. . . Kiss Me Deadly

. . .

How to Philosophize With Mike Hammer

Consciousness exists to note what intrudes into consciousness.

That's your superpower? Sorry; I'm not impressed. The emergence of digestion seems more essential, at least as miraculous, and with results just about as unreliable. It's as a cognitive dyspeptic that Nietzsche first attracted me and still seems most prescient.

His style permitted his insights. (His realizations shaped his prose.) Most philosophers and cognitive scientists are led by personal inclination and generic constraints to overstate the power and sustain of consciousness particularly verbal consciousness: "I think, therefore there is always thinking. I drown you out, therefore there is always talking."

If Descartes had been one of those people who fall asleep as soon as they start to meditate...? But he wasn't.

Although psychiatrists and gurus get credit for acknowledging unconscious forces, their own career paths encourage their own characteristic fib: the manufacture of trademarked homunculi which can be moved around the Barbie Dream Boudoir or G. I. Joe Battleground of the mind.

Even Nietzsche tried to cast a romantic lead, but Will T. Power is no James Bond; after all its twists and back-doublings and self-overturnings and face-reversed masks, it looks more like Melville's Confidence Man and sounds more like a chant of "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're...."

Better to just watch Kiss Me Deadly.

Ralph Meeker has been knocked out, dragged to a beach house, spread-eagled ass-up on a bed, subjected to a speech by Albert Dekker, and then administered "sodium pentothal the truth serum." "Pleasant dreams, Mr. Hammer."

Next scene. Meeker is mumbling incoherent complaints. The drug has taken effect! Paul Stewart leans over Meeker and prompts him.

Meeker mumbles incoherent complaints louder.

Paul Stewart checks his watch

Because this truly is truth as known by Mr. Hammer: a drone of what would be obscenities if they were words.

This gag's been set up by an earlier gag where Hammer plays brilliant detective ("He can sniff out information like nobody I ever saw") by parroting his "secretary" Velda.

What's left for a parrot to say after you strip it of pretense?

* * *

The movie's also pretty good on hermeneutics:

MIKE: "If the darkness and corruption leave a vestige of the thoughts that once we had...." But if it's a thought, it's dead... because she's dead. It's got to be a thing.


"Consciousnes" is a polyseme. Care to make a more precise incision on which sense of the word you're picking a fight with?

I guess that would improve the odds a bit, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, having dashed a bucket of slops across everyone at the table, it's probably too late to have my choice of combatant. I'll just wait and see who slugs me first.


. . .


Close Traduction

A plot only tells so much about its telling. And where better to exhibit the gap between narrative line and narrative effect than the cinema, at twenty-four gaps a second?

The most horrifying such exhibitions are start-to-finish misreadings like Adrian Lyne's Lolita and Joseph Strick's Ulysses. The most satisfying are burlesques like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Altman's The Long Goodbye, Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer, Rohmer's Dangerous Liaisons (AKA Claire's Knee), and Gilligan's Island's Hamlet. Most alienating are the mob actions.

But as a connoisseur of closure, my favorites reverse the end's polarity.

They do so within the small back wiggle room between fabula and reflector, that magical space in which we drop our cake and eat it too. A favorite hangout of Howard Hawks, who suffered from a morbid fear of unhappy endings for example, in Come and Get It, which has all the makings of a Greek tragedy and follows through on most of them, only to have the tragic lead decide, "Fuck this shit, I'm Edward Arnold!" It's as if Oedipus Rex closed on a shot of the retired monarch shrugging, twirling his cane, and shuffling a jaunty soft-shoe while being led down that lonesome road.

The Story of an Inadequate Man : I suddenly felt very tired and hopeless. It's odd that you think I don't try.
And while the fingers fumbled on the dread bomb, his woman waited, patiently, for Sam Rice to prove his manhood.

For conceptual purity, however, nothing beats Powell-&-Pressburger's reversal of The Small Back Room.

