The Great Whozits

A rogue’s gallery of vituperative 1950s vixens and night-world tough-guy gargoyles all coalescing in a constellation of twinkling cold war lights, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is a film of a thousand stars. Stars of every sort, size, and description: headliners, secondarios, standout bit players, members of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, cherished character actors, and future household names. All turning around the rotten fulcrum of the sneering divorce facilitator known as private detective Mike Hammer (played by iconic ’50s he-man Ralph Meeker, fresh from an enormous success on Broadway as the hunky stranger in William Inge’s Picnic), this galaxy of goons and gamines is carved like a series of alternately glamorous and grimace-distorted Greek theatrical masks along Kiss Me Deadly’s apocalyptic frieze of A-bomb anxieties and B-movie madnesses. Some of them old, some of them new, Aldrich’s never equaled assortment of Hollywood’s peripheral presences are what help bring the film’s nightmarish nuclear death drive to life—and in the spirit of the HUAC witch hunts that form the basis of the movie’s then topical undertow, it falls to us to name names. Herewith, then, a playbill for Robert Aldrich’s paranoid pulp fiction—a road map of the players’ faces and guidebook to a few of the traces they’ve left behind.

Cloris Leachman (Christina)

“A thumb isn’t good enough for you. You’ve gotta use your whole body!”

Barefoot (and several months pregnant beneath her trench coat), Cloris Leachman enters, and sets in motion, Kiss Me Deadly with a gams-first gallop that inaugurates a visual motif that Aldrich will maintain throughout the film: a strange, fractured depiction of humanity from the thighs down. Perhaps best known as the era-defining ’70s next-door neighbor Phyllis on television’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and its Leachman-led spin-off, Phyllis), Leachman—a former Miss America contestant from Des Moines, Iowa, and future Academy Award winner for her devastating turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show—had ties to Hollywood royalty that ran long and deep. She’d introduced her former husband, veteran producer-director George Englund, to her former acting classmate Marlon Brando (they’d both studied under Elia Kazan) in the early ’60s, and Brando remained a close family friend. A Bel Air neighbor during that same period was Judy Garland, whose kids Lorna and Joey Luft were frequent visitors in Leachman’s home. As active and popular as ever—her comically curdled, horse-frightening Frau Blücher (“Whinny!”) from Young Frankenstein still known to every modern teenager, and even her excised scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds the stuff of online collector envy—Leachman turned eighty-five this past April. “Remember me”? We always will.

Jack Elam (Charlie Max) and Jack Lambert (Sugar Smallhouse)

Two perennial film noir shadow dwellers and Wild West galoots, the gentle, bug-eyed giant Jack Elam and the “ugly, slit-eyed, jut-toothed, cleft-chinned menace” Jack Lambert (per one particularly discerning IMDB “mini-biographer”)—in Kiss Me Deadly, a pair of on-the-payroll thugs whose pool-house and beachfront encounters with Mike Hammer creepily alternate between the mirthful and the minatory—appeared in hundreds of features and golden age television. Lambert, from Yonkers, New York, worked with ’50s masters Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Ray on western touchstones like Stars in My Crown and Run for Cove r, and stayed in the saddle through countless episodes of Wagon Master and Gunsmoke. Arizona-born Elam, unforgettable as the fly-vexed gunslinger in the opening scene of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West , worked for directors as disparate as Phil Karlson and Fritz Lang throughout the 1950s, his lovably cubist countenance growing grizzled and distorted over the years. Who would have remembered that the besotted comic relief in Support Your Local Sheriff or the thickly bearded bounty hunter in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid had begun as an accountant for Samuel Goldwyn and was a onetime manager of the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles? Elam died in Oregon, age eighty-four, in 2003; Lambert died far from Yonkers, in the Pacific Coast city of Carmel, California, in 2002, age eighty-one.

Gaby Rodgers (Gabrielle/Lilly Carver) and Maxine Cooper (Velda)

Light and dark, the twinned yet opposing flames of Mike Hammer’s short Kiss Me Deadly existence, Gaby Rodgers’s chillingly self-absorbed Gabrielle and Maxine Cooper’s smolderingly forlorn Velda are characters as compelling and confounding as the legend-rich lives of the actresses themselves. Rodgers, born Gabrielle Rosenberg in Germany in 1928, was the niece of the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and grew up in Amsterdam, where she remembered playing with Anne Frank as a child; she appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1957, representing “The New Face of Broadway,” and married songwriter Jerry Leiber, author of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and numerous others. Rodgers worked extensively in television throughout the ’50s, but her film career was limited to only two features. So too went the career of the Chicago-born Cooper, who appeared briefly in Aldrich’s sublime melodrama Autumn Leaves and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but otherwise confined herself to television work before retiring from acting altogether in 1960; she dipped into television twice more, in 1975 and 1980. A photographer and liberal Hollywood activist who spearheaded protests against HUAC, nuclear weapons, and the war in Vietnam, Cooper was married to writer-producer Sy Gomberg in 1957, and they remained together until his death in 2001; she died in 2009.

Wesley Addy (Lt. Pat Murphy)

A recurrently featured player in Aldrich’s stock cast, the Omaha-born Wesley Addy had one of the most insinuating voices and easily recognizable shocks of prematurely white hair in the business—and an extensive background in Shakespearean theatrics he would often submerge beneath his softly disquieting demeanor. Addy added deft character portrayals to Aldrich’s The Big KnifeWhatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte; nearly stole the show from Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s terrifying Seconds; and capped his long career with standout performances in Sidney Lumet’s Network and The Verdict. Unusually, Addy also maintained longstanding ties with television soap operas, first as a featured player in the ’50s prime-time crime-soap serial The Edge of Night and later as a ’70s afternoon regular on Ryan’s Hope. Addy was married to actress Celeste Holm from 1961 until his death in 1996.

Strother Martin (Harvey Wallace), with Ralph Meeker

Strother Martin must have gotten used to working fast in the ’50s, when directors, while clearly enamored of his humorously harried manners and quick-to-turn-to-jelly face, would often give him only a single scene in which to make his mark: in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, his first screen appearance, he’s given only a single shot. Aldrich, too, had but one scene to give him in Kiss Me Deadly (and no screen credit), but it was a good one, with Martin working through tortured emotions to arrive at a mortifying conclusion when Hammer comes to question him in the middle of a family dinner (the template for Jack Nicholson’s later interruption of Burt Young’s supper in Chinatown). Martin may be best recollected today for the many westerns he appeared in throughout the ’60s and ’70s, particularly as the exasperated horse trader in Henry Hathaway’s True Grit, and in prominent supporting roles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—not to mention his featured appearances in non-westerns The Flim-Flam Man and Cool Hand Luke. His face as malleable and mordantly hilarious as Buster Keaton’s, Martin was born in Kokomo, Indiana, in 1919 and died in California in 1980.

Paul Stewart (Carl Evello)

Already a member of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre by the time of the incendiary 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, the gravel-throated Paul Stewart—born Sternberg, in New York City, 1908—seemed to veer effortlessly from the suave to the sinister throughout his acting life. A founding member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), Stewart worked relentlessly through the ’40s and ’50s—for Vincente Minnelli, Jacques Tourneur, and Richard Brooks, among many others—appearing in four or five features a year. He maintained a similar pace in television through the ’60s and ’70s, seeming to appear everywhere: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dr. Kildare, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, It Takes a Thief, Mannix, The Name of the Game, McMillan & Wife, Mission Impossible, and The Rockford Files. Today best remembered as Charles Foster Kane’s cynical manservant Raymond in Citizen Kane, Stewart gets one of Kiss Me Deadly’s greatest lines when he sibilantly advises a still-befuddled Mike Hammer that “suddenly, it’s too late.” Stewart died at the age of seventy-seven in Los Angeles in 1986.

Juano Hernandez (Eddie Yeager), with Ralph Meeker

One of the greatest of early African-American actors on-screen, Juano Hernandez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1896 and worked as a sailor, circus acrobat, and boxer while peregrinating from Rio de Janeiro to Manhattan, where in the ’20s he appeared on the first all-black radio soap opera, We Love and Learn. He made his film debut in Oscar Micheaux’s The Girl from Chicago in 1927, but didn’t win his Golden Globe, for new star of the year, until his performance in the 1949 William Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust. He appeared as Kirk Douglas’s trumpet mentor in Young Man with a Horn, as Nat King Cole’s father in St. Louis Blues, and in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, and Gordon Douglas’s They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! before returning late in life to Puerto Rico, where he passed away in 1970.

Percy Helton (morgue attendant), with Ralph Meeker and Gaby Rodgers

Percy Helton’s stuck-pig squeals of agony when Mike Hammer slams a desk drawer on his greedy little fingers provides Kiss Me Deadly with one of its signature moments of gleeful malice and smiling sadism. Helton (born 1894, in New York City) had begun in silent films in 1915, served in the Army during World War I, and was still appearing in uncredited walk-on bits in films as late as his incarnation of the original Bad Santa, a drunken parade-float Saint Nick who’s given a dressing-down by the “real” Kris Kringle near the beginning of 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. Ever a fringe player but always instantly recognizable the moment he spoke in that unmistakable high, squeaky-hinge voice, Helton numbered his film and television appearances in the hundreds, turning up everywhere from Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies to Bob Rafelson’s psychedelic Monkees deconstruction Head. He was fleetingly reunited with his Kiss Me Deadly costars Cloris Leachman and Strother Martin in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He died in Los Angeles, at age seventy-seven, in 1971.

Fortunio Bonanova (Carmen Trivago)

Born Josep lluis Moll in Mallorca, Spain, in 1895, Fortunio Bonanova was a welcome sight in the details of dozens of classic Hollywood films. Trained as a singer, Bonanova signed the Spanish Ultraist literary movement’s manifesto alongside essayist and poet Jorge Luis Borges in 1921, and at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, relocated permanently to California. In the ’40s, his acting career took off with parts as Susan Alexander Kane’s opera coach in Citizen Kane, prominent roles in The Black Swan and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and a great character bit in Double Indemnity as a hapless farmer caught in a foolish attempt at insurance fraud by Edward G. Robinson. As Kiss Me Deadly’s Carmen Trivago—“a poor man’s Caruso, an unemployed opera singer in search of an opera”—Bonanova seemed a natural for the part as a man lost in his music, his memories, and the long johns forlornly hung up to dry around his dingy flat, though the actor’s career would continue steadily through the ’50s, leaving indelible traces everywhere from Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool and Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember to the I Love Lucy show. Bonanova died in Los Angeles in 1969, age seventy-four.

Nick Dennis (Nick), center, with Robert Aldrich, left, Ralph Meeker, right, and Kiss Me Deadly dialoguecoach/“gas station attendant” Robert Sherman, rear

Without Nick Dennis’s infectious (and ultimately fatal) love for the stalwart (if ideologically stone-aged) Mike Hammer, the peripherally zesty and perilously automobile-crazy Los Angeles of Kiss Me Deadly would scarcely be the sort of madcap meeting place of the lovable and the loathsome that we know and adore it as today. Not for nothing did critic Raymond Durgnat famously formulize Aldrich’s noir masterpiece as “the apotheosis of va-va-voom”: Dennis’s diminutive car jockey Nick’s signature slogan —“Va-va-voom! Pretty pow!!”—encapsulates the entirety of the film’s explosively sexed-up apocalyptic vision with a poetic concision Wallace Stevens might have admired. Born in Thessaly, the Greek Dennis began in films in 1947, and made a lasting mark across from Humphrey Bogart in 1951’s Sirocco (coscripted by Kiss Me Deadly’s A. I. Bezzerides); he’d go on to work for Aldrich in 4 for Texas and The Legend of Lylah Clare, appear in John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues, and work extensively in television, most famously as Kojak’s Uncle Constantine throughout the 1970s. Dennis died in 1980.

Albert Dekker (Dr. Soberin), left, with Gaby Rodgers and Robert Aldrich, holding the Great Whatzit

As famous for the manner in which he died as the diverse and active career he maintained while he lived, the imperious Albert Dekker—born Albert Van Ecke in Brooklyn, 1905—was a successful stage actor who migrated to Hollywood in 1937. Though he’d made films for Elia Kazan and Anthony Mann, Dekker was probably still best remembered in 1956 as the bald and thickly bespectacled Dr. Cyclops in Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1940 horror/science-fiction hit. His performance as Kiss Me Deadly’s ruthless Atom Age crime kingpin Dr. Soberin begins like a haunted reminder of that earlier mad-science incarnation, with the actor mostly offscreen, a torturer and snide tormentor known only by the blood-curdling sound of his voice and a pair of spiffy two-tone wing tips to suggest the carefully cultivated evil above. Once Dekker finally does appear, in the film’s climactic episode, he’s even more outrageous than we imagined, sporting an unruly hairpiece and a loud pinstripe suit, and looking liked he’s wandered over from a casting call for something like Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, Casino Boss from Hell. Away from the screen, Dekker, a Democrat and ardent anti-McCarthyite, served as a member of the California State Assembly from 1944–46; his last screen appearance was as the rotten railroad man Harrigan in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. We’ll leave it to Kenneth Anger, writing in his unparalleled 1975 tell-all tome Hollywood Babylon, to describe Dekker’s final performance: “For his last role, the sixty-two-year-old character actor chose his favorite private garb, women’s silk lingerie. He carefully printed in crimson lipstick on his gone-to-flab anatomy his final notices, all of them unfavorable. Then, in delicious schadenfreude, he bound himself, and managed to hang himself, even as his favorite handcuffs locked on his wrists for all time. This time, he played the game alone, in his Hollywood bathroom.” Dekker died, at age sixty-two, in 1968, when the term autoerotic asphyxiation had yet to enter our cultural vocabulary.

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