Favorite Films: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Mike Hammer Watches Lily Carver Go Up the Stairs of Her Fleabag Hotel

There are few films as hard-boiled as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, based on the Mickey Spillane novel of the same name (but with a comma after “Kiss Me”). Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer is a handsome young thug who does not shrink at dispensing excruciating pain or administering summary execution. The movie is fairly close to the spirit of the novel, with one major difference. What Spillane’s private eye is looking for is some kind of drug; Aldrich instead made it some kind of radioactive material that explodes when mixed with air. Also, the film is set in Los Angeles rather than New York; and it uses the change of scene to advantage.

As the villainous Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) says to Hammer as he is tied to a bed:

Lie still. Why torment yourself? Who would you see? Someone you do not know, a stranger. What is it we are seeking? Diamonds, rubies, gold? Perhaps narcotics? How civilized this earth used to be. But as the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous [italics mine]. Perhaps sentiment will succeed where greed failed. You will die, Mr. Hammer. But your friend, you can save her. Yes you can. The young lady you picked up on the highway. She wrote you a letter. In it were two words: ‘Remember Me.’ She asks you to remember. What is it you must remember? [he injects Hammer with a hypodermic needle full of sodium pentothal] And while you sleep, your subconscious will provide the answer. And you will cry out what it is that you must remember. Pleasant dreams, Mr. Hammer.

The Legs of Christina Bailey—All That We See After She Has Been Tortured to Death

The film came under some scrutiny by the Kefauver Commission, which described it as “designed to ruin young viewers.” Well, Martine and I allowed our minds to be ruined by the Criterion Collection DVD we watched on this muggy Los Angeles afternoon.

Mickey Spillane has not fared well with the critics, although his Mike Hammer novels were wildly popular. Over 225 million copies in paperback were sold around the world, far outstripping the sales of works by more literary writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. I think I will re-read some of his more popular titles in the next few months. Why not? There is something enduring about his work, though I do not think it will ever received the sanction of the Library of America.

“Lily Carver” (Gabrielle) Opens the Briefcase, Setting Off a Nuclear Explosion


This is not a film to which you should expose your young children. Like the Spillane books, it is clearly adult. But by the same token, it is worth seeing multiple times—if you can take it.

 

Dancing to Welcome the Spirits of the Dead

West L.A. Obon Festival Eleven Years Ago

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for more than forty years now, and today was no exception. I chowed down on the Men’s Club udon soup—two bowls, no less!—and sat with Martine to watch the cheerful dances in which the spirits of the dead were welcomed. As usual, all he participants seemed to be having a great time. One nice thing about this festival is that all are welcome, regardless of race, color, or creed.

This time, I neglected to bring my camera, so I am sharing with you a picture I took in 2006. The same tall Japanese Obon dancer was there today, looking not much older than he did eleven years ago.

Poster for the Festival We Attended


Although I have not done it in over fifty years, some day I will attend one of the West L.A. Buddhist Temple’s services. I should, inasmuch as the Temple has played such a benign part in my life over so long a period of time.

The Dumpster Fire Spreads

There’s a Lot of GOP Hotfoots in Washington Today

The Trumpf Administration (it’s actually funny to think of it as an “Administration”—more like a dumpster fire that just got out of control) is so ridiculously beleaguered that it’s almost funny. Except that it’s happening to each and every one of us. We escaped having a health program that would have demised several million Americans rather unceremoniously.

But there will be other chances, what with the other pending items on the GOP agenda. After today, though, I can’t see ol’ Turtleface McConnell smiling with any degree of sincerity.

And, as more Trumpf insiders become outsiders, I can see more embarrassing stories bedeviling the man from Mar-a-Lago. Such as the time the Presidente called in Reince Priebus to the Oval Office for the sole purpose of killing a fly.

It Started Small but Grew to Engulf a Whole Nation

It looks now as if Trumpf has enemies in both major political parties. Do you suppose that eventually, someone will develop the spine to remove this chucklehead from office?

No Longer a Gallophobe

Nobel Prize-Winning Author Patrick Modiano

It was not always that I was in love with French culture. Perhaps, when I was young, I was tired of being thought to be French just because my last name is Paris. (Actually, it’s pronounced PAH-rrhish with a slightly trilled “r”.) It reached a crescendo in 1976, when my Laker Airlines flight to London stopped for some cockamamie reason at Le Bourget in Paris when we were all subject to security checks. When a French border guard wanted me to open up the back of my Olympus OM-1 camera and expose half a roll of film, I refused and called the man a cochon. Fortunately, I got away with it, though I probably shouldn’t have.

Now I am a devoted Francophile. What happened? First of all, Martine is French; and I went to France with her twice, where I found the French to be not at all as I thought them to be. Even the Parisians were all right. I suspect they seemed better because I speak fairly decent French and I could communicate with them.

I am now co-moderator of the Yahoo! French Literature reading group. Although the group concentrates on French literature of the 19th century, I discovered many 20th century classics reading books with the group. I thought I would share the ten I liked best over the last few years, presented here in alphabetical order by author:

  1. Georges Bernanos: Diary of a Country Priest. Made into a wonderful film by Robert Bresson.
  2. Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night. I had read this before, but liked it even more on re-reading it.
  3. J M G Le Clézio: The Prospector. Looking for pirate treasure in Mauritius.
  4. Albert Cohen: Belle du Seigneur. A great novel about obsessive love set in the period between the two world wars.
  5. Jean Giono: The Horseman on the Roof. A wonderful historical novel about plague in Southern France.
  6. Julien Gracq: The Opposing Shore. I had never heard of Gracq before, but this is a wonderful story about contacts between two civilizations that have drifted apart. Like the West and Islam.
  7. François Mauriac: Thérèse Desqueyroux. A profoundly Catholic novel about a murderess.
  8. Patrick Modiano: Out of the Dark. Recalls the world of the New Wave films of the 1950s and 1960s. I have since read several more of Modiano’s books and find he is one of my favorites.
  9. Marcel Pagnol: My Father’s Glory. A sentimental memoir of a childhood in Provence.
  10. Raymond Queneau: The Last Days. I just read this one a couple of weeks ago. A wonderful study of life in Paris circa 1920.

