Friday, July 27, 2007

The Big Heat (1953)

By Eddie Muller

Since I wrote the following words in 1998 I've seen The Big Heat maybe 5 more times. That makes it probably fourteen or fifteen viewings, total. Astoundingly, it never disappoints. I might now, from a thematic standpoint, question its noir credentials -- are "vengeful cop" movies really noir? -- but no one can question its greatness. This and Scarlet Street stand as Lang's finest Hollywood films, in my opinion.

Editor's note: The following is from Eddie Muller's book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir

The Big Heat
(Columbia, 1953) is the ultimate angry cop noir, its tale of vengeance rendered with almost tantalizing perfection. Uptown critics dismissed it at the time as just another crime potboiler, signifying Fritz Lang's demise as an A-list director. They missed the cold brilliance that electrified genre conventions, and the exhilarating union of brooding Germanic fatalism and Wild West ass-kicking.

Seconds after the fade-in, corrupt cop Tom Duncan blows his brains out. His suicide not exposes the death-grip gangster Mike Lagana (Alex Scourby) has on the city's power elite. Duncan's wife finds the body and stashes the note, safekeeping it to blackmail Lagana and keep herself in a style she never enjoyed as a cop's wife. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a blue-collar bulldog, gets suspicious and turns up Duncan's mistress, Lucy Chapman, a B-girl who knows where the bodies are buried. Next thing Bannion knows, Lucy's one of those bodies.

Despite warnings from his bosses to back off, Bannion barges into Lagana's palatial mansion. There's art, servants, music: it sickens Bannion. “Cops have homes, too. Only sometimes there isn't enough money to pay the rent, because an honest cop gets hounded off the force by you thievin' cockroaches for tryin' to do an honest job.” He personally vows to bring the big heat down on Lagana.

Insulted, Lagana returns to his roots: His thug plants a bomb in Bannion's car, which kills the cop's wife, Katie. When his boss doesn't pursue Lagana, Bannion flips off his badge and loads up his .38; “That doesn't belong to the department,” he seethes. “I bought it.”

Locked and loaded, The Big Heat gallops into the concrete frontier: there are showdowns in saloons, rustlers biding time with endless hands of poker, a robber baron devouring territory while tin stars look the other way. And most critically, there's the whore with the heart of gold.

Debbie marsh (Gloria Grahame) is the moll of Lagana's troglodyte torpedo, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). She's a sexy, smart-mouthed material woman, hopelessly lost amid the macho posturing and power plays. After Vince, in a jealous rage, scars her face with a pot of boiling coffee, Debbie throws in her lot with the honest cop. Bannion, true to his moral superiority, never gives in to his murderous temptations. But Debbie, already in the gutter, redeems herself by laying waste to their tormentors. First she blows the lid off Lagana's empire by blasting Mrs. Duncan - allowing Bannion to retrieve the incriminating suicide note. Feeling her oats, Debbie settles up with Vince, administering her own hot java facial.

Debbie dies in the climatic shoot-out. As she longingly looks to Bannion for love and approval, he eulogizes his dead wife. In the epilogue, Bannion is back on the force, frontier marshal in Metropolis, waiting for the next Lagana to ride into town.

The film's power is mainly due to the talents of two men: screenwriter Sydney Boehm, a former crime reporter responsible for more crackerjack noir scripts than anyone else, and Lang, whose work is almost synonymous with noir. His early German films, Metropolis and M, etched the first blueprints of Dark City: omnipotent external forces dictating the fate of innocent people, and uncontrollable internal urges leading to self-destruction.

Lang himself fostered the legend that he had stared the demon in the face in 1933, when Hitler and Goebbles anointed him as the “man who will give us the big Nazi pictures.” He claimed o have immediately fled Germany, his riches later repatriated by the Reich. Later research revealed Lang to be a master of embellishment: he had, in truth, displayed little resistance to the Nazis during their rise to power. It was the promise of Hollywood opportunity - mixed with a nagging fear that the Nazis would betray him due to his mother's Jewish heritage - that lead Lang to surrender his preeminence in the German film industry. Ensconced on Hollywood production lines, Lang became the movie industry's official Minister of Fear, almost gleefully dusting his studio confections with the doom he felt was at the heart of the universe.

With The Big Heat, Lang shook off several desultory years, inspired by the crisp geometry of Boehm's script - and perhaps by its ferocious outrage. Accounting for the film's popularity, Lang said, uncharacteristically, that “Deep down... in ever human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil. Could it be that people see in [Bannion] a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity, and the H-bomb?”

Only Fritz Lang could extract equal dread from government taxation and nuclear annihilation.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

British neo-noir Part 1: Mona Lisa (1986)

Editor's note: The following three-part article is a modified excerpt from the book European Film Noir

Andrew Spicer has kindly reworked his chapter on British noir for the blog. We thank him for contributing this insightful look at a sometimes neglected part of the film noir world.

by Andrew Spicer

Because of the powerful and well-established tradition of crime films in British cinema, the vast majority of British neo-noirs are variations of the crime thriller, differentiated from more conventional films by their highly wrought visual style, an emphasis on moral ambiguity and psychological complexity, and a often a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy, subjectivity and objectivity. Typical of neo-noir as a whole, British neo-noirs are highly intertextual and allusive, both thematically and visually. They have a degree of visibility and recognition - even if they are often reviewed dismissively - because they are produced by film-makers conscious of the ‘tradition’ of film noir. However, although they share many of the characteristics of the earlier British films noir, they draw upon, not preceding British noirs, which are virtually unknown to both film-makers and audiences, but American film noir and neo-noir. As Antonia Bird, whose 1997 film Face is discussed in detail, commented, ‘I’m always looking at American genre movies, and I think that’s mainly because of the way our cinema is in this country, because we are raised on American thrillers and genre films. To approach it in any other way wouldn’t only be foolish but unpalatable, so it’s got to come through that route.’ Face’s most direct models, Bird revealed, were The Last Boy Scout (1991) and Heat (1995). As she recognizes, to produce neo-noirs that can reach a broad cinema going public necessitates British film-makers using a shared familiarity derived from American cinema.

Although some British neo-noirs are derivative imitations of their American avatars, the majority display a strong sense of national identity and, like Face, engage directly with contemporary British life. They combine the observational, quasi-documentary aesthetic of social realism, a powerful and pervasive presence within British cinema, with noir conventions. The two traditions create a different sense of space and place, generic and realistic, which give these films a textual and iconographic richness. With some exceptions, the most interesting British neo-noirs strive to capture the dynamism of American films combined with a detailed, and also highly critical, exploration of British social mores. They are also preoccupied with the complexities of masculinity: male violence, neuroses and unstable identities.

But within these broad parameters, British neo-noirs are a remarkably heterogeneous corpus of films, with few internal connections in terms of personnel. This reflects the notorious instability of the British film industry whose volatility (shortage of production finance and chronic problems of distribution and exhibition) makes it very difficult to forge durable production teams which can sustain and develop their creative endeavor over a number of films that explore similar themes and issues. In Britain there is little sense of a community of film-makers whose films are mutually reinforcing, or which can act as a creative influence on each other. It is much more the case that each film is a separate event, produced in isolation, with each neo-noir having to invent itself anew; it is no coincidence that many contemporary British neo-noirs are the work of first-time writer-directors. However, given these unpromising conditions, neo-noir is often an attractive option because it can be made on limited budgets without necessarily compromising its thematic and visual sophistication; deft lighting and adroit compositional devices can compensate for minimal sets and restricted settings.

The one film-maker who may be said to have a major creative presence in British neo-noir is Mike Hodges with three examples. But, even in his case, twenty-six years separated Get Carter (1971) from his second neo-noir, Croupier (1997), as Hodges, like so many talented British directors (and other creative personnel) had to seek work in Hollywood. He also suffered from lack of recognition and support in his native land: Croupier was so poorly distributed that it had to become a word of mouth success in America before it gained a reasonable circuit release in Britain in the summer of 1999. Critical recognition was only granted in retrospect. Even despite Croupier’s success, Hodges had difficulty raising finance for I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003). However, Get Carter, a highly representative British neo-noir because of its combination of indebtedness to American gangster films and British social realism (Hodges was trained as a documentarist), has itself become a powerful model, acting as a cultural intermediary between contemporary British film-makers and American noir. It is rare for a current neo-noir not to use some verbal or visual reference to Hodges’ film. The opening shot of a railway journey in Out of Depth (1998), for example, was a deliberate homage, as was the way in which the lead character was dressed.

Mona Lisa (1987), which fused the poetic and surreal qualities of director Neil Jordan with the intimate knowledge of London and social realism of his co-screenwriter David Leland, had some similarities, but its vision of London is much darker than that of Hidden City, a truly noir world of underage prostitution, pornography, drug-dealing and heroin addiction. At its centre is George (Bob Hoskins), whom Jordan described as the ‘utterly ordinary contemporary hero, the mug who is lost in a maze of guile, the big heart with the slow brain, the one with the child’s eyes, who believes too much.’ In a part written specifically for him, Hoskins makes George both tough, full of inarticulate rage, and yet intensely vulnerable, naively trying to set the world to rights and be reunited with his daughter. Another man-out-of-his-time, George struggles to cope with a world that has changed radically during his seven years in prison. Returning to his old employer, Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine), George is given the job of chauffeuring Simone (Cathy Tyson), an elegant black prostitute, through whom Mortwell satisfies whatever perverted fantasy his rich clients desire. Mona Lisa recalls Taxi Driver (1976) as George and Simone drive round under the distracting glare of a neon-lit nocturnal city, but as Jordan emphasized, its characterization is very different and specifically British, pairing a chauvinist, racist little Englander, with his opposite. As Simone’s feisty independence and self-possession makes George examine his attitudes even as she forces him to change his clothes, their antagonism gives way to affection and George falls in love with the enigmatic female enshrined in the smaltzy Nat King Cole song that gives Mona Lisa its title. As her champion, George helps Simone search for the fifteen-year-old prostitute Cathy (Kate Hardie), a girl who could be his daughter, and who could form part of the ‘normal, ordinary family life’ that George is desperate to resume.

The search for Cathy is George’s entrée to a nightmare London beyond his imaginings, as the pair repeatedly revisit the street in King’s Cross, the ‘meat rack’, where the down-and-out prostitutes gather, a street lit to resemble a hell’s mouth. Jordan wanted these scenes to have a Dantean quality and for the film’s look to become progressively more stylized and phantasmagorical. George’s purgatorial journey increases his own sense of bewilderment and further undermines his already fragile grip on his identity. His successful quest to save Cathy shatters his own romantic delusions as he realizes that she is the object of Simone’s desire. In a neatly ironic reference to the heterosexuality of classic noir, the scene from Nicolas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) where the lovers-on-the run walk up the garden path to the marriage office door, is showing on the television screen in the hotel room in Brighton to which George, Simone and Cathy have fled. After the violent climax in which Simone shoots Mortwell, George retreats to his surreal haven, a caravan in a warehouse owned by his friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane), where he is surrounded by bizarre objects which Thomas thinks might sell. In this alternative world, reunited with his daughter in a surrogate family of three, George’s anger and resentment, ‘I sold myself for a pair of dykes’, modulates into wistful, sentimentalized compassion: ‘She was trapped ... like a bird in a cage’. He begins to see himself dispassionately as the unwitting actor in a grotesque nightmare, that may or may not have really happened, a story as strange as that of the novel Thomas gave him to read, John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron,whose introduction of surreal, defamiliarizing qualities into the thriller world influenced Jordan’s conception of the film. It is this combination of tense, absorbing action and self-reflexivity that mark Mona Lisa as one of the key British neo-noirs.

The article continues here

British neo-noir Part 2: Croupier (1998)

By Andrew Spicer - a modified excerpt from the book European Film Noir

The existentialist desire to be self-created and therefore master of one’s fate informs Croupier (1997), the fruit of Mike Hodges’ collaboration with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg who had developed the script over a number of years.

Mayersberg was strongly influenced by European existentialist noir, notably Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville with their sense of a contingent universe in which actions are random and inexplicable. It also draws on American noir, especially Double Indemnity (1944) and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). The name of its heroine Marion is taken from Hitchcock’s Psycho, while its anti-hero, Jack Manfred, alludes to Byron’s Count Manfred, one of the central figures in English Gothic literature. This rich cultural heritage is molded into a highly contemporary tale that focuses on would-be writer, Jack (Clive Owen), searching for his subject and his fictional hero, and through them his true identity. Everything changes when, at the behest of his gambler father, Jack resumes his old profession of croupier, returning to a subterranean noir world of tawdry glamour, shimmering surfaces and distorting reflections, a world obsessed with money and chance: gambling has often been a handy metaphor for an existentialist view of life. In creating the casino where much of the action takes place, production designer Jon Bunker commented: ‘Mike [Hodges] wanted to convey a sense of purgatory so we made the walls out of mirrors, which gives a sense of the casino extending forever. It also has the effect that when Jack enters the casino, the reflection of the mirror conveys the idea of him walking away from himself.’ This separation of character and consciousness is reinforced by Croupier’s unconventional use of voice-over. Jack’s voice-over is neither confessional nor a device to expound the plot, but a detached, third person commentary on his actions. Owen was asked to learn the voice-over so that he played the scenes as if he was responding to his own thoughts. Its mode is speculative, allowing Jack to invoke the great existential questions: What matters? What life’s about? Who am I? As Mayersberg remarked, its effect is to efface characterization altogether making Croupier the story of a nobody, but one who is also Everyman.

As Jack rediscovers the fascination of being a croupier, cool, professional, detached and in control, he gradually transmutes into his Doppelgänger Jake - symbolised as he redyes his bleached blond hair to its natural black - who understands that the object of life is to ‘fuck the world over’. Jake is the ideal protagonist for Jack’s novel I, Croupier, which becomes a number 1 bestseller in a world fascinated by ruthless greed. For Hodges, Jake is a contemporary figure, the product of a post-Thatcherite world of casualised labour where everyone is on his own, struggling to succeed and caught up in forces they cannot control. It is Jake who is prepared to collude in the scheme of femme fatale Jani (Alex Kingston) to rob the casino, and when his girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) - who wants him to remain the blond nice guy, to remain her romanticized image of the struggling author - is killed by a hit and run driver, a random act whose meaning is unclear, Jack’s conscience dies with her. Stripped of illusions, Jake settles down with worldly fellow croupier and ex-prostitute Bella (Kate Hardie), who accepts him as he is, his ruthlessness, violence and self-centredness. Thinking he is now in control of his life, Jake dedicates himself to his self-created wholeness unlike the sad gamblers who play at his table, but in a final irony, he learns that Jani was his father’s mistress and he was therefore a mere pawn in his father’s clever game.

This article continues here

British neo-noir Part 3: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)

By Andrew Spicer - a modified excerpt from the book European Film Noir

HodgesI’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) returns to the themes of Get Carter, but is informed by the deeper existentialism of Croupier. Its title evokes the later hard-boiled writers - Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, or Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man - but unlike the indeterminate London of Croupier, I’ll Sleep resembles Get Carter in its precise delineation of place, what Hodges described as the ‘Dickensian’ quality of squalor and decay in South London, particularly in and around Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham. But it also evokes a mythical, nocturnal London cloaked in darkness, where the flash cars of criminals, lit by the glare of the streetlights, constantly circulate like sharks waiting for their prey. But underpinning I’ll Sleep’s noir elements was the sense of nemesis and inevitability that characterize Greek tragedy.

I’ll Sleep is told entirely in flashback, beginning with a surreal image of a man driving golf balls into the sea on a deserted beach, observed by Will Graham (Clive Owen) who intones: ‘Most thoughts are memories. And memories deceive.’ A feared hard man, Will has been living an isolated, solitary life in rural Wales following an unspecified ‘breakdown’, but returns to his old ‘manor’ after three years away in order to investigate the death of his younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Davey, abandoned by Will, had taken to making ‘soft money’ through selling drugs. What Will’s painstaking investigations uncover is not a gangland killing, but something much more horrific: after ejaculating when he was raped, Davey had returned home to slit his own throat in shame and guilt. As Hodges commented, the rape is, ‘the primary violation to the male body, the ultimate challenge to the macho braggadocios of the criminal world.’ Will, another indestructible revenger, finds the rapist Boad (Malcolm McDowell), only to learn that his motives were envy and petty spite. Thus despite his dramatic transformation from disheveled ‘pikey’ to gleaming assassin in pin-sharp suit - the Samurai ritual of cleansing and smartening - Will gets no satisfaction from his revenge, just an inconsolable ‘grief for a life wasted’, like his own. Promising to leave with his ex-girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling), Will, in a typical act of selfishness, drives off on his own back to his self-imposed exile. Abandoned by Will for a second time, Helen’s is another life wasted, taken prisoner in her own home by the Belfast hit man whom master criminal Frank Turner (Ken Stott) has paid to kill Will, a potential rival, when he returns to her house.

Will, unlike Jack Carter, survives, but there is no redemption, as the film circles back to its opening scene. As both Hodges and screenwriter Trevor Preston argue, I’ll Sleep is a film about futility, a study in ‘lost lives, wasted lives’, and about a man who tries to escape from his past, the violence and the hate within him, and create a new existence, but cannot. It is a grim, bleak film, the characters occupying some morbid dream from which they cannot awaken, but also profound, the culmination of Hodges’ long encounter with film noir and his efforts to diagnose the sickness of the macho hard man, his world and all that he stands for. Its existentialism is highly characteristic of the current phase of neo-noir as is its delineation of a deep crisis in masculine identity: the longing for an ordinary life by men damaged and destroyed by brutality and violence.

Hodges’ three films, with their pared down dialogue, evocative compositions and fluid camerawork, are the high point of British neo-noir, but many of the others analyzed in this chapter are accomplished, challenging films that stand comparison with their American counterparts, but which are also resonantly British. Encouragingly, there is no sign that the current energies of British neo-noir are diminishing. It continues to provide both established and novice film-makers a style and a sensibility that can engage critically with social issues as well as exploring the recesses of masculine identity. For all its heterogeneity, British neo-noir deserves to be better known and even celebrated as an important contribution to European cinema, contemporary British culture and the evolution of film noir.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The Restoration of Kiss Me Deadly

by Glenn Erickson

An unusual thing happened ten years ago at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in Santa Monica: the missing ending to a 42 year-old United Artists Release Kiss Me Deadly was restored. The story does not involve a long vault search or a concerted effort by a film archive dedicated to such work. It appears that few people were even aware that a missing conclusion existed to be found. MGM certainly was unaware that their vaulted negative and all official prints were incorrect and that it had been distributing a mutilated version to revival houses and television stations for forty years. Not even experts Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier knew that they'd been watching an altered ending. Scorsese had just included Kiss Me Deadly in a compilation documentary about subversive films in the 1950s, with the incorrect conclusion.

Kiss Me Deadly was released by UA with little fanfare on May 18, 1955. Robert Aldrich soon sold his interest in the film back to United Artists. In those days minor features would disappear from the public consciousness after a few weeks, and the violent Mickey Spillane detective saga entered the public record only when it topped the list of movies cited by the Kefauver Commission -- along with Horror Comics -- as contributing to the erosion of morals in America's youth. UA records show Kiss Me Deadly being added to, and then dropped from, various TV syndication packages starting in 1959. Did television stations object to the film's content immoral?

Kiss Me Deadly really didn't resurface in the cinema consciousness until the early 1970s when the French term film noir broke into American film journals. It suddenly appeared in a pantheon of top titles that included Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil and Out of the Past. Previously ignored as an irrelevant addendum to Mickey Spillane's culturally abhorred world of tough guy pulp fiction, Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides' film was heralded as an extreme expression of protest against 1950s conformist complacency. It subverted Spillane by criticizing his brutal avenger Mike Hammer as greedy, narcissistic and infantile.

A key talking point with Kiss Me Deadly was its unique apocalyptic ending. Bezzerides replaced the original novel's coveted drugs with a bizarre secret kept in a Pandora-like steel box. Hoping to sell the box to the highest bidder, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) tries to open it and is seared by a momentary blast of light and heat. Only afterwards is he told that the box is related to America's atomic energy program. The box is a door to the center of a nuclear reaction and, as indicated in the script's classical allusions, opening it will loose all of Pandora's evils into the world.

Kiss Me Deadly
's femme fatale Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) can't resist finding out "What's in the box." The 1952 book ended in typically sadistic Spillane fashion. Carver shoots Hammer in the side, and invites him to kiss her before she kills him with a second shot. As she's naked and glistening with alcohol from a rubdown, Hammer instead ignites her with his cigarette lighter, and she goes up in flames. The movie ends at a stylish beach house in Malibu. The fully dressed Carver fells Mike with one shot from a .38, after making a similar invitation: "Kiss me Mike. Kiss me. The liar's kiss that says 'I Love You,' but means something else. You're good at giving such kisses." She then opens the box and turns into a pillar of fire, as her previous victim Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) had warned.

