Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kiss Me Deadly, once again

I finally saw the real ending of Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, when it was shown late last night on Finnish television. The film itself I saw at least for the sixth time, and it never stops to amaze me.

There's been some debate about whether this, the original ending, is really better than the false ending we've come to know. Okay, it's really unrelenting in the false ending when we never see Mike Hammer and Velda escape the exploding house, but it's always been a bit clumsy and rushed. Some have said that Aldrich foresaw the metafictional techniques of the New Wave of the sixties: when the world goes mad, the films must give up their old narratives and go mad. Yeah, right. They were thinking that in the fifties' Hollywood.

Let's go through this once more: Aldrich was a director who liked to show off how marvellous he is. Look at some of the camera drives in Vera Cruz. The man who made those couldn't have made anything like the false ending of Kiss Me Deadly. These traits show also in Kiss Me Deadly: the backward opening credits, the smooth camera drives from rears of the cars, the short camera drive in the scene in which the truck driver tells Hammer that the man he drove over was pushed*, the editing in the fight scenes (Hammer beating a guy at top of the long stairs, Sugar Smallhouse and Charlie Max fighting in the water with Hammer). They are fast, fluid, furious, never clumsy or crude. How could one think that this guy could've done the false ending of Kiss Me Deadly?

There are some glitches in the film, though. When Christina Bailey is being tortured and we see only her legs (and hear her screaming), her legs don't move. That's clumsy, but forgivable. When Mike Hammer is being tied down to a bed and Dr. Soberin walks into the room and starts talking, we see only his shoes and trousers. We hear him talk, but there's something clumsy about his appearance. It seems clearly that he's not speaking aloud in those scenes. This may have been done on purpose, to heighten the nightmarish quality of Hammer's condition.

There are also some scenes that make some of the ironic hipster audience giggle, like Velda doing her exercise badly (I think that must be done on purpose) or Carl Evello's half-sister sucking up on Mike Hammer. That was parody of the private eye clichés already when the film was made, and the fact that the sister's behaviour is never fully explained actually increases the absurd feel of the film.

I think David Lynch learned everything from this film (plus Sunset Boulevard). You always have a feeling everything is not explained and you're witnessing a dream. Just see the scene in which Carl Evello talks to the tied-up Hammer and repeats: "Remember me." If that doesn't remind you of Twin Peaks, then nothing does. (Or then you haven't seen Twin Peaks.) In the end you also have the flashing lights that are seen in every film Lynch has made, from Eraserhead on. And I'm pretty sure the house that explodes backwards in Lost Highway (Lynch's best film, if you ask me) is a reference to Kiss Me Deadly, as is also Bill Pullman, who looks a lot like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. (I've been wondering whether the fact that Jack Nicholson in Chinatown looks like Ralph Meeker is a coincidence or a pun on Polanski's and Nicholson's part. Both films strip private eye of his heroics.)

I'm no fan of Mickey Spillane and his books. I grant he was very, very influential, but I'm a bit sad to notice that he's been replacing Ross Macdonald as the third part in the hardboiled trinity beside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. That must say something essential about our time. My doubts about Spillane's merits is one of the reasons I like Kiss Me Deadly so much: it shows what kind of guy Hammer really is. I've always wondered how some fans of Spillane like Ralph Meeker and say he's the best Hammer player on screen, while he's clearly incapable of doing right decisions, is a bit stupid, falls for traps and enjoys making his secretary flirt with old men and listening to the sleazy tapes Velda makes of her meetings. And he's a sadist, enjoys beating other people and smashing things. Yeah, the people he beats up are baddies, sure, and yeah, he's angry when he beats the morgue attendant (great scene, that) and the athletic club clerk, sure. Sure. This man is not a hero.

There are so many things I like about Kiss Me Deadly that I could go on and on writing about it, but real life is calling me (gotta take a shower and start preparing lunch for family). If I have the time and energy, I'll write something about whether Aldrich really wanted to make a travesty of Mike Hammer. If I don't, please see James Naremore's discussion on the film in his book, More Than Night.

* The truck driver looks like James Woods in the scene, doesn't he?


Frank Loose said...

I've only seen the movie with the abrupt ending. Didn't realize there is another edited version out there. I wonder if it is available at NetFlix. Need to check. I'm with you on MacDonald. While i thoroughly enjoyed reading the Mike Hammer books back in the late 60s - 70s, i think the Lew Archer books have held up better over time. But, many things are subjective, and books are one of them!

Juri said...

I should've been clearer about this and maybe describe the "new" ending more. I think Aldrich's original ending surfaced some years ago. There's a long article on this at the Noir of the Week blog:


Definitely worth checking out.