Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 07/23/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picks“‘They’ tried to get her last night.”

“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?”

The above film dialogue may sound as though it comes from a couple of world-weary, existential characters in some contemporary, character-driven talk-fest of a thriller or drama. It isn’t.

In fact, the source is Robert Aldrich’s fantastic 1955 apocalyptic-film-noir KISS ME DEADLY and the characters voicing it are mega-macho detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) and his slinky secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper), respectively.

Even today Kiss Me Deadly crackles with youthful energy, surviving as a remarkably modern, self-aware exercise in deconstructing the paranoia and deadening conformity which characterized much of the Eisenhower era. Adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane by A.I. Bezzerides and featuring Hammer—Spillane’s famously ham-fisted, misogynistic detective-hero—Kiss Me Deadly may be the greatest act of sabotage in the history of movies: a delightfully obtuse, impossible-to-pigeonhole exercise in subverting the expectations of an audience… a film which almost seems to undercut the very genre—detective movie/film noir—from which it springs!

Here is a film, for example, with bursts of sadistic violence interspersed between long, ponderous gaps of shambling detective work in around Los Angeles; cryptic, veiled dialogue, like that listed above as well as a lot of discussion about a sonnet by Christina Rossetti; and a brain-melting plot device and conclusion which set new standards for cinematic nihilism in the age of radioactive anxiety.

Unlike a lot of film noir there is no flashback structure here but, instead, the story involves Hammer’s quest to disentangle a dim memory, in this case that of a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman in her feature film debut!) with a dark secret who he picks up hitchhiking by the side of the road in the opening scene. Hammer’s quest to track down the meaning of her words terminates in a sort of box, or “great whatsit”—a kind of Maltese Falcon gone nuclear—which many dangerous people are anxious to get a hold of but only the terse, strong-headed hero seems capable of retrieving in this world full of goons and nymphomaniac women.

The film’s famous denouement somehow toes the line between horror and poignancy, leaving the viewer with a mightily unique image seared upon the brain. Other memorable performances in the movie are provided by the likes of Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Wesley Addy, Gaby Rodgers, and Juano Hernandez (the African-American star of INTRUDER IN THE DUST, shown last night as part of the current Film Series in the Best Video Performance Space).

Last week I wrote about how we here at Best Video recently recovered the mother of all overdue movies and how my thinking on the role of credit in our economy then led me to Alex Cox’s quintessential 1984 sci-fi comedy REPO MAN. If you are interested in the spiritual source of that great film (as well as the wellspring and guiding force of many another avant-garde exercise in genre pastiche!)—a glowing thingamajig/MacGuffin-plot device, credits that anarchically scroll backwards, and, perhaps more so than these, a kind of overarching cynical, drained-of-all-sentiment viewpoint of the City of Angels during a time of social conformity—then look no further than this effervescent, sun-dappled, post-Atomic Age noir: also, incidentally, recently re-released by the Criterion Collection!

And if you are interested in other works from this remarkably diverse and talented film-maker—from the old-school freak-outs WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) to macho-misfit-extravaganzas like THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974) to lesser known treats like EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) starring Lee Marvin and Hamden’s own Ernest Borgnine—they may be found in our Robert Aldrich section, located in Best Directors!