[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

With the American economy recovering under the New Deal and workers getting back to the factories, it would seem that a more fundamental anxiety about the industrial age resurfaced in Hollywood cinema. Fordist production of the previous decades had vitiated the skilled workforce, reducing the factory employee to a tiny cog in the production machinery—an awareness that was heightened by the brief favour socialism enjoyed in the country in the late 1930s. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) responded most famously to this alienation of the worker by satirizing the principles of industrial management. The Paramount production Reaching for the Sun (1941) takes a less jovial route, exploring the theme within the framework of romantic comedy and marital drama.

Adapted from Wessel Smitter’s novel F.O.B. Detroit (1938), Reaching for the Sun follows Russ (Joel McCrea), a backwoods clam-digger who moves to Detroit to work in a car factory so he can afford an outboard motor for his boat. He plans to get back to the countryside as soon as he purchases the motor, but just as his roommate and colleague Bennie (Eddie Bracken) warns, he falls in love, marries and has a child in the city before he knows it. Obliged to toil at the factory to support his family, but also facing the opposition of his wife Rita (Ellen Drew) who wants to continue living in the city, Russ finds his dream of moving back to the woods slipping away from him.

Russ is first presented an innocent idealist living in harmony with nature, untouched by the harsh realities of industrial life. He lives for his clams, whistles at birds and deer. There’s not a resentful bone in his body: when he sees another clam-digger making a bigger haul with his motor boat, he simply tilts his head, as though to say “lucky man!”. McCrea’s towering stature bestows a rich dialectical quality to the character. Despite his lumberjack-like build, Russ is a gentle giant who gets knocked down repeatedly by Herman (Albert Dekker), his romantic rival at the factory. He keeps his hands close to his body even when he’s agitated. When he punches through a door in a rare fit of rage, it’s an evidently clumsy blow, made against his natural instinct.

Rita, in total contrast, is a world-wise city girl, a waitress and a taxi dancer who ribs Russ’ Southern-boy courteousness (“What will you have, or is that too personal?”). She has no abiding relation to nature: she doesn’t want to move to the countryside and falls into a brook the only time Russ takes her there. When they relocate to a new house, Rita points to a sorry excuse for a tree, telling Russ she picked this spot because she knows how much he loves nature: “The man said in the spring it has leaves and everything.” Just beyond this tree is a construction crane moving about its limb ominously.

The central theme of Smitter’s book, reprised as a secondary motif in the film, is modern man’s enslavement by his own inventions. “A machine geared to a man is one thing. A man geared to a machine is something else.”, writes the author. When we first see Russ in the film, he wedges out a truck stuck in the mud using a pair of logs. But the initial temptation of an outboard motor gradually brings him in contact with bigger and bigger machines. His first fight with Herman is with bare fists, the second with crowbars and pliers, and his final battle takes place through gigantic machines the two men operate. In the latter skirmish, Russ and Herman are barely visible, having become ghosts in the machines.

The film’s primary focus, however, is the machine that modern life as a whole is. Director William Wellman and scriptwriter Leslie River displace the immediate socio-industrial thrust of Smitter’s story on to an existential plane. Their Russ is a Thoreau-like figure wanting to live away from community in self-sufficiency, but who is caught in the rigmarole of social life, his personality gradually hollowed out by everyday grind. When Rita blasts him for obsessing over his outboard motor, he pensively tells Bennie that, without it, “I’ll be like everyone else”.

The machine thus comes to represent the life Russ dreams of, the identity he tries to hold on to. But, like the car in Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958), it is also a physical entity that supplants Russ’ human relations. Just after he purchases the motor, Russ carries it gently like a baby wrapped in rags. He addresses it with a “she” and nurtures dreams for it. In a humorous scene, he and Bennie try to get the motor started in their boarding house, just as two bumbling men would handle an abandoned baby. The machine competes with both Rita and Russ’ real baby for his attention and resources; at one point, it lies next to him on his marital bed, after Rita and her baby have left the house.

A contemporary New York Times review regretted such a comic treatment of the subject, criticizing the way the film strips away the socio-political import of the book. While this may be a fair objection, it should also be noted that the light touch of the film does not imply frivolity of intention. Producer and director Wellman, who retired early from filmmaking to spend more time with his family, often made pictures about characters who had to make hard choices between professional and personal lives. He recognizes the modern apprehension at the heart of the story. His success lies in finding a form that registers this hefty idea without letting it overwhelm the narrative.

A number of scenes in his film function on a register that is neither wholly comic or dramatic, an ambivalence that works in its favour. In a reconciliatory exchange, Rita inquires how important she is for Russ. Russ tells what she wants to hear, but when she asks “more than the outboard motor?”, he goes silent in a manner that’s both poignant and funny. In another sequence, Russ and Bennie attend a class for to-be-fathers where they are to learn how to handle newborns. It’s a broadly comic scene about changing gender roles, but Russ’ reaction to the idea of washing a baby’s bottom, a mixture of fear and worry, is the opposite of what such a comic scene demands. Towards the end, just after Rita has left with the baby, Russ receives a laudatory certificate from the class for being the best father—an ironic moment that’s tragic even if Rita and the baby were with him.

This heartfelt angst about the costs of domestic life is complex and unresolvable, all the more why the film’s ending seems so ridiculously contrived. Where Smitter’s novel leaves Russ hopelessly crippled after an industrial accident, he not only gets artificial legs in the film, but is able to move to the countryside with Rita and the baby. While there’s little reason to suspect that Wellman, known for his obstinacy and independent spirit, had to compromise, the postcard picturesqueness with which this tacked-on happy ending is filmed — Rita tossing a steak and singing a folk tune in the country house—can’t possibly be taken at face value. Considering that Wellman shows a large banner at the car factory reading “Quality First” (and not “Safety First”) just after Russ’ accident, we may suppose self-parody at work. It may be that a country on the brink of a great war simply needed to believe in such happy endings.


[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Produced by the short-lived Parklane pictures and distributed by United Artists, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) follows the exploits of low-level private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). After picking up a distressed woman (Cloris Leachman) on a highway, Hammer finds himself embroiled in a mystery too big for him to even understand, leave alone solve. A group of men with sketchy motivations, looking for “the box”, try to kill him, while every woman he comes across falls heads over heels for him. The more Hammer tries to get to the bottom of things, the farther they seem, and the more he risks losing. Ultimately, the film poses this question: how far will the detective go in his violence, misogyny, cynicism and pig-headedness before he realizes that he is only a tragic hero, doomed to failure?

Kiss Me Deadly was adapted by A. I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s detective novel of the same name. Bezzerides, a novelist himself, strips down concrete references from the source material. The object of everybody’s search becomes a box containing a nondescript “whatsit” instead of a drug consignment. The mafia makes way for a nameless, faceless “them” who pull all the strings. Such abstraction lends the film to different readings. Thanks to a reference, however, to the Manhattan Project and the radioactive quality of the box’s contents, the film is traditionally taken to be a commentary on the anxiety about nuclear age. Hammer’s developing paranoia comes to fruition when a femme fatale Lily (Gaby Rodgers) who double-crossed him ends up opening the box on a whim.

In a peculiar fashion, the film proceeds on two fronts at the same time. While the plot marches forward steadily, Aldrich and Bezzerides devote their attention elsewhere. Instead of accompanying Hammer in his search for truth, they reverse the gaze, looking rather at Hammer’s seedy operation, his obstinacy and his escalating paranoia, desperation and violence. Two or three things seem to be happening in parallel in every scene of the film. A debriefing sequence doubles as a game of seduction. A dinner with family becomes a confessional about a killing. Hammer goes to confront the story’s antagonist at the latter’s mansion, only to get into a long romantic exchange with the villain’s excessively forward sister. Full of stubs and false tracks, the plot appears to go nowhere, yet plot is the least of the film’s concerns.

It becomes clear as the film advances that Aldrich and Bezzerides are aiming less for a realistic detective story with allegorical underpinning than a myth with a very physical presence. The legend of Pandora’s Box particularly looms over the ending, but the whole film itself unfolds like a dream. The dialogue veers on the poetic and the actors’ line reading is weirdly protracted with pregnant pauses. Hammer’s dodgy cop friend Pat (Wesley Addy) speaks in an affectless, extra-terrestrial tone, his mechanic pal Nick (Nick Dennis) amps up the Mediterranean stereotype, Lily orders Hammer to kiss her in an incantatory repetition, while her boss, the doctor Soberin (Albert Dekker) makes pensive declarations full of mythological references.

The cumulative effect of these eccentric lines and dialogue delivery is the impression that what Hammer is navigating through is a nightmare of dilated time, a mechanical world of cold images programmed to perform specific functions. The surreal texture of the film’s soundscape is likely the reason British artist repurposed it for his recent experimental film, The Whalebone Box (2019), also about a mythical box with supreme powers. The movie’s oneiric quality is pitted against a heightened presence of the real Los Angeles. Several locations from the city feature in the film, most notably the uphill funicular known as the Angels Flight. In his epic study of the representation of Los Angeles in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), filmmaker and academic Thom Anderson deems Kiss Me Deadly “close to definitive as a portrait of the city in the mid-fifties.”

Accentuating the sense of the story’s oppressiveness is Aldrich’s muscular approach to direction. The story takes place in summer and, even when we aren’t sure where it’s headed, we feel the sultriness of the air. The film’s harsh, directional lighting scheme flashes the actors like headlights on a highway, as the camera lingers on their sweaty faces and jagged features. Doors are knocked down with more force than is usual in detective movies, the punches land harder. Hammer dispatches one henchman down a large flight of stairs. He’ll later jam the fingers of an elderly coroner in a drawer.

Like his peer Samuel Fuller, Aldrich employs a shot division that focuses largely on actors’ feet. The film’s first shot is that of a woman’s running feet. A while later, we see the same feet rise off the ground as the woman is tortured. As the film progresses, the image of feet accrues a frightening aura, belonging invariably to men sporting dark suits and heavy, leather shoes. This disembodied, faceless menace—sophisticated, emotionless and sure in its movement—becomes almost a metaphysical threat. We don’t know who these feet belong to, but we understand that its trace runs deep.

Matching the labyrinthine machinery of the plot is an equally complex cinematography. Shot by Hungarian emigré Ernest Laszlo, Kiss Me Deadly employs a camera choreography that rivals those of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls, as do the low-angle, deep space compositions. A three-minute scene of Hammer questioning a contact at a boxing gym is filmed in a single shot. It includes a conversation about a champion boxer in the ring without even a glimpse of the ring. Another three-minute shot, dominated by horizontal camera movements, finds Hammer grilling a soprano in a cramped hotel room. Aldrich varies his sequence construction from scene to scene, and the film remains as unpredictable on the visual level as on its narrative level.

The single most accomplished element of the film, though, is its multi-layered sound design that imparts complementary values to everything we see. This principle is evident from the credits sequence onwards, in which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues is overlaid with the sound of heavy breathing of the girl in Hammer’s car—we know something is off right away. Throughout, Aldrich mixes in ambient noise—the buzz of the boxing gym, the sound of the sea, street traffic—in a way that expands the world we see on screen. At times, he superposes contradictory sound elements running against the grain of the image. So you have chamber music playing as a voice threatens Hammer on the phone. Or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony over the detective’s interrogation of a witness. In one stylized action sequence, Hammer’s escape is scored simultaneously to a piece of generic music, the sound of the ocean and sports commentary.

A B-movie with no stars or studio backing, Kiss Me Deadly has gathered a reputation among filmmakers and cinephiles over the years as a crime movie classic. The amoral, machine-like operation of Hammer finds an echo in the vigilante of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), itself inspiring Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) pays tribute to Aldrich’s film in its suitcase with glowing contents. But the first to consider Aldrich as a serious artist—and this film a masterpiece—were the young critics at the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Charles Bitsch, who became a filmmaker himself, called it one of the most significant films of the decade and Aldrich, “the first filmmaker of the atomic age”.


[Originally published at Firstpost]