Kiss Me Deadly
Noir, of course, typically displays shadows, rain, urban darkness, blunt seediness, and the realization that since not just at the end but at the center of things are death and other hopeless mysteries, human striving is meaningless. There’s something soothing about realizing that all is futile. It’s liberating. Kiss Me Deadly might be the most cynical and fatalistic noir of them all. It happens to take place in sunny LA, but it’s certainly got the seediness too, including fantastic location shooting in long-gone slums. It’s one of those flicks that’s too good to be true. You’re stopped alone at a motel somewhere in the desert late at night, dead tired, but you can’t sleep, so you switch on the TV . . . and there’s a near-teenage Cloris Leachman running towards you, moaning and sobbing in the darkness, too blonde and naked to believe. But there she is. What a world. Ralph Meeker speeds up in a Jaguar! Nat King Cole warbles on the radio. Cloris is named after Christina Rossetti! It’s 1955. She’s a bitter feminist escapee from a mental asylum. And it just gets better, all the way till after the last second. Along with the action, corruption, sadism, and sex (when the blonde in her car, who happens to be behind Mike Hammer when he parks in a driveway, is immediately compelled to press herself against him and kiss him, framed with bulging taillights protruding from the fin of the forward auto, somehow it's sexier than the porniest pornography), the photography/mise-en-scène would make this movie immortal alone. It’s the kind of movie that makes me laugh at the notion of “art” photography. A few thousand frames from this one film would make a better life’s work in photography than any artist has yet created. Cindy Sherman has a right to a living like everyone else, but, Jesus . . . Nicholas Raymondo (“Very Smart. Very Bright. Very Sad.”) was “sad . . . for the way the world is,” but as Christina tells us:
if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
It’s actually misquoted in the movie, but it’s still probably the nicest thing that’s happened to Christina Rossetti in a hundred
years . . .
Au hasard Balthazar
Bresson is my favorite director. He personifies my values in movies. My fetish film of his is The Devil, Probably, but it’s not available from Criterion. The ones that are offered are all magnificent, but I have to go with the donkey. Above all, Bresson is unconventional; he had the vision and fortitude to penetrate and disintegrate received ideas and habits to make films that start from square one. He’s ultra-intelligent and ultrasensitive, with the eye of a painter; his films are near-noir in their bleak, unblinking presentation of human existence—a large proportion of them include suicide of the protagonist—while they’re also exhilarating and uplifting in their God’s-eye views. Balthazar, of course, stars a saintly donkey, the beauty of whom rivals that of his costar, a mournfully angelic young Anne Wiazemsky.
Cronenberg is a good example of a director who has often made my favorite kind of film: a genre movie that feels profound. I haven’t seen The Brood in a long time, but I remember how it excited me. He wrote it too, as he will, and it’s low budget, which is a virtue, and it’s a horror movie that ingeniously presents the idea of extreme human emotion becoming personified, in a strong metaphor for how life can feel. Maybe that’s already a spoiler. I’ll stop, except to say that perhaps an even greater instance of a profound genre flick from Cronenberg is The Fly.
Pickup on South Street
I remember being baffled by the first Sam Fuller film I saw when I was in my late teens or early twenties, a revival at the old St. Mark’s theater on Second Avenue in New York. The audience was guffawing and cheering and I thought it was really stupid: some kind of condescending intellectual slumming, about a movie that looked to me like plain harmless, and pretty much sincere, if inept, cheap melodramatic exposé. It was Shock Corridor. The movie was bad, but the audience was worse. I can’t remember which film turned me around. The Naked Kiss? That’s a great one, as is Shock Corridor. Eventually I also learned how highly Fuller is rated by the most intellectual film analysts. I think what makes Fuller so popular with them is Fuller’s unpretentiousness, not because it’s naive, but because it makes him a purer example of filmmaking talent: since there’s no subtlety, no subtext, no self-consciousness, it means that to enjoy it you’ve got to enjoy it for the pure, abstract methods of film as film. Famously, his roots are in two realms, tabloid journalism and World War II (where he saw a lot of action with the infantry). In a scene at a party in Godard’s Pierrot le fou, when he’s asked what cinema is, he says, “Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.” And that’s the way his films feel: like they’re emotion, the way music is. They’re not about ideas except on the most basic level, like a tabloid. They’re “hard-boiled,” and there’s tabloid/sensationalist fury and irony. His fight scenes are thrilling and like no one else’s; you can recognize them in a second. His style altogether is distinctive. Everything is in your face. Lots of close-ups, lots of tracking in for close-ups, long takes with plenty of camera movement. It is like pulp journalism, like a fluid Weegee. Emotion. As corny and cartoony as she is, Thelma Ritter’s last scene in this is really moving. She actually got an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress for the role. The close-up smooching of Richard Widmark and Jean Peters can leave you breathless too, even though the sessions usually end with him mocking or slapping her. In 1974, when I was first singing my song “Love Comes in Spurts” at CBGB, I sometimes used to introduce it with the line that comes when Widmark’s kissed an eager Peters and she’s told him she really likes him and he sneers, “Everybody likes everybody when they’re kissing.”
Band of Outsiders
As with Bresson, I could have picked almost any Godard flick. I went for this one because it’s the one Criterion carries that I’ve seen most recently. Also, the filmmaker (who credits himself in this movie as “JeanLuc Cinéma Godard”) could do no wrong in this period of fifteen films in eight years, starting with Breathless in 1959 (though I prefer his most recent, late movies). As is often the case in Godard films, characters in this one come to a bad end. The director has a deep, fatalistic, despairing streak. Truffaut, who conceived the original story for Breathless, described how, when at the end of that movie Belmondo is shot, Godard wanted one of the cops who’s responsible to shout to the other “Quick, in the spine!”—but Truffaut persuaded him it was excessive. While, again, what’s really striking about Band of Outsiders is the sheer thrill of life in it. It’s so pretty and overflowing with life it hurts. Even when the director is boring or a buffoon, it’s moving and happy to see. You feel like he wants you to come out and play with him. It’s inspiring, the way a guy could have Godard’s grasp of cinematic “language” and then just say to hell with it and do whatever he feels like: run away to the south, start dancing, turn the sound off. His sensibility in that eight-year period reminds me of Frank O’Hara more than anybody else. Godard is a great poet—and I mean as a writer, of film reviews, etc.—as well as a filmmaker.
Again, an extremely individualist author, if even, in his case, in leftist, selfless empathy; a reconceiver of his medium/genre, making a very dark documentary about human reality. I’ve seen it twice all the way through, I guess (it’s nine-and-a-half-hours long). This subject—the treatment of Jews in Nazi territories, primarily slave labor and extermination camps—is always controversial, but to me it’s compulsively gripping, and Lanzmann’s approach, whether or not you have some argument with it, is original, conscientious to the nth, and the film supremely thought-provoking. He is fascinating too—a thinker of the highest order whose moral and physical bravery equals his level of thought.
Another maverick reinventor of film procedure, Leigh arrives at his scripts by hiring actors capable of improvising behavior for the characters Leigh conceives, and then he compiles and hones the script from weeks of their recorded improvisations. The characters as filmed are always convincing and multidimensional in the way of real life, something rare in fiction movies. Usually Leigh’s films are ultimately optimistic or at least life-affirming, but Naked is an exception. It’s a study of a brilliant, manipulative, domineering, womanizing, articulate, suicidally provocative, near-Satanic young man, who is finally sympathetic, with a worldview that can’t be dismissed, and who is doomed. That’s the way I remember it, anyway.
Sweet Smell of Success
Like many of these, this movie qualifies for me partly because it was an unexpected thrill when I first saw it in the early seventies. I’m neither much a Tony Curtis nor a Burt Lancaster fan, and I’d never heard of Alexander Mackendrick (he made half his relatively few films, including The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, in the UK; a later, strong U.S. job was A High Wind in Jamaica). Sweet Smell of Success, again, too, is quasi-noir. It’s a black-and-white, urban, small film about people’s bad luck and bad character, set in the Broadway cubicles and show-biz restaurants of New York’s sleazy show-world underbelly. Despite my prior relative indifference to the actors in it, they’re perfectly cast—against their standard types—in this, and do terrific jobs, and the script, by the highly skilled and literate Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, is spectacular. James Wong Howe shot the cold-ass thing.
Léon Morin, Priest
I suppose given the tenor of this list, Melville is pretty predictable, being that he’s a genius of crime noir, but this film is neither noir nor gangster; it’s about a thoughtful, intelligent, wise, and committed country priest, played by the young Jean-Paul Belmondo (!). Melville has a strong moral code, standards of honor and loyalty, as seen not just in his crime movies, but in the devastating Army of Shadows, his film drawn from his experience in the French Resistance, but I never could have foreseen him making a movie that is basically an argument of morality between a compassionate young stud of an impeccably behaved priest and a wild and magnetic, cynical woman, the riveting Emmanuelle Riva. Also, it made me get Catholicism in a way I never had before, namely the appeal of having as a confessor and advisor someone whose concern is for one’s soul. What could be more moving and fulfilling (and flattering)? It’s way more seductive than a psychiatrist, and it’s almost free.
Journey to Italy
Blew my mind. I didn’t see it until I was middle-aged, after decades of thriving on the ongoing French New Wave. I thought of the New Wave as beginning in these subversive young Parisian cineastes’ love for American genre films. My jaw was dropped the whole length of Journey to see the sensibility and techniques of the New Wave appearing first in this Italian flick (though English-language, starring George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman). Later I read that Truffaut called it the “first modern movie,” and I believe he’s right. I haven’t researched, so don’t know if this is a commonplace, but, on a side note, it’s interesting to consider the parallels between Journey and Godard’s Contempt. They’re both about a couple whose marriage is failing, who are foreigners on a visit to Italy, where their stiff estrangement reaches a head amid the vital, pagan-slash-Catholic ancient culture of the area around Naples. Noble, erotically charged, millennia-old statuary reverently track-circled to swelling music. Local color, and travelogue landmarks of aesthetic and mythologically poetic power, integrated naturally into the story (almost Hitchcockian in a way, except with an emotional and intellectual justification). The most groundbreaking thing about it, though, is the way it’s not exactly a story, but rather a situation, depicted in fragments and episodes—the emotional situation of a couple, displaced within a continuously intruding, alien or disorienting environment, and one that keeps us conscious of death and history. A lot is pointedly artificial about it—to me the dialogue all feels like exposition, and is delivered that way, as presentation of the situation, rather than anything natural—or at least frankly cinema, but at the same time it feels like life in a way that movies hadn’t before.
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.