February 19th, 2008

KISS ME DEADLY (1955) ***

Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich directed this uneven but engrossing adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel.  Ralph Meeker stars as detective Mike Hammer who gets more than he bargained for when he picks up an innocent looking hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman in her film debut) on a desert road.  Before he has time to know much about her, his car is run off the road and he winds up in the hospital.  He learns afterwards that the woman had been taken from the car and was tortured and killed.  With some help from his secretary Velda, (Maxine Cooper) he tries to find the murderers but unearths an even bigger mystery in the form of an unworldly box containing “The Great Whatsit”. 


Every frame of this movie is drenched in cool film noir style by Aldrich.  There are plenty of shadowy alleys and “Dutch” camerawork and the lighting has a moody menace to it, even in the daylight scenes.  There’s also a great backwards title sequence that perfectly sets the mood for this slightly off kilter detective yarn.  The best scenes are of course, whenever someone looks into the mysterious box, which emits a piercing white light.  Watching Kiss Me Deadly, it’ll become apparent that such films as Pulp Fiction, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Repo Man all stole a thing or two from this movie.


Meeker is excellent and his performance is the definitive interpretation of the character.  The supporting cast also features such familiar faces as Albert (Dr. Cyclops) Dekker and Jack (The Girl in Lover’s Lane) Elam. 


Although the movie suffers from some languid pacing and unnecessary secondary characters, it’s a must see for film noir buffs and will be interesting for fans of Pulp, Raiders and Repo to see where all those movies cribbed from.  


Mia (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) Sara has a fight with her workaholic husband (Brian Wimmer) and takes off for her sister’s house in
Florida with her annoying daughter in tow.  Along the way they meet a creepy cigar smoking gas station attendant named Roy (Burt Reynolds) who sends them on a shortcut into the swamp.  Their car breaks down and Roy gives them a ride to his house where his nutjob wife (Angie Dickinson) thinks they are her long lost daughters.  She goes Baby Jane crazy and makes Roy lock the mother and daughter up in the house and forces them to indulge in their nutzo fantasies. 


If you want to see a very disgruntled looking Reynolds scraping the bottom of the barrel and doing anything to pay Loni Anderson’s alimony, then you really need to check this flick out.  You can tell that the former Bandit has utter contempt for the material, but needed the money for a new toupee.  He’s fun to watch, but Dickinson is thoroughly grating.  William Hickey is pretty great though as the ghost of Burt’s dad who encourages his boy to torment, rape and kill. 


This flick is pretty awful but it does have some laugh out loud moments of utter hilarity like the scene where Burt straight up punches Sara in the face.  Fans of Burt will definitely wanna give this nutty flick a look-see if only to see him act completely unhinged.    

Director Danny (John’s son) Huston doesn’t have much of his old man’s cinematic know-how, but he sure can film Burt going bat shit insane.  The problem is that, yeah the flick is trashy, but it lacks the balls to be out and out depraved.  Had the movie fired on all it’s sleaze cylinders, we might have had a camp classic.  As it is, The Maddening is just another ho-hum brain dead “psychological” thriller with the only novelty being Reynolds’ over the top performance.  Huston later gave up on the directing game altogether and focused on acting, starring as the main vampire in 30 Days of Night. 


The film was based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman.  If it seems like an Everglades tinged version of a V.C. Andrews novel, it’s because Neiderman was the one who ghost wrote all those Flowers in the Attic sequels. 


Naturally, Burt gets all the best lines like “Pleasure is the only thing to live for!”


Through a crossed telephone wire, a wealthy bedridden heiress (Barbara Stanwyck) overhears a murder being plotted.  Little does she know, the murder is her own. 


The film has a great opening scene that hooks the audience, but it loses steam whenever it gets bogged down with the numerous flashbacks that detract from the film’s suspense.  Whenever the film focuses on Stanwyck trapped in her room, clinging to the telephone for dear life, it cooks; but the flashbacks drain the film of much of it’s claustrophobic momentum.  The finale however is quite memorable.


The film was adapted from a famous radio play and the padding is apparent, but Stanwyck is the reason to watch it.  She gives a solid performance (good enough to earn her an Oscar nomination) and anchors the film nicely; given the fact that most of her acting consists of her talking on the phone.  Burt Lancaster lends fine support in the thankless role of Stanwyck’s greedy husband. 


In this day and age of rampant cell phone use, Sorry, Wrong Number seems kind of quaint, but it will probably make you wistful for the days of operators, party lines, and rotary phones. 


Co-stars Leif Erickson and Jimmy Hunt also played father and son five years later in Invaders from Mars.  This flick was later remade for television as a vehicle for Loni Anderson of all people. 


Groucho Marx stars in this limp comedy without the benefit of his famous brothers as a sailor who along with his thickskulled buddy William (Who Done It?) Bendix is cheated into buying a weakling racehorse with his inheritance.  They learn that the horse has a twin who is a real contender and they plan to switch the horses in order to clean up at the track.  The boys end up getting double crossed and triple crossed by greedy breeders, disloyal stable boys and crooked gangsters and eventually have to race both horses themselves just to break even. 


Groucho is burdened with an unmercifully weak script and you can tell he is uncomfortable with not being able to ad lib most of his dialogue.  Bendix is no Chico, (heck Zeppo was funnier than him) and he and Groucho have zero chemistry together.  Despite the title there’s only ONE girl, the airhead Marie (My Friend Irma) Wilson, and her one note dumb blonde routine gets annoying fast. 


This stifling unfunny comedy is a waste of Groucho’s talent and is only worth watching for his die hardest of fans.  It’s way worse than the weakest of Marx Brothers movies and the pathetic material is far beneath him.  Groucho later re-teamed with Wilson for another ill-fated comedy, The Story of Mankind.