambert and Jack Elam).
Did I mention there were tough cops? Not genial Ward Bond-tough or sullen Barton MacLane-tough, like the coppers in Huston and Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, but a lean and fashionable-tough fuzz: Hammer's dour antagonist Lt. Pat Murphy, played by Wesley Addy, without a qualm. There are also some pals and bystanders: Nick Dennis' Nick, an explosive auto mechanic who should never trust a jack (or a Jack), Fortunio Bonanova (the opera coach of Citizen Kane) as an opera buff whose classical 78s were made to be broken, Juan Hernandez (who was also the great old man who wanted to talk in The Pawnbroker) as Eddie Yeager, a vulnerable fight manager, and Percy Helton as Doc Kennedy, a sleazy little police mortician who peddles corpse access.
A word about Ralph Meeker, who's far from meek: the Mike Hammer of your worst nightmare. Every good actor has at least one good run, and for Meeker, it was the early '50s. He took over (successfully) from Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the original Broadway A Streetcar Named Desire. He starred in William Inge's Picnic (in William Holden's movie role, in a stage cast that included Janice Rule, Kim Stanley, Paul Newman, understudy Joanne Woodward, Eileen Heckart and Arthur O'Connell). He made an Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart Western (the best one, The Naked Spur). And he played Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, and played him with only one ounce of sentimentality, when Mike learns of Nick's death.
It's an oddly selfless performance of a very selfish guy. Meeker, who later specialized in character heavies, is playing a babe magnet, a bully and an egomaniac, not to mention one of the most then-famous fictional characters on the planet, and he does nothing, nothing, to make us like Hammer -- except maybe to rescue Velda and to look numbed and sorry when Nick is killed. Yet the character makes complete sense, especially since Aldrich and Bezzerides slot him as a fancy-dressing divorce detective rather than a Marlowe-type private eye.
Meeker's Hammer is not unredeemed. He does save Velda, and he would have saved Nick if he could have -- and he's probably even sorry he broke that classic 78 of Trivago's. ("Beautiful record" he says as he leaves.) But we can tell within minutes of Christina getting in Hammer's car, that Alrdrich and Bezzerides don't like him. And neither do we, if we have an ounce of sentiment.
What a rotten world. What a rotten city. What a mostly rotten, but strangely familiar crew. In the books, Hammer's sadism and cruelty are justified because he's dealing with scum: killers, dealers, tramps and Commies, people who (in Hammer's world view) deserve what he gives them. ("It was easy.") But, if Spillane hated the movie, scriptwriter Bezzerides hated the book, and he deliberately threw most of it away.
It's an archetypal story anyway, with all those icy private eye thriller routines Spillane was lifting (and coarsening) from Hammett and Chandler, with the setting switched in the film from Spillane's trashy New York City to Aldrich's (and Chandler's) slick, bright L.A., and with the movie's MacGuffin altered from dope to dangerous nuclear material. Aldrich shot it all in something of the style of those revolutionary 1941 film classics, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, while also giving it the bright, hard mean look of a '50s Phil Karlson or a Don Siegel -- with stark views of 1955 L.A., in the areas where the people from Sunset Blvd. don't go, down the mean streets Philip Marlowe prowled in a slightly earlier time.
That's one reason hardcore, intense movie buffs love Kiss Me Deadly -- because it's both familiar and startling (those angles, that modern art, that answer-phone, that classical music, that stalker with the knife, that boxful of hellfire). Aldrich was a left-winger -- he'd been assistant director for a first-class progressive Hollywood directorial gallery that included Chaplin, Milestone, Max Ophuls, Robert Rossen and Abe Polonsky -- but he was also from a very rich, very well-connected family: the "Nelson Aldrich" side of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (who was Bob's first cousin).
Aldrich, or "Le Gros Bob" as his French admirers called him, never lost his politics. But in a way, he never lost his privileged roots either -- which is why he understands Hammer's money-grubbing mercenary heart, and probably why he gives this divorce detective such a spiffy apartment. (Catch Philip Marlowe in digs like that!) It's good that Aldrich had the immigrant Greek leftie Bezzerides for a scriptwriter, and also good that they were adapting a book that, however conservative its politics, was what proletarians everywhere were reading. (It was 1955, and in that year's Oscar-winning Best Picture Marty, Ernest Borgnine's more literary pal keeps insisting "That Mickey Spillane: He sure can write!")
It's easy to see why the American mass audience -- and Spillane himself -- didn't like Deadly Kiss Me. They didn't like Aldrich's Mike Hammer. They didn't like the story, told upside down. It took the French to see the whole picture.
And though Kiss Me Deadly may not have played well in Des Moines or Houston or Tallahassee -- in Paris, the movie caught on like a Hitchocko-Hawksian wildfire. Future New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol gave it a rave, and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinema "Holy Family" (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette), and fellow French buffs as well, canonized Aldrich. His other 1954-1956 movies, the pre-Leone Westerns Apache and Vera Cruz, the scalding Clifford Odets Hollywood expose The Big Knife, the blistering war movie Attack! and the Joan Crawford soap-opera-noir Autumn Leaves, all helped his case too: smart, stylish, subversive, visually socko genre pieces with lots of spin on the ball.
