Showing posts with label Kiss Me Deadly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kiss Me Deadly. Show all posts

08 February 2017

Mike Hammer: Through a Glass, Darkly

David Edgerley Gates


The start point here is that Ralph Meeker wandered into my mind's eye, I'm not sure why, but I remembered a play called Something About a Soldier. It went maybe a dozen performances when it opened in New York, but I'd seen it in a try-out run. Shows used to open in Toronto, and then travel to Boston or Philadelphia, working out the kinks on the road before they got to Broadway. This one starred Sal Mineo, along with Kevin McCarthy and, yup, Ralph Meeker.

My first Mike Hammer was Darren McGavin, on TV. The series lasted two seasons in syndication, half-hour episodes, black and white. (I'd prefer to draw a veil across the later version - meaning no disrespect to Stacy Keach - but seriously, a show that manages to make both the character and the star appear brain-dead, and then wastes Don Stroud, into the bargain? Please.)

Now. Mickey Spillane. I, the Jury sold more than six million copies, domestic. An interviewer asked Mickey how it felt to be a best-selling author. He told the guy, "I'm not an author, I'm a writer." The story goes that he cranked out the first book in nineteen days. What you have to realize about Spillane, and Mike Hammer, is that the books are very like fever-dreams. They come out of a collective unconscious. Spillane just gives voice to it. He doesn't second-guess himself, and Hammer isn't the kind of character who's plagued by doubts. I, the Jury still has a shocker of an ending, even these days. A lot of people thought it was snuff pulp, utter trash. Spillane, again. "People eat more salted peanuts than caviar." He was tapping into something, no question. A generalized postwar unease, an appetite for the sensational, vicarious thrills. Hammer smacked punks around and dished out vigilante justice with relish. He was brute force. He was the raw, elemental, unreconstructed Id.

Ralph Meeker never made it big. He had some good parts over the years, The Naked Spur, Jeopardy, Run of the Arrow, Paths of Glory. Did a fair amount of television. Got a lot of attention for Picnic, on stage, in 1954, but he turned down a chance to do the picture, and it went to Bill Holden. He's probably best known for his Mike Hammer in Kiss Me, Deadly. Thing is, though, the Mike Hammer of Kiss Me, Deadly is not only odd, he's for sure not Spillane's.

The received wisdom seems to be that Robert Aldrich was hostile to the material. He certainly reshaped the story and the character. Aldrich wasn't at this point the marquee-name director he later became, but he'd had a solid hit the year before with Vera Cruz, and he was able to write his own ticket with his next movie. He and Meeker make Hammer pretty repellent. His saving grace is that there ain't no quit to him, he just keeps coming. In the context of the story, though, this comes across less as grit and determination than as psychopathology. Hammer's a bully, a thuggish bottom-feeder.

Then there's the MacGuffin. Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street had come out in 1953, two years before. Fuller has a little more of the Commie menace in his picture than Aldrich does, but I don't think either one of them really cares much about the politics, it's a handy dramatic device that heightens the paranoia. And stuffing the H-bomb in a suitcase? Not all that farfetched in this day and age, but back then it was pure science fiction. Story elements you wouldn't associate with Mickey Spillane, in other words. His brand of hysteria is more likely to be sexual, or maybe gun porn, but he was always red meat, never a Red-baiter.

Last but not least, the visual style. Kiss Me, Deadly is relentlessly claustrophobic, with a lot of tight close-ups, which are all the scarier when the face is Jack Elam's. (The cinematographer was Ernest Laszlo, who did seven pictures with Aldrich.) You don't think of Aldrich as a guy who uses shock effects - or at least, not like Fuller - but he's got his arresting moments. And the design of the movie, the set dressing and decor, is 1950's garish contemporary. Hammer's apartment, for one. You couldn't live with that furniture, let alone the artwork he's got on the walls. It's oppressive.

So, what have we got? More than an artifact. Kiss Me, Deadly is disturbing. It throws you off-balance from the beginning, the darkened highway, and the woman running into the headlights. The less than certain POV, an unreliable narrator. The sudden stops and starts, the false flags. Hammer manipulated by sinister forces, utterly indifferent to him, and taking his frustrations out on people who can't help themselves. This is beyond noir, it's nihilism, the lowest common denominator. Everything's a transaction, and everybody's for sale. It's all about negotiating a price. You have to wonder whether Aldrich really means to leave us with nothing but the taste of ashes in our mouths,

20 December 2016

Remembering Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in Books and Movies

by Paul D. Marks

When Raymond Chandler talked about a man neither tarnished nor afraid navigating the mean streets, I have no doubt he was talking about that man walking the streets of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood.

For my first SleuthSayers post on February 24, 2015, I wrote a column called Adventures in La La Land (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html), where I talked about Los Angeles, how it influences my writing and memories of growing up here. One area that I didn’t mention then was Bunker Hill. That is Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast.

And since my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill appears in the December, 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (though I think it’s only available on newsstands until today, the 20th) I thought I’d take this opportunity to rectify that, especially as Bunker Hill has influenced both that story and my writing in general.



If you’ve been to the Music Center in downtown L.A. you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. If you’re into film noir, you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Numerous film noirs—as well as movies in other genres—were shot there: Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, Joseph Losey’s M, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, The Glenn Miller Story and Angel’s Flight, an interesting, gritty, ultra low-budget noir. And L.A.’s Bunker Hill has stood in for many other cities as well.

Bunker Hill in transition
Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After WWI the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. The wealthy.

By the time Raymond Chandler, who had lived there a couple of different times in his life, was writing about it he was calling it “shabby town”. In The High Window (1942), he said:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
―Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Bunker Hill is also where John Fante (and his character Arturo Bandini) lived when he first moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The struggling writer wrote about that experience:

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight photo by Rarmin
And Bunker Hill is where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was. As a kid, I got to ride the original Angels Flight, which was a thrill then and still is in memory. I guess Bandini preferred to walk alongside it instead of riding in the little cars:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia. Scared of high places too, and of blood, and of earthquakes; otherwise, quite fearless, excepting death, except the fear I’ll scream in a crowd, except the fear of appendicitis, except the fear of heart trouble, even that, sitting in his room holding the clock and pressing his jugular vein, counting out his heartbeats, listening to the weird purr and whirr of his stomach. Otherwise, quite fearless.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put in, but it closed not too long after it opened. So it might have been new, definitely not improved. And it makes me think of the old saw about how they don’t make ’em like they used to. I talk more about it in the Adventures in La La Land post and in Ghosts of Bunker Hill:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


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Fante also described Bunker Hill like this:

The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

It was a tough life in the tough part of a tough city for the young writer and his alter ego:

Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the secondhand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. an old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

In the late 1950s and 60’s, the Powers That Be decided they wanted to get rid of the “blight” and modernize downtown. To that end, they began a massive redevelopment of the area, including leveling or flattening some of the hills, changing street configurations, removing and demolishing houses and other buildings. So by the late 1960s/early ’70s it was all torn down and redeveloped and progress was achieved.

In Ask the Dust, Fante said, “I crossed Hill Street and breathed easier when I entered Pershing Square. No tall buildings in the square.”

Bunker Hill today, photo by Lan56
Today’s Bunker Hill would be unrecognizable to Bandini. But maybe not completely to Fante, who lived till 1983, though he was dealing with serious complications from diabetes so he may not have seen what it became. As the narrator in Ghosts of Bunker Hill says,

Bandini had said there were no tall buildings in the Square. He should see it today. Steel and glass spikes sprout from every available space. And when nothing’s available the wrecking ball makes a new empty lot. Much of the park greens have been cemented over, with little pinpricks of green here and there, like a garnish on the side of your plate.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

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I may have a somewhat romanticized view of Bunker Hill. We do tend to romanticize the past, don’t we? I’m sure it was a hardscrabble and even dangerous life for the people who lived there after the swells moved out and it became “shabby town”. But with its gingerbread elegance and the “secret passages” of Clay Street (which no longer exists), with the winding roads going up and down and the hills, I have to say that I love the old Bunker Hill. And I’m glad so much of it is preserved in movies and writing.

Newel Post "borrowed" from Bunker Hill
I also feel very lucky that I could explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even "borrowed" the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past, it’s a prized possession.

Los Angeles isn’t known for venerating and preserving its past. Everything here is new or wants to be. People come here to start over and every few years the city tries for a rebirth. But parts of Bunker Hill were preserved. Some of the old Victorian houses were moved to Carroll Avenue near the Echo Park section of L.A.. The characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill live in a restored Victorian on Carroll Avenue and appreciate what they have:

Every time I walked those creaky wooden floors, I felt the presence of the past. The people who’d lived there. Not ghosts, but history, something Los Angeles often doesn’t appreciate. Carroll Avenue was close to downtown, where I worked. But the whole short street looked like something out of early 1900s L.A. I loved everything about it. 
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


Haskins house on Carroll Avenue, Photo by Laëtitia Zysberg

So I hope you’ll give Ghosts of Bunker Hill a shot and if you like it the sequel, Bunker Hill Blues, will be in a future issue of EQMM.

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19 July 2016

A Noir Summer

by Paul D. Marks

Since Turner Classics doesn’t appear to be doing a noir Summer of Darkness like they did last summer, I thought I’d mention some film noirs to turn those bright sunny days into days of shadows, dread and despair. Hey, I’m just a happy-go-lucky guy.

And while Turner and other stations do run noirs at various times, they often seem to stick with the classics and well-known films. Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Postman Always Rings Twice (some of my favorites). But they sometimes overlook the lesser-known noirs. And while noir fans might know these, people looking to expand their horizons into the dark side might not. So I thought I’d mention a few here that are available for purchase and/or rent, as I said, to darken those too cheery, happy days of summer.

One of my favorites is Too Late for Tears (aka Killer Bait) – 1949 – with Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. She’s so evil in this one that even Duryea, who’s pretty good at being rotten himself, can’t take her. A husband and wife (Scott) are driving their convertible when someone in another car throws a suitcase full of cash into their car. She wants to keep it, he not so much. Noir ensues. Good, low budget noir. I like this one a lot. Some nice shots/scenes at Westlake Park in LA and other LA locations. It was written by Roy Huggins, who later created The Rockford Files and The Fugitive (TV series), though David Goodis might dispute that, among other things. And it’s just recently come out in a new, fancy-dancy restored Blu-ray/DVD edition.

Fear in the Night – 1947 – stars Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley and Ann Doran. And yeah, it’s that DeForest Kelly, before he ran around saying stuff like “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a mechanic.” A man dreams he murdered someone in a weird-shaped mirrored room. Then slowly comes to believe it wasn’t a dream. It was remade in 1956 as Nightmare, with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy and relocated to New Orleans. Both versions are good, though if I had to pick one I’d probably say I like Fear in the Night better. Both are based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish).

What do you do when your days as the boy ingénue are over and Judy Garland doesn’t go to CC Brown’s for a hot fudge sundae with you anymore – and you’re down on your luck? You gotta find something to do. You turn to noir. And Mickey Rooney did. After the War, in the 1950s, he made a series of low budget film noirs. I couldn’t decide if I should go with The Strip – 1951 – or Quicksand – 1950 – so what the hell, check ’em both out. In The Strip Rooney plays a drummer who loses his girl to a gangster buddy. In Quicksand he’s a mechanic who “borrows” 20 bucks from his boss to take a girl on a hot date. When he can’t pay up, he slips deeper and deeper into……quicksand. The Strip has the added attraction of Louis Armstrong and his band and seeing Louis do A Kiss to Build a Dream On, which was nominated for an Oscar. Interesting background on the song since it was written in 1935 but nominated for an Academy Award in the 50s. Normally a song would have to be new to be considered for an Oscar for best original song, but Oscar Hammerstein II completed the unfinished lyrics of the older song for the 1951 movie and I guess the Academy decided to fudge it. – You might have to wait till The Strip plays on one channel or another. I’m not sure it’s available for purchase or streaming.

Dick Powell wasn’t on the skids, but he did want to change his image from the juvenile lead in backstage musicals to something more adult. Going from lines like “Hey, I've been for you ever since you walked in on me in my BVD's” to “I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.” And, “She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.” So, he jumped on the Raymond Chandler bandwagon, playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, two years before Bogie played Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and did a fine job of it. MMS is based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. One of Powell’s lesser known noirs is Cry Danger, with Rhonda Fleming and Raymond Burr, which is what I really wanted to point out here. Powell’s a mug sent to prison for something he didn’t do. He gets out, wants to set things right, and returns to LA. What I really like about this one are the great LA locations, especially of Bunker Hill and surrounds, an area that was totally flattened and redeveloped in the Sixties. Many film noirs were filmed at Bunker Hill, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and Backfire. So if you want to see LA’s real noir hood, check out these movies and Cry Danger. And as a side note, I have a couple of new stories coming out in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in the future that are set in modern day Bunker Hill (what’s left of it), but inspired by Bunker Hill before it bit the dust.


And to top the list off, a couple of Barbara Stanwyck noirs. She, of course, plays the ultimate femme fatale in the ultimate film noir, Double Indemnity. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – 1946 – she co-stars with Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas in his film debut. The File on Thelma Jordon – 1950 – is a companion to piece to that, at least in my mind. Something about Stanwyck’s aunts getting mysteriously dead in both movies. I like them both.

So, if you want to see dead aunts, LA’s infamous Bunker Hill, as opposed to that other one in Massachusetts, a hardboiled Mickey Rooney sans Judy and Lizabeth Scott at her most corrupt, check these out. This list barely scratches the surface but should give you start on making those hot, bright summer days just a little less bright.

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