Midlist middlebrow mainstream novels don't win the twilit immortality of other genres, and Nigel Balchin never tipped into academic respectability. But I'm fond of this novel, and I suspect it might find fellow admirers among the Better Sort of science fiction readers it's the depressive alcoholic reclusive grandfather that Carter Scholz's Radiance never met.

You'll find it over there on the left, courtesy of Perkus Tooth's garage sale. Ah, the glory days of paperback publishing, when even impotence was titillating.

The come-on is, as always, a rip-off. Any attempted fucking in Sammy's and Susan's illicit cohabitation takes place offscreen and near-as-damn-it to unconsciousness. The come-on is understandable, though, insofar as our hero has had one foot cut off, has an aching stump, is relentlessly defeatist and drunk, and was authored by a psychologist.

So far, so midcentury mainstream. But these are just the generic handholds one sets to let oneself finish or publish a story. Try to focus past them, as you focus past the talking squids in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you find something very special: a novel about work. (The text excerpted on the paperback's front cover actually concerns career strategy.)

And not gangster work or cop work, but intellectual work, done with skill and for a good cause yes, even a better cause than Google, perhaps even better than open-source software for institutions of higher education! It's the appropriate day job that was denied to poor Denard and his poor president.

And it still sucks, because at the end of the day it's still a day job. The book's real titillation is having been published by an Army researcher during World War II, in the same year Churchill wanted to ban Powell-&-Pressburger's sentimentalized Colonel Blimp. It's a home-front geek's "Willie & Joe." If you thrill to this selected-at-random scene, you may be among the intended audience:

I was busy with the report for the progress meeting. Not that anybody would read it properly. No one ever did. But it kept things straight for me.

I said to Joe, "This colour filter thing. It's been on the books for about six months and nothing ever happens to it."

"There are four other outfits messing about with it anyhow," said Joe.


"Passingham. The doctors. Rea. The Staines Lab. And I think the R.A.F. are doing something themselves."

"Where did we get it?"

"God knows. The Old Man came back from a meeting full of it. The whole place was chucked on to it for about half a day, and then he got bored and it's never been touched since."

"Think we might write it off?"

Joe said, "I should think we might write off about two-thirds of the stuff you've got there."

I said, "I think I'll go through and do a grand scrap."

Till said, "That's a most extraordinary thing."

"What is?"

"According to this," said Till, peering at his figures, "the seventh round had a negative muzzle velocity."

"Oh come!" said Joe.

"Was there anything funny about the seventh round?" said Tilly to me.

"Not as funny as all that," I said.

That's weird... I thought it would work

In such fashion Balchin keeps the pages staggering downhill to a deservedly celebrated finale: Sammy somewhat arbitarily sets himself a near impossible goal which should conclusively decide his worth, most likely by erasing him utterly at the moment of failure, and then we watch him work it.

And god damn it all to hell, he doesn't quite meet his arbitrary goal and it doesn't kill him:

The facts were that Dick was dead, and Stuart was dead, and the Old Man was gone, and Waring was Deputy Director, and I was just where I had always been. The good chaps went and were killed, and the crooks got away with it. But I just stayed put. I tried to think of something concrete to do resigning and going to the Old Man, or something like that. But it wouldn't fire. I knew it really didn't make any difference where I went, or who I worked for. And I was too tired, anyway. I didn't like what I was, and couldn't be what I liked, and it would always be like that.

It'll be all right with Susan. She'll take it and make it into what she wants, just as Strang did. We shall all know, but I'm the only one who'll mind.

(Those who accuse Susan of fantastic saintliness might want to review Balchin's 1955 screenplay for Josephine and Men, which instead suggests a diagnosis of "perversity." Misery loves company, and Balchin's kind of woman loves misery.)

So how were Powell-&-Pressburger able to turn this downer into a tale of redemption and optimism? Their solution was elegant: don't include a voiceover. Because without Sammy's whine, the producer and the director and the cinematographer and the composer and the audience can, just as Susan and Strang did, take it and make it into what they want.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.