But Kiss Me Deadly is the show that still seems Aldrich's best shot, and one of the great '50s American movies. The cinematography (Ernest Laszlo) breathes noir. Aldrich's great editor Michael Luciano cuts it like a dream. DeVol's music jazzes it up. The mood and the angles keep reminding you of Welles and Huston, but Aldrich is less a romantic than Welles, more of a cynic about life and politics and movies than Huston. He was also working with Bezzerides, a great noir screen writer (On Dangerous Ground). If Aldrich never made a better film noir, except maybe Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, he'd already swept the table with Kiss Me Deadly.
Why did the French love Aldrich? (It was a mystery to Spillane.) Aldrich is a great filmmaker partly because he has lots of guts and he has this absolutely compelling story-telling ability, and he gets among the punchiest visuals of any director. When he made Kiss Me Deadly, he was a young man on a hot streak: 1954's Apache and Vera Cruz had been big hits. (Check out Vera Cruz, just out on MGM Blu-ray; it still plays strong.) Aldrich's other 1955 film, The Big Knife, would win the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In Kiss Me Deadly, the 36-year-old Aldrich, sensing his new power (and force) seems to be giving the movie everything he's got: daring it all, and maybe counting on Spillane's and Hammer's popularity to pull him through any rough spots. They didn't at first. But like all directors who make a classic movie that isn't initially appreciated or understood, Aldrich won in the long haul.
Hard-boiled. High style. That's noir. And Kiss Me Deadly is quintessential noir -- though "quintessential" is a word Spillane probably would have hated, just as he disliked the punctuation the Kiss Me publisher gave his title. The Mick wanted his book to be called Kiss Me, Deadly (you can catch the subtler inflection), but the publisher messed it up. The book has been corrected, apparently, but the movie will probably be Kiss Me Deadly forever. And it will forever be what Spillane also didn't want, a left wing art film, admired all over the world by the kind of people who love movies and disliked his books.
What a world! One pictures Spillane looking at Aldrich and Bezzerides in the hell or heaven (or the Bunker Hill) where they all now reside, and saying, angrily: "How could you do this to me? How could you guys screw up my book and pull a switcheroo like that?" And one can imagine Aldrich -- or Bezzerides, or both -- looking right back at him and answering: "It was easy." (Extras: commentary by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini; video tribute by Alex Cox; Excerpts from 2005 documentary The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides, with Bezzerides interviews; new version of Max Allan Collins' 1998 documentary Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane, with lengthy Spillane interview; video pieces on Bunker Hill and other locations; original theatrical ending, as the Criterion print has the restored original ending, as intended by Aldrich; trailer: booklet with essays by Aldrich and J. Hoberman.)
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (A-)
Romania: Florin Serban, 2011, Film Movement
We are in a youth detention center -- a prison for young men -- in Romania: a harsh, sterile, barren place of barracks and fields and metal fences, with a view of the road lying beyond the gates, where the cars pass by. The day has begun; the air seems light, cool.
Silviu, a handsome, brooding youngster and a target of the other prisoners and jailers, is due to be released soon, in two weeks. But something is festering inside him, something dark, maybe dangerous, and somehow connected with his mother (Clara Vodu) and his little brother. Something else also pulses within Silviu's temples, helps keep him increasingly disturbed and impatient: dreams of romance and freedom triggered by a pretty young social worker, Ana (Ada Condeescu) who comes to interview the prisoners, to whom he is strongly attracted, and whom, Silviu thinks, may be responding to him as well.
So, inside Silviu, the prisoner soon to be released, beats a heart full of love, and a heart full of hate. As the day drags on, we can sense that something is awry, that something very bad may happen, very soon. In Silviu, in the prison, in the jailers and prisoners, something will ignite. Something will explode. Someone may escape. Someone may love. Someone may die. And outside the prison walls, the cars keep passing by.
Florin Serban's chilling film If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, based on the play of the same name by Andreea Valjean (U cano Vreau sa Fluier, Fluier in Romanian), was inspired by real incidents and real prisoners, in real youth detention centers (Craiova and Tichicesti) in the very real country of Romania. The young prisoners in the film are real prisoners (Silviu is a remarkable performance by George Pistereabu), and that helps account for the film's extraordinary semblance of physical truth: the way the barracks, halls and the fields by the fences, seem so familiar, the way the boys seem so true, so beaten and believably hostile.
Romania is the only country I can think of treated by some film critics as a moviemaking auteur (or maybe a maker of auteurs) all by itself. It would be interesting to read a deep essay documenting how and why the current renaissance took place, how films like Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08, East of Bucharest came to be, why a filmmaking style that seems to owe so much to Italian neo-realism and the Czech New Wave evolved and flourished in a country that had previously been one of the most tyrannical and suppressed in the Eastern bloc.
