A Couple of Oddballs
I’m going to save the post regarding the ten or twenty worst sf movies of the 1950’s (so far viewed) for later, because I recently saw two really oddball films — one sf of a sort and the other action/adventure — that I’d like to talk about.
I’m going to start with the Mike Hammer movie, KISS ME DEADLY. And no, this is not the adventure film. It’s the sf one. Really.
Hammer, created by Mickey Spillane, starred in a series of thirteen novels (1947-1997). The first, I, THE JURY, was written according to varied accounts in either nine or nineteen days (the thought of which makes my head hurt). He is perhaps the ultimate hardboiled P.I., and a self-described misanthrope. KISS ME DEADLY came out in 1952; the movie in 1955.
The film starts at night on a lonely country road. Hammer is humming along in his big Jaguar when Cloris Leachman (in her film debut) wearing a trench coat and nothing else, flags him down and begs a ride. We quickly realize we’re in for quite a ride ourselves as the credits run over the opening scene, backwards, bottom to top.
Ralph Meeker does an excellent job of playing Hammer. He’s more than a bit of a sadist who loves slapping around — or killing — anyone who gets in his way. He’s also utterly sleazy, making his money mostly on divorce cases by blackmailing unwitting husbands (to whom he pimps Velda, his secretary and the brains of the operation) and wives (whom he takes care of himself). He’s been called the darkest anti-hero in noir.
Director Robert Aldrich (best known for THE LONGEST YARD [the good one] and THE DIRTY DOZEN) does a spectacular job of visualizing the seamy underside of the Los Angeles inhabited by Hammer and his various foes and informants . The screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides is interesting, to say the least. Bezzerides had contempt for the book, so basically changed almost everything, except for the most basic elements of the plot. I haven’t read the novel, but I’d bet a bottle of rye that the sub-plot in which a Christina Rossetti poem plays a large role was not contributed by Spillane. Any of you who have read it can check me on this.
The plot itself is quite prolix and (even though I’ve watched it twice now) doesn’t quite make sense. I won’t try to recapitulate it here, because I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It concerns an item which Velda refers to as “a whatsis,” which various women get at various times and whom various criminals kidnap, torture, and kill in vain attempts to retrieve.
The “whatsis” is the sf element. I won’t say anything about it, except to note that both REPO MAN and PULP FICTION paid homage to it.
Now on to the really weird one. CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER (1962) stars Vincent Price as a direct descendant of Thomas de Quincey, who wrote the autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER The movie is actually nothing like the book, as Price is rather active in the course of the movie whereas (as far as I know) de Quincey just sat around and ate opium.
The story is set in 1802 San Francisco where a crusading Chinese newspaper editor is fighting the tongs who are importing Asian women and auctioning them off as wives for rich Chinese geezers, the marriages lasting as long as the geezers don’t get tired of them. Vincent Price shows up, apparently sent by a rival tong in China (he has the sekrit tattoo and everything) to kick some ass and help the crusading editor, who is, unfortunately, already dead by the time Price arrives. For some reason, the tong who killed him is in the process of throwing him an elaborate funeral. Price intervenes, and things get odd and not entirely understandable.
Again, I don’t want to spoil the convoluted plot for first time viewers, so I’ll just throw up some pics of the movie’s odder bits.
I liked this movie the first time I saw it. I’m not entirely sure how much though. It does require close attention, and I intend to view it again to see exactly where I stand.
Rating (provisionally): 8