“Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Mike: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.

A scared young woman in a raincoat is running barefoot on the highway, trying to flag down a car. After some cars pass her by, the woman sees a fancy sports car approaching and stands directly in its path! PI Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is behind the wheel, and after almost hitting the woman, he tells her to get in. The woman’s name is Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman in her first movie role); she’s on the run from a mental institution (“laughing house”). Whoever was after her eventually catches up w/ them! Christina dies while being questioned under some sort of torture. The killers fake an accident by pushing Hammer’s car off the road; he survives and wakes up in hospital. Mike starts to investigate Christina’s death, even after told by the police (and FBI) to stay out of it.

In the hands of the director Robert Aldrich, the film becomes a starting point for a delirious expression of 1950s anxiety and paranoia, starting with opening credits that run backwards…

Noir b&w has never been photographed (Earnest Laszlo) more effectively than some of those night scenes… plus the long, dark hallways and staircases that suggest an enclosed world without redemption.

Right from the electric opening scene and the audacious opening credit sequence, the audience is drawn into Hammer’s seedy world, where morality is suspended, and the credo of the end justifying the means dominates Hammer’s actions.

 The “great whatsit” which Hammer searches for is one of the great movie gimmicks…

-Excerpts from IMDB movies

Based on Mickey Spillane’s novel and adapted by Al Bezzerides, the movie has an unique style and it’s recommended for fans of film noir. The story is transported from NYC to LA; the suitcase filled w/ drugs (too controversial) becomes something more dangerous.This is one of the first instances where a car in traffic looks realistic. Aldrich strapped a camera to the back of Hammer’s car. Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino were influenced by this B movie.

Velda: Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from the windows. Somebody might… blow you a kiss.

It’s implied the characters have a sex life. Some of the camera angles are modern and unusual. The supporting characters are diverse; we see Greek and Italian immigrants, a black boxing coach (Juano Hernandez from The Breaking Point), and a nightclub singer and bartender (who are also black). The acting is a mixed bag, but Meeker does a fine job as the tough, unflinching protagonist; he was a theater actor. We hear a song by Nat King Cole in the opening (“I’d Rather Have the Blues”). You can watch the movie on YouTube (for free)!

“The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950) starring Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, & John Dall

Lois: I didn’t know what I was doing! You know the truth!

Ed: The truth can get you twenty years!

In San Francisco, Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt AKA Spock‚Äôs mom in Star Trek), is set to divorce her fortune-hunter husband, Howard. Once he leaves for the airport, she finds out that he bought a gun, and thinks he plans to kill her. Lois frantically calls her lover, who happens to be an experienced homicide detective, Lt. Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb). Ed arrives at her house to calm Lois down. Soon after, Howard unexpectedly returns, and she shoots him dead! Ed (though he knows better) feels compelled to cover up the killing. Soon, he’s assigned to investigate the case. His younger brother/new detective, Andy (John Dall), is also assigned and anxious to prove his merit. Andy is getting married in a few days.

Ed: [to Andy] Better learn one thing: never take a case to bed.

We see locations in and around the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Telegraph Hill and Fort Point (which was used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo). There are some colorful supporting characters who add to the drama. The action (incl. car chase) scenes are done well. TCM’s Eddie Muller explained that this film was made on a small budget and produced by Jack M. Warner, who was fighting w/ his father, the Jack Warner. The son wanted to make films on his own. The director, Felix Feist, was a freelancer (not tied to any studio); he was married to Lisa Howard (who plays Janet- Andy’s wife).

Unlike Dall, Howard’s performance is natural and easy. Andy needed more characterization; he comes off as too dreamy-eyed for a cop. You also have to ignore the fact that Dall (tall/blonde/slim) and Cobb (short/dark-haired/stocky) look and sound nothing alike! It’s rare to see Cobb as a leading man; he tones down the brooding intensity and growling voice (which we know/love from his character roles). Sadly, Cobb and Wyatt (cast against type as the femme fatale) lack romantic chemistry. I did like their last scene together, which was enigmatic and had some smolder! Cobb got this role after a successful run on Broadway in Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller wrote the role of Willy Loman w/ Cobb in mind -WOW!