Whatever the artistic springs that fed it, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (the title is a taunting and self-flagellating cry of false freedom), is a major award winner too, taking, among other awards, the Grand Jury Prize at Berlin. It got minimal release here, but it is now available though from Film Movement. In Romanian, with subtitles. (Extras: short film Kiss, a lyrical anti-war piece; film notes by Serban and others; filmographies.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Sucker Punch (C+)
U.S.: Zack Snyder, 2011, Warner Bros.
Great visual effects. Lousy script. That seems to be a consensus on Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, even among some people who like it. And I guess I'd agree. Sort of. The movie is too incoherent and confusing to be really counted a success, too brilliantly executed on many technical levels to be dismissed as worthless trash. And even if that's what's wrong with many big studio movies today -- they tend to give us stunning technique and visuals at the service of half-baked scripts and woefully unrealized ideas -- well, stunning technique is nothing to sneeze at. Sucker Punch has it.
But what is this complex, flashy, elaborately designed, rock-'em sock-'em show about, really? Freedom? The World of the Imagination? Or just Babes with Guns in Hot Pants?
In Sucker Punch, Snyder and his co-writer (first-timer Steve Shibuya) and the tech people, employing every trick at their disposal, hurl us into a bizarre mish-mash of Dickensian evil-stepfather melodrama, film noir asylum horror, Phil Dick alternative world sci-fi, girl power kick-ass comic book action, Cabaret or Moulin Rouge-style decadent pop song and dance numbers (dances that we don't actually see, but that are suggested and maybe existed in some alternative movie), a peculiar psycho-soundtrack of '60s (and '70s) pop song nostalgia that includes versions of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," Queen's "We Will Rock You" and "I Want it All," and The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" mashed up with classical excerpts from Mozart's "Requiem" and Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater," echoes of that great 1984-ish dark comedy Brazil (see it, if you haven't yet, so you'll know what this movie could have been) -- and, the piece de fucking resistance: three different video game battle sequences set in 15th-century Japan (Samurai Sucker Punch), World War I trenches full of robots (World War I Sucker Punch) and on a distant future planet, where fire-breathing dragons pursue our scantily clad heroines aboard speeding trains while scorching the planet-scape around them (Alien Dragon Sucker Punch).
What brought all this on, besides a desire to knock millions of moviegoers right on their ass? Well, if you try to follow the plot -- and it isn't easy -- you'll find that Sucker Punch is centered on blond, supersensitive, hyper-imaginativer, victimized-but-yearning-to-be-free heroine Babydoll (played by Australian actress Emily Browning), who witnesses her evil stepfather's rampage and her sister's death on a stormy night, and then is arrested and committed by her stepdad (played by Gerard Plunkett, who looks like Anthony Hopkins' mutant nephew) to a Vermont mental institution. There she is scheduled for a lobotomy in five days, and all her dangerous memories of that night, plus any threats to the evil stepdad, will be erased.
More danger abounds at the asylum, in the person of sadistic orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac). But there's one seemingly nice middle-European-accented psychiatrist, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), who believes in music and dance therapy, plus four plucky, pretty inmates -- Abbie Cornish as the more cautious Sweet Pea, Jena Malone as Sweet Pea's more reckless little sister Rocket, Vanessa Hudgens as the spicy brunette Blondie, and Jamie Chung as resourceful Amber -- all of whom Babydoll befriends, and with whom she makes plans to crash out.
So now Babydoll begins to descend into the lands of dreams, and the movie into torrents of CGI and confusion. Is this Babydoll's cell or Dr. Gorski's dance therapy studio, or a fancy bordello-night club run by orderly-turned-director-pimp Blue, where the five girls dress up in sex-doll outfits and hot pants and, in the vein of Marat/Sade, prepare to perform before rich society degenerates in a kind of lunatic pole-dancing show? In any case, as Babydoll dances, at regular intervals, in her mind, she and her buddies all wind up in those video-game battle sequences -- Samurai, World War I and Alien Dragon -- which are supposedly the visions Babydoll summons up while doing these dances that we don't see.
Snyder and co-writer Shibuya have the beginnings of provocative, engaging or at least usable ideas. But, despite all those snazzy visuals, the script tends to sabotage the movie with corny short cuts and wild overstatement. And even as Sucker Punch soars to sometimes crazily amazing visual heights, it doesn't give us enough down-time in "reality," the asylum scenes where Babydoll is in a cell, and Blue is a nasty orderly.
Without more of those scenes (and, after all, they're the reality from which Babydoll is trying to escape) the movie tends to get drowned in its own visual bombast. Snyder has a very classy cast -- these actresses have impressive dramatic credentials, and they've done lots of ambitious or demanding roles -- but nevertheless, he dresses and photographs them most of the time like hookers and action-cuties, even in the thick of battle. Empowerment? Maybe. But this is Babydoll's dream, not her evil stepfather's. (Maybe that's the point.) (Extras: Both the theatrical and extended cuts of Sucker Punch; featurettes; 12 walk-ons with Zack; storyboards; galleries; motion comics.)