It seems scarcely credible that Kiss Me Deadly is over 60 years old. It still carries a punch with its brilliant camerawork and editing and its story about a brutish man in pursuit of what turns about to be a disturbing pre-echo of a contemporary scare, referred to in the film as “the great whatsit”.
Mickey Spillane, author of the original novel, died in 2005. His obituaries faithfully recorded his enormous popularity in the 1950s with millions of paperbacks sold and the establishment of the aptly named Mike Hammer as a certain kind of American hero. Misogynistic and fascistic, Hammer is a private eye who blunders his way to a ‘solution’ of each case with excessive violence – about as far from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe as you can get. Spillane had a strange relationship with Hollywood, appearing both as himself and as Hammer in a couple of films and also seeing his stories and his hero taken on by an unlikely group of filmmakers.
Victor Saville was a well-known British director who began making films in the 1920s, was successful in the UK in the 1930s and went to Hollywood in the 1940s as a producer-director for MGM. In 1953 Saville formed Parklane Pictures and bought the rights to four Mickey Spillane novels, simply on the basis of their popularity. He directed two of the films himself (The Long Wait, 1954 and My Gun is Quick, 1957) and produced the other two (I, the Jury 1951 and Kiss Me Deadly). The films made very good profits and Saville next identified Ian Fleming novels as similarly lucrative properties, but was too early into the market and couldn’t make an appropriate deal with United Artists.
Kiss Me Deadly was less commercially successful than the other Parklane films, but it has gained a high critical reputation as one of the two great ‘late period’ films noirs (sharing the honour with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1957)) and credited as a major influence on the directors of La nouvelle vague in France at the end of the 1950s.
Robert Aldrich (1918-83)
Parklane hired producer-director Robert Aldrich to make Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich was from a wealthy Eastern family of bankers, but he turned out to be one of the most radical filmmakers in post-war Hollywood. University-educated, he got a job at RKO through a relative’s influence and learned his trade as an assistant to directors such as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Losey. He made several programmes for television in 1952-3 and directed four features before 1955, including two Westerns for the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). These early films helped introduce a new kind of ‘tough’ and more ‘realistic’ Western with a focus on the Apache and American incursions into Mexico. Aldrich and Lancaster returned to similar territory with Ulzana’s Raid (1972) an unsettling film with clear references to Vietnam. Aldrich was a radical who enjoyed turning Hollywood expectations upside down. He must have been intrigued with the possibility of Hammer as hero/anti-hero on a quest in a world with no clear moral order. Ralph Meeker turned out to be perfect casting for Hammer and Aldrich went on to become the leading ‘tough guy’ action director of the next thirty years.
The script with its witty one liners and ironic references to high culture is by A. I. Bezzerides, writer on pictures for Bogart, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and another leftist to dismay Spillane. The wonderful cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, a regular with Aldrich and later Stanley Kramer, who had previously lensed the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and Jo Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951). With art director William Glasgow, also an Aldrich regular, he created the first ‘modern’ noir.
This title from the Japan Foundation Film Tour proved to be a startling and, I think, rewarding experience. In one respect it bears a resemblance to Hollywood films such as those by David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. I’m thinking of something like Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (2010). Like that film, Yurigokoro is based on a novel, Nan-Core by the horror/crime writer Numata Mahokaru. It’s common for Japanese features to be based on novels or manga, but there has recently been discussion about a new genre in Japanese popular literature known as iyamisu (eww mystery). This is the kind of mystery novel where the reader involuntarily gasps ‘Eeuw!’ or ‘Ugh’ at a description of something grisly. I try to read examples of contemporary Japanese crime fiction and I would argue that a writer like Kirino Natsuo is linked to this current cycle with her novels Out (1997) and Grotesque (2003). The most notable film based on an iyamisu novel by Minato Kanae was Confessions (Kokuhaku, Japan 2010) – a popular title in the UK. Watching Yurigokoro I was also reminded of the films of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1950s-1970s which we saw in Bradford a few years back. Finally on the background, I’ll note that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (which became the David Fincher film) was categorised on its publication in Japan as part of the new cycle.
