Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Kiss Me Deadly

They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?

In 1955, detective film noirs were nearing the end of their magnificent cycle, with seemingly little fresh to say. But just before the lights went out, Director Robert Aldrich and Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides went for broke with a brutal pulp masterpiece which blended crime drama with 1950s political paranoia and some science fiction to boot: Kiss Me Deadly.

Ostensibly based on one of Mickey Spillane’s wildly popular Mike Hammer novels, Kiss Me Deadly (which Spillane hated) mocks the genre as much as embodies it, amping up the main character’s sliminess, cruelty and misogyny to absurd levels — and Hammer’s ostensibly the hero! From its arresting opening shot of Cloris Leachman desperately running barefoot down a highway, followed by a perversely upside down credit sequence, this is a movie of extremes in every respect, right up to its atomic conclusion.

Ralph Meeker, in the most memorable film work of his career, is aces as a cold, scheming and domineering Mike Hammer. It’s a fine example of how an actor and director can make a fairly unlikable character magnetic on screen, which is one of a number of ways this movie recalls another film I recommended, Pickup on South Street.

Most American critics considered Kiss Me Deadly a seamy low-budget piece of trash when it was released, and moralists condemned it outright for allegedly corrupting the nation’s youth. But it found a following in France and eventually among some American directors as well, who cherished the brash artistry and attitude the film exudes. Decades later, Kiss Me Deadly became fully respectable, being selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry as an utterly original American classic.

p.s. In the decades between my first and second viewing of Kiss Me Deadly, the original ending was discovered. When the film was originally released, some audiences saw the intended ending and some saw a mutilated version which only slightly shortens the film but does alter its meaning. If you want to know more about this unusual piece of film history after you’ve seen the film, check out this fascinating article.

Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

Bend of the River and The Naked Spur **Double Feature**

Caftan Woman: The James Stewart Blogathon: Bend of the River (1952)

Nobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.

But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.

Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.

The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. I offer them here as double feature recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.

Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal ...

In Bend of the River, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a former Kansas raider now helping a family of good-hearted pioneers settle in Oregon. They know nothing of his past, but slick gunman Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who becomes attached to their party, does. Cole too seems to want to go straight, and helps defend the party as they make their perilous journey. The pioneers warn McLyntock that a bad man is always bad, and therefore Cole cannot be trusted, but McLyntock knows that he himself needs redemption just as much as Cole does. Ultimately, the pioneers are betrayed by unscrupulous villains, and Stewart, with his old violent nature returning, must try to settle the score.

As foils, Kennedy and Stewart play off each other effectively, and Rock Hudson also does well as a (ahem) charming dandy from San Francisco (Rock liked to watch his own movies with gay friends and laugh at the subtext — they must have chuckled here when he tells a smitten young woman to go away because he wants to be with the men). The violence is extreme for the early 1950s, with dozens of people being wounded or killed on screen. What is unfortunately not out of place in the early 1950s are some mercifully brief but still off-putting scenes with Stepin Fechit as a stereotypical African-American character. But to close on a positive note, the scenery is gorgeous and everyone seems to know how to handle horses and guns, including during the climactic shootout.

The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of The Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The film’s emotional dynamic is the reverse of Bend of the River. Instead of a once bad man trying to be accepted by good people by showing how good he is now, Stewart plays a once good man telling good people that they should not accept him anymore. That’s what makes Stewart and Janet Leigh’s heartfelt closing scene a knockout.

In addition to being a movie star and director, Clint Eastwood is a student of film history, and I am going to give him the last word on the multi-talented, multi-dimensional Jimmy Stewart: