Criterion releases Kiss Me Deadly on DVD and Blu-ray today and, for the occasion, they're running an essay by J Hoberman adapted from his book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War: "Genres collide in the great Hollywood movies of the mid fifties cold-war thaw. With the truce in Korea and the red scare on the wane, ambitious directors seemed freer to mix and match and even ponder the new situation. The western goes south in The Searchers; the cartoon merges with the musical in The Girl Can't Help It. Science fiction becomes pop sociology in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And noir veers into apocalyptic sci-fi in Robert Aldrich's 1955 masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, which, briefly described, tracks one of the sleaziest, stupidest, most bru tal detectives in American movies through a nocturnal, inexplicably violent labyrinth to a white-hot vision of cosmic annihilation."
It begins already in a state of agitation, with Christina (Cloris Leachman, here something of a precursor to Glenn Close), barefoot, in just a raincoat, running down a freeway at night, so desperate she plants herself in the middle of the road as our so-called hero's Jaguar comes hurtling toward her. "You almost wrecked my car," says Mike Hammer (the inimitable Ralph Meeker), assuming this woman's he reluctantly picked up to be a date rape victim, though he gradually determines she's "a fugitive from the laughing farm," not that it makes any difference to him. Hammer's descent into Kiss Me Deadly's labyrinth of secrets and spies begins when the people looking for Christina catch up with her and torture her to death with Hammer lying semi-conscious nearby. Hammer only narrowly escapes Christina's captors yet, utterly self-interested as he is, he can't resist investigating what happened to Christina, which demands techniques beyond those normally employed by a detective who lives off divorce cases. Hammer's investigation bridges the architectural, geographical, aesthetic and class dichotomies of 1950s Los Angeles, leading him away from the comforts of his sleek apartment with its futuristic devices (and his always horny secretary, [Velda (Maxine Cooper)], whom he pimps out to seduce unwanted husbands) to busy boxing gyms, dilapidated Victorian houses in Bunker Hill (a neighbourhood memorialized so eloquently just a few years later in The Exiles), and jazz clubs with all-black clientele to find the answers that can't bring back Christina, can't save Hammer, and can't prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that lay at the heart of this apocalyptic noir.
"Ralph Meeker is, of course, sublime as Hammer, and why his career didn't explode as a result of this film is a mystery," writes Bill Ryan. "Had I been alive, and had I the power, I'd've cast that son of a bitch in everything. He has the right sadist's gleam when crippling the hand of a greedy coroner, or breaking a collector's prized LP simply because Hammer doesn't think he's answering questions fast enough. But when Hammer soon finds himself up to his neck in shit, which is quickly rising, Meeker lets Hammer look not just defeated, but proved wrong…. I have my doubts that [Mickey Spillane] ever let Hammer fuck up quite like he does in Aldrich's film. In this way, Meeker's Hammer joins Steve McQueen's Reese in Hell is for Heroes as one of the very few tough guy heroes whose air of violence-hardened superiority is disastrously humbled."
"Kiss Me Deadly ends in a fireball of allegorical power," writes Glenn Heath Jr in Slant. "But Aldrich isn't concerned with the narrative ripples of the final incendiary image or its literal consequences, just the raw thematic ingredients spewing into the atmosphere. The glowing Pandora's box (famously recreated in Pulp Fiction) could signify so many evils threatening our existence, from nuclear stranglehold to ideological manipulation, and the genius of Kiss Me Deadly comes in how it makes each an equally feasible endgame. Yet, no matter what Achilles' heel fits best, there's still so much moral ambiguity crashing with those parting ocean waves. Of course, it's Velda who summarizes this idea best: 'They. A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great what's it. Does it exist? Who cares.'"
Joseph Losey's "favorite theme, most famously developed in a series of collaborations with the playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963; Accident, 1967), was that of the stranger taken into a seemingly stable household, where he or she begins to exert a cruel power over the other residents, with their mysterious acquiescence." Dave Kehr in the New York Times: "It's a theme that reappears in The Romantic Englishwoman, a 1975 Losey film that is just now appearing on American DVD. But this time Mr Losey's collaborator is the rather more witty and playful playwright Tom Stoppard, working with the novelist Thomas Wiseman on an adaptation of Mr Wiseman's 1971 book of the same name." Out from Kino, The Romantic Englishwoman "remains one of Losey's most accomplished and engaging films."
Also reviewed this week is Clarence Brown's Night Flight (1933): "Conceived in the spirit of Grand Hotel, MGM's smash of 1932, Night Flight is an all-star production that weaves together several independent plotlines to relate the epic tale of the first overnight mail flight across the Andes. The cast includes Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy and the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore…. It seems to have left a profound impression on the young Howard Hawks, then unhappily employed at MGM working on Today We Live, who lifted whole chunks of it for his 1939 classic Only Angels Have Wings." Out from Warner Home Video.
While Shôhei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships (1962), out from Masters of Cinema, "may trace the tragicomic downward spiral of young 'two-bit hoodlum' Kinta (Imamura regular Nagato Hiroyuki) as he struggles both to 'become a man' and make his fortune," writes Anton Bitel for Little White Lies, "it is also an allegory of a nation trying to find its own identity under the post-Occupation Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan (or anpo joyaku)." That said, it's "not some dry anatomisation of Japan's post-war ills (like, say, Oshima Nagisa's bitter Night and Fog in Japan, made just a year before), but an energetic genre piece, full of rampant criminality and doomed romance, which remains rambunctiously entertaining from beginning to end."
Chris Cabin in Slant on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), out from Paramount: Sergio Leone's "massive invocation of the West was as much indebted to directors like Ford, Anthony Mann, and Howard Hawks, as well as such milestones as the original 3:10 to Yuma and Nicholas Ray's sublime Johnny Guitar, as the director himself was an agent of epic subversion in the genre that had influenced him and had paid his bills for a sizable chunk of his career. Fonda's startling, malevolent turn as the ruthless enforcer for a railroad baron stricken with tuberculosis (Gabriele Ferzetti) was just the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out: Leone's goal was essentially, like Tarantino's with Inglorious Basterds, to form a lacerating critique of the orderliness, selective factuality, and moral cleanliness of genre filmmaking, and from this, the director summoned a western of tremendous power and wild ambition. As the train carrying Charles Bronson's elusive, solemn gunslinger, nicknamed Harmonica, comes to a halt at a rickety station in the film's glorious opening salvo, it's indeed just a train, but it's also the foreboding phantom of America's industrialization and 'progress,' and the Technicolor resurrection of the train the Lumiere brothers filmed pulling into La Ciotat."
DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker (MSN Movies), Mark Kermode (Observer), Peter Martin (Twitch), Noel Murray (Los Angeles Times) and Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE).
The High Life is screening at MoMA through Sunday. Nick Pinkerton in the Voice: "After striking gold with the rich, nuanced portraiture of a mountainside village in 2009's Ghost Town, Chinese documentarian Zhao Dayong stretches a smaller canvas for his debut fiction feature, a mostly ordinary chronicle bookended with flourishes."
The Frieze Film Touring Programme is currently at the Outpost Summer Fayre in Norwich.