Geoffrey Samuel – Cinema and Law – Ten double Bills for the comparatist (continued) : I’d rather have the blues (than what I got)

This third blog on double bills for the comparatists comes with a very strong trigger warning – both metaphorical and literal. The two films about to be discussed will certainly not be to every comparative lawyer’s taste – they are bleak and violent – and indeed I have hesitated about including them in the top ten list of double bills. However they are both extremely important Hollywood crime films which represent important historical turning points in what we called, in the last blog, the film noir.

568_BD_box_348x490_originalKiss Me Deadly (1955) is another private eye film (see last blog) but featuring, this time, a much less sympathetic central character. He is Mickey Spillain’s Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a violent and sadistic private detective who specialises in sleazy divorce cases (“he’s a bedroom dick” says one policeman). Spillain (1918-2006) was no literary figure, but his books sold in millions; and if he were alive today he would not doubt be rejoicing in Trump’s victory while one imagines, if Trump does ever read novels, that Spillain might well be high on his list. Robert Aldrich, who directed the film loathed the Spillain books and perhaps it was this loathing that goaded him, along with his photographer Ernest Laszlo and scriptwriter Albert Bezzerides, into creating one of the most extraordinary crime films ever to come out of Hollywood.

You, the viewer, are in the passenger seat of a smart 1950’s sports car – “Va-Va-Vroom” says Hammer’s garagiste later in the movie – and it is in the middle of a film noir (steely monochrome) the night on a lonely road. The driver switches on the radio which announces Nat King Cole’s ‘I’d Rather Have the Blues’, which sets the mood while the credits role (backwards!), Suddenly, in front, a barefooted women dressed only in a trench coat is running down the middle lane towards the car. Hammer, narrowly avoiding her, picks her up – she has escaped from the local ‘laughing house’ (as Hammer sensitively puts it) – and smuggles her past a police road block set up, seemingly, to recapture her. They stop for petrol, she goes to the toilet, and later comes out with the words “Remember me”, the first of several literary allusions in this movie. They are intercepted and Hammer wakes up to see and hear the woman being tortured to death (originally excised by the British censor). Hammer finally escapes and the hunt starts for the ‘The Great Whatsit’, a nuclear Pandora’s Box…. “Listen to me, as if I was Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell”, says the culturally sophisticated but psychopathic criminal Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker), “I will tell you where to take it but don’t… don’t open the box.”

The plot is complex and the characters, on the surface one dimensional, but actually more nuanced in often rather unpleasant ways. What is striking is the visual feel of the film: it is in a cold-as-steel monochrome style which brings out all the 1950s icons from cars and apartment blocks to (the then) state-of-the-art telephone recorders and clothes. Hammer is a genuine anti-hero of a type (nasty) that does not become common until a couple of decades later. He thinks he is smart. “Remember Me”? Well, he does, goes to the morgue and finds the key which will lead him to The Great Whatsit, having already rescued someone whom he believes to be the dead woman’s ex flatmate who claimed she was being hunted down by the mafia (“they”) in the search for information. As Hammer’s secretary says: “First, you find a little thread, the little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope, and from the rope you hang by the neck.”

“Remember Me” is just one of the literary allusions thrown into this nihilistic mix which is, perhaps, nothing more than a modern retelling of Pandora’s Box. Bezzerides claimed that Spillain hated what he had done to his book, no doubt recoiling at the idea that his beloved Mike Hammer would be forced to read Christina Rossetti. But what great dialogue. When Hammer tries to bribe information from a boxer – “Okay, how much did they give you? I’ll top it” – the latter replies: “You can’t top this; they said they’d let me breathe.” Not long after it soon becomes apparent that our anti-hero is really not so smart. One is reminded of the dialogue right at the beginning of the film with the woman he picked up (whom he now knows to have been a nuclear scientist called Christina Bailey):

Woman (Christina Bailey): “You have only one real lasting love.”

Hammer: “Now who could that be?”

Woman: “You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.”

Indeed, in a controversial ending (it was changed and then restored in the DVD version), he might even have, as one might say today, ‘done a Trump’. Va-Va-Vroom!

