Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Some Came Running & Kiss Me Deadly

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Came Running & Kiss Me Deadly

"You get on the merry-go-round and think you can get off any old time, but then it starts going too fast."

-Gabrielle, Kiss Me Deadly

The image of the merry-go-round is appropriate. Although there is no carousel in Kiss Me Deadly, the finale of Some Came Running features the full carnival assortment - merry-go-round, ferris wheel, various other whirligigs - as a backdrop for sudden violence. And both films feature impatient, restless characters who suddenly find themselves spinning out of control - it's all they can do to hang on for dear life as the machinery of modern life becomes too overwhelming. Some Came Running is a widescreen color melodrama, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Frank Sinatra as an ex-G.I. inadvertently returned to his old hometown, where he decides to stick around (partly out of spite for his respectable, anxiety-ridden older brother). Kiss Me Deadly is a black-and-white late-stage noir, which positions itself on the sleazy streets of L.A. and sends the brutish private dick Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) on a rendezvous with the apocalypse. Both films, quintessential fifties movies in their own unique ways, recall the forties and anticipate the sixties. Both climax with acts of destruction which the respective films have been quietly building towards, but which nonetheless shock with their all-out assault on the viewer's senses. And both films use bodies of water, a vast river in Some Came Running, and the waves of an angry seashore in Kiss Me Deadly, to hint at the wider world which exists beyond their own claustrophobic borders.


I hadn't initially planned to pair up my reviews of these two films, but both recently came into my possession and I ended up watching them back-to-back. What struck me is something that often strikes me about the best of fifties American cinema: the sense of a more-or-less placid surface concealing rivulets of pent-up energy and a hidden transcendent grandeur. I wrote about this in Bigger Than Life, on a later date noting in Funny Face the modern energy of the fifties, which has been overlooked in light of the more aesthetically revolutionary sixties. As I said at the time, "The sixties capitalized on a sense of 'bigness,' of limitless potential already inherent in the fifties. It may not have been utilized but it was there - the postwar atmosphere charged with sensations of a new world and new horizons." Both Some Came Running and Kiss Me Deadly do utilize that potential, in their final moments, taking the cap off the repressed energy. Some Came Running puts the cap back on, though we're left unsettled, while Kiss Me Deadly suggests that the cap can never be put back on, that Pandora has opened her atomic box and there's no fitting the escaped evil back inside.

Some Came Running opens with Dave Hirsch (Frank Sinatra) in a drunken slumber on a bus. As he sleeps, a wide river spreads in the distance, crowned on either side by lush forests. But being asleep, he doesn't see it; the first sight that greets him, when the bus stops and the driver calls out, is the old familiar main street of his old familiar town. Dave enters Parkman like a plague bacillus, accompanied by a good-hearted but dumb floozy, Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine), whom he flirted with the night before but no longer remembers. Word spreads through the little town that Dave is home, that big brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) may not have been expecting him, and that Dave just deposited a large sum of money in Frank's rival bank. Over the next few days, Dave will get in fights, gamble nights away with laconic, wisecracking, perpetually hat-wearing Bama Dillert (Dean Martin), and inadvertently drag the lovestruck Ginnie in his wake, alternately tolerating and abusing her; all the while, a sinister mobbed-up ex-lover stalks her and him.

But Dave isn't all trouble; he's actually a figure of ambivalence. Even while he carouses and humiliates his brother, he has his sensitive side. He's a writer, and his ambivalence is a writer's ambivalence; his romanticism competes with his cynicism and his sense of responsibility conflicts with his sense of freedom. At one point he gives up drinking and tries to woo a young, very uptight English teacher, Gwen French (Martha Hyer). Truth be told, Gwen is a bit of a bore and I think most viewers will secretly root for Dave to get with Ginnie, whom MacLaine imbues with a pathos and a nervy, silly genuineness that is irresistible (her performance competes with Martin's as the most charismatic in the movie). However, Gwen's appeal stands for larger values, of stability and grandeur, demonstrated when Dave visits her beautiful home near the river, finally opening up a bit and sharing his unpublished novel. For the first time since the beginning, when Dave was asleep, we see that breathtaking river vista: a reminder of the strong, steady, too-vast-to-understand nature which undergirds this petty little town. When Dave and Gwen discuss his work, he kisses her, she retreats, he pulls down her hair, and for the first time we can see what he sees in her, as she's caught slightly off-guard and seems unexpectedly vulnerable and passionate at the same time. They embrace, and Minnelli allows a bold visual flourish into his heretofore repressed aesthetic: the exposure darkens, and then darkens again, until Gwen and Dave are only shadows, throbbing closer and closer to one another.

The film climaxes with another visual flourish, or rather a series of them, just as unexpected as that underexposure, just as rich in associations, and even more overwhelming. Suddenly we seem to be seeing the town, and the world, as it really is. Again figures are shadows, running in front of the brightly lit honky-tonks and ferris wheels and carnival barkers' tents, red cars popping with proto-American Graffiti sheen, cuts coming faster, Ginnie's gangster lover stalking violently through the crowd. Movement quickens, as do cuts, an operatic, flamboyant flavor spreads through the mise en scene, tension escalates, violent energy builds, in tune with the maddeningly repetitive carnival music. Then a gunshot, another gunshot. The film ends back at the river, with the rest of the cast assembled. Though all is calm again, that awesome landscape has replaced the town's facades as a symbol of raised consciousness, an increased awareness of the transcendent power that lurks under the boredom and restlessness of mid-century American life.

Kiss Me Deadly's milieu is far more actively sleazy than Some Came Running's, but there's still a feeling of repression, of a lid being - barely - held down. Mike Hammer is nobody's idea of respectable, but still he has his place in the hierarchy of Los Angeles' underbelly. As the police are wont to remind him, he's a divorce dick with a unique method: sic his female assistant on one spouse, himself on the other, and play both ends against the middle. Mike's entry into a larger scheme arrives with a slightly hysterical hitchhiker in a trenchcoat (Cloris Leachman) who ends up in his car, gets Mike hospitalized, and gets herself tortured and killed by mysterious thugs. Mike wants to know more, and the film gets stranger and stranger as he comes closer to the truth. It's an idiosyncratic movie to begin with, the tone caught between Mickey Spillane's tough guy's tough guy prose ("dat Mickey Spillane, he sure can write!" marvel the Bronx dimbulbs in another 1955 film, Marty) and Robert Aldrich's subversive sensibility. The opening credits roll - which is unusual enough - but what's more, they roll backwards!

As Mike's journey takes him closer and closer to the apocalyptic, almost sci-fi, truth, it's as if ten years of noir is spilling over its borders, soaking into 50s sci-fi, cold war atomic age paranoia, beat culture, heightened awareness of pop and camp, restless filmmaking of the B-meets-high art New Wave school. Borders disintegrate, and so if Some Came Running's central image is that vast river, Kiss Me Deadly is appropriately summarized by the pounding waves at the beach, where Mike is brought to be tortured. Not transcendence, but chaos lingers in the wings, waiting to make its grand entrance. The delight of the film is when its unstable detective narrative encounters elements which can't be digested and the movie bursts open. Mike discovers a box in a locker and opens it, a bright light and weird noise emanates, he quickly shuts the lid. The box itself is referred to as the Whatsit, as if no mere name could summarize its contents, a semiotic admittance of unfathomable possibilities. Finally, in the end, it's the traitorous Gabrielle (Gaby Rogers), already an edgy presence with her hopped-up eyes and close-cropped hair, who follows up on her merry-go-round statement by taking another risk. She shoots a fellow criminal - even the mob is powerless in comparison to the wild, unpredictable elements the film unleashes - and opens the Whatsit herself.