But ‘Enough!’ you are shouting. What is Yurigokoro about? You’ll note that there is no English title and that’s because ‘Yurigokoro’ is a made-up word, a child’s mis-hearing of the technical term for her problem. Little Misako is frightened of the world around her and needs something to give her confidence. Tragically it appears to be only death or pain that can give her confidence and as she grows up she becomes involved in a couple of deaths that could be construed as accidents. The film’s narrative moves backwards and forwards in time in a nonlinear fashion and as well as Misako we are introduced to a young man, Ryosuke (Matsuzaka Tôri) driving his fiancée to the summer café he has opened in a tourist spot in the forest. Suddenly he accelerates and frightens his partner before slowing down again when he sees her distress. At the café he introduces her to his father Yosuke (Matsuyama Ken’ichi), but a little later she disappears in a mysterious way. Ryosuke is also shocked to discover that his father has terminal cancer. A little later when he visits his father he finds a diary in his father’s room and starts to read it. The first line of the diary includes the statement that “I have never had a problem with killing people” (I don’t remember the exact words). Unlike a shocked but intrigued Ryosuke, we have some inkling who might have written such a line and soon we are back with a now adult Misako (Yoshitaka Yuriko).
I won’t spoil the narrative any further but I will say that the violence escalates such that one scene featured so much blood that I think someone in the row behind me fainted (and I, and the woman next to me, watched the scene through our fingers). Sheffield Showroom warned punters at the box office that there were violent scenes (because festival films aren’t certificated). This would be an 18 in the UK – but it is listed as PG-12 in Japan!
I noted in the opening credits that the film was distributed by one of the original ‘major studios’ in Japan, Nikkatsu in conjunction with another memorable studio brand Toei. Toei-Nikkatsu appear to have focused on releasing major genre pictures in the last few years. Yurigokoro was released in September 2017 in Japan, making an entry at No. 8 in the chart but only lasting two weeks before disappearing from the Top 20. I suspect that the film earned more from video and streaming services. This seems about right for an adventurous genre movie with an experienced cast and crew. I think director Kumazawa Naoto manages to hold together the different elements in this very complex film very well. He co-wrote the screenplay with the novel’s author. The cinematography by Imamura Keisuke also works well to distinguish the noirish world of Misako with the clean and airy world of Ryosuke. I guess both the make-up artists and Matsuyama Ken’ichi the actor deserve credit for ageing Yosuke so well from flashbacks to the present.
Despite the gruesome scenes this was a surprising and rewarding night out at the pictures and shows once again the diversity of films from Japan. I’m always grateful for a chance to see these films from the Japan Foundation.
Original Japanese trailer (no English subs):
Everybody Knows opened the Cannes competition in 2018 to mixed reviews (although better than usual for the opening film) and it has taken some time to get into UK distribution. I suspect that audiences have discovered the film to be better than some of the early reviews suggested and the film opened reasonably well in the UK. I enjoyed the film very much and the interesting questions for me revolve around expectations for a film by the director of the Oscar-winning A Separation (Iran 2011) and The Salesman (Iran-France 2016) and the extent to which those same audiences know Asghar Farhadi’s earlier Iranian work.
When the film began I found it fast-moving and packed with incident. I struggled to follow all the dialogue in the subtitles and especially the relationships in a large extended family in a small village community. I also wondered if there was something ‘not Spanish’ about it. Later, as I watched Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz I was reminded of the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain-US 2008) and thought how much better this Farhadi film was. But this does indicate that I couldn’t quite forget that this was a film in which the director was not working in his first (or even second?) language. I later read that Farhadi had written the script before he undertook production of The Salesman in 2016 and after he wrote The Past (2013) – a film largely in French but also with an Iranian character. Re-reading those posts now I realise why, watching the new film, I was reminded of About Elly (Iran 2009). Everybody Knows is a different kind of story in some ways but comparing it to Farhadi’s earlier films and especially About Elly will reveal something, I think. But first I need to sketch out an outline of the new film (without any major spoilers).
Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children, sixteen-year old Irene and her young brother, arrive in a small village not too far from Madrid but sufficiently rural to be isolated. They have come from Argentina to attend the wedding of Laura’s sister Ana and they are staying in the hotel in the centre of the village owned by Laura’s elder sister Mariana and her husband Fernando. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) is at this point still in Argentina. Laura soon meets Paco (Javier Bardem). He was Laura’s childhood friend and the two were inseparable before she went to Argentina but she hasn’t seen him in the last 16 years and now he has a beautiful wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) and owns half a thriving wine-producing business. Laura also meets her father who she is shocked to realise has grown old and frail – though he still has a temper. On the night of the wedding party all is going well until Irene, who had gone to bed early feeling a little unwell, disappears and at this point what might have been a familiar family melodrama becomes instead a melodrama thriller. Is Irene in danger? Did she go voluntarily or has someone taken her? We remember that in the opening credit sequence we saw someone wearing gloves clipping a newspaper story and now those clippings are found on Irene’s bed.
What follows is a typical Farhadi narrative as the family – and the villagers who know something is wrong, but not what it is – begin to squabble and we wonder if lies are being told by some characters and why they might lie. We are back in a Farhadi world where telling lies becomes almost natural and where one lie begats another and so on. The difference is that in the Iranian film, Western audiences are likely to read the telling of lies as indicative of the repression in Iranian society. In About Elly, for instance, a group of married friends from Tehran rent a house by the sea for ‘a weekend away’ and one of the married women invites her child’s nursery teacher, Elly, to come with them. One of the men has just returned from Germany where he got divorced and in a moment of madness the group tell their landlady that he and Elly are a ‘honeymoon couple’. This is the first lie but more will occur when Elly goes missing. Has she drowned in the sea or fled back to the city? What can the group tell the police? They don’t actually know much about her.
In Everybody Knows, there is a great deal of family history that is slowly revealed and it will involve questions of social class, landowner and peasant, as well as relationships and infidelities. The village is a small community in which ‘Everybody Knows’. Most critics don’t seem to equate this family melodrama with any kind of analysis of Spanish society – as they would in the Iranian context. Instead, the film tends to be written about as a thriller genre film. On the other hand, there is something about the cast and the setting that invokes an Almodóvar film and Pedro appears in the ‘thanks list’ in the closing credits. The film it most reminds us of is Volver (2006) in which Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) returns to her home village in La Mancha to experience a host of family memories. The veteran cinematographer on that film (and others by Almodóvar), José Luis Alcaine, also photographed Everybody Knows. Several cast members have appeared in Almodóvar’s films.
I have only been able to find Press Notes in French and they reveal that Farhadi first visited Spain “fifteen years ago” and the kernel of the idea for the story emerged then. At that point in 2003 he had only just begun to make cinema films and the script idea changed over the next few years as he became more familiar with the work of the actors he would eventually cast. He wrote the first drafts in Farsi and had them translated, getting feedback until his Spanish collaborators were satisfied that the script was wholly ‘Spanish’. Because of the high-profile stars who were always busy it then took several years to finally move into production. Farhadi argues that he doesn’t make ‘message films’, implying that he is mainly interested in ‘relationships’. However, I’m sure he knows the history of melodrama and he knows that it has been an important form commenting on and exploring moments of social change. I think therefore it’s reasonable to argue that in the fifteen years or so it has taken the film to emerge, families like the one in this narrative have been affected by changing social mores and issues associated with various forms of migration as well as suffering from the impact of financial crises etc. I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil the narrative for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. But I think this will be a narrative worth some analysis over the next few years.
Cruz, Bardem and Darin are arguably the biggest Hispanic-language stars in international cinema and one of the great pleasures of the film is to see them in scenes together. Farhadi’s great strength is in his rapport with his actors. I’ve seen some complaints that the film is too slow in its second half and that the thriller elements don’t conform to genre conventions. Farhadi’s films are long (this one is over 130 mins) but I found every minute riveting. The narrative does come to a conclusion but not what I would call a full ‘resolution’. There are several unanswered questions as to motivation and also about what happens next. It almost feels like a new story might be about to begin. I’d like to see the next instalment.
Here’s a North American trailer (the film is distributed in the UK and North America by Universal):
Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!
Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?
The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:
a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’
That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.