I have left out Marcel Proust, who means more to me than all of the above put together, and also Georges Simenon, who also is well known in the West.

“We Are Of This Place”

Courtyard of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

One of the very best places to visit in Albuquerque is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, just a mile or so north of Old Town. I have seen various Indian tribal centers before, but not one in which the overwhelming theme is not what separates them, but what unites them. It was founded and is run by the nineteen Pueblos of New Mexico, not all of which even speak the same language. In fact there are five separate languages among the Pueblos: Tiwa, Tewa, Keres, Towa, and Zuñi.

But then, this unity is what makes the nineteen Pueblos strong—ever since they joined to throw the Spanish out of New Mexico in 1680. Sure, they were reconquered twelve years later, but they continued to act as a tribal family. And when the United States took over the territory during the Mexican War of 1846-1848, they settled down and managed to avoid the suffering felt by the more nomadic Navajo and Apaches. There were no Pueblo leaders who were forced to live in swamps of Florida: They pretty much remained in place for the next three hundred years or so.

Fortunately, the Americans were not quite so insistent about converting the Pueblos. As Dr. Joe S. Sando of Jemez Plueblo wrote:

The Spanish pressured the Pueblo People to limit our ceremonial dances and participation in religious activities. Instead we were forced to attend the Spanish house of worship. How could we relinquish a religion which was not a weekly exercise? Our belief system was interwoven into every part of our daily lives. It was this religion that helped to maintain our peaceful attitudes and balance in our daily lives.

Even so, the 19th century Americans had Pueblo and other Native children to be sent to distant boarding schools back East, where an attempt was made to, in effect, de-racinate them.

The overall impact of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a positive one. There are even dances at certain times, and there is an excellent restaurant called the Pueblo Harvest Café which is one of the best places to eat in the whole city.

 

Musashi and the Flies

You Don’t Have to Draw a Sword to Prove Your Swordsmanship

I had forgotten the movie in which this scene took place until I viewed the DVD this morning. The great masterless samurai, Musashi Miyamoto (played by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune), is holed up in a cheap inn in which a loud group of gamblers was partying. When Musashi’s disciple, Jotaro, goes out and tells them to shut up, they decide to teach Musashi a lesson. They charge up he stairs to his room, where Musashi is calmly eating a dish of noodles with his chopsticks. He is not much bothered by the gamblers, but he is irritated by the flies buzzing around him and his meal. Without sparing a glance elsewhere, he reaches out with his chopsticks and kills several flies, one after the other. The gamblers are awestruck at Musashi’s demonstration of icy control and quietly back out of his room. In fact, their ringleader, Kumogoro, insists on becoming Musashi’s disciple.

The film is Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), the third film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy.

Although the Inagaki trilogy is by no means the greatest of samurai films, I have so many happy memories of seeing the films that I have invested them with perhaps more merit than they deserve. They are, in fact, quite good—particularly at influencing a 21-year-old who had just arrived in Los Angeles and found the whole genre congenial to him.

Pioneer Life in the Old West

Figure on Three Hours of Fun

One of our favorite types of museums is the outdoor museum concentrating on life as it was lived in former times. In Bishop, California, there is the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Village. In Dearborn, Michigan, there is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which I saw as a kid with my parents. And it’s not just an American phenomenon: Martine and I loved Enkhuizen in the Netherlands, and in Iceland I enjoyed visiting Reykjavík’s Arbær Open Air Museum. Finally, last month, Martine and I spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village in Aztec, New Mexico.

After visiting the Anasazi ruins at Aztec Ruins National Monument, we drove down the street and checked out the Aztec Museum. The more we looked, the more we were drawn into the vortex of pioneer life in northwestern New Mexico. There were toys, costumes, minerals, three barber chairs, agricultural implements, and, in the back, a whole pioneer village consisting of small-sized schools, stores, doctor’s office, pharmacy, blacksmith—you name it.

One of the strangest exhibits was the Pecos West Cyclorama, a labor of love by Valenty Zaharek which “features over 100 hand carved woodcarvings of people, animals, plants, buildings, vehicles and the high mesas and mountains of the desert Southwest. The cyclorama measures eighteen feet in diameter and slowly rotates as old west cowboy music plays in the background.” I spent over half an hour admiring the attempt to summarize the Old West in a rotating wooden display, with music no less.

Aztec Pioneer Schoolhouse

Martine and I also went into the Pioneer Village outbuiildings, which are built to approximately half scale. Above is a photo of the little one-room schoolhouse, complete with teacher’s and students’ desks, blackboard, and typical textbooks and wall displays. The same attention to detail appears in all the other buildings as well.

Originally we didn’t plan on coming to Aztec. Instead, we were going to go on to Durango, Colorado. When we were in Chama taking the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad, however, Martine was showing signs of discomfort from the altitude, so we changed our plans and went to Aztec instead. We had no reason to regret our decision.