The dialogue, the photography, the consumer icons, the plot, the literary allusions and the like all help to create a film that was well in advance of its time. Indeed one still has a feeling that this is a contemporary piece of cinema set in the 1950s, a bit like Polanski’s Chinatown is a sophisticated recreation of 1930s California. It heralded the end of the traditional film noir by being both backward – one thinks of the strong black shadows and the many night scenes – and forward looking. From now on, the crime film would be different in terms both of its style and its characters. The action is now largely on location and out of the enclosed world of the studio. As for the gangsters, one can certainly compare Dr Soberine to Whit in Out of the Past (see last blog), but Soberine is clearly a different kind of high class criminal with, it would seem, sinister international connections in addition to his local power base whose tentacles reach into every social class. As for Hammer, he has little if any ethical or moral dimensions making him a different kind of central character than the Jeff Bailey in Tourneur’s film. Nat King Cole summed it all up:

The night is mighty chilly

And conversation seems pretty silly

I feel so mean and rot

I’d rather have the blues than what I’ve got

The room is dark and gloomy

You don’t know what you’re doing to me

The web has got me caught

I’d rather have the blues than what I’ve got…

Don Siegel’s remake of The Killers (1964) certainly presents a different visual image even if it is no less bleak in its characters and narrative. The first version (The Killers, 1946), which took its cue from a short story by Ernest Hemmingway, was a 1940’s traditional film noir with the usual femme fatale and underworld characters. It was directed by Robert Siodmak and starred Burt Lancaster as the doomed central character, with a minor role for Albert Dekker (who of course played Dr Soberine); it is an excellent filmimages-4 and is up there with all the other 1940s Hollywood crime movies. It is all expressionist night and shadows. But Siegel’s version is a rather different kettle of fish in that it opens the way to a new kind of crime movie set against the corporate landscape of modern office blocks and sharp suits. Yet this landscape, instead of ameliorating the menace of violence, only exacerbates it.

The film opens with a credit sequence appearing against the background of frozen red and black images of two men in dark glasses, the image unfreezing at the end of the credits with the live face of Lee (Clu Gulager) who, together with his senior partner Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin), are about to carry out a contract killing on Johnny North (John Cassavetes). As they enter an institute for the blind (where North teaches car mechanics) to carry out the contract, it soon becomes evident that these two killers are capable of extreme violence. This is not graphically shown, as might be the case today; it is definitively established, in some ways almost off screen, when Lee Marvin deals with the secretary. From that moment on one knows what he is capable of doing and there is no longer a necessity to repeat such actions, save for the final moments of the film. As for Lee, it later appears that not only is he equally capable of highly professional violence – he is continually exercising his hand muscles and on one occasion is doing press ups (as well as drinking only carrot juice as it is ‘good for the eyes’) – but is something of a playful psychopath with sadistic tendencies. These two killers are frightening, yet Siegel establishes this more by image and action suggestion than by graphic scenes.

Like Out of the Past and Letter from an Unknown Woman (see last blog), this is a narrative told in flashback. Charlie, breaking a long held principle, decides to investigate why Johnny North did not try to escape, even though he had had warning of the men’s arrival. The two killers, like Mike Hammer, follow the thread, which leads to the string and all images-2the way from there to the ‘rope’ namely Jack Browning, the Whit type gangster magnificently portrayed by a very sinister Ronald Reagan (his last film before moving into politics, and a role he very much regretted accepting). What they gradually discover is a heist and two double-crosses, with the bait being of course a femme fatale (Sheila Farr), portrayed by the sixties icon Angie Dickinson. As Charlie says, on discovering Sheila Farr’s betrayal of Johnny, ‘you didn’t need us’ for you ‘killed him four years ago.’

Actually Sheila Farr, like Kathy Moffat in Out of the Past, turns out to be one of the more nuanced and complex characters in the movie. As with the 1947 film, she moves uniquely in a world inhabited by rich corporate criminals and enjoys the luxuries that such a life brings, but her relationship with Johnny North – indeed with more ordinary people as we learn bits about her past – is always ambiguous. Did Kathy love Jeff, despite the fact that she was part of a plan to frame him in the 1947 film? Did Sheila love Johnny North despite her deadly double-cross? The two characters offer an interesting exercise for a comparatist, though perhaps Farr will come off worst in some ways. What makes The Killers somewhat bleaker than Out of the Past is that there are few if any morally worthwhile characters; the whole narrative is situated amongst classes of people who largely live outside the law. Another precursor for the Trump era? Perhaps less Trump and more the financial rottenness of the pre-crash days, for some have described Jack Browning as a dodgy financier rather than a gangster. He resorts to crime to raise some extra capital, although he turns out to be quite handy – though not handy enough (to his and Sheila’s detriment) – with a rifle.

