First up on last night’s Atomic Noir double bill, KISS ME DEADLY.

A womanizing dick (Ralph Meeker) picks up a terrified female hitch-hiker and finds himself mixed up in a quest for a mysterious and dangerous box. Of course, there are dames and plenty of them.

Speaking of film adaptations that were hated by the original authors…

(Or should I say “writers,” since Spillane once socked host Alan Rode for calling him an author.)

Also, there’s an interesting link between the previous night’s screening of LA CONFIDENTIAL and KISS ME DEADLY. In his interview, Ellroy made the claim that his books are actually historical romance. Male romance, to be specific. While they are far from romantic, Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels certainly depict an idealized fantasy of heterosexual interaction, as viewed through the male end of the telescope. Not to mention all kinds of other hyper-masculine bad-assery designed to provide vicarious .44 caliber wish-fulfillment for their mostly male readers. No wonder Spillaine hated this adaption, since the first time we meet Mike Hammer on screen, he’s getting knocked down a peg by a smart woman who’s got his number.

But of course the real condemnation of Hammer and everything he represents comes not from the flock of dames that fall in and out of his lap over the course of the film, but rather from another writer. In this case, screenwriter A.I. “Buzz” Bezzarides. His version of Hammer is a mindless but persistent thug who falls backwards into something he can’t possibly understand, knocking over women like bowling pins along the way. A kind of meta critique of the whole P.I. genre.

All this makes for a deeply strange and unconventional flick. I have to admit, I didn’t like this one at first, even after multiple viewings. It’s tough to put my finger on exactly why not. Part of it is because it feels like it’s trying too hard to transcend a genre for which it seems to have contempt. One that I happen to love. I never liked the addition of all the pretentious poetry and classical references. And, this may sound shallow, but I wasn’t really into any of the dames. A beautiful woman can make me overlook a lot of flaws, and Gaby Rodgers just doesn’t do it for me. Maxine Cooper is a little better, but not by much.

Think how much better it would have been with Gloria Grahame as Lily and Marie Windsor as Velda.

But you know what? A funny thing happened last night, as I watched it again for probably the umpteenth time. I kinda liked it. I think it’s growing on me.

I liked how seedy it feels, especially on the big screen. The rough Bunker Hill streets. The sleazy entrapment racket perpetrated by Hammer and Velda. Lily’s grimy bathrobe. Velda’s sweaty hair and shiny skin. Jack Elam’s everything. It’s not a fantasy, it’s a nightmare and not just because of the howling atomic Whatsit that may or may not bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Plus, like everything on the bill this year, it’s an LA flick, packed with wonderful vintage locations.

So yeah, if you haven’t already, check this one out. And, in the interest of fair and balanced reporting, you should read the book too.

Next up, CITY OF FEAR.

A convict (Vince Edwards) escapes from San Quentin with a stolen steel canister. He thinks it’s valuable heroin, but it’s really a deadly radioactive isotope. Cops and scientists track him across the city as he gets sicker and more paranoid, contaminating everyone and everything he touches along the way.

This is a fun little flick, lean and mean and shot for pennies all over Los Angeles. Also, important heads up for vintage shoe fetishists, a lot of the action takes place in a shoe store and there is an amazing amount of on-screen shoe fondling. Unfortunately (for me anyway) mostly men’s styles.

After all the poetry and shit, this is a refreshingly low-brow, no-frills thriller about a desperate man in a no-win situation who keeps on digging himself deeper. In short, my kinda flick. Mistress Christa says check it out.

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One Response to Noir City: KISS ME DEADLY and CITY OF FEAR

  1. Don Malcolm says:

    From a programming standpoint, it becomes a question of surface vs. depth, and FNF stays successful by opting for the former. By now, however, the sustained success should have allowed programming variations that don’t so slavishly rely on a so-called A-B formula.

    In this instance—and possibly ten years ago it would have happened this way—you could feature Vince Edwards by pairing CITY OF FEAR with the very different (but also set in LA) hit man noir MURDER BY CONTRACT. The contrasts and similarities in those two films, both directed by Irving Lerner at the tail end of the original noir cycle. It’s a different approach to the understructure of noir, one that some might consider too “purist,” but it is a valuable variant style of programming and it has gone by the wayside in the past 3-4 years.

    The festival was at its best when it didn’t play it so safe and showed two lost films (TURNING POINT/SCARLET HOUR) on the same night. They are successful enough that they can afford to do more of that a la the original Roxie Theatre programmer in SF who began all this in the early 1990’s…though it can be argued that he (Elliot Lavine) often took it too far in the other direction into obscurity for its own sake. (Lavine screened KMD and MURDER BY CONTRACT together about fifteen years ago—the two films complemented each other in their varying portrayal of aberrant males and their analogous inability to see the forest for the trees.)

    But glad to see that KMD is getting there for you. It’s noir as brutalist pastiche, but it actually does carve out a glimmer of an inner life in Hammer by the end—of course, when it is way too late. (And if you want to order casting aspersions, let me suggest that it would have a coup for Bob Aldrich—who was conversant with the “advanced” film writing of the day—to have Orson Welles play Dr. Soberin. Seems to me that Albert Dekker was channeling Welles anyway, so why not opt for the real thing? What a hoot down the haunted halls of film history THAT would have been!).

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