KISS ME DEADLY / I THE JURY: Spillaine on FILM reviewed

Film / Video Reviews
KISS ME DEADLY / I THE JURY: Spillaine on FILM reviewed
Jun 19, 2001, 05:51

KISS ME DEADLY (1955) directed by Robert Aldrich; MGM/UA, 2001 I THE JURY (1982) directed by Richard T. Heffron; Fox Home Video, 1990

Mickey Spillane's mega‑popular Mike Hammer novels have been blamed for giving hardboiled literature a bad name, reviled as fascist, misogynist, and flat‑out racist. Spillane took the most underlying elements of the genre and put them right out front for a postwar audience of men who liked their heroes manly (no faggots), reactionary (no Jewish/Commie intellectuals) bare-fisted and big‑dicked. What's generally overlooked in all the (deserved) criticism is that, in the first few Hammer novels, Spillane could weave a tight story, and the writing, at times, especially in his descriptions of night in New York, could be—I'm not joking—nearly lyrical. Perfect fodder, in short, for the movies. So it's not too astonishing that one entertaining film, and an inarguably great one, were made from Spillane's books.

Kiss Me Deadly is the great one. I first saw this film over ten years ago on free TV in the middle of the night, and knew at once—as the title credits crawled from down to up—that I was entering a place turned inside out, where, underneath the surface of Chandler's celebrated “world gone wrong,” even the maggots had no life. Very loosely based on the Spillane novel of the same name, and adapted by the great screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves Highway), Kiss Me Deadly was helmed by Robert Aldrich well past the height of the noir cycle. It can be argued, in fact that the film is the end of noir as Aldrich, one of our most interesting and unheralded American Directors, pretty much incinerates the genre here, taking it as far as it can go and then burning it all to hell. In the first five minutes, a young Cloris Leachman is tortured in a room adjoining Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a scene which in graphic terms shows very little but is nevertheless excruciating. “Don't forget me,” she had told Hammer when he picked her up in his ragtop MG on a lonely road, and the rest of the film details his clumsy search to find the reason for her death. He runs into assorted ghouls along the way (Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Paul Stewart, Albert Dekker), culminating in the opening of a Pandora's Box of nuclear energy in a beach house, bringing on what can only be interpreted as the end of the world (I have seen two endings of this film, but even the more “hopeful” one remains bleak). Stylistically, Aldrich and cinematographer Ernest Laszio pull out all the noir stops—tilts, crawling shadows, up-lit actors, etc.—and both of them have obviously studied a lot of Welles as photographed by deep-focus‑era Gregg Toland. Most interesting is the portrayal of Hammer by Meeker, a brutish, carnivorous, rather stupid‑looking actor, written by Bezzerides as some sort of zombiefied sociopath rather than the traditional flawed‑but‑noble hard‑boiled dick. On the humor side, the Greek American Bezzerides gives Hammer an ethnic sidekick with an outrageous accent, a Greek auto mechanic named Nick, who loves cars and expresses his love, continually, in the following manner: “Va-va-voom, pretty-pow!” Kiss Me Deadly has influenced everyone from Godard (Jean Seberg's haircut in Breathless) to Arthur Penn (Faye Dunaway's descent down the stairwell to meet her man in Bonnie and Clyde is a direct crib), and the film is one of Truffaut's and Scorcese's favorites, but don't let all the cinephilic air-kisses put you off—this is just a whole lot of unsettling fun.

A film with less on its mind is Richard T. Heffron's I The Jury. Scripted by cult filmmaker Larry Cohen, this is the second movie version of Spillane's first and best-known novel. Made in 1982, but very much a '70s exploitation film—Hammer drives a Z-28 Camaro, and Bill “Theme from Rocky” Conti's cheesy score could be right at home on an episode of Starsky and Hutch—this is a movie made by boys for boys. With big-breasted, full-bushed women and uzi firepower splashed across every frame, this plays like a hardboiled genre picture as interpreted by Russ Meyer. The film, in fact, would barely be worth mentioning if not for Armande Assante's turn here as Mike Hammer. Like Ralph Meeker, Assante's Hammer has empty, glazed eyes, and he's a bit of a mouth-breather. But Assante, with his knit tie-tucked-into-his-suit-pants fashion sense and elevator-shoe swagger, inhabits this role like a guy who doesn't care if he ever sees another sunrise. In short, he might be on the slow side, but he's also a way-bad motherfucker. I The Jury has a classic scene of violence inside a Benihana-style restaurant, and ends, fittingly, with Spillane's famous last line of dialogue intact. Finally, this film is worth watching for the nude scenes of Barbara Carrera alone, the most beautiful bad actress to ever step out of a negligee onscreen. Check it out.

-George Pelecanos

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