In the version most often seen from roughly 1960 to 1997, Hammer regains consciousness while Carver burns. He rescues his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) from a locked room and they limp arm-in-arm toward the exit. At that point we cut to a disconnected string of exterior shots. Light and smoke belch from the beach house. Several awkward jump cuts add superimposed explosions, as a miniature of the house breaks apart. A nondescript "The End" title appears, and the film fades abruptly -- not to black, but to gray leader. The music score and roaring sound effects overlap the ragged cut and then end with a poorly-timed fade.

Critical analysis of Kiss Me Deadly from the 1980s and 1990s invariably accepted the abrupt ending as it stood. Some references applauded the chaotic finish as the element of Kiss Me Deadly that supposedly launched the French New Wave: the erratic jump cuts that imply that Velda and Mike never escape the flaming house. Many a film studies paper has pinned its premise to the assumption that the confused ending of Kiss Me Deadly depicts the End of the World, an event so extreme that even film logic breaks down.

Actually, if the Internet had been around twenty years earlier, these film writers might have discovered earlier that something wasn't right with the ending of Kiss Me Deadly. Alain Silver and James Ursini in their books What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?and the Third Edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style,1 noted that critic Raymond Durgnat had referred to having seen a copy of Kiss Me Deadly in which Velda and Mike reach the safety (?) of the surf while the house burns. Robin Wood, however, was of the opinion that the producers had added such a shot at a later time. Silver also remembered noticing that several shots seemed to be missing when he examined a print of the film in the early 1970s. When Aldrich interviewers Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller Jr. asked Aldrich about the issue, the director stated firmly that he'd never seen any version except his own, in which Hammer and his secretary escape to the ocean. 2

Alain Silver was always convinced that a correct, unchanged copy of Kiss Me Deadly should exist somewhere. I remember talking about the ending with Alain's frequent collaborator Jim Ursini at UCLA in 1974, when we worked in the Research Library's Theater Arts Reading room. Special Collections has a copy of the Kiss Me Deadly script, and its last page definitely states that Mike and Velda exit the house and make their way to the ocean.

Alain and I began discussing the issue in earnest in 1992 when I was working at MGM cutting video promos for VHS releases. I told him I had seen the film several times in 35 and 16mm and was convinced that the ending had been altered. My hasty guess was that a film handler had damaged the original negative, and the ending had been cobbled together to hide the mistake. 3 MGM had just released Kiss Me Deadly on home video for the first time. The laser disc included a trailer that contained a shot of Velda trying to steady the wounded Mike Hammer as they floundered in the Malibu surf.

Nothing more happened for four years. Alain wrote more about Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Aldrich. In the meantime, I met John Kirk, a Technical Services Special Projects Director at MGM. John frequently took on restoration projects requiring research, especially with foreign films. John restored a longer ending to Louis Malle's ¡Viva Maria! and recovered thirteen minutes that had been trimmed from Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid. He also solicited permission from Billy Wilder to restore his original uncensored cut of Kiss Me Stupid! and restored Sergio Leone's Duck You Sucker to its full original Italian length.

I showed John the Kiss Me Deadly trailer with the missing shot and told him the whole story. It was exactly his kind of problem. We began screening the last reels from vaulted prints of Kiss Me Deadly, with no results. John found and printed a box of trims, but they turned out to be alternate foreign language sequences for the French version, En quatrième vitesse (literally, "In Fourth Gear", i.e., "Going like hell").

About this time I found a translation of Francois Truffaut's original 1955 review of Kiss Me Deadly in Cahiers du Cinema. It stated, "As the hero and his mistress take refuge in the sea, THE END appears on the screen." That sounded hopeful. Perhaps the film had been released in two versions. But if the ending was intact in France, why was Bertrand Tavernier unaware of it?

Then Alain Silver called with a possible way of finding an uncut print. As a member of the Director's Guild, Alain had already accessed the Guild's film holdings for research and knew that Robert Aldrich routinely deposited personal prints of his films with them. The Guild's holdings were kept in reserve at the UCLA Film Archives and special permission was required for access.

Alain knew the Aldrich family and had no trouble obtaining their written consent. The Guild and the Archive had good relations with MGM, which was the sole owner of the 1955 UA picture. If MGM couldn't review its own film, who could? Within a few days Aldrich's print was delivered to a screening room in the MGM Plaza. We were surprised when it came up looking rather scratched and battered. The ending was the same as ever. We thought we'd reached the end of the line until John determined that a clerk at the UCLA archive had misread the request and pulled an ordinary 35mm copy from the vault. One week later, the correct Aldrich archive reel arrived. It was immediately apparent that it was different. It was not only spotless, the photographic quality was better as well.

This time we practically fell out of our seats. At the point where standard prints cut to the ragged short ending, this copy continued into a completely new sequence. The couple descended some stairs and then took off across the beach. The shots of the burning house were now separated by four new angles with Velda and Mike throwing long shadows down the beach. Rear-projected views showed the pair in front of the exploding beach house. They watched from the surf until an authentic end title ("The End, A Parklane Picture") appeared. The mystery box growled and howled throughout at full volume, like the monster of a 50s Science Fiction film. The beautiful ending had more production value than anything else in the movie. Although it was disturbing, it was conventionally edited, and resembled nothing that would inspire the French New Wave. Truffaut and Co. must have been taken by the film's overall anarchic sensibility.

The new sequence lengthened the film by 65 seconds. Realizing that it was a major find, John Kirk decided not to re-screen the reel but instead sent it directly to the lab. A dupe made from it matched the rest of the negative perfectly. Knowing the significance of the discovery, John solicited quotes from Scorsese and Tavernier to use in his screening publicity. Neither claimed any earlier knowledge of the full ending.

Kiss Me Deadly was the revival and restoration hit of August 1997, packing audiences into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the New Beverly Theater. John Kirk took a print with him when he toured festival screenings that fall. MGM Home Video responded to the publicity and issued a restored VHS. The film happened to be a personal favorite of one of the executives, who told me that he preferred the old, truncated cut.

There remained a nagging question. We were now certain that Kiss Me Deadly had at some point been subjected to an editorial mutilation, but we didn't know why. After the L.A. Times ran a lengthy article on the restoration in its Calendar section 4 I received a call in my MGM cutting room from Robert H. Justman, Robert Aldrich's assistant director on the film. Justman, who later produced TV seasons of The Outer Limits and Star Trek, called to tell me that he hadn't seen the film since it was new either, and had no idea that the ending had been cut. Unfortunately, Mr. Justman wasn't interested in discussing the many noir thrillers that he'd worked on in the early 1950s.

But Justman inspired me to try to contact the writer A.I. Bezzerides, who lived in Southern California. In two very illuminating phone calls Bezzerides told me that he'd purposely turned Kiss Me Deadly into a critique of the entire Mickey Spillane ethos. He invented the idea of an atomic secret to replace the book's shipment of drugs, as the censors wouldn't allow movies about drug trafficking. The classical allusions and the apocalyptic finale were also Bezzerides' idea, and he was pleased that Aldrich had kept them intact. In his mind, we leave Velda and Mike as they witness the beginning of the end of the world.

There was a kickback to our announcement that the ending of Kiss Me Deadly had been missing for 42 years. An attendee at the L.A. County Museum told me that he'd seen the ending at LA's Nuart theater not a year before. The Nuart had rented its print from MGM; I have to assume that they quietly screened a collector's copy instead. Because the original ending apparently still survived on some prints, I prepared an introduction for the video release that softened the claim. We said that Kiss Me Deadly had been 'predominantly seen' with the altered ending.

Much later in 2002, I was told that the DGA/UCLA print of Kiss Me Deadly had been screened ten times at New York's Lincoln Center in 1992. The news hadn't circulated very well, as even New Yorker Martin Scorsese remained unaware of the original ending, and articles continued to appear that discussed the 'old' ending. I felt like Dr. Strangelove asking why the Russians had kept the Doomsday device a secret: "Why didn't you tell the world, eh?" The New York film schedulers had not informed MGM of the problem. At the very least, they should have thought twice before projecting such a rare print ten times. Alain, John Kirk and I detected the uncut ending independently and made the restoration happen.

In the wake of the publicity surrounding the 1997 restoration I was granted access to UA legal records on Kiss Me Deadly to see if they would shed light on the mystery. I learned that Robert Aldrich's fee for directing was $25,000, but little more. When file boxes of photo negatives were retrieved from deep storage, I saw the very limited photo coverage UA had given the film in 1955. In the files were two documents that suggested a possible reason why United Artists had changed the ending.

The first letter was from the head of theatrical sales to his film bookers, the staff charged with getting UA pictures shown in theater chains across the country. The brief note stated that the executive was unhappy with bookings in the south, and wanted his men to redouble their efforts. It read like a 'cover one's tail' letter, an attempt to lay a paper trail establishing that the executive had done his job, and couldn't be blamed if bookings were low. The receipts for Kiss Me Deadly were indeed poor, much worse than the earlier UA Hammer films I, The Jury and The Long Wait.

The second document was a carbon copy of an unpublished 1955 Robert Aldrich article intended for the trade papers and entitled In Defense of Sex and Violence. The director expresses his dismay over the distribution of his newest film (never named) which had been unofficially locked out of most the large southern market by a particular minister who was serving as sort of a clearing house censor. To avoid submitting their films to every municipality and parish, the studios had a tacit agreement to allow this man to be the sole judge of what could or couldn't be shown across several southern states. Aldrich fulminated at the idea that he could work a year to qualify a film for a Seal of Approval from the Production Code office, only to have some kingpin in Alabama or Tennessee block its distribution and render it unprofitable. Aldrich called for studios to band together against this artistic blackmail, instead of rushing to fill the distribution gap with their own product.

The two documents suggested another theory. The end of Kiss Me Deadly had been purposely altered. The only result of that alteration content-wise was to make it appear that Mike Hammer, a man established as less than virtuous, died at the end. Is it too farfetched to imagine that a UA executive, hoping to get Kiss Me Deadly shown in the south, secretly ordered the change to the ending to pacify the conservative minister-censor? The alteration must have done in secret because Robert Aldrich would certainly never have approved. The crude way the film was changed indicates that a minimal effort and expense was involved. It wasn't simply a change for television because all the 35mm elements had been altered as well. Whoever at United Artists decided to butcher the original negative instead of a duplicate must have been a real Philistine.

