John Charet’s Take On: The Birds (1963)

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Warning: The review contains potential plot spoilers. If you have not seen this film than I advise you to not read any further.

Three years after he reinvented cinematic horror with Psycho in 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock (a.k.a. The Master of Suspense) would return to that genre in 1963 to do it again; this time with something more ambitious and on a much larger scale as well. The finished result was The Birds and with it, Hitchcock succeeded in not only equaling and surpassing his aforementioned previous effort, but at the same time, everything he did before and after this. If I were to compose two lists of my top 100 or more favorite films of all-time; with one dedicated to the horror genre and the other towards cinema as a whole, I would place The Birds at the number 1 spot on the former and somewhere in between numbers 1 and 10 on the latter.

While visiting an urban pet store one day to pick up a mynah bird for a relative, San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) gets mistaken by a customer (Rod Taylor) for a saleswoman and requests a pair of lovebirds for his little sister’s 11th birthday party. As with the mynah bird, it turns out that the shop is out of lovebirds, so Melanie suggests a canary, which flies out of her hand after taking it out of it’s cage. After catching the canary with his hat, the still unnamed customer places the bird back in it’s cage and says: “back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.” A stunned Daniels asks him how he knew her name and it is revealed that he saw her in court. According to him, she was responsible for a practical joke that resulted in a broken glass window and personally feels that she should have been sent to jail for it. He purposely knew from the very beginning that Daniels was no saleswoman and reveals that it was his way of reminding her of “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag” as he puts it. Undetered by not getting his lovebirds, he leaves with two closing remarks to Daniels: “I’ll find something else” and “see ya in court.” An annoyed Daniels decides to write down the number of the license plate on that customer’s car and calls the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out the name of the individual who owns it. In an attempt to get even with him, Daniels asks the pet shop owner to order a pair of lovebirds for her and have them delivered as soon as possible, which in this case would be the next morning.

The next day, Melanie Daniels arrives at the apartment building to place a birdcage (with the two lovebirds inside) on a doorstep with a note addressing that customer’s real name as “Mr. Mitchell Brenner.” Before leaving, a neighbor of his reminds her that he is visiting Bodega Bay, which is up the coast from San Francisco. Eager to get even with Mitch, Melanie drives up there and visits a local store to see If it’s owner knows where Mitch is residing for the weekend. Coincidentally, he knows the location of the place, which is across the dock seen close by. He knows that it belongs to his mother, but when asked about Mitch’s younger sister, he cannot seem to remember her first name. Nevertheless, he is able to direct her to a local schoolteacher by the name of Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who not only teaches Mitch’s younger sister, but also reveals herself to be Mitch’s ex-lover much later on. Upon learning that Cathy is the name of Mitch’s younger sibling, Melanie rents a motorboat to get to Mitch’s house to deliver her surprise. After placing the caged lovebirds on a comfy chair, Melanie tears up her original note for Mitch and replaces it with one carrying the words “To: Cathy” on it. Unofficially, Melanie hopes to shock Mitch with her knowledge of a family member’s identity much in the same way he did with hers the day before. Melanie rushes out of the house and back to her motorboat to see how Mitch will react when he inevitably goes back inside. Seemingly amused and curious, Mitch drives to the other side of the dock and gets out of his car to see what she will either say to him or do next. Suddenly, a seagull flies down and quickly attacks Melanie on the forehead prompting Mitch to help her out of the boat and treat her wound.

At the local diner, while treating her injury, Mitch Brenner reveals to Melanie Daniels that he is a criminal defense attorney, who practices law in San Francisco, but comes to Bodega Bay on the weekends to relax. After asking her why she is in the area, Melanie tells a lie and a half. Considering that Mitch is unaware of it being a prank yet humored and touched by the deed at the same time, Melanie tells him that she wanted to deliver the lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday. Deep down though, Melanie saw Mitch as a potential boyfriend ever since that first coincidental meeting at the pet store the day before. Even though Melanie denies it publicly, Mitch personally feels that she is in Bodega Bay to see him. Is it possible that Mitch could care less about her earlier prank and only got even with her that previous day so she could come to Bodega Bay to see him?  The other lie Melanie tells Mitch is that she is visiting to see local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (a.k.a. his ex-lover) by claiming that she and her were friends during their college years.  Later that night, Melanie reluctantly accepts Mitch’s invitation to dinner to meet his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who adores both Melanie and the lovebirds she bought her and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who initially fears her presence. As Ms. Daniels is about to leave to spend the night with Annie, a curious Mitch asks her to talk a bit more about herself in regards to a story brought up by Lydia earlier regarding Melanie frolicking naked in a waterfall while vacationing in Rome, Italy. Melanie claims that she was dumped in there with her clothes on and that the article his mother was referring to was written by a columnist hired by a rival of her father’s newspaper company to slander her family. Still unsatisfied, Mitch wants to know why she lied to him about knowing Annie resulting in an already annoyed Melanie to quickly drive away from him for a short period of time.