[1] …it is relentless and edgy, with no time for polish or emotional depth. Cameraman Russell Harlan (Blackboard Jungle; To Kill a Mockingbird) does a brilliant job with great angles and framing. It isn’t elegant, but it’s visually sharp.

[2] A fast, curious, edgy crime film that depends on a fabulous, simple twist, which you learn right at the start and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The clash of two cops who are brothers begins innocently, and turns and builds in a very believable way

Lee J. Cobb… just perfect in his role, right to the last scene when you see him look down the hall with the same feeling he has at the beginning of the film.

-Excerpts from IMDB movies

“Brute Force” (1947) starring Burt Lancaster & Hume Cronyn

Gallagher [after learning that parole board hearings have been cancelled]: Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison (Westgate Penitentiary). After being held in solitary, then hearing of a friend’s sudden death, he has had enough! Collins and Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the prison’s newspaper editor, plan an elaborate escape. The men in his cell say they’ll follow along. The head guard, Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn in his only villainous role), suspects something is up; he has informants all over. Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) holds authority on paper only; Dr. Walters (Art Smith) is a decent man who has been driven to alcoholism. These veteran actors came from NYC’s Group Theater (1931-1940) which followed the principles of Stanislavski. The film ends in a huge fight between guards and inmates, w/ gunfire, explosions, and many deaths!

Dr. Walters: Yes, Capt. Munsey. I’m just a very ordinary man. I get drunk on whiskey but you sir – you get drunk on power.

The acting is top notch; this is Lancaster’s 2nd movie after his debut opposite Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). He had height, looks (traffic-stopping), and screen presence; he was discovered by producer Mark Hallinger (who died at just 44 y.o. from a heart attack). Cronyn (who hailed from the theater, like his wife Jessica Tandy) chews up the scenery as a sadistic wanna-be dictator. In one standout scene, he interrogates and beats the prison reporter, Louie (Sam Levene), while the music of Wagner (Hitler’s favorite composer) plays in the background. The musical score (composed by Miklos Rozsa) is considered to be even more compelling than the one he wrote for The Killers.

Spencer: Driving along with such a dream doll beside me, I figured myself a pretty lucky guy. Flossie had looks, brains, and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces.

Yes, there are women here (unlike most jail-related movies); they appear in flashbacks. Spencer (John Hoyt- best known as Dr. Boyce in the series pilot of Star Trek: TOS) recounts a story of picking up a beautiful gambler, Flossie (Anita Colby). A mild-mannered bookeeper is in jail b/c he stole to please his wife (Ella Raines- who appeared in several noir films). Becker (Howard Duff) is former soldier dreaming of going back to Italy, where he left his lady love (Yvonne De Carlo). She co-starred w/ Lancaster in Criss Cross, which is a can’t miss noir. The woman in Collins’ life, Ruth (Ann Blyth), is as far from a femme fatale as you can get! This movie is on Amazon and YouTube (can see for free).

[1] Director Jules Dassin is brilliant with light, and sets the example for the French “new wave” of cinema. Lighting Burt Lancaster from the side, or from underneath, makes him and the other actors look almost surreal.

[2] The violence is not explicitly disclosed like in the present days, but the cruelty of Captain Munsey can be understood even by the most naive viewer.

[3] This powerful drama is totally uncompromising and provides a convincing account of what life is like in a prison which is being run in a particularly brutal and autocratic manner. The consequence for the inmates is that they live in an oppressive and overcrowded environment where hard labour, poor quality food and harsh treatment are the norm. Furthermore, they are also subjected to a cruel system which leads to many of them being abused, tortured or even killed

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Kansas City Confidential” (1952) starring John Payne & Coleen Gray

Detective: … left school to enlist with the engineers. Pretty good soldier too! Bronze Star, Purple Heart!