Although it's only an educated guess, that's the best theory I've come up with to explain what happened to Kiss Me Deadly in 1955. An accident covered up by a film clerk doesn't sound possible, because somebody had to order the cheap 'The End' title. If the movie was indeed changed to placate censors, it was a clear case of money versus artistic integrity, and we all know the answer to that Hollywood story. Restorations of this kind are soon forgotten; even the Turner Classic Movies cable channel no longer mentions that the film was ever different. And film students reading the old literature about an anarchic, deconstructed conclusion that inspired Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard will soon be wondering what the writers are talking about.


1. Alain Silver and Jim Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films1995 Limelight Editions New York.
Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, editors, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Third EditionOverlook Press, Woodstock New York

2. Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich1986, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville

3. I repeated that 'guess' in my article The Kiss Me Mangled Mystery, for the online 'zine Images in 1997. The theory lacks an explanation for why the shots of the house weren't damaged as well, and also doesn't explain the optical of the 'The End' card.

4. Bill Desowitz, Cult Classic Mystery L.A. Times Calendar, August 12, 1997.
also, Paul Malcolm, The Big Bang Theory: How Robert Aldrich's classic film noir, Kiss Me Deadly, got its ending back LA Weekly August 15-21, 1997.

Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Woman in the Window (1944)

By Spencer Selby

For an entry on Noir of the Week Steve has graciously suggested my piece on The Woman in the Window, one of 25 interpretive essays which appear in my book Dark City: The Film Noir.Those essays were the earliest parts of the 1984 book, having been written in the late 70s, when I was living in Iowa City, Iowa. This was before video, of course, so I didn't have copies of movies to consult or view repeatedly. All I had was the memory of one concentrated viewing fresh in my head. Given that and the fact that I was an inexperienced unpublished writer, I think most of those essays hold up pretty well.

In the Dark City filmography section I describe The Woman in the Window as "the first of a pair of important middle-class nightmares by Fritz Lang." The second film is Scarlet Street, which somewhat overshadows its older sister because it is more hardcore and one of the great noir masterworks. But The Woman in the Window shines with its own kind of clarity and one might argue that it had a stronger influence on noirs to come than Scarlet Street. At any rate, after Lang's pair of nightmares the line between good and evil in the best American crime films would never be the same. What had been for the most part a clear choice was transformed into a fatal threshold that anyone with repressed or normal desires could cross.

Woman in the Window
View Photo Slideshow

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea, Edmund Breon
Directed by: Fritz Lang

Editor's note: Some spoilers follow

Professor Richard Wanley is a middle-aged instructor of psychology at a small urban college. While his family is a way on vacation, Wanley spends much of his time socializing at a men's club with his two good friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor and Dr. Barkstone. On his way to the club, Wanley stops to admire the portrait of a beautiful woman in a shop window. His two friends spot his gaze and joke about their mutual appreciation for the portrait. At the club, the three men joke about the woman in the window and the lure of amorous adventures which she seems to represent. Wanley admits his yearning for the excitement and freedom of youth, but agrees with the others that he would be well-advised to stay in his place. After a quiet night of reading, Wanley leaves the club and stops again to admire the portrait. He sees the reflection of a beautiful woman in the window and turns around to find himself face to face with the girl who posed for the painting. Her name is Ann Reed, and after introducing herself, she tactfully invites Wanley to her apartment. Unable to decline the offer, Wanley spends a gay evening drinking and talking with the beautiful stranger. Suddenly, the girl's jealous lover appears out of nowhere and attacks Wanley. Before the professor knows it, he has killed the man in self-defense. He starts to phone the police but stops himself at the last moment, realizing that his respectable life will be shattered even if he is found innocent. Wanley plans with Reed to dispose of the body. He tries to cover up all the evidence but gets careless and leaves a mass of clues before dumping the body in the country. The next day Lalor tells Wanley about a prominent financier that is missing, and Wanley deduces that this must be his victim. When the body is found by a Boy Scout, Lalor heads the murder investigation and keeps Wanley up to date on all the developments. Wanley's paranoia grows by the day and he nearly gives himself away to Lalor several times. The clever D.A. deduces most of the circumstances of the killing from the evidence but can't find the woman he knows must be involved. Wanley accompanies Lalor on the investigation one day an thinks he's lost when a woman is produced. He avoids meeting her by feigning sickness but later finds out that she was not Ann Reed. Lalor tells Wanley that the key witness is the victim's bodyguard, who must have tailed him the night of the killing. The man has disappeared because he is wanted in connection with another crime, and Lalor is content to wait until the police track him down. The bodyguard, whose name is Heidt, shows up at Ann Reed's and promptly blackmails her. Reed tries to deny knowing the financier, but Heidt is too clever for her. Reed contacts Wanley, who decides that they must kill Heidt because he will never leave them alone if they pay. Wanley gives Reed some poison. She tries to put it into Heidt's drink, but he catches her. Heidt takes all her money and promises to return for more. Reed calls Wanley and tells him of her failure. Wanley has been deteriorating from the strain and his spirit is crushed by the news. As he prepares to commit suicide, the film abruptly cuts to a gun battle near Reed's apartment. The police have spotted Heidt, who starts shooting when they try to stop him. Heidt is killed in the ensuing fight, and the police conclude that he must have been the financier's murderer. Reed then happens by and sees Heidt lying dead in the street. She tries to phone Wanley to give him the good news, but there is no answer. Wanley sits in his chair dying as the phone rings in his ear. A man taps Wanley on the shoulder and he wakes up. Wanley then realizes that it has all been a dream and that he never left the club that first night. With a feeling of great relief, Wanley leaves the club and stops to admire the portrait. But when a woman comes up to him and asks for a light, Wanley runs away in fear.

