Sunday, June 14, 2015

Angels Flight


Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
-- Christina Rossetti, Remember

“There’s a new art in the world and this doctor’s starting a collection.” – Velda

That Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is a great American film, one of the greatest ever made, only a rash or foolish person will deny. While its greatness seems now to be generally recognized (contemporary critics of the 1950s all trashed it), the core of the greatness appears not to be. It is normally taken up by the Quentin Tarantino / Martin Scorsese types who embrace it as little more than director Aldrich, in this only his third big studio picture, sneering around with private eye / tough guy / sexy girl genre works of the post-WWII period ~ a meta P.I. movie. It is much beyond that. Kiss Me Deadly seeks to capture and does, via early-50s Los Angeles and the private eye and science fiction genres, a moment caught between a dying Deco / FDR culture -- a culture which intensified the individual while strengthening the community beyond -- and the cold technical Modernist world to come.

The movie is based on one of the better jobs done by the most popular hack writer of the time, Mickey Spillane. Erstwhile Mike Hammer picks up a hitchhiking girl on the highway, a lovely girl wearing nothing but a trench coat. After gassing up and moving through police checkpoints, they're immediately hijacked, the girl killed, Hammer left for dead. It seems the girl (Berga Torn in the book, Christina Bailey in the movie) knows something very important and everyone wants to know what it is: the "Great What's It?" in the movie's words. Practically everyone (and in Robert Aldrich's original movie ending, everyone) winds up dead. The differences between the Spillane world and Aldrich's are enormous. In the movie, New York City becomes Los Angeles. Four-million dollars in heroin becomes a box of atomic power. The Mafia becomes the Dulles Bros. national security state. Most important, Spillane's thematic vacuum becomes a work about one era dying and something sinister and incomprehensible struggling to be born.

Robert Aldrich is the anti-Carl Dreyer, in this work. Rather than stripping down all decor until one finds a purified essence, Aldrich floods the film with an excess of mid-50s urban Modernist detritus -- architectures, automobiles, ladies clothes; the interior designs of apartments, hospitals, business hallways -- making all of it seem radioactive, in what may be the first movie to be usefully called a film blanc. (Aldrich's '55 follow-up The Big Knife would also qualify.) While at the same time -- in a vertigo of decoration -- placing us firmly in a destoyed and desiccating Los Angeles: Kaiser Hospital, born in the 30s, seemingly refurbished by Mark Rothko; sweet Nick's dumpy garage where he works on Mike's white '51 Jag, then his '50 MG convertible, and dies working on the Hammer '54 black Corvette; a zinc-white Calabasas gas staion; a haunted mansion on what was once called Hill Place; Bunker Hill, all of it, especially Angels Flight and the flophouse once home to Christina and roommate Lily Carver; the Hillcrest Hotel; Club Pigalle; Hollywood Athletic Club; Hotel Jalisco. All gone. Classical 20th-century Los Angeles, the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and Lew Archer, being destroyed as Kiss Me Deadly was being made, or soon after. In Aldrich's world, Mike Hammer seeks meaning and clarity, similar to Philip Marlowe in Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" from the same time, in a vanishing L.A. of the foreign, the frightened, the lost, the individual (while the authority figures all trying to hold it together -- and all authority here, "criminal" or "the law," are the same -- are interchangeable).

Into a normally muscular and artless genre (especially artless under the insanely butch hand of Spillane), here we are given the feminine and creative: poetry, opera, painting, ballet, sculpture, music both classical and jazz, writings. (Christina's stunning apartment inside the Bunker Hill dive is museum-like in her artworks and books and music.) And the movies. Aldrich and director of photography Ernest Lazlo, from the glowing titles which move backward, as Mike's rocket-ship car (and Nat Cole) moves him and Christina back into the past and toward the future simultaneously, a vertigo of time, an astonishing start to a movie (meaninglessly ripped-off by hack George Lucas to begin his Star Wars) -- from this opening shot everything is made strange, mysterious, beautiful, and unique. Throughout Aldrich intensifies Hammer's confusion and estrangement by intensifying the palette of his own form: extreme cuts and angles, dissolves and freezes and fades and his deep use of sound: the music and the soft protected sounds of homes and apartments, traffic noises always beyond the windows, Hammer's sorrowful wall answering-machine, echoing stone hallways and stairs, concrete sidewalks, the sounds of science and technology, the hollow under-furnished echoing of "Lily Carver's" terrible place. And Frank DeVol's overall score: Caruso, Chopin, Schubert, Johannes Brahms, his own. It is only extreme camera movement which Aldrich foregoes, as his main figure Hammer is frozen between Scylla and Charybdis.

Mike's journey -- movingly played in as beautiful a manner as it is brutal by Ralph Meeker -- is a despairing and failed one, however much he struts and smirks, however much he seems to have a magical power to get himself out of jams and to knock people out or to kill them. There's a greater magic against him, a State of anti-Grace, an occasion of sin. Mike's great love is for cars (and possibly for his sexy operative Velda) and yet most of the people he contacts die via car -- Christina Bailey, Nick the mechanic, boxer Lee Kawolsky, Nicholas Raymondo, the real Lily Carver. Those he touches who don't die by car, die anyway, including Velda and himself in Aldrich's original end-of-the-world ending. Mike Hammer stays tough and super confident, until he doesn't, until by the end he becomes a stunted wounded zombie -- dead too, in a way. Dead to all he knows.

Of all great movies, Kiss Me Deadly is perhaps the one that captures its moment in time the most deeply, beautifully, and mysteriously -- and most shocking: the most concretely. Until at the finish, when the Point Dume beach house explodes and the world ends, we are left with a giant, flaming, American Medusa unearthing her hideous face, freezing us -- as she had Mike throughout -- with an oracle of things to come.