Art by Victoria Elliott
The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
Part of the joy of loving B-movies and lesser-known genre pictures is the thrill of discovery that you feel when you experience something completely under-appreciated—not just in the hipster-cred sense, though invariably that has something to do with it, but it’s more like you’re falling in love with someone’s artwork soberly, with complete seriousness, and in a way that produces the addictive excitement of exploration. (I even feel this way about acting, which is why you will find more installments of this column dedicated entirely to certain character actors I can’t get out of my head.)
Noir is one of the most recognizable and perennially fetching movie genres to date. Despite the genre’s prominence in the late ’30s–early ’60s, it seems that every decade a director must reinvent noir to suit a contemporary audience. Some of these reinventions are masterpieces (Klute, Body Heat) and others are just sort of fun throwback romps (L.A. Confidential). I’ll not disparage the updating of the noir simply because it’s a genre I love so much, but what mystifies me is exactly how much excellent noir was made in its heyday; certainly enough to keep us satisfied without forcing on us mistaken efforts like Sin City.
For instance, the year before he filmed the sprawling heist classic, The Killing, Stanley Kubrick tried his hand at a small-cast, gritty noir picture starring three complete unknowns. For a small-budget trial run, it’s a total doozy.
The female lead in Killer’s Kiss, Irene Kane, was discovered by a Vogue photographer and introduced to Kubrick expressly for the purpose of appearing in the movie. Kane (whose real name is Chris Chase and who later became a contributor to the New York Times) is lithe, blonde, and angular with a disarmingly sweet gaze (think poor man’s Eva Marie Saint). We’re introduced to her character, Gloria, when she’s getting ready to leave for her shift as a taxi dancer and she’s peeping on her handsome small-time boxer neighbor, Davey (Jamie Smith) across the courtyard. Yes, she’s peeping on him—leering, even. This is what’s so great about noir: No one is inculpable. Even the lady is a creep.
Turns out that Davey and Gloria are leaving their respective apartments at the same time—Davey’s fighting tonight and has to catch the train. Gloria’s overly doting boss, Mr. Rapallo, is waiting outside in his Cadillac to drive her in. It’s in this one scene, as Rapallo carefully watches Davey descend the subway steps (looking back once, of course) that our entire predicament develops. It’s that easy.
As we soon come to find out, Rapallo is obsessed with Gloria. I mean, how could he not be? She’s easily the most gorgeous taxi dancer ever known (until Charity Hope Valentine, I’d say). The plot kicks off when Davey, who lost his fight, is stirred in the middle of the night by his neighbor’s scream. The lights are on in Gloria’s apartment across the way, and it seems Rapallo is attacking her. Davey runs to her rescue only to find Rapallo has already snaked out the door. Davey spends the evening and the next day comforting the startled Gloria so attentively they fall in love and make plans to flee New York. But everything goes wrong.
There’s almost no reason whatsoever for Rapallo to make a convincing villain. After all, he’s a sleazy dance-hall owner with just a few heavies at his disposal. He also has zero motivation other than his Faustian mania—and that’s exactly what makes him so frightening. He has nothing to lose and seems completely willing to forfeit everything so long as he gets to keep Gloria for his own. In a delicious device, wild Latin-sounding music plays in the background of each of Rapallo’s scenes—it takes a tone that would normally seem upbeat and fun and marvelously perverts it into a sinful, foreboding theme song (much as it does throughout the film Touch of Evil).
Gloria’s not all clear-eyed innocence, as we’ve established; her life-story sequence reveals a perilous sibling rivalry and gruesome suicide. She’s also got a mouth on her—in her greatest toe-to-toe with Rapallo, she wounds him in the best way a young beautiful woman knows how, by telling him, “You're an old man and you smell bad.”
Rapallo is played by Frank Silvera, an African-American actor light-skinned enough to pass for every ethnic background known to man (something I call the Anthony Quinn/John Turturro Effect), and this was his second appearance with Kubrick. Of the three main actors, Silvera was the most successful.
The best noirs have an element of obscene weirdness to them—think of the final reveal, the crazy twist, the fun house-mirror scene in The Lady from Shanghai. Something so surreal happens that it disrupts the viewer’s comfort and kicks the intrigue up just a notch. In Killer’s Kiss, we have a final fight scene taking place in a warehouse full of mannequin parts. Oh, and both Davey and Rapallo have lost their guns at this point, so they’re attempting to crush each other with the medieval-looking weaponry pried off of the wall. Like funhouse mirrors, these props have a disorienting effect, but Kubrick adds some frightening details with a half dozen cuts to what appears to be a rack of dangling hands.
Another noir that plays with conventions is the hardheaded 1961-hitman flick, Blast of Silence, another film populated by nobodies. This time we follow gun-for-hire Frankie Bono (played by the director himself, Allen Baron) as he cruises around the mean streets of New York City during Christmas, no doubt a deeply ironic time of year to stalk and kill a man.
The first perfect twist of Blast of Silence deals in the noir convention of the voiceover. (Yes, even Killer’s Kiss has a voiceover—in fact, it’s told entirely in flashback, even flashbacks inside of flashbacks.) This time, it’s in second person, immediately involving the audience member with statements like “You hate Christmas,” and numerous descriptions of how clammy or itchy or hot your hands are. The gravelly voiceover commands the film. He’s not credited (Baron couldn’t afford to credit him), but it’s performed by blacklisted character actor Lionel Stander (probably best known to us cable-syndication kids as Max, the old guy on Hart to Hart).
Baron, the film’s director and star, was a struggling graphic artist working mostly as a cartoonist. He’d taken some acting classes, but only stars in the movie for financial reasons (allegedly Peter Falk was lined up to do the role as a favor before being cast in Murder, Inc.)—so this is true indie fare, but with Baron’s visual ingenuity, the shots are evocatively composed. In particular, a transaction between Frankie and his slovenly soft-voiced arms dealer, Big Ralph, whose apartment is festooned with rat cages and whose shirt is covered in stains. There’s so much grotesque comic-book influence in this tableaux it almost feels like meeting the villain in an episode of the 1960s Batman series. (Who needs Sin City, anyway?)
The character development for Frankie is not subtle, but this is hardly a flaw. The dark, even gruesome narration begins to feel disjointed as we see Frankie run into some friends from his days in the orphanage, even attend their Christmas parties and perform cocktail tricks with minimal reluctance. The voiceover is at odds with the character, and it helps that they’re two different voices: Stander’s cavernous dictation versus Baron’s clipped, almost shy dialogue. The voiceover’s proclamations that Frankie is a psychopathic loner ring false next to Frankie’s boyishly bungled attempts at wooing his childhood friend. But, just like always, Frankie must cast all these distractions aside and get back to the business of murder.
Struggling to explain its mysterious charm, critics and the filmmaker himself have explained that Blast of Silence is an existential metaphor, a film whose main character endures the suffering of being—Meursault as Brooklynite—who perhaps anticipates the likes of future “God’s lonely man” characters like Travis Bickle. But, with all of the references to orphanages and distrust of women, Frankie echoes the fairly novel presentation of the psychopath in cinema (revealed in the mainstream with Psycho and its sibling, Peeping Tom, both from 1960). Like Bickle, Frankie is almost a regular guy, which reveals a more humane, prescient treatment of the psychopathic killer—a character concept that would elude American film for at least another decade.