All entries for Saturday 25 August 2007
August 25, 2007
My only experience of Samuel Fuller prior to this was a viewing of The Big Red One which I managed to catch upon it’s re-release a few years ago. It was probably my lack of experience more than anything, but I remember being distinctly underwhelmed. Oh, and there was also his memorable cameo in Godard’s Pierrot le fou which I found quite groovy (“Emotion!”) but yes, point is that I’m underversed in my Fuller. Pickup on South Street has always been on my radar for some unknown reason, so when I noticed the Criterion edition going on the cheap I instantly snapped it up with the intent of rectifying my Fuller-heresy.
Anyway, I’m really really impressed. I find the film’s concerns surprisingly fresh, particularly with regards to its focus on the New York underclasses. The precision with which Fuller details his principal characters’ humble lifestyles is complemented by a no-holds-barred approach, frequently allowing for a sort of brash realism to rear its head underneath the layers of style: as if Joey’s attack on Candy wasn’t horrifying enough in its own right, the fact that it feels so plausible in the precarious world that they both inhabit imbues the scene with a sense of tangibility that results in an even more sobering effect upon the viewer. Fuller has clear empathy for those on society’s fringes which motivates his consistent refusal to sentimentalise – if we, as the audience, are to understand these characters at all then it should be on their own difficult terms.
Much of the film’s success in this respect lies in the art of performance. Richard Widmark, an actor with whom I’ve been unacquainted until now, turns his Skip McCoy into a terrific anti-hero. He readily displays the pugnacious belligerence that the role requires, yet there’s also an air of childish insolence about him – an endearing cockiness that demands our affection even though he rarely warrants it. Unsurprisingly however, it’s the divine Thelma Ritter who creates the most memorable impression here. Her character, Moe, is pivotal to the film: she provides the crucial link between both the police and the so-called crooks, as well as Skip and Candy. More than that though, because of the actress’s quiet skill she serves as the film’s pre-eminent tool of audience identification. Ritter flaunts her irresistible knack for wisecracking early on in the film, and that’s especially advantageous here where her character’s an über-streetwise informer. Her bluntness is an extension of the overall tapestry of the film, e.g. the matter-of-fact way in which she states: “I have to go on making a living so I can die.” It’s Moe’s world-weariness however, and the dignity that persists in spite of it, which Ritter excels in communicating. Her final scene is utterly heartbreaking because of her success in conveying such traits.
As much as I adore Thelma here, it’s the film’s engagement with its wider contexts that thrill me above all else. Initially, despite loving what was on-screen, I had issues with the discussion of Communists within the film which made me question whether or not the entire thing was simple McCarthyite propaganda (I know, I know!) However, my basic love of the material convinced me to look deeper and after listening to Fuller’s charming interview on the Criterion DVD, I was reassured: the microfilm at the plot’s core could easily be substituted for another controversial item and little of the film’s meaning would have changed. Or would it? After giving this some further thought I’ve decided that I actually prefer to read the film as a subversive indictment of the dominant institutions’ failure to protect their citizens, and I see the whole “Red Scare” as playing into this?
The characters’ prevailing attitude towards the threat is appropriately summed up by Moe: “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing, I just don’t like ‘em!” These words speak volumes, for they underline how clueless these people are about the actual nature of the threat, not to mention how entrenched the fear is – even at the very lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Admittedly, the Communist characters in the film are very much designed as the villains which is perhaps enough to justify Moe’s comments in itself. However, consider also the way in which the all-American police force is portrayed – Fuller hardly depicts them in the most positive of lights: they resort to bribery to gain information, suspiciously lurk in street corners as if they were agents themselves, and angrily wield the threat of treason at Skip when he refuses to conform. It’s this latter point which specifically piques my interest thanks to Skip’s response to the accusation: “Are you waving the flag at me?” His dismissal of his patriotic ‘duty’ reveals the furthest extreme of America’s disconnection from its populace: when allegiance to one’s country is a defunct concept thanks to more pressing issues (in this film’s case, that of plain survival.) Taking this into account, Moe’s blind commitment to society becomes ironic as it is this very (capitalist) society that has worn her down and reduced her to selling ties for a dollar. There’s an element of wryness in the plot as a whole too, if we’re willing to view America as defended and saved by it’s petty criminals. The depth to which the film’s socio-political concerns seep is remarkable, and allows for a multitude of complex readings.
So, um, watch it now! And for those who’ve seen it: enlighten me with comments plz!
I’d be surprised if noirs get more badass than this? Robert Aldrich’s conception of 1950s Los Angeles is savage in its debauchery and unsparing in its nihilism. His film’s visual coarseness infiltrates almost all of the characterisations and every strand of his labyrinthine plot, resulting in an utterly bleak experience for the viewer. That bleakness is both the film’s greatest strength as well as it’s most insurmountable flaw imo: Kiss Me Deadly is probably the best exemplification of “noir” that there ever was, audacious in its ultra-stylistic exploration of the ideal’s extremities – and yet simultaneously it’s that pitch-perfect embodiment of the term that makes it such a grotesque and alienating experience.
Of course, that fact doesn’t prevent the film from being brilliant by any means. Aldrich is on delectably vicious form, grabbing the audience’s attention from the opening shot where Cloris Leachman frantically attempts to hitch a ride, causing a minor crash that’s emblematic of the film’s frenetic thirst for violence. It’s impossible to dispel that initial journey for it’s gruesome conclusion reverberates upon Aldrich’s much more troubling voyage through a post-war LA that’s dominated by its corruption: doctors and policemen are revealed to be as amoral as gangsters, whilst our protagonist isn’t even an anti-hero – he’s simply a plain cunt, through and through. Perhaps the only redeemable character is Christina, apparently LA’s most literate and thoughtful resident, but she doesn’t even survive beyond the first few scenes. There’s no place for her in Aldrich’s vision, not in a world that’s run by the materialistic tough-guys that she correctly typifies Mike Hammer as during the opening minutes.
Stylistically, there’s so much here that it blows my mind. It will surely take another viewing to properly digest the multiple facets of Aldrich’s visual assault upon the viewer, so unfortunately I can’t go into too much detail (maybe a more astute fan of the film would like to comment?) but there are a couple of things that I noted: the use of angles both low and high, not to mention the regular tilting of the frame; that staircase shot (woah!); an interesting use of light that emphasises the characters’ paleness against the night skies (opening shot); the initial credits that move top-to-bottom but demand to be read from bottom-to-top etc. etc. The quantity and quality of Aldrich’s visual manipulations create a disorienting experience for the viewer, perhaps reflecting the confusion of post-war urbania? Perhaps.
Either way, Aldrich saves his best stylistic flourish for last: a cataclysmic conclusion that is probably the only way to solve the mysteries that the poses. For almost the film’s entirety, Mike Hammer and his tormentors have been searcing for the so-called “great whatzit”, an unknown object that’s finally revealed to be some sort of radioactive substance. All are in the chase for personal gain – note how Mike’s investigation into Christina’s murder has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the fact that “she’s connected to something big!” Without getting too out of my depth, it’s clear that there are parallels to the myth of Pandora’s box, and the blind curiosity of Hammer and his tormentors unleashes a modern-day equivalent to the original evils: the realisation of all the Cold War paranoia in a nuclear apocalypse that will (presumably) destroy everyone and every thing that we’ve encountered. The finale is a startling solution for all the violence and materialism that Kiss Me Deadly criticises – it’s almost as if the film cannot handle any further demoralisation and implodes in itself as a result thereby causing a series of powerless flashes and explosion that memorably engulf Lily (our “Pandora”) before concluding with a shot of Mike and Velma hugging in the ocean, powerless against the ferocious consequences of their actions. An electrifyingly brutal outcome then, for a cold-hearted but nonetheless exemplary film.
I’m surprised it took me this long to watch To Be or Not to Be, to be honest. I’ve always been fascinated by Lombard, and my love of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise meant that further investigation into his oeuvre was a necessity. Anyway, I watched it, I loved it, quelle surprise!
Of course, To Be or Not to Be is/was understandably controversial for lampooning the Nazis. But, this was not an issue for me? It’s the rigid structure and formality of the Nazis that Lubitsch ridicules (e.g. “Heil Hitler!”, “Heil Hitler!”, “Heil Hitler!” etc.), and I don’t believe that he loses sight of the atrocities that they committed. If I recall correctly, the first time we see Col. Ehrhardt he’s signing death warrants? Moreover, the fact that these are Nazis is something that inherently creates tension with the benefit of hindsight anyway, and this affects many of the film’s scenes (“to be or not to be” can be read on an existential level too, no?) Plus, the more risqué jokes act to underline the extent of their cruelty: “We do the concentrating, and they do the camping.” Lubitsch dares to tread a fine line here, which we should applaud him for, but not as much as we should for his success in getting away with it.
That success is down to the film itself being a pure delight from beginning to end. Lubitsch’s trademark charm gradually gives way to greater and more hilarious farce with every passing minute, and I really love the way in which the actors manage to save the Resistance through what is ultimately the use of art – it’s a theme that I find irresistible, and one that I think might even be slightly self-referential? Perhaps Lubitsch hoped this comedy was a means by which he could raise awareness. Regardless, art’s ability to save the day is something that makes for joyous viewing imo – and the same goes for the script’s sly little comments on the vanity of actors (particularly through the character of Joseph Tura.)
As for the actors themselves – what a delicious way to pop my Lombard-cherry, so to speak. She was utterly charming here, and I completely see the fuss and fully intend to check out more of her work. Still, as radiant as she was it’s Jack Benny who impressed me the most – uproarious in all his various guises (Joseph Tura, Hamlet, Col. Ehrhardt, Prof. Siletsky etc.) And the supporting cast were terrific too, most notably Sig Ruman as the actual Col. Ehrhardt. An appropriately brilliant ensemble, considering the theatrical troupe at the film’s core.
If it wasn’t for the clunky montages during the first half of the film, I’d call this flawless. As it stands, it suits me just fine.