Later on at Annie Hayworth’s house, a curious Melanie Daniels asks Annie about her past relationship with Mitch Brenner, whom she was madly in love with at one time. According to Annie, she still desires a romantic relationship with him, but his overprotective mother Lydia just kept getting in the way and it eventually proved to be too much for her to take. Suddenly, Mitch phone calls Melanie to sincerely apologize for his earlier behavior and to make it up to her, he decides to officially invite her to celebrate his little sister Cathy’s 11th birthday party for the following day. Thinking back and forth for a while, Melanie decides to go. Shortly before both of them go to bed, a loud noise is heard from the outside. After opening the door to see what it is, Annie and Melanie discover a dead seagull on the front step. This is just the third strange occurrence that has plagued Bodega Bay since Melanie arrived. The first incident came earlier in the form of a seagull briefly attacking Melanie on the forehead and the second one involved the town’s chicken feed and why the chickens were not eating it. The next day at Cathy’s birthday party, numerous birds begin to violently attack the party guests and shortly after that, Mitch fends off a bird attack within his own home. From here on out, these incidents prove to be just two of the numerous attacks the birds will launch on the town and it’s inhabitants.

On the surface, The Birds plays out as a standard horror film about humans being attacked by the title villains. Nevertheless, in the hands of it’s iconic director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, it inevitably goes much deeper than that. Along with Vertigo and Psycho, this one requires viewers to pay close attention to every single detail that unfolds on screen from beginning to end. Not unlike what he had achieved with those two classics, Hitchcock proves once again here that the power of cinematic storytelling lies not so much in the payoff as it does in the buildup. While this can easily be said about any of the master filmmaker’s best work, it is in The Birds where Hitchcock finds himself reaching his fullest expression of that particular trait.

As much as I adore Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, The Birds still ranks for me as my favorite of director Alfred Hitchcock’s three film adaptations of a Daphne du Maurier property. Instead of merely adapting du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name, Hitchcock simply reimagines it by using a 1961 Santa Cruz Sentinel article as “research material for his latest thriller”. – (read here). The piece itself was about a large number of seabirds unexplainably attacking the city of Capitola, California on August 18th of that year. Eventually, it turned out that the birds may have been “under the influence of domoic acid” (read here) at the time of the attacks. To further expand upon this idea, Hitchcock hired famed crime/mystery fiction writer Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain) to write a screenplay that would effortlessly move from one tone into another. All through the first half-hour, viewers are intentionally tricked into thinking that the mood is going to play out like a sophisticated romantic comedy based on the playful banter between Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner. Thirty minutes into the film, that feeling more or less dissipates as it turns into something resembling a psychological drama that expands upon and rivals Psycho in it’s depiction of the darker side of a mother and son relationship. Finally, seven minutes before the second hour, it ultimately becomes an apocalyptic horror movie and a truly terrifying one at that. Hitchcock seemed to believe so himself based on the film’s legendary trailer (see below), which among other things, visually illustrates the question of “WHAT IS THE SHOCKING MYSTERY OF THE BIRDS?” across the screen. Unlike Hitchcock’s other films though, the mystery of The Birds remains unsolved and in a stroke of genius, Hitchcock and Hunter leave it up to viewers to answer the question for themselves.

Symbolically and thematically, The Birds is mainly a film about complacency as seen from director Alfred Hitchcock’s point-of-view (read here). I agree, but I am going to go one step beyond with not one, but two debatably complex interpretations. Prior to 1970, or maybe even five years earlier, one’s own praise of The Birds as Hitchcock’s most elaborate prank to date would be doing it complete justice. On the one hand, he is subtly thumbing his nose at upper class society by using the Melanie Daniels character as his target. True, Melanie may not have literally delivered the resulting chaos, but she might have done so figuratively in the form of her harmless prank involving the delivery of two lovebirds. The hysterical mother in the diner summed it up best when she said “I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” Later on and in a strange twist of irony, the birds viciously attack Melanie and this possibly gives off the vibe that her prank has backfired. On the other hand, Hitchcock does not seem too fond of small town sanctimony either. Since the plot already deals with birds violently attacking residents of a tiny village, Hitchcock is now officially left with doing nothing else but sitting back and enjoying the show like the rest of us.

Taking into consideration all of the radical changes that shaped the decade as it continued and ended, The Birds also comes off as a film that eerily foreshadowed the death of early 1960’s optimism and the slow, but steady decline of the nuclear family in a rather symbolic way. The lighthearted elements that defined the first half hour quite possibly resembles the stereotypical cheery mood that preceding American President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) passed on to his successor John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), who briefly upheld this notion in the earlier days of his presidency. Contrary to the first 30 minutes, the second half hour carries a cautiously optimistic tone as we learn more about the characters. This unexpected feeling of cynicism coincides perfectly with the notable disappointments of the Kennedy era that include the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion (read here), his escalation of the Vietnam War beginning that same year (read here) and to some extent, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (read here). Shortly after turning into a horror movie near the end of the first hour, viewers get a fairly graphic glimpse of the birds first casualty by way of a neighboring farmer. Psychologically, our terrified reactions at this sight mirrors that of the American public’s when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 (read here). Amid all of these previous events, the status of the nuclear family suddenly began to deteriorate. Two characters in The Birds demonstrate this aspect quite powerfully. In the case of Melanie Daniels, we get a wealthy woman, who admits to Mitch Brenner that her mother ditched her and her father when she was 11 years-old for “some hotel man in the East” before getting briefly emotional about her revelation. The other one comes in the form of Mitch’s widowed mother Lydia, who wishes that she “was a stronger person.” While sipping on a cup of tea, she laments to Melanie about how much she misses her husband (whom she reveals as Frank), who was not only able to connect with Mitch and Cathy on so many levels, but whose presence always gave her a sense of security deep down. Ever since his death from four years back, Lydia has felt insecure and she painfully admits to Melanie that “it’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone.” In many ways, Lydia can’t help but remain dependent on Mitch because she does not want him to abandon her given how she implicitly looks upon her recent self as that of a failure. When Lydia becomes anxious on the status of the bird attacks, Mitch comes to feel like one himself when she expresses all of her worries and all he can say is “I don’t know.” A hysterical Lydia than screams something along the lines of “If only your father were here” before sincerely apologizing to him a few seconds later. One scene visually expresses this by having Mitch sitting down in front of a portrait that may be his late father. While Melanie, Lydia and Cathy are sitting down waiting for the radio news report, he sits there looking like he is struggling to be as larger than life as his father apparently was. Unlike Norman Bates in Psycho, Mitch does not really see himself as a mama’s boy. While he does love Lydia (his mother) with all his heart, at the same time, he yearns for a social life. Unfortunately, Lydia is always preventing this by interfering with his relationships like the one he had with Annie Hayworth earlier. Speaking of which, some viewers have suggested that the bird attacks represent Lydia’s rage at any woman, who attempts to form a romantic relationship with Mitch. One could even say that the ending may imply that Lydia has come to grips with accepting Mitch’s desire for a social life. This occurs in that last scene in the car where Lydia is warmly looking upon Melanie, whose head is resting on her shoulder. Based on what viewers know about Melanie’s family life, it looks like her implied wish of “a mother’s love” has finally come true. Considering all of the political and social turmoil that ended up defining that decade as a whole, The Birds strangely but subtlety comes off as something of a spiritual prequel to George A. Romero’s similarly apocalyptic (albeit lower-budgeted) horror classic Night of the Living Dead from five years later in 1968.

If Psycho served as director Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of a horror film, then The Birds serves as his redefinition of that genre. Unlike the majority of his previous films, Hitchcock uses very little music this time around to build suspense. We notice this from the opening title sequence set to nothing but the squawks of birds, who fly all over the place tearing apart each new credit a few seconds after they initially appear on the screen. Aside from sound effects, Hitchcock utilizes editing and special effects to tell the story. This is most noticeable during the last 67 minutes of the film’s 119-minute running time. The first bird attack on the town occurs at a children’s birthday party and as edited by Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini, we get fast (but not too fast) back and forth cuts to emphasize all of the chaos that will embody the remainder of the film. The second major example comes when Melanie Daniels is sitting on a bench waiting for Cathy to get out of school. While the schoolchildren are heard inside singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” (read here), Melanie frequently stares back and forth at the playground and with each stare, she sees more and more crows sitting on the equipment with menacing looks on their faces. Much like the previous scene, the birds attack everybody including the children. Next up, birds attack a gas station resulting in leaking gasoline and after a man unknowingly throws a cigarette on the ground, he and the place explodes resulting in the  diner patrons to run for their lives. As Melanie hides within the telephone booth, she witnesses birds attacking a horse carriage, a man inside his car and another man getting pecked to death by birds themselves. After witnessing each instance terror, the camera cuts back and forth to a frightened Melanie. During the climax, Melanie opens a room and finds herself being pecked by an army of birds leaving her badly wounded If not dead. This sequence works as a companion piece to Psycho’s iconic shower scene based on it’s frenzied editing style. Last, but not least, credit should also be given to it’s photographic visual effects courtesy of Ub Iwerks (read here). Despite being made over 55 years ago, the imagery of the birds themselves still look timeless. Sometimes, the creatures come off as credibly scary (i.e. the crows) and other times, they look (deceivingly) harmless (i.e. the seagulls).

Along with The Shining from 17 years later, The Birds is a masterpiece of cinematic horror that allows viewers to form their own interpretations of everything they had just seen. In addition to all of that, I see The Birds as more than just my number one choice for the greatest horror film of all-time. To go one step even further, I would rank it somewhere within the top 10 range of my still unpublished blog entry of the 100 (or more) best films ever made according to me.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

P.S. In case, you are interested, here is a link to the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which Hitchcock promoted in a way that was similar to Psycho from three years earlier.

 

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John Charet’s Take On: Cat People (1942)

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Warning: This review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, I suggest you read no further.

In a desperate attempt to recoup from the back-to-back costly failures recently brought on by legendary director Orson Welles twin masterpieces of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, newly hired RKO Pictures executive Vice President Charles Koerner (read here) appointed former novelist Val Lewton as head producer for a series of B horror films that would give the hugely popular Universal monster movies a run for their money. Directorial duties would be individually assigned to Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise respectively. Cat People (directed by Tourneur) was the first of the nine entries Lewton produced for that genre and today, it is generally (If quietly) recognized (and rightfully so) as one of the most influential horror films ever made.

Fascinated by her sketches of black panthers at a New York City zoo, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) befriends a Serbian-born fashion sketch artist named Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and not too long afterwards, the two of them begin a semi-romantic relationship. Back at her apartment, Oliver is equally intrigued by her figurine of a knight impaling a cat and we learn from Irena that he is King John of Serbia (a.k.a. Jovan Nenad). According to Irena, the cat represents evil as she tells him a historical tale involving Satanism and witchery, but Oliver dismisses it as pure nonsense. When Oliver tries to buy a kitten for Irena, the animal just hisses at her and when they go together to the pet store to exchange it, all of the animals freak out over her presence. Suddenly, Irena thinks that she may be cursed as one of the cat people that was spreading chaos in that aforementioned story she told Oliver. Unfazed by all of this, Oliver proposes to Irena and she reluctantly accepts. While celebrating her wedding dinner at a small restaurant, a mysterious lady comes up to Irena and calls her “moya sestra” (translation: “my sister”), which only confirms her realization that she is indeed a member of the cat tribe.

Predictably, Oliver’s marital relationship with Irena proves to be a troubled one from the start. Terrified that feeling even the slightest bit of intimacy for him will transform herself into a vicious panther, Irena thinks that it would be best for both she and Oliver to sleep in separate rooms. Worried that their marriage is hitting rock bottom, Oliver advises Irena to see local Psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) so she can talk freely about this phobia to someone within the medical profession. After going to Dr. Judd, who believes that her concerns are little more than fears rooted in childhood, Irena stops attending most (If not all) of her sessions with him. Upon discovering that Oliver’s colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) was the one who recommended Dr. Judd for her, Irena gets upset at Oliver for sharing her personal problems (especially without her consent) to those whom she views as complete strangers. Disillusioned with the seemingly deteriorating status of his married life, Oliver grows more intimate with Alice, who shares similar feelings for him. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious chain of events break out involving dead sheep and three failed attempts on Alice’s life involving one with Oliver as a target.

Allegedly adopting the motto of “showmanship in place of genius” or “showmanship instead of genius” (read here and here) coined by the studio’s then executive Vice President Charles Koerner, everybody at RKO Pictures must have been under the impression that Cat People was just going to a profitable low-budget horror film and nothing more. While it’s commercial success can most certainly be credited for significantly improving RKO’s then notorious financial status, one must not overlook some of the surprising artistic qualities that shape Cat People as a whole.

Despite being shot on a shoestring budget of $134,000 (even lower today by Hollywood standards), Cat People overcomes that limitation in a rather creative way. Unable to show viewers a convincing looking monster obviously due to budgetary restraints, producer Val Lewton slyly places the emphasis on atmosphere alone; suggesting that our deepest darkest fears are scarier when left to the imagination. Visually, Lewton achieves this with his use of lighting to generate a true feeling of dread on the part of the audience. As with any great horror film, this one contains a fair share of standout set pieces. The first one comes in the form of Irena carefully stalking Alice at nighttime; the camera cuts back and forth from Alice’s footsteps to Irena’s and back again to build suspense. Suddenly, a bus arrives scaring Alice out of her mind before ending with her going on it. Next up is the renowned swimming pool scene, which starts off on a lighthearted note with Alice noticing a rascally kitten, but after running off, the inevitable terror begins. When Alice hears the roar of the panther, she makes a run for it and then dives into the swimming pool while remaining terrified of both the panther’s roars and where the animal may be hiding. Eventually, the lights in the pool room are turned on by a calm Irena, who wants to know where Oliver is. Soon enough, Alice gets out of the pool to grab her robe; only to discover that it has been “torn to ribbons” as said by the receptionist of the club/gym. Other notable scenes involve slaughtered sheep, Oliver and Alice fending off the shadowy panther with a Christian cross and later on, the offscreen mauling of a victim by the aforementioned unseen creature. To top it all off, we get brief surrealistic imagery courtesy of a dream sequence involving panthers.

Undoubtedly, all of the cinematic trademarks on display in Cat People belong to it’s producer Val Lewton, but credit should also be given to it’s director Jacques Tourneur for bringing his intended vision to life. Following in the footsteps of his then prestigious (If now similarly overlooked) father Maurice Tourneur (read here), Jacques Tourneur began his career as a filmmaker three years earlier in 1939 with They All Come Out, a socially conscious crime drama. I have not seen that one, nor have I seen the three films of his that followed, which include: Nick Carter, Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Doctors Don’t Tell. Roughly a year and (almost) three months after that last title, Tourneur would finally hit pay dirt in 1942 with his fifth feature-length film (i.e. Cat People). Courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca’s black-and-white cinematography, Tourneur utilizes lighting and shadows to further emphasize the visual elements that are now officially rooted in the film noir genre (or sub-genre). At the same time, the script allows Tourneur to briefly explore some of the themes that he would expand upon in some of his later works including but not limited to Christianity as a force of good (Stars in My Crown) and Satan worship (Night of the Demon).

Contrary to it’s schlocky title, there is actually much more going on in Cat People than viewers might realize at first. For starters, producer Val Lewton had a phobia of cats (read here) and it is possible that his screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen may have picked up on this aspect while writing the script. The character of Irena Dubrovna obviously symbolizes these fears of his, which in turn, drives the horror elements of this film. As it slowly unfolds behind it’s disguise as a crowd pleasing horror thriller, Cat People ultimately reveals itself as an insightful yet tragic social commentary on sexual repression. Irena’s fear of sexual arousal confirms this, which distances herself more and more from Oliver. Irena loves him dearly, but at the same time, she does not want to accidentally kill him given that those kinds of thoughts can transform her into a vicious black panther. When Oliver starts seeing Alice more frequently, Irena’s feelings of resentment turn her into a panther, who stalks Alice with the intention of murdering her. Along the way, the panther inadvertently kills a bunch of sheep. Later on, Irena comes home and locks herself in the bathroom and shortly after, she is seen crying in a bathtub. Irena’s sadness may be due to Oliver’s betrayal of her and her guilt for either genuinely emoting for the first time or for expressing those forbidden emotions. After having a weird dream with a voice exclaiming “the key”, Irena goes to the zoo and steals the key to the panther’s cage. Irena’s action represents the unleashing of her sexual freedom and the elimination of some of her insecurities. Even though Irena (in panther form) still fails in her attempts to kill Alice, she feels more confident about herself as a human. This feeling of happiness does not last long however when Oliver announces that he is divorcing her. Outraged, Irena (as a panther) now tries but backfires in killing both Oliver and Alice. After transforming into a panther for one last time and leaving a casualty behind, Irena stumbles over to the zoo to place the stolen key in the hole to unlock the panther’s cage resulting in her death by the zoo panther, who is run over by Oliver’s car shortly afterwards. I do not know about everyone else, but I see Irena’s death as a sacrifice. In other words, it serves as her way of dying for her sins. No doubt, Irena was not totally at fault for all of her actions, but even when she got some form of revenge, she always seemed to carry around a moral compass at the same time. If Cat People has one performance that can be singled out for praise, it would easily be it’s leading French actress Simone Simon, who perfectly balances sexiness with childlike playfulness in her role of Irena. Regardless of whether or not readers will echo my sentiments here, their is no denying that it does stand as one of many interesting ways to look at it.

Even If it still (annoyingly) remains a little known fact to this day, producer Val Lewton (not the equally masterful director Alfred Hitchcock) stands as the real grandfather of psychological horror and Cat People serves as the perfect entry for unfamiliar viewers to begin their journey with. Similar to how it concluded in 1946 with Bedlam, Cat People began Lewton’s cycle of RKO horror films with a bang. Also worth checking out is the 1944 sequel entitled The Curse of the Cat People directed by Robert Wise instead of Jacques Tourneur and despite it’s differences (that one plays out more like a supernatural drama), I personally feel that it is every bit as spellbinding as this one is.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

John Charet’s Take On: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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Warning: This review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film then I advise you to not read any further.

Pulp novelist Mickey Spillane’s 1947 potboiler I, the Jury is not only notable for being his first novel, but it also served as our introduction to the character of Mike Hammer. Unlike the anti-heroes of Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) or Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), detective Hammer came off as a vulgar brute and Spillane’s stories were made all the more sexier and violent as a result. Regardless of what literary critics thought about Spillane’s Hammer books, the public quickly gobbled up each entry while eagerly awaiting the next one. Eventually, Hammer would make the leap from the page to both screen and television beginning in the 1950’s with arguably hit or miss results. However, If I were to single out only one film adaptation of his as an unqualified success, it would be 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, the sixth installment in Spillane’s Hammer series.

Los Angeles private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving on a road one night and discovers an escaped female mental patient (Cloris Leachman) on the street clad in only a trench coat and in desperate need of both help and a ride. Hammer picks her up and shortly after introducing herself as Christina and reminding him to “remember me”, she and Hammer are ambushed by what appears to be three seedy criminals. Eventually, Christina is tortured to death (offscreen) and along with a slightly unresponsive Hammer, the gang places both of them in Hammer’s car and then dumps it off the cliff leading to it’s destruction. A few days after the incident, we learn that Hammer has miraculously survived as he awakens in a hospital room. Shortly after leaving the hospital, Hammer is questioned by members of the Interstate Crime Commission in regards to the events that unfolded on that night. Hammer believes that the now deceased Christina (last name Bailey) had to be involved in “something big” as he puts it.

Ignoring the advice of his superiors, most notably that of Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) and (later on) a stranger who warns him (via a phone message) to not go any further with the case, Mike Hammer goes out to solve the mystery. Thanks to a science reporter by the name of Ray Diker (Mort Marshall), Hammer is able to track down information on the names of Leopold Kowolsky and Nicholas Raymondo via two people: Harvey Wallace (Strother Martin) and Carmen Trivago (Fortunio Bonanova). Kowolsky is a pro fighter and Raymondo is an atomic scientist. Hammer learns from both Wallace and Trivago that along with Christina, Kowolsky and Raymondo were killed as well. In between those two meetings, Hammer is led to two gangsters by the names of Charlie Max (Jack Elam) and Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert), who both work for kingpin Carl Evello (Paul Stewart). Even though the gang is responsible for the killings, at the same time, they may have been ordered to murder them by the mysterious Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker). In addition to all of this, Hammer learns that the real name of Christina’s roommate was not Lily Carver, but Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) and that she was hired by Soberin to get the key from her since it belongs with the mysterious box acquired by him.

Directed and produced by the two-fisted Robert Aldrich (Vera Cruz) and written by tough as nails novelist turned screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves’ Highway and On Dangerous Ground), Kiss Me Deadly is both intended (from Aldrich’s point of view) and unintended (from Bezzerides point of view) as a political allegory for it’s then current time period. Nevertheless, Aldrich and Bezzerides remained united in their loathing for Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel of the same name and under the eye of Aldrich, Bezzerides was more than happy to deconstruct the source material. Likewise, Spillane reportedly hated their version of his book as well. Speaking for myself, I see Kiss Me Deadly as a 1950’s film noir with openly anti-fifties tendencies.

As entertainment, Kiss Me Deadly feels and moves like a joyride. Blissfully unaware of anything relating to political or social comment, screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides is only interested in having a lot of fun in regards to where he goes with each colorful character and situation. Coincidentally, we as the audience connect to the material in the same way he does. On film, Ralph Meeker’s portrayal of Mike Hammer comes off as the detective we hate to love. When he is not casually and suddenly roughing up a bunch of thugs; leaving another genuinely frightened, he similarly closes a desk drawer on a poor sap’s hand. If that is not enough, Hammer also tricks another thug into killing one of his own (under the false impression that he is killing Hammer). Hammer’s interrogation methods are not so much rooted in rage (though that is part of it) as much as it is in getting the job done. To put it in other words, Hammer debatably makes Harry Callahan (a.k.a. Dirty Harry) look like a Social justice warrior (SJW) by comparison. Our devilish grins at this kind of behavior feels wrong, but for some odd reason, it doesn’t thanks to the film’s extremely dry sense of dark humor. As for the women Hammer converses with on his trail, we go from Cloris Leachman’s semi-crazy, but sweet-natured Christina to Maxine Cooper’s sexy secretary Velda (Hammer’s assistant) to Marion Carr’s even sexier Friday (“a very loose woman”) and finally to Gaby Rodgers deceiving Lily Carver/Gabrielle. On a personal note, Lily Carver/Gabrielle may just be the femme fatale to end all femme fatales within the film noir genre. We (the audience) are enjoying ourselves immensely on this joyride so much that we are expectedly or unexpectedly (yet intentionally) thrown off by the explosive finale. In my view, this symbolizes the car crash made inevitable by our recklessness (i.e. by applauding all of this onscreen anarchy).

On the outside, A.I. Bezzerides script for Kiss Me Deadly may resemble the mentality of a prankster, but on the inside, it represents (by design) the work of a killjoy courtesy of director Robert Aldrich. Screenwriter Bezzerides may have had a ball writing it, but Aldrich saw it as something more radical. One might get the feeling that the overall film gives off a sense of nihilism, but a significant portion of that quite possibly stems from Aldrich’s personal feelings about the 1950’s in general. Hardboiled writer Mickey Spillane may have been a staunch anti-communist, but this fact did not stop Aldrich and Bezzerides (both left-wingers) from intentionally and unintentionally deconstructing one of his Mike Hammer books and in the process, unapologetically subverting the conformity that shaped that decade as a whole. Considering the setting’s relocation from New York (in Spillane’s novel) to Los Angeles (in Bezzerides script), this gave Aldrich the opportunity to take all of the Cold War era paranoia ripped from the headlines and bring it closer to home in more ways than one. Detective Hammer’s vigilantism (for better or worse) truly appealed to fifties readers and as nasty as he was there, he is even nastier here. Aside from violently beating up criminals simply for the sheer joy of it, Hammer reveals himself to be a sociopath as he also blackmails the men and women involved in the divorce cases he takes on. Not only that, but Hammer seems to be motivated more by self-interest than in justice for Christina Bailey. Unlike the revelation used in Spillane’s story (a briefcase supposedly full of illegal drugs), the MacGuffin here comes in the form of a glowing Pandora’s box containing deadly radioactive material. The inevitable unleashing of it is symbolic of the American public’s then current fear of nuclear war, as well as the atomic bomb and other weapons of that magnitude.

When he is not gleefully wallowing in sadism for our delight or engaging in politically charged theories, director Robert Aldrich allows us to appreciate the even finer things that Kiss Me Deadly has to offer. Shot in a gritty black-and-white by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, the film’s tone is set close to after two minutes into the beginning as we are introduced to the opening credits scrolling backwards down instead of up while Nat King Cole’s “Rather Have the Blues” plays on detective Mike Hammer’s car radio. Cole’s song coincidentally and eerily foreshadows the chain of events Hammer (Meeker) will unexpectedly get himself into after picking up the frightened Christina Bailey (Leachman) whose life is in danger. Prior to all of this though, Hammer and Bailey share a lighthearted moment together where she gently teases him with her theory about him being one of those “self-indulgent males” who only thinks about himself. Finally getting on his nerves, a mildly annoyed Hammer hilariously tells her to “let it go.” This sweet moment only makes Bailey’s death at the hands of her pursuers all the more tragic. As viewers, we notice that this scene marks the only time that Hammer expresses his softer side even If it is all too subtle. Last, but not least, Aldrich treats us to a grand tour of what the city of Los Angeles looked like at that time. Highlights for me include (but are not limited to) some of the Bunker Hill locations (read here and here) that were torn down during the late 1960’s.

Operating under it’s thinly disguised status as the definitive Mike Hammer movie/adaptation of a Mickey Spillane property, Kiss Me Deadly actually starts off as an unconventional B film noir and for a while, that is where it seems to be heading. Once the plot gets into high gear though, it suddenly turns into an anti-noir with implicit political overtones and elements of science-fiction blended together into one. In the end, the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly finishes up as a genuinely unclassifiable American cult classic with a distinctive European or semi-European flavor.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

My Favorite Takashi Miike Films

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Audition (1999) 

2.   Ichi the Killer (2001)

3.   13 Assassins (2010)

* * * * (Out of * * * *) (Short Cinema)

1.   Three… Extremes (2004)
(Segment: “Box”)
(Anthology Film)

* * * * (Out of * * * *) (Cable/Television)

1.   Imprint (2006)
(Masters of Horror Episode)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

2.   Visitor Q (2001)

3.   Dead or Alive (1999)

4.   Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

5.   Ley Lines (1999)

6.   Blade of the Immortal (2017)

7.   Rainy Dog (1997)

8.   Fudoh: The New Generation (1996)

9.   Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)

10. Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

My Favorite Ching Siu-tung Films

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

2.   Swordsman II (1992)
(a.k.a. The Legend of the Swordsman)

3.   Duel to the Death (1983)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990)

2.   Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior (1989)

3.   A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)

4.   Swordsman III (1993)
(a.k.a. The East Is Red)

My Favorite King Hu Films

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   A Touch of Zen (1971)

2.   Dragon Inn (1967)

3.   Come Drink with Me (1966)

4.   The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)
(I watched it on youtube)

5.   Legend of the Mountain (1979)

6.   Raining in the Mountain (1979)
(I watched it on youtube)

7.   The Valiant Ones (1975)

Note: King Hu only partially directed The Swordsman (1990).

My Favorite Terry Zwigoff Films

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Crumb (1994)
(Documentary)

2.   Ghost World (2001)

3.   Louie Bluie (1985)
(Documentary)

4.   Art School Confidential (2006)

5.   Bad Santa (2003)

My Favorite Zhang Yimou Films

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   House of Flying Daggers (2004)

2.   Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

3.   Coming Home (2014)
(no relation to the 1978 film)

4.   Hero (2002)

5.   Ju Dou (1990)
(co-directed with Yang Fengliang)

6.   Not One Less (1999)

7.   The Road Home (1999)

8.   Shanghai Triad (1995)

9.   To Live (1994)

10. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)

11. Red Sorghum (1988)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)

2.   Happy Times (2000)

3.   Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

My Favorite Robert Zemeckis Films

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Back to the Future (1985)

2.   Used Cars (1980)

3.   Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
(Part Animation/Part Live-Action)

4.   I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

* * * * (Out of * * * *) (Cable/Television)

1.   Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
(Episode from Season 1: “And All Through the House”)
(Episode from Season 3: “Yellow”)
(Episode from Season 6: “You, Murderer”)
(Cable Series)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   Back to the Future Part III (1990)

2.   Back to the Future Part II (1989)

3.   Romancing the Stone (1984)

My Favorite Edgar Wright Films

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1.   Shaun of the Dead (2004)

2.   Baby Driver (2017)

3.   The World’s End (2013)

4.   Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

5.   Hot Fuzz (2007)

* * * * (Out of * * * *) (Short Cinema)

1.   Grindhouse (2007)
(Fictitious Trailer: “Don’t”)
(Anthology Film)

* * * * (Out of * * * *) (Television)

1.   Spaced (1999-2001)