Joe: Try and buy a cup of coffee with them!

A WWII vet working as a flower deliveryman, Joe Rolfe (John Payne- best known as the lawyer/neighbor in Miracle on 34th Street), becomes the fall guy for an armored car robbery worth $1.2M. Payne is very tall (6’4″), w/ an athletic body, and large/expressive brown eyes. When Joe is released for lack of evidence, after being roughly interrogated by the cops, he’s determined to discover who set him up and why. After 6 mos, he gets info which leads down to Tijuana, Mexico. There he meets a nervous ex-con, Pete Harris (Jack Elam), at a gambling house. Pete doesn’t have his share of the robbery money, but is flying to Barrados (a fishing village) to pick it up. He doesn’t know who planned it, or the other criminals (character actors Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef). They all had to wear full face masks during the robbery!

[1] …Payne started off as a crooner and hoofer, a light leading man… he ended up one of the most convincing ordinary-guy protagonists in the noir cycle. He’s tough, all right, but still shows the flop-sweat of fear; and he’s smart, too, but because he’s forced to be what he’s trying to hang onto is all he’s got.

[2] The suspense in Kansas City Confidential is not about who did it. The three robbers are… three of the nastiest dudes in film history. The suspense lies whether Payne can put it all together. As he says to one of them, he’s flying blind in this one.

John Payne gives a riveting performance of a desperate man and one you don’t leave holding the bag without consequences. This is one of the best noir films ever done, not to be missed.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Quentin Tarantino said that Reservoir Dogs (1992) was inspired by this film noir. Kansas City Confidential was directed by Phil Karson (who also made Scandal Sheet); he worked steadily in small budget pictures. This film doesn’t shy away from violence (punching, kicking, and gunplay). The fights happen fast and don’t look slick; they’re a fact of life for shady men. Joe spent a year in jail, too; he can handle himself in rough situations. His love interest is pretty, but also smart (a law student); Helen (Coleen Gray) surprises her father (Preston Foster) by arriving at the resort for a vacation. Gray is perhaps best known as Fay, the loyal girlfriend to Sterling Hayden (another handsome tall drink of water) in Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). The romantic scenes were few, but played well; Payne and Gray became a real-life couple for some time. I noticed (on second viewing) that the editing is tight and well-done. Check out this film for free (since it’s in the public domain) on Amazon or YouTube!

“The Big Combo” (1955) starring Cornel Wilde & Richard Conte

Capt. Peterson: You’re a cop, Leonard. There’s 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.

This is a lesser-known/low-budget noir w/ snappy dialogue, a jazz score (rare for that period), and fine B&W cinematography. It has its good points, but the femme fatale isn’t compelling, and a few scenes seem slow. A determined cop, Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde from Leave Her to Heaven), is told to stop surveillance of suave mob boss, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte from Thieves’ Highway). Leonard’s captain says it’s costing the police department too much money w/ no results after 6 mos. Diamond makes one last attempt to uncover evidence against Brown by going to Brown’s girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace- wife of Wilde and resembling Grace Kelly), who is chaperoned by two henchmen- Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman).

Mr. Brown: I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.

This was one of the very first American films to imply a man going down on a woman; I was a bit surprised! Brown maneuvers around Susan, stopping briefly at her lips, but then dropping out of frame, seemingly down past her waist. Leonard is clearly having a “friends w/ benefits” relationship w/ the burlesque dancer, Rita (Helene Stanton). Her show outfit is sparkly and skimpy, even by today’s standards. Also, the film openly infers that Fante and Mingo are a gay couple who live together, kill together, and seem to love each other (note the basement scene).

 In a performance brimming with cool menace, Conte is fond of saying `First is first and second is nobody.’

And Brown is obsessed with his prowess with women as Diamond is with capturing him and wooing his moll. The film is filled with risque sexual allusions…

What almost ruined this picture for me was the hideously annoying performance of actress Jean Wallace…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews