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
My upcoming trip to Paris (I leave tomorrow) triggered the memory of that great scene in “Pulp Fiction” where two hit men chat about a quarter-pounder with cheese (Royale with cheese) in Paris so I decided to run this review in honor of my trip. For the next two weeks, my posts will slow down a bit as I spend time with a lovely friend and soak in the atmosphere of this ravishingly beautiful city.
Several years ago, at the Cannes Film Fest, I saw Quentin Tarantino rushing down the Croisette but I froze and didn’t approach him to say how much I liked his work. (He was helming the jury that year.) As I stood there, regretting that I’d missed the chance, two English guys walked up and asked me if I was lost. I filled them in; they said I was quite right to have refrained.
But then two Italian men joined us and told me I was crazy not to have said hello. “Maybe he’ll show up at the Ritz,” one of them said, gesturing toward the hotel. “Why don’t we have a glass of champagne there and see if perhaps he arrives?”
As tempting as that sounded, I’d already agreed to meet people at the cheap and cheerful Le Petite Carlton, where the casual, sometimes-raucous crowd spreads out into the street, people bum Marlboros and Gitanes, beer is served in tacky plastic cups and a little kitchen churns out thin-crust pizza well into the early morning hours. Another missed opportunity! 😉
So if by some odd chance, on this trip, I happen to see Tarantino on the Champs Elysee or some charming Italian men invite me to cocktails at the Ritz, I’ll know what to do!
“Pulp Fiction” is a neo noir of audacious originality, comic brilliance and exquisite craftsmanship. It was one of the most important films of the 1990s. Like his previous film, 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” it’s a crime movie that deals with bad guys doing bad stuff – in “Dogs” it’s a robbery gone wrong. In “Pulp Fiction” we’re immersed in three separate but interwoven stories about two chatty hit men, a corrupt boxer who defies a mob boss, and a grunge version of Bonnie and Clyde.
Tarantino tells us the stories out of order, bookended by the scruffy lover bandits (Tim Roth as Pumpkin and Amanda Plummer as Honey Bunny) who hold up an LA coffee shop. Bruce Willis plays Butch the boxer who pulls a double-cross. John Travolta made a stunning comeback as sexy smart-ass Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson dazzles as Jules Winnfield, an armchair philosopher packing heat.
As Vincent and Jules discuss fast food, foot massages and Fate, Vincent is assigned an extra job from brawny bossman Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames): to take Mrs. Wallace (Uma Thurman) aka Mia out on the town. A headturner with jet-black hair, Louise Brooks bangs, wide blue eyes and long legs, Mia gets what Mia wants. Topping the list are milkshakes, drugs and dancing. Make that dancing with Travolta, mmm.
There is much to love about this film, particularly the highly original characters and crackling dialogue, which includes one-liners, retro slang, debates over points of logic and lengthy tangents of trivia. The dialogue seems to emerge organically from the characters and random chitchat punctuates major dramatic moments.
Actors talk with their back to the camera and sometimes put the imminent action on hold so they can wind up their conversation. Even though Pumpkin and Honey Bunny probably get the least amount of screen time, through their dialogue, we see several layers of their partnership, both tough and tender. More
One of the great loves of my life is Quentin Tarantino’s imagination and the bizarre people dwelling there. In “Pulp Fiction,” we meet a pair of hit men with a gift for gab, a boxer who refuses to throw a fight, and two adorable armed robbers named Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis star. Tarantino and partner Roger Avary won the Oscar for best original screenplay.
After four days of back-to-back noirs at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, it is hard to return to reality. I keep expecting to see men in fedoras and mink-coated molls. Or to hear terse whispers from crooks working a heist or an imperious “Ah, shut up” a la Joan Crawford. Well, it’s a rainy day and it’s still early so you never know what might happen.
The annual noir gathering, now in its 11th year, is one of my favorite fests and such a great chance to mingle with other noiristas, such as producer and programmer Alan K. Rode and the rest of the Dark City Players: Marvin Paige, Foster Hirsch, Kim Morgan and Eddie Muller. Ric and Rozene Supple are the fest’s executive producers and the Camelot Theatre does a great job hosting the event. The festival is named after its founder Arthur Lyons Jr., an author and longtime resident of Palm Springs.
From the first notes of Henry Mancini’s silky score for “Experiment in Terror,” which opened the fest, to the Palm Springs locations of 60 years ago, shown in the final movie, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” there was much to relish. In “Experiment in Terror” from 1962, Ross Martin hatches a plot to anonymously extort money from Lee Remick; his efforts are thwarted by FBI agent Glenn Ford.
It’s hard to shake the mood of menace that director Blake Edwards creates in this chilling tale. Stefanie Powers, who played Remick’s younger sister, spoke after the screening. “Nobody shot that way,” she said of Edwards’ daring camera, adding that the film may be the first time that someone died on screen, eyes open.
Friday’s fare included “The Underworld Story” (1950, Cy Endfield); “Six Bridges to Cross” (1955, Joseph Pevney); “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956, Gerd Oswald) and “Cape Fear” (1962, J. Lee Thompson).
I can never get enough of Dan Duryea, star of “Underworld,” and seeing Tony Curtis in “Six Bridges” was a rare treat. “You can’t help liking him even if he is a criminal,” said co-star Julie Adams in the post-screening Q&A, noting the natural charm Curtis brought to the part of inveterate schemer Jerry Florea. Sal Mineo made his screen debut in this movie, as the young Jerry, leader of a Boston street gang.
Then it was time for a dash of luscious color: The broad gaze of CinemaScope catches the hard-core badness of college student and casual killer Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) in “A Kiss Before Dying.” Though he was voted most likely to succeed in high school, at 25, he’s still stuck in college, despite the support of his doting mom (Mary Astor). He figures it would be a whole lot easier to ditch the books and marry into a rich family, even if it requires a murder or two.
