Wednesday, September 26, 2012


This "atomic" noir from director Robert Aldrich is considered by many a masterpiece, and by some an amoral bit of violent sleaze.  Both descriptions seem apt to me,  given  the source material (Mickey Spillane's wildly popular novel of the same name)  and Aldrich's  (with screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides)  treatment of a story darkened by the political and nuclear paranoia of the time.  As I watched this,  memories of much later films by David Lynch (BLUE VELVET)  and  Jean-Luc Godard (ALPHAVILLE),  as well as the original OUTER LIMITS series,  replayed in my head. Did anyone mention German Expressionism?  Ralph Meeker as detective Mike Hammer gives his role just the right amount of cynical rage that you nearly forgive his amazingly crass sexism and sadistic ability to inflict pain.  While censors had Aldrich alter parts of the film,  especially those concerning drugs,  brutality,  and sex,  he found ways to circumvent outright titillation through carefully composed scenes and sound.  Consider the first few minutes of the film where a mental facility escapee (a very young Cloris Leachman)  throws herself in front of Hammer's sports car in an act of extreme hitch-hiking.  She struggles to breathe through her exhaustion,  moaning as if in the throes of a powerful orgasm,  and this is the sound that accompanies the ingenious roll of credits,  read in moving perspective.  I can only imagine how uncomfortable moviegoers were with this sequence,  and it only gets worse. Christina (Leachman) and Mike are then summarily captured by  a nameless "they" who torture and kill her in an attempt to find the location of the "Great Whatsit".  This harrowing scene is made all the more effective by showing none of the actual torture methods,  only Christina's dangling legs and the shoes of her captors in the extreme foreground.  And yes,   Christina's screams provide us with a powerful incentive to wince. This is the last time we see Christina,  except as a body in the coroner's office,   but this scene resonates through the rest of the film.  Fear and paranoia echo throughout,  be its source femme fatale,  drugs,  potential for brutality,  "they",  or the mysterious "Whatsit" (a particularly potent box of radio activity).  This is a film to watch again and again,  grabbing only further questions  from its shadows,  nervous laughter from its dialogue,  and no solace at all from from Nat King Cole's lyrics:  "I'd rather have the blues than what I've got..."

No comments:

Post a Comment