Given this nihilism, why should these two films be featured in a top ten double bill? Perhaps it is appropriate here to draw an analogy with legal studies. In his works on legal epistemology, the late French professor Christian Atias talked in terms of methodological sedimentation. The methods and habits of thought of lawyers have been slowly built up by way of sedimentation over the centuries since Roman times. One might say the same of the Hollywood crime film and its European imitations (see especially the work of Jean-Pierre Melville). Those who watch the first version of The Killers (1946), and of course Out of the Past (1947) as well, followed by Kiss Me Deadly and then Siegel’s images-3The Killers, will soon appreciate, when they watch more contemporary thrillers, how these films are the répères in a sedimentation process which now finds its expression in crime film technique. Some later films directly reference one or more of these répères. For example John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) openly refers to Siegel’s film not just in its gangster plot which reunites Lee Marvin with Angie Dickenson, but in its title as well; Siegel’s film in France was entitled À bout portant.

However it is later films such as John Flynn’s The Outfit (1973) where one can truly appreciate the important influences of the répères. Based on the book by Richard Stark (actually Donald Westlake) it employs the same kind of very tight direction that Siegel used to great effect in The Killers while equally employing the type of scenes and characters that are familiar to both Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Ryan holds his own with Whit and Jack Browning, even if he lacks the cultural sophistication of Dr Soberine. Flynn equally appreciates the importance of landscape and image: it always seems grey and about to rain, yet the colour photography has a cold steel-like feel. There is even a cameo from Jane Greer; and Joe Don Baker, at the end, has his Lee Marvin scene complete with silenced revolver (actually silencers do not work on revolvers!). Admittedly The Outfit is deliberately retro, but the kind of tight direction evident in Siegel’s film plus the use of photographic geometry and image so carefully employed in Kiss Me Deadly is to be seen in many contemporary thrillers. The two films featured in this double bill for comparatists will not be, as has been said (trigger warning), to everybody’s taste. But they are both important landmarks in the history of the Hollywood crime movie and their influence is to be felt in so many subsequent crime films.

A couple of other interesting points are worth a final note. One other feature, which is common to both of the films in this double bill, is the cabaret or nightclub singer. In the bar where Hammer is drowning his sorrows the noir atmosphere is once again emphasised with the live female jazz singer redoing ‘I’d Rather Have the Blues’ (magnificently) while in The Killers it is Nancy Wilson’s cameo singing ‘Too Little Time’. Both of these songs reflect the moods of each film, time being a continual motif in The Killers from the race track stopwatches to the need for a fast driving speed if the heist is to succeed. And, of course, there are Charlie Strom’s final words to Sheila Farr: ‘Lady, I don’t have the time’. Never has sunny tranquil suburbia felt so menacing. Another rather fascinating aspect is the odd mundane detail in The Killers: Strom washing his shirt in the hotel room while Lee does his press-ups; and the Hitchcock type street set-up – disorientating in many ways – before a jolting shooting scene. There is a continual dialectic between the mundane and the violent. In Kiss Me Deadly this mundane and violence are to be found in the dialogue where the two seem to sit side-by-side. “Do me a favour, will you?”, says Hammer’s secretary to him, “Keep away from the windows. Someone might blow you a kiss.”

Note: Previous posts featured movies such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)The Warlord (1965),  Out of the Past (1947) and Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948).

Future posts are likely to discuss following movies: Man of the West (1958), A History of Violence (2005),  Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Voyage Surprise (1947).

Professor Geoffrey Samuel

Kent Law School

Suggested citation: G. Samuel, “Cinema and Law – Ten double Bills for the comparatist (continued) : I’d rather have the blues (than what I got)” available at