Co-starring as his love interests are Joanne Woodward and Virginia Leith, both of whom are excellent. Director Gerd Oswald, a mainstay of the classic TV show “The Outer Limits” and the son of Vienna-born director Richard Oswald, elicits memorable performances, particularly from the young and sexy Wagner.
The evening ended with a classic thriller: “Cape Fear.” The top-notch cast includes Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam and Jack Kruschen. Adding to the mood is music by the maestro of the suspense film Bernard Herrmann.
Mitchum’s portrayal of Max Cady, a brutal sadist seeking revenge, is one of his best and most famous roles. On hand to reminisce after the movie was Chase, also an accomplished dancer who partnered with Fred Astaire on his TV specials. Chase said of Mitchum in this movie: “He was fantastically attractive as a horrible person.”
When she rehearsed her scene with Mitchum (she played a victim of his brutality), he made it very clear that he had nothing on under his pants. “It struck me as funny,” she said. (The audience had the same reaction.) “He was very kind and protective after that; he treated me like a kid sister.”
Also, Chase said, despite giving the impression that he winged it when it came to acting, Mitchum was “totally prepared, he knew exactly what he was going to do.” As for how she broke into movies, she told the audience she got the requisite encouragement to follow her dream from “a fella named Stanley Kubrick” whom she was going out with at the time.
On Saturday morning, critic Kim Morgan introduced “99 River Street” (1953, Phil Karlson) starring John Payne and Evelyn Keyes. Morgan pointed out that the film is a great example both of cinematographer Franz Planer’s work (he was on “Criss Cross,” 1949; “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” 1948; “Bad for Each Other,” 1953, and many others) and of the boxing noir sub-genre, along with “Body and Soul,” 1947, and “The Set-Up,” 1949. All three films, Morgan pointed out, likely would have been on Martin Scorsese’s radar as he prepared to make 1980’s “Raging Bull.”
Next up was “Plunder Road” from 1957, directed by the underrated Hubert Cornfield (“The Night of the Following Day,” 1969) and lensed by Ernest Haller. A reported favorite of Quentin Tarantino, this lean little caper flick is about a group of men stealing gold from a train, hauling it off in commercial trucks and melting it down in a foundry before getting it out of the country. It’s wildly far-fetched, true, but still a good time.
And what noir fest would be complete without an appearance of Elisha Cook, Jr.? Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris and Jeanne Cooper round out the cast; in her discussion with Foster Hirsch, Cooper recalled that Cornfield made the actors really learn the work involved at foundry. He wanted authenticity but also told them wryly: “Now you can back yourselves up and know something more than acting.” Cornfield’s advice on knowing another trade was sadly prophetic – he eventually turned to house painting to support himself.
Completing the afternoon was 1954’s “Loophole,” directed by Harold Schuster, much of which was shot on location in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Malibu. It’s a strong example of a noir staple: the wrongly accused and possibly doomed dude. Barry Sullivan is a standup bank teller; Dorothy Malone plays his loyal and devoted wife; Charles McGraw shines as the obnoxious insurance investigator determined to make Sullivan pay for his “crime.”
Another stalwart of noir is amnesia and in “Mirage,” from 1965, we see the topic deftly handled by master noir director Edward Dmytryk (“Murder, My Sweet, 1944; “Crossfire,” 1947). Gregory Peck stars as the afflicted; Walter Matthau plays a newbie gumshoe helping him out; Diane Baker is a mysterious woman from his past. The film also boasts a great collection of villains: Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, Leif Erickson, Walter Abel and George Kennedy.
Dmytryk effortlessly balances suspense with humor and there are many funny moments, such as when Peck tells Matthau, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you knew what you were doing?” The film is written by Peter Stone, who also wrote “Charade” (1963) and co-wrote “Arabesque” (1966) both by director Stanley Donen, and you can definitely feel the similarities between the three movies.
Eddie Muller and Diane Baker chatted extensively after the movie, with Baker recalling Peck as being full of life with a “great sense of humor and great energy.”
Arguably, the best movies were saved for last. Sunday’s lineup was “Crashout” (1955, Lewis R. Foster), “Saboteur” (1942, Alfred Hitchcock) and “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950, Vincent Sherman). Certainly, my favorite guest appearance was actor/producer Norman Lloyd, who was interviewed by Alan K. Rode. Lloyd, 96, regaled the crowd with many stories about Orson Welles, John Houseman, Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock and others.
On learning about filmmaking Lloyd said: “When I came to Hollywood, I didn’t know the front end of the camera from the back. I was very nosy and Mr. Hitchcock was delighted to answer my questions. It happened by my talking a lot.”
On Hitchcock dealing with actors? “Hitchcock worked with a major star who had been trained in the Stanislavski method. Hitchcock directed him to sit and the star asked, ‘Why do I sit?’ Hitchcock replied, ‘To put your ass in the seat of the chair.”
And in case any viewers were flagging after four days of viewing, there was sustenance to be found in, as Rode put it, the “take-no-prisoners femme fatale” – none other than Joan Crawford in “The Damned Don’t Cry.” The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Virginia Hill, mistress of gangster Bugsy Siegel, and it’s a joy to watch Crawford savagely claw her way to the top of a national crime syndicate, breaking heart after heart and stubbing out cig after cig as she climbs.
I love this line from Crawford’s character Ethel Whitehead: “Don’t talk to me about self-respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.”
Watching Crawford was a terrific way to wrap up the fest and I was a bit sad to say goodbye. I think Eddie Muller summed it up best said when he introduced “Mirage” on Saturday night, telling the packed theater, “The best part of every noir is when the woman gets the gun in her hand.”