If you fancy a sci-fi chaser with your classic noir, be sure to check out 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” recently rereleased by Criterion.
Director/producer Robert Aldrich’s evocation of popular pulp writer Mickey Spillane’s apocalyptic novel (with a script from A.I. Bezzerides) has dazzled critics and influenced directors from the French New Wave to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. (Aldrich also directed the campy noirs “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” from 1962 and “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” 1964)
The story of ultra-macho Los Angeles gumshoe Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) smiting bad guys and spurning women as he wrestles with a whodunit is a tad misogynistic, but I’ll let that pass because this is a portrayal of a rough and violent, sometimes sadistic, world overall.
Besides, there is much to enjoy – the intense cinematography, for starters, from Ernest Laszlo, also the superb eye of 1950’s “D.O.A.” The film looks great and there are some unforgettable shots, from the arresting opening to the amazing finale. Laszlo creates a harsh, almost merciless, world. “Kiss Me Deadly” also features a fast-paced, hairpin-turn plot, a sexy score, sharp LA location shooting and excellent acting from the entire cast.
Actress Cloris Leachman (who later played the wacky neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show) makes her debut in the film as Christina Bailey, a hitchhiker who snags a late-night ride with Hammer. Christina has just escaped from an insane asylum, in the nude except for a trench coat. She says she was dumped at the asylum and really doesn’t belong there. Oh, that old line.
She gives Hammer vague answers to his questions and tells him to remember her. She’d be a bit hard to forget, actually. The two are run off the road, taken to a house where Christina is tortured and Hammer is punched out, then put back in Hammer’s car and pushed over a cliff. More
“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow,” says a doctor to his shocked patient, “you’ve been murdered.”
This is the premise for 1950’s “D.O.A.,” directed by Rudolph Maté, a classic noir about a standup, solid guy from Banning, Calif., named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) who, while on a trip to San Francisco, learns he has been poisoned with a time-released fatal toxin. He has just a few days to find his murderer. And here he thought it was just a hangover.
It’s particularly bad luck because Bigelow hasn’t served time, he doesn’t play the horses, he’s not eyeing easy money. He is a self-employed accountant in a small town near Palm Springs minding his own business. True, he does like hard liquor, is a bit of a skirt chaser and he’s on the fence about committing to doting girlfriend Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but those are minor flaws in the noir scheme of things.
Even though Bigelow is dying, his genetic tough-guy instinct kicks as he abandons his ledger book and adding machine to follow clues, talk tough, tote a gun and chase his prey. Clearly, he missed his calling as a macho gumshoe who could give Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade a run for their money.
Checking in via phone calls to Paula, who also happens to be his secretary, he learns that a Mr. Phillips, an importer-exporter in Los Angeles, has been urgently trying to contact him. Bigelow returns to LA but, before he can probe for info, Phillips takes a flying leap from a tall building. So, Bigelow taps Phillips’ inner circle: his brother Stanley (Henry Hart), his wife (Lynn Baggett), his secretary Miss Foster (Beverly Garland, credited as Beverly Campbell), and co-worker Halliday (William Ching).
Turns out that Bigelow’s connection to these Angelinos is that six months prior, he notarized a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium. Phillips bought the stuff from a mysterious man named George Reynolds.
While working to track Reynolds down, Bigelow encounters a sultry and sullen model Marla Rakubian (Laurette Luez), a man known only as Majak (famed stage actor Luther Adler) – clad all in white and with an indeterminate foreign accent, which instantly makes him suspect in Tinseltown terms – and a trio of heavies led by raging psychopath Chester (Neville Brand, in his first movie). Though Brand might seem like a miscreant plucked from a dingy alley, he was in fact a WW2 vet, who had received numerous awards, including the Purple Heart.
As he narrows down the suspects, Bigelow also realizes that Paula is The One and the scene where he professes his love is touching. He eventually busts the bad guy in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way, but, as we knew from the start, Bigelow is a goner. No plot spoilers here.
Director Maté, who was the cameraman on foreign classics “Vampyr” and “The Passsion of Joan of Arc” as well as “Foreign Correspondent” and “Gilda,” tells a riveting story. Aided by Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography, Maté creates a mood that is both hard-boiled and slightly surreal. The storyline becomes so lusciously serpentine, with perilous curves and hairpin turns, it rivals Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” from 1946 for the most convoluted plot in all of film noir.
I especially like the scenes in which Bigelow leaves the comfort of dancing the rhumba and downing a few drinks in the upscale St. Francis Hotel to visit the noisy, smoky Fisherman club, where he watches a bebop jazz band play its all and chats with “jive-crazy, high-society” Jeannie (Virginia Lee), an elegant blonde who turns out to be a mere red herring.
O’Brien, with his good looks and strapping self-confidence, plays the determined Bigelow as every man’s take-charge fantasy. Britton as Paula is the kind of girl next door that bad-ass femmes fatales played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Bennett would eat for breakfast. Her innocence is nicely countered by a rich array of dastardly, devious characters.
Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse wrote the original screenplay, perhaps inspired by a 1931 German film “Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht”/ “Looking For His Murderer” directed by master noir creator Robert Siodmak with writing help from the great Billy Wilder. (In “D.O.A.” Rouse’s name, along with Laszlo and assistant director Marty Moss, appears on the guest register of the Allison Hotel in Los Angeles.)
The movie was remade in 1969 as “Color Me Dead” and in 1988 with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Charlotte Rampling. The original is the best of the lot. Watch it and you’ll see why.