For years, the only version of Kiss Me Deadly had Hammer and his partner seeming to go up in flames with the exploding beach house, ending the film with a grim apocalyptic finality. Currently the DVD features the originally intended ending, with Hammer escaping onto the beach just in time. But those waves are still pounding, the Whatsit has still been opened - is this the end of the destruction, or only the beginning? Unlike Some Came Running, which stops the merry-go-round after it's thrown a passenger to the ground, Kiss Me Deadly keeps it whirling and whirling, ever in danger of melting down completely and destroying itself, and all of us with it.


Here are the two endings, Kiss Me Deadly first, followed by Some Came Running.





WARNING - For whatever reason, the comments section ended up including spoilers for "Chinatown" and "Twin Peaks." Read on at your own risk.

9 comments:

manwithoutastar said...

I really love both if these films - my favourite Minnelli and one of my favourite noirs.. And would never have though to link them together! Also, of course Strangers on a Train does the same thing- again a vast expanse of water and here a carousel that spins faster and faster out of control. And Hitch was a master of sensory cinema..

Fairground rides often appear in movies and often seem metaphorical of cinema in some way of other - entertainment, modernity, unrelenting narrative etc. The most obvious might be Rene Clair's Entr'acte. Fritz Lang's Liliom uses the carousel this way too.

If you have time maybe you might take a look at my site, which you can get to by clicking my name (as I'm sure you're aware..) I like your site very much and have linked to it! If you like mine maybe you'd consider linking back?

MovieMan0283 said...

manwithoutastar, besides the facts you mention, fairs/carnivals/amusement parks are just great, cinematic locations - they always look good on film.

As for your blog, I'll definitely link it up - I checked it out the other day, and it looked really interesting. There a lot of blogs I need to add to my blogroll but there's already so many great ones to follow, sometimes I lose track and my "fellow travelers" tend to stay the same for a while.

Tony Dayoub said...

Hey MovieMan,

From one Lynch fan to another, did you notice the visual influence of some of the imagery in Kiss Me Deadly on Lynch's Lost Highway?

Well I was just about to link to my post when I realized you posted a comment on that very fact.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, oddly enough I noticed it watching Lost Highway but forgot about it when re-watching Kiss Me Deadly.

And while we're on the subject of Lynch, the tone of Wicker Man occasionally reminded me of Lynch to. I wander if it's a case of conscious emulation or just "great minds think alike..."

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Great post...although I am ashamed to admit I haven't yet seen "Some Came Running".

The delight of the film is when its unstable detective narrative encounters elements which can't be digested and the movie bursts open.

I have this half-formed theory that the above point has been the operative thrust behind noir since the 50's -- when the genre that started with seedy criminals spontaneously re-connected with its German Expressionism roots (ie, dreamy horror). I hadn't yet seen Aldrich when I wrote a lengthy piece a while back connecting the Red Scare with the unthinkable atrocity of rape/incest, but I think I missed an opportunity. Good noir seems to draw us into those unconscious fears and desires that typically spell annihilation (which is why a woman opens the nuclear whatsit). The only thing I found myself wishing at the end of "Kiss Me Deadly" is that the cubic box COULDN'T be explained by phrases like "Los Alamos" or "Manhattan Project". We're still afraid of the bomb today, but we understand it all too well -- the whatsit has lost some of its mystic power via enlightenment. The best ghostly contraptions are shrouded in menacing mystery: like the creamed corn in "Twin Peaks" or the triangular key in "Mulholland Drive". It's the unknown that chills me, personally.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jon,

Do you have a link up for that particular essay. I don't have to say I don't really see it, but that's all the more reason to read your piece.

As for the use of "Manhattan Project", other historical signifiers, etc. I have a fascination with the confluence of the concrete/historical and the pyschological/metaphysical...rather than seeing the mystery reduced to a historical context, I see it as the historical context getting a more mysterious, almost mystical underpinning. I also appreciate the kind of rootless, existential horror you bring up - both approaches have their place and their appeal, I think. You should look into my Fire Walk With me review though - that was one spot where I actually had some problems with the way the mystical, supernatural elements co-existed with the themes of incest and rape. It was more of a moral problem than an aesthetic one, though, because that film was one of the most powerful I've ever seen.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Here ya go, Movieman!... I should warn you, though, this isn't the most organized piece I've ever written...a few of the arguments I'm not even sure I totally buy myself, and at some level I think it works better as a prose poem. But, at the very the least I'm pretty sure the link between communism/nuclear holocaust and sexual violence is somewhat original...

To Slap a Dame

As for your Twin Peaks pieces, I've been reading through them slowly (I recently re-watched the show with my wife in sequence) and they're uniformly trenchant. I don't necessarily disagree with the moral problems re: "Fire Walk With Me," either (although I had plenty of aesthetic problems with the movie as well). In some ways it's not a fair comparison, but juxtapose "Fire Walk With Me" with say, "Chinatown," which is structured around a similar act of brutality (I also mention "Chinatown" in my piece above). But Polanski and Towne made incest the twist rather than the trajectory -- and it's the greatest twist of all time, a chillingly symbolic, not to mention mythic, freefall drop off the noir precipice. Lynch's goal, on the other hand, is to make us actually undergo the hell of Laura Palmer. It's an experience worth having for the sake of empathizing with the "victim" of Laura's character, but in a way I felt like it was belittling to rape as a serious social issue, too. However, this problem didn't exist in the series, where we were only teased, rather than bludgeoned, with these horrific details.

Oh, and sorry for writing such long comments...concise conversation was never my forté.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jon, I actually have a problem with Chinatown on that subject too, or rather, not Chinatown, but the way it's been described over the year, particularly by Robert Towne. The film itself, actually, I think hits the nail on the head in the way in which it weaves together the political and sexual themes, particularly in Polanski's sour ending.

But Towne, who constantly criticizes Polanski's revision of the screenplay, has also often made the incest subplot sound merely like a clever corollary to the "larger" theme of "raping" the community - as if Evelyn's trauma was merely a clever metaphor for her father's even more evil deeds.

I think this trivializes the theme of incest, and I think Polanski was right to focus on this crime in his conclusion; in other words, Towne apparently wanted to use incest as a prism through which to look at corruption, whereas Polanski couples the two, and the emphasis of the final scene seems to bring more horror to bear on the incest theme.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

MovieMan,

I think Towne eventually recanted and claimed that Polanski was right (albeit begrudgingly) but also the "incest as metaphor" self-annotation strikes to the heart of the difference between the Towne and the Polanski aesthetic (ie, the distant, social epic vs. the burrowing psychological portrait). Imagine if "Chinatown" had had the sweeping, grandiose self-importance of, say, "The Godfather" (on which Towne worked as a script doctor). Polanski, who might very well be an authentic pervert (not that I want to get into another debate about that) was the perfect director for the job.

But, more than the municipal greed aspect, I like (well, "like" is maybe not the word...) the haunting ending of "Chinatown" because the incest doesn't HAVE to be a metaphor for anything -- we discover the plot to be a centripetal whirlpool at that moment of revelation, not with purloined water at the center but grotesquely purloined innocence. You could, obviously, understand them as mirror images, but I'm also interested in the way that Polanski uses incest to contort noir traditions -- it's almost like the movie is chastising us for every gunmoll/gumshoe flick we ever relished. We follow the same trail of crumb clues that Jake Gittes does, rather than inhabiting Evelyn's mind (as we did with the female protagonist of "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby") and feel the tantalizing grainy granules turn into hot bubbles of poison on our tongues. It's a noir that coaxes us in only to appall and shock us; this holds true no matter HOW you look at the ending (ie, an evil, manipulative hand over LA, or Evelyn's daughter/sister). What the viewer feels at the ending is the perplexing form of satisfaction offered in film outside Buñuel.

btw, Happy Holidays to all, and any universe where I can spend Xmas eve discussing cinematic rape on a blog must be the correct one for me.