Today I’m diving into some pulpy noir. Films that really pushed at the boundaries of the code, and explored some dangerous subject matter. Today’s films are:
Samuel Fuller – The Naked Kiss (1964)
Robert Aldrich – Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
You can almost tell both films are from the film noir genre by their titles. They both speak to something dark and dangerous.
The film noir genre was created in the late 30s by American filmmakers, but wasn’t really claimed as a genre until the 40s. During World War II, France was essentially cut off from a lot of the world, and American films weren’t getting in. Once the war was over, they suddenly had access to all of the films they had missed. Seeing them all together, they started to notice similarities between some films. The lighting made heavy use of shadows, the subject matter was darker too, focusing on crime stories, and the women were all dangerous, betraying the hero after seducing him.
The French started writing about these films, coining the term Film Noir (black film in French, based on how dark many of the films were, both lighting and subject matter). And so the genre was born. This is of course a simplification of the genre, and if you want to read the best book on the subject, you can take a look at my friend Jim Naremore’s book, More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. I have tried to read it, and realized I’m nowhere near smart enough, but Jim is one of the premiere film scholars in the world, and Film Noir is one of his best topics.
So let’s talk about the first film.
The Naked Kiss (1964)
The Naked Kiss is a film about a former prostitute who moves to a small town and decides to turn over a new leaf. She works to fit in while the local police captain tries to catch her slipping up. She gets a job as a nurse for children with disabilities and begins making friends in town, including the richest man in town, who she falls in love with and agrees to marry.
What’s fascinating to me about this film is how on the surface, it almost plays like a wholesome sitcom for most of the runtime. But then it reminds you of just how slimy this world is.
The first scene sets up Kelly, the prostitute. We begin with her attacking a man with a purse. The scene is fast and frenetic, most of the shots are closeups of either Kelly, or the man. She fights with him until he falls to the ground, during which her wig falls off, revealing that her head is shaved. She takes his wallet, pulls $800 out of it, and makes a point to only take $75, which is all she has coming to her. She throws the rest of the money in his face. The credits then play as she calmly fixes her wig and makeup.
Kelly is set up as tough as nails and unflappable in this scene, and it will play out that way through the rest of the movie. The gives us some explicit dates between the opening fight scene and then Kelly arriving in the small town, putting them about two years apart.
When Kelly arrives, we meet Griff, the police captain, who is set up as serious about taking care of his town, and doesn’t worry about using intimidation, or possibly even extra-legal actions to get it done.
This is played out in the next scene, as he sees Kelly get off the bus, and follows her to chat her up. He finds out she’s selling champagne door to door, a specialty product called “Angel Foam”. This film is right on the edge of the Hays code. Things had started to get a little looser by this time, but the film couldn’t come right out and say she was selling sex door to door. But the film makes it clear when Griff offers to buy a bottle and we cut to a scene in his home with him partially undressed. All the champagne is gone.
This scene might be confusing to a modern audience because the scene plays like a post-coital scene, but the film isn’t telling us that they had sex. They’re sitting on a couch, Kelly is fully clothed, and chatting about life. I had to really decide for myself if they’d had sex because the act was so coded. Later on, the film makes it explicit (well not THAT explicit) that they had sex, but in this scene I really had to think about what the film was trying to tell me.
Griff shows us more of his character, telling Kelly that she can’t set up her business in this town, but that she can go across the river and work at Candy’s, which is made clear to us is a brothel. The next morning, Kelly looks at herself in the mirror critically, and while we don’t know it for sure then, she has decided to turn over a new leaf.
This film has a tough time setting things up clearly. Often, it wasn’t until several scenes later that I figure out what Fuller was trying to say in an earlier scene, when he has a character specifically explain it. It also has a tendency to not introduce characters properly, leading to confusion later. I’m sure that audiences were expected to pick up on things quicker in this era, but I still feel like Fuller didn’t adequately give his audience the tools we needed to pick things up on the first pass. I eventually figured it all out, but it was a problem.
Technically, the film has some problems as well, particularly in the editing. The scenes jump around quite a bit, and I even caught one bit where there was a cut in the middle of a scene to the same scene, just framed slightly differently. It was jarring.
The film just drips with sleaze, even with the limitations put on it. In a scene where Griff visits Candy’s brothel, we see one of the new girls, and Candy says about her: “Every man wants to hang his fedora on her.” I don’t know why that line is so dirty, but it made me want to wash my hands. Here, Griff hears that Kelly never arrived, and starts to look for her.
He discovers her at a hospital, working with children with disabilities. We see him asking around before we have any indication that Kelly is actually working there. This is another confusing aspect of the film. I’m dropped into this scene with no indication of why I’m watching this, or what these new characters have to do with the story. This is resolved shortly, though as we see Kelly working with a small child. It’s clear she is great at this new job.
Griff confronts her, accusing her of attempting to corrupt the children. His fears are of course ridiculous, and the film tells us clearly that Kelly is sincere in her love for the children. Over and over we see scenes of her helping the children and trying to make their lives better.
We also see several scenes of the hard edged Kelly come out. We see a friend of Kelly’s bragging to her that she made $25 dollars from Candy as an advance to work at her club. Kelly knows what it means and freaks out, physically attacking the woman, named Buff. She describes the life of a prostitute to Buff. The film is clearly not pro-prostitution. As if that wasn’t enough, Kelly then goes to see Candy. She smacks Candy around then stuffs the $25 dollars into her mouth, one bill at a time. Telling her to stay away from Buff. Kelly is tough as nails, and scenes like this bring that home to the audience.
While all this is going on, Kelly meets Grant, the richest man in town. They are both cast as intellectuals, able to appreciate classic music and literature like Beethoven and Lord Byron. They bond quickly, and the film maneuvers them into a romance, leading to an engagement that even survives Kelly telling Grant about her past.
So everything seems to be going well with Kelly. She’s got a job she loves, a fiancee who she deeply loves who also happens to be incredibly wealthy. The film shows us a scene where the children she works with are singing a song about how to find happiness. She sings along with them. It’s an incredibly beautiful and moving song.
But then the sleaziness of the film starts to take over in a big way. Kelly decides to take her wedding dress to show Grant. When she arrives, she turns on a reel-to-reel tape player and the song she sang with the children earlier begins to play. She looks around for Grant, and then sees something that shocks her. The camera cuts to Grant’s face. Then to a child skipping out the front door.
The film has to be incredibly careful about what it shows here. The implication could almost be lost, but it becomes clear as Grant begins his speech. He tells her that he’s glad she caught him, that he could never marry a normal woman. He says that she’s been conditioned to men like him. It’s become clear to us that Grant is a pedophile, and Kelly caught him molesting the little girl.
He sits on his knees before her, as if begging her to accept him. But what kind of heroine would Kelly be if she did? She picks up the phone, and hits him over the head with it. Grant is dead.
Kelly is arrested and now Griff has her right where he wants her. He starts concocting stories about why she killed Grant, centering on her trying to steal his money. She tries to tell him about the child, but she can’t remember details about the girl, and Griff doesn’t believe her. We then get a series of character witnesses, almost a “This is your life” in the middle of the movie. Her old pimp (called a ‘procurer’ in the film), tells the story of the fight she had at the beginning of the film, but says he was told she stole the entire $800. A woman she gave $1000 to so she would be able to keep her baby comes in to speak for her, but Griff assumes Kelly stole the money from Grant.
Then Candy comes in, and spins a tale of Kelly attempting to bring wealthy men to the brothel, and then blackmailing them. We know this isn’t true, and Kelly looks like she’s got no chance.
But two things happen to help her. First, the nurse Buff that was solicited by Candy comes forward to tell the truth about Candy, and by chance, Kelly sees the little girl who she saw at Grant’s house outside her jail cell window. Coupled with Buff coming forward, Griff believes her and they run a lineup of every little girl in town until she finds the right one. Then they have Kelly interrogate her herself.
This entire sequence, from the moment Kelly sees the little girl outside her window, until she gets the girl to admit she was molested, makes absolutely zero sense. Why are a group of kids playing behind a jail cell? Why do they line up every little girl in town? Who has that list? And why would any law enforcement official allow a confessed murderer in a room with a child? Griff knows what information needs to be learned. He’s a professional, he can figure this stuff out.
Once the little girl admits, the charges go away, despite the dead body and the confession, which is another scene that makes no sense, but I can let it go. The film ends with Kelly leaving, saying goodbye to all the people she made friends with who are all in front of the jail, with what seems like most of the town. She walks out of town, seeing a baby, playing with it before continuing on, remembering the children she helped. We see a banner as she walks out of town, showing that it’s been just over a year since she came to the town in the first place.
This is a really interesting movie. Being caught in a somewhat more permissive environment for these kinds of stories, but still having to work under the restrictions of the code makes for an odd beast. The character of Kelly makes the film. Seeing the former prostitute navigate small town America is fascinating. And the way the film portrays Kelly is what makes the film run. We know upfront who she is, and we’re reminded several times throughout the film. But we’re also reminded that she’s a human being that loves children and wants to make other people’s lives better. She’s a true hero in the film.
There’s also one more moment in the film that only makes sense once you’ve watched the entire thing. Early on in the romance, Grant kisses Kelly for the first time. She stops for a moment, and looks at him strangely. We aren’t given any more information, but we discover what she was thinking during her interrogation. She tells Griff that she had learned how to weed out men like Grant through their kiss. She called the worst kinds of these kisses The Naked Kiss. She should have been able to tell what kind of man Grant was right from the start, but she was swept up in the romance. This is interesting to me because the new suburban woman she has become ignores the warnings while the hard-boiled prostitute knew immediately who she was dealing with.
It’s a shame there are so many technical problems in the film. Besides the strange editing I mentioned, there were several instances where the focus wasn’t pulled properly on a zoom. With camera lenses, as you zoom, the focus changes. Professional filmmakers have a person on the camera, changing the focus precisely while another person performs the zoom. But in this film, there are at least two instances where the camera zooms in on a character, and loses focus. Since it happens twice, I might be convinced it was done on purpose, but I have no idea what information Fuller was trying to convey with this, so I’m inclined to assume it was just a mistake.
But overall, this is a really great film. The acting gets a little over the top, but it all works within the setting, and the way the film uses the children’s song to portray both hope and despair is a difficult feat to achieve. I think it’s very much worth watching.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Kiss Me Deadly is a film about Mike Hammer, a private detective who meets a woman running barefoot down the road. Helping her draws him into a dangerous game of kidnapping and murder. He has to find out what it is that everyone wants before he and the people he cares about get killed.
This film is a fairly standard noir detective story, but it makes excellent use of the cold war setting to gain a unique feel. Mike Hammer is a character from pulp crime novels, and he’s tough as nails. Hammer doesn’t so much investigate a crime as he slaps it around. At the beginning of the film, he follows leads in a fairly normal way. Get a name, go to the address, ask some questions, get the next lead. But as the film proceeds, he gets more and more angry, and more and more violent. Eventually he simply stops asking questions and just starts smacking people until they tell him what he wants to know.
The film starts out with Cloris Leachman running down the road barefoot, wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. She’s trying to flag down a car, but no one is stopping. Finally she puts herself in the path of a speeding car. It’s Mike Hammer, and he veers off the road to avoid her. He yells at her, but still gives her a ride, he assumes to a bus station. The film tells us he’s committed to her right away, as they reach a police roadblock where they’re checking for a woman who escaped from an asylum, and he protects her, telling the police she’s his wife. It becomes clear later that Hammer has a soft spot for women. Later we’ll meet his girlfriend/assistant Velda, who also gets drawn into the plot.
Cloris Leachman’s character Christina we learn is part of some larger mystery. They stop at a bus station and Christina has the attendant mail a letter. She tells Mike to take her to a bus station, but if they don’t make it, then he should “Remember Me”.
Of course, they don’t make it. The car is run off the road, and men take the two of them. Christina is tortured to death, and the gang puts her and Mike in his car and pushes them down a hill, setting the car on fire, hoping to make it look like an accident. Unfortunately for them, Mike survives, and wakes up in the hospital three days later. He’s now committed to finding out who killed Christina and what they were after.
He and his assistant Velda start gathering names and he starts running down leads. He finds Christina’s apartment and discovers a book with a page marked that begins with “Remember Me”. He also learns where her roommate Lily has moved to and interrogates her. He discovers some suspicious deaths and starts to investigate those as well.
But the mystery isn’t terribly interesting. Mike Hammer goes through all of this work to figure out what Christina had that they wanted, and the only clue she gave him was “Remember Me”. It turns out she had a key to a locker that she swallowed, and it was found during the autopsy. He discovers this after reading the book that he found at her apartment. She also sent him a letter at the gas station earlier in the film, but all it reads is “Remember Me”. It’s all bad adventure game logic, and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Wouldn’t one of the first stops be to check out the body?
Furthermore, the locker belonged to Nicholas Raymondo, which was a name he already had, and the villains also had. It doesn’t seem plausible to me that no one would have checked this locker. The film specifically mentions that he was a member at the club holding the locker for 10 years. Did none of the criminal gang think to check places he might have hidden something? This isn’t an anonymous locker at a bus station.
But the mystery isn’t driving this movie. Mike Hammer and the way he interacts with people is driving the film. We meet Nick, an animated mechanic who has a few memorable scenes before being killed which sends Mike into a drunken stupor. We also have Velda, Mike’s girlfriend and assistant, who is kidnapped after Nick is killed and motivates the last third of the film.
The action begins to ramp up a bit here as Hammer is captured by the villains and interrogated with truth serum. The film does a strange thing here. It continually shows us the main villain’s shoes. He’s the one that killed Nick, and he’s the one interrogating Hammer. But later on, when the character is revealed, it’s someone we’ve never seen in the film before. Why hide his identity when it’s a character we wouldn’t recognize anyway? The character even states this himself, telling Hammer not to bother trying to strain himself to look from his position as what will he see? Just a man he does not know. It’s a strange choice.
But the film revolves around the MacGuffin. And it this film it’s nuclear. When Hammer finds the box, he begins to open it, noticing that the box is hot. He opens it a crack and we hear an unholy sound and see a bright light. Hammer closes it as quick as he opened it, but it leaves burn marks on his wrist where the light touched it. So now it’s clear, this entire plot is to steal nuclear material.
In the final scene, we learn that the woman we knew as Lily was in league with the main villain the entire time. As the villain, Dr. Soberin is packing his suitcase. Of course, this is a noir, so Lily has to kill him for the case. He begs her not to open the box, referencing Pandora’s box from Greek mythology, but her curiosity gets the better of her. Hammer appears just as she’s about to open it, and Lily gives an incredibly effective and dare I say creepy speech, asking Hammer to kiss her just before she pulls the trigger and shoots him.
She opens the box, and in a scene that definitely inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark, is consumed by nuclear fire. Hammer gets out, finding Velda, and they jump into the nearby ocean as the fire consumes the entire house.
This is another really interesting film. The standard detective story that’s presented here would fall flat without two aspects: Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, and the nuclear storyline. Meeker is tough and abrasive, but is still somehow heroic as Mike Hammer. And the film does a really smart thing by tapping into the nuclear panic of the mid-50s.
It also doesn’t waste time trying to explain the technology. We can see the danger of the box as soon as it’s opened. The sound design here is excellent as well. The box almost calls out as it’s consuming the world around it. The Pandora’s box comparison is incredibly accurate. At the time, I imagine most people’s understanding of nuclear technology was about as mysterious as Pandora’s box. The injection of this into the plot is what makes this film memorable.
The major problem with the film is the mechanics of the detective story. It’s hard to keep track of where Mike Hammer is going, or why, and it’s too easy to zone out while he’s going from place to place picking up clues. The film doesn’t really become engaging until the last 30 minutes, after Velda is kidnapped. Before then, it’s a bit of a slog, with some memorable scenes mixed in.
Overall, the film is definitely one to see. But it could have been an all-time classic with some work on the mystery, instead of just a visually striking film of interest.
The Double Feature
Man I love pulpy noir films. Seeing how filmmakers worked around the code, trying to tell their darker stories while appeasing the censors produced some great moments in film. These two films are right in line with each other, and work great together.
The two leads also have some things in common. Both Mike Hammer and Kelly are tough as nails and not afraid to use violence to get their points across. In Hammer’s case, he almost prefers it, but Kelly physically attacks quite a few people during her film despite working to change her life.
The biggest difference between the two films is that The Naked Kiss contrasts the wholesome part of the world with the slimy part of the world, making us as the audience uncomfortable with the wholesome part. We never feel totally safe, knowing how dark things can get. Kiss Me Deadly never leaves the darkness. It starts with a woman running for her life and only gets darker from there.
I just love this genre, and it will definitely come back in the future.
I’ve started to get a lot more confident about my life and my future over the last week. My allergies have started to abate, and my breathing has been a lot better. It’s lead to a lot of really good days, and me being able to exercise more. It’s really refreshing, and my break is starting to really help me relax.
But we still have movies to watch. The next post might be a little late as I’m going to be at a conference for a couple of days, but hopefully I can get far enough ahead to make this work. I wanted to dig into some horror films, because it’s a genre I really haven’t explored yet. I had thought about possibly doing some more modern films, or even slasher films, which I particularly enjoy, but I’m dipping back to Filmstruck for these two. The next pairing will be:
Jacques Tourneur – The Cat People (1942)
Robert Day – Corridors of Blood (1959)
Both films have great titles, and I haven’t seen either of them before. It should be a great experiment. See you then.