Only after the film is over does the viewer realize that importance of that first conversation between Wanley and his two middle-aged friends. Wanley's dream is the direct result of their discussion regarding the dangers and risks of succumbing to temptation. Reed may not be a full-fledged femme fatale, but to Wanley she is still a symbol of his forbidden desire. Once he has accepted her invitation, Wanley's fate is sealed. He is doomed to confront the deep-seated evil supposedly locked within everyone. This is a gradual process which begins with the most justifiable homicide possible. It really does seem like the financier intends to kill Wanley, whose fatal retaliation deserves to be characterized as pure self-defense. From that point on, every decision Wanley makes is both understandable and exposes more evil. He doesn't want his respectable life to be destroyed, so he decides not to phone the police. This decision is significant because Wanley has switched from protecting the existence of his life to protecting the circumstances of that life. Such a switch is crucial morally because it sets Wanley on a path from which there is no escape. It means that he is willing to become a criminal in order to protect his reputation and position. Reed goes along with him for the same reasons and perpetuate the shared guilt which she initiated when she helped him kill the financier. Wanley sets about trying to conceal the evidence, and this forces him to act just like a premeditated criminal. When he learns from Lalor how much evidence he left behind, Wanley becomes desperate and paranoid, but he just has to sweat it out.

Heidt's appearance is the the final link in the alarming chain of events which foster Wanley's decent. Heidt is the type of two-bit extortionist who never stops blackmailing his victims until he has gotten all of their money. Wanley knows this, and his analysis of the situation is based upon that knowledge. He reasons that if they agree to pay Heidt, their lives will be destroyed as surely as if they are caught by the police. This is why they must kill him.

One can now see how the need for self-protection can be taken to the point of desperation which results in premeditated murder. It is again emphasized that Wanley and Reed share the guilt. He makes the actual decision to murder Heidt, and she agrees to carry it out. When her attempt fails, Wanley can no longer go on. A probable combination of fear and extreme guilt results in his suicide.

The dream's ironic climax puts a final decisive accent on the all-important fate theme. The inevitability of Wanley's doom is cleverly underscored through a parallel sequence which emphasizes the simultaneity of his suicide and the circumstances which would have freed him from danger. Viewed in retrospect, Wanley's attempt to protect his life appears to have been hopeless from the start; his doom apparently produced a series of circumstances which gradually revealed the potential evil within him, and which necessarily led to the eventual self-destruction. This inevitable doom is the whole point of the dream, which is the narrative working out of the fears that control Wanley's existence. When his family leaves on vacation, the reserved professor is suddenly free to pursue the suppressed desires that he constantly harbors. The dream is the reason why he is afraid to pursue those desires. It is a warning of the possible results of giving in to the temptation represented by Reed.

The psychological key to the whole film is Wanley's true feelings about the type of liaison he dreams of having with Reed. His Victorian outlook renders him incapable of seeing the encounter as a relatively minor temptation for the fear of releasing the evil forces of the id imprisoned with him. His respectable bourgeois life is based upon suppression of those fears by demonstrating how it only takes a series of unlucky circumstances to turn anyone into a murder. Those circumstances must occur when Wanley gives in to Reed's temptation because he sees this minor evil as inseparable from the greater potential evil within him. His inevitable fate is actually the working out of the guilt that he has regarding this liaison. If he could believe that there was nothing wrong with it, that it was perfectly civilized and moral, no fateful circumstances would occur. Instead, he is doomed by his bourgeois Puritanism to assume that any urge he has from the narrow moral boundaries of his life must be the evil rumblings of his id.

The Woman in the Window can be seen as a profound and cynical attack upon its own generic underpinnings. The film's thematic drift constitutes a clever expose of the type of subjective thriller which was so successfully pioneered by Lang and Hitchcock. Such films always involve a normal protagonist being cast adrift in a chaotic world of danger and evil. The dream structure and fate them of The Woman in the Window serve as a penetrating analysis of that generic format. The psychological function which Wanley's dream performs is symbolic of mass functions that that all subjective thrillers perform. When the film is revealed as Wanley's nightmare, the viewer realizes that fate was really just a contrived manifestation of the protagonists' neurotic fears. One can no longer accept such fate as valid once the psychological function is understood. Wanley simply dreamed up the whole thing to justify his conservative fear of freedom. He responds to the dream as proof of his fears when it is really just a contrived manifestation of them.

The same type of circular reasoning traps the viewer of most subjective thrillers. Being afraid to experience real, adventurous freedom, the viewer does so vicariously in Hitchcock-type movies. These films always involve verification of the audience's neurotic fears, in the form of extreme danger and evil. The viewer comes out of the film with his urge for adventure and his neurotic fears satisfied. He will continue to be afraid of real freedom because his fears have been reinforced by the movie. This is a totally unreliable reinforcement, since these films are virtually contrived to capitalize upon such fears. The movie, like the dream, cannot be trusted because of the deceptive psychological function it performs. This is the subversive truth which is implied by Wanley's dream and which give The Woman in the Window some very meaningful structural irony.

Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley