“Into the Inferno” - Werner Herzog (2016)

Over the course of Werner Herzog’s prolific fifty-year career in filmmaking, he has shown himself to be uniquely talented in both the theatrical and documentary arenas.  In both of these genres, he has been extraordinarily creative, and he has consistently produced narrative foci with respect to both of these forms that somehow manage to convey his deeply felt existential perspective. 

In some ways Herzog’s documentary films are perhaps the more remarkable, because many  people would ordinarily expect documentary films to be relatively objective presentations of reality and therefore outside the scope of emotive, personal injections from the filmmaker.  But as I have remarked in other essays, documentary films exist across a wide spectrum, from full “Objectivism” at one end to full “Interactionism” at the other end [1,2,3,4].  And Herzog’s films lie at the Interactionism end of this spectrum [5]:
“Herzog is so much on the Interactionist side of the ledger that his documentary films not only include his personal perspective, but seem primarily to be his own personal essays about the world – he, himself, is an implicit focus of the film, and the “reality” depicted is self-consciously Herzog’s own reality.” 
And Herzog’s recent Into the Inferno (2016) is another representative example of this approach.  This is a film about volcanoes, and as he often seems to do, Herzog has traveled around the world assembling visual footage and then assembled it all into a fascinating narrative.  Volcanoes, perhaps because they symbolize for him Nature’s unfathomable wrath, have always been a fascination for Herzog, and he has focused his lens on them in several productions, going back all the way to his La Soufrière (1977), a short documentary about the La Grande Soufrière volcano in Guadeloupe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed Herzog’s pessimism about the nihilistic nature of the natural world is a theme that runs throughout his oeuvre.  Consider these representative past opinions expressed [6,7]:
“I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.”
“There is a harmony [in nature] . . . it is a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
Of course, Herzog doesn’t focus exclusively on his own obsessions, and here in Into the Inferno, there is also coverage of vulcanology, which is mostly provided by volcanologist  Clive Oppenheimer, who is frequently shown giving his account of the various volcanoes that Herzog and his crew visit.  In fact we might say that Oppenheimer provides a more down-to-earth Objectivist perspective that counterbalances Herzog’s.  And we might also assume that some aspects of this film were inspired by Oppenheimer’s book on volcanoes, Eruptions that Shook the World (2011) [8].  Herzog had earlier met Oppenheimer when he filmed a volcano sequence and some volcanologists on Mount Erebus in Antarctica in connection with his documentary film Encounters at the End of the World (2007).

But apart from looking at volcanoes as wondrous, and often disastrous, natural phenomena, Herzog is interested in the various ways volcanoes have affected the belief systems of human cultures living in their vicinities.  So we pass back and forth in this film between the objective phenomena side and the underlying human belief side with respect to these terrifying events.  And as we proceed, Into the Inferno’s coverage of all this material is artfully presented in six distinct sections.

1.  Introduction
The film begins on Ambryn Island, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, where we are introduced to very primitive natives who have strong religious beliefs about volcanoes.  Herzog also introduces the viewer to general volcanology, Clive Oppenheimer, and the term ‘pyroclastic flow’, which refers to a fast-moving current of hot gas and lava that moves off from a volcanic eruption.  In this context reference is made to Katia and Maurice Krafft, two enthusiastic and pioneering French volcanologists who loved to photograph volcanic eruptions up close, but who were killed on one of these occasions in 1991 by an overpowering pyroclastic flow.

2.  Indonesia 

The scene now shifts to Indonesia, home of the greatest number of active volcanoes in the world.  There at Lake Toba, they visit the Babadun Observatory, which is devoted to sophisticated monitoring of volcanic activity in the area.  They also learn about a number of native beliefs and rituals, some of which are concerned with making ritual offerings in order to appease angry sea gods.  These rituals and monuments are not just of ancient origin – Herzog and his crew visit a bizarre and very large Catholic church in the shape of a nesting bird that is still under construction.

Again the volcano is a symbol of divine anger towards humanity.  In this regard Herzog observes,
“Of all the volcanoes in Indonesia, there is no single one that is not connected to a belief system”.
3.  Ethiopia
In Africa, an area that has always fascinated Herzog, they visit the Afar Region, which is a unique geological area that is 300 feet below sea level and is lined with volcanoes.  This is also the hottest place on the planet.  But here the focus is on anthropology, since it is believed that the first homo sapiens lived here some 100,000 years ago.  Oppenheimer spends some time talking to University of California, Berkeley, Professor Tim White, who is an enthusiastic on-site investigator of this topic.

4.  Iceland
In Iceland, the total landmass of which is volcanic, they visit the Westland Islands.  There they discuss the famous Laki eruption of 1783.  The wide extent of this eruption and the eight-month period over which the eruption lasted had extensive worldwide impact on the climate and make this one of the most important volcanic eruptions in human history.

5.  North Korea
The most interesting part of the film for me, though, was the segment in North Korea.  There Herzog goes to see Mount Paektu on the Chinese border.  This mountain, which has a history of volcanic activity, has been adopted by the North Korean government as a symbol of power and dominance, and its image is extensively employed in government propaganda.  There on the mountain Herzog shows a group of uniform-clad students looking over the crater’s edge and robotically praising in unison the mountain’s unconquerable power. 

Herzog offers little explicit commentary here, and he pretty much lets the government spokesmen (who have presumably been assigned to him) speak for themselves.  But their robotic praise of government propaganda platitudes attest to the government’s despotic control of all social discussion.  In North Korea, there are no international phone lines or public electronic communication media connected with the outside world.  And there are no newsstands and no advertising – only public postings of government announcements.  Herzog comments:
“But in all this display of the masses, I find an underlying emptiness and solitude.”
6.  Vanuatu (again)
We finally return to Vanuatu and visit Mount Yasur on Tanna Island.  There the primitive natives have established a new cargo-cult god, who they fervently believe was created by a volcano and who protects the local people from Nature’s angry vicissitudes.  This god is a mythical American GI, named John Frum, who is believed to have descended from the clouds to their island.  Access to and information about the god Frum is possessively controlled by the secretive local chieftain, Isaac.

In the end we come back to the local clan-head of the primitive tribe who had been interviewed at the beginning of the film.  He relates how terrified he was when he once looked down at a lava lake and  wondered if it would one day sweep over all of the natural world.  In fact, he concludes morosely, he thinks in the future that all the world’s volcanoes will collectively erupt together and destroy everything.

These parting words reflect Herzog’s generally pessimistic view about nature – that it is a world dominated by brute power and destructiveness and that it holds no quarter for the wishes and aspirations of any living things.  And this somber message is enhanced by Herzog’s measured and reflective articulation of it in voiceover.

This irresistible potency for annihilation is apparently what inspires and fuels the drive of the despotic North Korean government, and that particular segment of the film which explores their fascination for such a nihilistic metaphor was particularly compelling.

In general, we might observe that the Herzog side of Into the Inferno’s narrative provides a  somewhat disturbing cataloguing of the many different ways that a mysterious and destructive natural phenomenon, the volcano, has been used as a cultural instrument.  And interestingly,  this instrument is used to further various social aims in human societies that are unrelated to the phenomenon evoked.

Nevertheless, there is beauty and wonder in Into the Inferno, too, and this is partly embodied by the enthusiastic volcanologists and other scientists who strive to learn more about the natural world and man’s origins in it.  And in addition, there is also the fascinating imagery of the lava flows and eruptions, themselves.  These have a haunting effect on the viewer which lingers in the mind long afterwards.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Interactionism”, (label), The Film Sufi.      
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Where to Invade Next’ - Michael Moore (2015)”, The Film Sufi, (19 August 2019).
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘SiCKO’ - Michael Moore (2007)“, The Film Sufi, (10 February 2010).
  4. The Film Sufi, “‘Avatar’ - James Cameron (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (16 May 2010).
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Lessons of Darkness’ (1992)”, The Film Sufi, (30 May 2010).
  6. Werner Herzog, “24 Wonderfully Bonkers Werner Herzog Quotes”, (Compiled by Nico Lang), Thought Catalog, (24 April 2013).   
  7. from Les Blank, Burden of Dreams (1982), which is about the shooting of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982).
  8. Clive Oppenheimer, Eruptions that Shook the World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2011).

"La Rupture" - Claude Chabrol (1970)

Claude Chabrol’s La Rupture (The Breach, aka The Breakup, 1970) is in my opinion his finest film, but it is a hard one to classify.  It can be considered to be a thriller, a film noir, a horror film, or a philosophical fantasy, but it seems to escape the boundaries of all of these genre types.  From any angle, the film turns out to be not what you would expect.  For this reason the film has been a puzzle to many viewers and has had a variety of critical responses [1,2,3,4,5,6]. 

Scripted and directed by Chabrol (Les Cousins, 1959), who was one of the original members of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), La Rupture was based on Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Balloon Man (1968).  The film featured excellent production values, particularly in connection with Jean Rabier’s skillfully restless cinematography and with Pierre Jansen’s eerie musical score.

The film features a virtuoso performance in the lead role on the part of Stéphane Audran, Claude Chabrol’s wife, whose portrayal of earnest, steadfast feminine authenticity represents a key narrative element to the story.  In fact we could say that a basic theme of the story is that of persistent innocence that is victimized and virtually engulfed by corrupt social elements.  But what makes this whole thing fascinating is the surreal and expressionistic way that this theme is presented. 

Indeed, the expressionistic element is an explicit feature here, inasmuch as Chabrol has remarked that La Rupture belonged to his Fritz Lang period – Lang having been a noted German Expressionist filmmaker [1].  However, Chabrol’s expressionistic presentation is different than the usual fare, which I have characterized by the following [7]:
“In their paintings, Munch and the German Expressionists presented a world that is distorted and coloured by the inner emotions evoked in the subjective viewer. This is a highly charged, emotional world vastly different from the photographic reality captured by a camera. The attempt is made to show that there is not so much a separation from the inner state of the subject and the external world as perceived by that subject. For example, when the subject is fear, every aspect of the physical world is shown to be nightmarishly oppressive and threatening.”
In other words, a distraught inner, mental world is usually portrayed in Expressionistic art by showing a distorted surrounding physical environment, often in film by means of dramatic camera angles and lighting.  But here in La Rupture it’s different – the presented physical world is entirely normal and seemingly objective.  Instead, the expressionistic elements in the film are constituted by the baroque characters that surround the main character, along with the eerie, surreal music sometimes present on the soundtrack. 

The opening title of the film offers a quotation by Jean Racine that foretells the impending atmosphere that will come to haunt the protagonist:

    “What utter darkness suddenly surrounds me.”

The film narrative proceeds through four segments.

1.  A Dramatic Marital Rupture
The film begins with a cheerful domestic scene showing Hélène Régnier (played by Stéphane Audran) happily serving breakfast to her four-year-old son Michel.  But then her husband, Charles (Jean-Claude Drouot), emerges from the bedroom with a disturbed look on his face – there is something clearly wrong with him.  Wordlessly, he throttles Hélène and then picks up his son and throws him down, giving the boy a severe concussion and breaking his leg.  Hélène manages to get up and knock her husband out with a frying pan.   Then she rushes her son to the hospital. 

Charles’s extremely wealthy parents, Ludovic (Michel Bouquet) and Emilie (Marguerite Cassan) Régnier, soon arrive and take their disturbed son to their home to tend to him.  In short order it is clear enough that both Charles’s parents and Hélène want an immediate divorce.  The only item at issue is who will get possession of the boy Michel.  The contest for the boy will constitute the driving narrative conflict for the film.

In terms of resources, the contest is between very unequal adversaries, and in this connection we are given some background concerning the marriage of Charles and Hélène.  Ludovic and Emilie never approved of their son’s marriage to Hélène, whom they disparagingly regard as lower class.  But Charles wanted to be a writer, and Hélène managed to find work as a stripteaser, and later as a barmaid, in order to support her unemployed and unsuccessful husband.  And of course this kind of work only made Ludovic and Emilie despise her even more and to the belief that Hélène ruined their son. 

Charles’s frustrations as an unpublished writer led him to taking drugs and eventually to mental illness.  With his latest outburst, Hélène now feels that even though she has loved her husband, it is no longer possible for her and Michel to live near him.  In the meantime she wants to live near the hospital where Michel is being treated so that she can see him as much as possible.  So on the advice of friendly Dr. Blanchard (Angelo Infanti), she rents a room in a boarding house directly across the street from the hospital.

2.  An Adversarial Agent is Hired
Ludovic Régnier discovers that the only way he can get legal possession of Michel is to prove that Hélène is unfit to be the boy’s mother.  So he hires the out-of-work son of a former business associate to dig up some dirt on Hélène.  This new hire, Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel), proves to be the direct adversarial agent of Hélène, and the rest of the story follows the tussle between the unscrupulous Paul and the innocent Hélène. 

The boarding house where Hélène now stays turns out to be a bizarre theater of the absurd, featuring a number of baroque, symbolic tenants who provide the key expressionistic backdrop to the tale.  These people are
  • Mme. Pinelli (Annie Cordy) is the landlady of the boarding house and is a strict, but well-meaning, moralist.
  • Elise (Katia Romanoff) is the Pinelli’s mentally retarded teenage daughter.  She is perpetually cheerful and represents pure, unsuspecting innocence.
  • Henri Pinelli (Jean Carmet) is Mme. Pinelli’s husband and is a hopeless alcoholic and almost perpetually inebriated.  He symbolizes human frailty.
  • The Three Fates – Mme Humbert (Margo Lion), Mme. Claire (Louise Chevalier), and Mme. Marineau (Maria Michi) are three gossipy old ladies who are perpetually playing games of tarot cards in the boarding house parlor.  Together, these three ladies explicitly symbolize the Three Fates (Parcae), the mythical feminine personifications of destiny, who in ancient times famously controlled the fateful outcomes of people and gods.
  • Gerard Mostelle (Mario David) is an outrageously histrionic theater actor, who, curiously enough, ultimately symbolizes truth and authenticity.  It is he who staunchly refuses to be bought out for materialistic gain.
  • Dr. Blanchard (Angelo Infanti) is a very handsome and conscientious doctor who is seemingly cut out to be a heroic rescue figure in this story.  The fact that he lives at the boarding house suggests he is single and a potential romantic partner for Hélène.  But he proves to be a narrative red herring and is always too busy to be around when Hélène needs his help.
Into this mix enters Paul Thomas, who, claiming he is suffering from cancer and needs every-other-day treatment at the hospital, secures a room in Mme. Pinelli’s boarding house in order to falsely befriend Hélène and carry out his nefarious plans.  Another outrageously expressionistic character, but one who doesn’t live in the boarding house, is Paul’s sexy girlfriend, Sonia.  Sonia is an almost hysterical nymphomaniac, who is constantly demanding sex and is almost always seen naked in the film.

All of these bizarre figures suggest that when Hélène has come to live in the boarding house, she has entered into an expressionistic dreamworld from which there is no escape.  As a part of this surreal theme, there is a long shot of Hélène walking in the park and encountering a man selling balloons (recall that the title of Charlotte Armstrong’s novel is The Balloon Man [8]).  The balloons here may suggest mysterious, ungraspable dreams that float in the sky.

Anyway, during this segment of the story, Paul tries a number of tactics to ruin Hélène’s reputation, but he is unsuccessful.  All of Hélène’s associates stand by her and affirm her basic virtue.

3.  A Nasty Plan
So Paul hatches a malicious plan to sexually corrupt the innocent Elise and have it all blamed on Hélène by staging a drug-fueled automobile accident.  This is a complicated scheme, and it involves getting Mme. Pinelli, the Three Fates, and  Hélène to leave the boarding house for an extended period of time under various false pretenses.  Then he has to ply Henri Pinelli with liquor until the man is stupefyingly drunk so that he can whisk Elise over to Sonia’s apartment so that she can gleefully sexually molest the young girl. 

Moreover, in order to blame everything on Hélène, Paul ultimately has to drug her, too, and this part of his scheme fails.  So Paul has to quickly deposit the sedated Elise back in her own bedroom.

4.  The Unraveling
Meanwhile Hélène goes to the plush Régnier family home to see Charles.  There, in a moving and adroitly performed shot of 3:30 duration, Hélène explains to the still mentally disturbed Charles that, while she still loves him, she can never again live with him and that she and Michel must leave their city and move to Paris.  Then she returns to the boarding house. 
At the boarding house, lunch is served in the dining room, and Paul spikes Hélène’s orange juice with a narcotic.  But then Elise wakes up and reveals to others that she wasn’t so oblivious, after all, to what Sonia was doing to her as Paul and Sonia had supposed.  Paul’s evil plot is clearly coming undone.

Now Hélène, dazed by Paul’s narcotic drug, goes outside into the park, accompanied by the Three Fates, who want to protect her.  Then Charles, unwilling to give up on Hélène, arrives in a rush at the boarding house.  Alarmed by the crazed look in Charles’s eyes, Paul knifes Charles to death.  Although he is hoping to pass this killing off as self-defense, the whole murderous act was witnessed by Hélène and the Three Fates, thereby assuring Paul’s guilt and the end to his story.
In the final scene, Hélène, still dazed, goes outside again in search of Michel, and we are still with her in her dreamworld.  She sees the balloon man releasing his helium-filled balloons, and, deliriously, she watches them floating up heavenward into the sky as the film ends.

La Rupture ends ambiguously and with several elements unresolved.  Paul and Charles are finished, but what will happen to Hélène?  And what about Michel?  Instead of addressing these questions, we are left in another space – Hélène’s dreamworld.  And this is where Chabrol presumably wanted us to be.  In some ways, as the world around Hélène progressed relentlessly towards ever more malicious lunacy, this is the only place we could end up at. 

This cinematic descent into existential bewilderment is masterfully orchestrated by director Claude  Chabrol.  Some naive viewers, though. might consider the extravagant performances on the part of some of the actors to be simply cases of overacting, but this is not the case here.  Those performances are essential pieces of the expressionistic tapestry that Chabrol has woven for us.  In some ways, though, the most important artistic contribution to the film comes from the beautiful Stéphane Audran in the role of Hélène Régnier.  Her performance is soulful and mesmerizing as the perfect embodiment of feminine authenticity.

  1. Vincent Canby, “Screen: 'La Rupture':Chabrol's Melodrama Shown at Festival The Cast”, The New York Times, (5 October 1973).   
  2.  Dave Kehr, “La rupture”, Chicago Reader, (n.d.).   
  3. Andrew Pragasam, “Rupture, La”, The Spinning Image, (n.d.).   
  4. James Travers, “La Rupture (1970)”, French Films .org, (2008).   
  5. Ed Howard, “La rupture”, Only the Cinema, (30 June 2008).   
  6. Ian Jane, “La Rupture”, Rock! Shock! Pop!, (30 April 2011).   
  7. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   
  8. When Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Balloon Man was translated into French, its French title was  Le Jour des Parques, i.e. The Day of the Fates.

Robert Aldrich

Films of Robert Aldrich:

“Kiss Me Deadly” - Robert Aldrich (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is considered by many reviewers to be the ultimate film noir [1,2,3,4,5,6].  Consider, for example, these critical remarks:
[Kiss Me Deadly is] “arguably the greatest example of American noir cinema. Film historian Steven Scheuer called Kiss Me Deadly 'the apotheosis”\' of the classic film noir period. More than once, the film has been called the best film noir ever made. Certainly the film was decades ahead of its time.” [2]
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time.” [6]
Personally, I wouldn’t go that far.  But the film does have a spectacular, over-the-top presentation of some of film noir’s flashy features.  As film critic Robert Weston commented [2]:
“So what makes Kiss Me Deadly the paramount of the film noir tradition? Frankly, it’s got everything. The predominance of darkness and nighttime? Check. Morally ambiguous protagonists? Check. Existential underpinnings? Check. Dramatic compositions influenced by German Expressionist artists and filmmakers? Check, check, check.”
However, I would say that a truly great film noir needs a kind of narrative unity that Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t quite deliver.  But I will come back to that point later.

The story of the film is based on famous crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s novel Kiss Me Deadly (1952), and it features as its lead character Spillane’s famous hardboiled private investigator Mike Hammer.  Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides adapted this story for the film, which was directed by Robert Aldrich and photographed by Ernest Laszlo.

Actually, as the above quotations seem to testify, Laszlo’s in-your-face, expressionistic cinematography is very much a key creative element to the film.  It features numerous atmospheric high- and low-angle shots, including many shots looking up and down steep staircases.  These are sharply punctuated by expressive closeups shot from a low angle.  In addition there are a number of well-crafted indoor moving-camera shots, some lasting three minutes.  These various images all combine to portray a dark, threatening, and labyrinthine world having obscure antagonists and no clear-cut answers or goals for the protagonists. 

The story of Kiss Me Deadly plays out over four acts.

1.  A Mysterious Murder

The film begins in spectacular film-noir fashion by showing a young woman, wearing only a trench coat covering her otherwise nude body, running frantically down a dark highway.  She is desperately trying to hail a ride from passing cars, but noone will stop for her.  Finally she stands in the middle of the road, forcing the next car to swerve off the road to a stop to avoid hitting her.  The driver is Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker), who grudgingly allows the young woman to get into his sports car.  She tells him that he only has to drop her off at the nearest buss station.  But they are soon stopped by police looking for a young woman who has escaped from an insane asylum, and Hammer, no friend of the police, shields her by pretending to them that she is his wife.  Proceeding, they soon have to stop at a service station, and while stopped the woman goes inside and quietly gives the attendant a letter she would like him to mail for her. 

Back on the road, the woman (Cloris Leachman) gets into some friendly banter with the sullen Hammer.  She tells him that it is obvious from his flashy car and his demeanor that he is the ultimate self-indulgent male:
“You have only one real, lasting love – you.”
And indeed as the tale progresses, we will see just how true her observation is. 

She also tells him that her name is Christina Bailey and that she was named after the Pre-Raphaelite poetess Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).  Then turning serious, she urgently tells Hammer that if they don’t make it to a bus stop, to “remember me”.  This phrase, “remember me”, turns out to be a “MacGuffin” [7,8], which is a an artifact in a film that serves as a motif for a revealing narrative element.  Scriptwriter Bezzerides introduced this “MacGuffin”, which was not present in Spillane’s original story.

Sure enough, they don’t make it to that bus stop.  Hammer’s car is stopped by some gangster thugs, who for most of this tale are only shown by their lower legs and black shoes.  The gangsters torture Christina to death and beat Hammer until he is out cold.  Then they dump the two bodies into Hammer’s car, which is pushed into the river.

Evidently rescued from the river, Hammer comes to in a hospital bed, where he is greeted by police lieutenant Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) and his beautiful secretary and girlfriend, Velda Wickman (Maxine Cooper).  From subsequent police and FBI interviews we learn that several people have recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  We also learn that Hammer is a private investigator who operates as a lowly “bedroom dick” – he rigs divorce cases by getting Velda (who is obsessively enamored with Hammer and so willing to do anything he asks of her) to prostitute herself and seduce the male member of a litigant married couple, thereby establishing that person’s marital infidelity.

2.  Following Some Leads
The fact that the FBI is involved in the missing-person investigations convinces tough-guy Hammer that something “big” (i.e. lucrative) is going on and he should get himself involved in privately tracking down this “whatzit”, whatever it is.  He gets Velda to use her seductive charm to dig up some contact info and then uses that to trace down further evidence.  In this way he finds out Christina’s old address and then tracks down her old roommate, Lilly Carver (Gaby Rodgers). 

While he is following these various trails, Hammer learns that he is sometimes being followed, and he brutally punches out one of these thuggish shadows on the street.  Eventually Hammer’s pursuits lead him to the plush home of a gangster, where he is greeted by one of the gangster boss’s “girls”, Friday (Marian Carr), who, like all of the beautiful girls in this film, comes on to Hammer and offers herself to him.  But Hammer is only obsessed with money and revenge, and he ignores Friday’s lascivious advances so that he can talk to the gangster boss Carl Evello (Paul Stewart).  Evello is clearly involved in the mysterious whatzit, and he wants to either scare off or buy off Hammer from the trail, but their conversation comes to nothing.

Knowing that Lilly is now in danger, Hammer goes to her flat and rescues her.  When they are safely back in Hammer’s apartment, the beautiful woman, as we might expect at this point, offers herself to him.

Meanwhile the thug shown only in black shoes comes and murders Hammer’s friend and auto mechanic, Nick.

Later when Hammer visits Velda, she criticizes him for obsession with revenge.  But she also informs him about a key figure she has discovered, a certain Doctor Soberin.     

3.  Putting Some Pieces Together
A bit later Hammer learns that the gangsters have come and taken away Velda.  And then Hammer, himself, is ambushed at home by Evello’s men (one of whom is memorably played by expressionistic character actor Jack Elam) and taken to an isolated beach house, where they drug him with a “truth serum” to find out what Hammer might know about the whatzit.  But Hammer still doesn’t know anything about the whatzit, and neither does the viewer.  Anyway, Hammer, in typically ruthless fashion, manages to kill Evello and one of his guards and get away.

Back at his home, with Lilly, Hammer has discovered that the letter that Christina had asked the service station attendant mail for her was paradoxically addressed to him.  But when he opens and reads the letter, it just says, “Remember Me!”.  Now Hammer puts two and two together and looks in a book of Christina Rossetti’s sonnets for the poem “Remember Me”.  When he finds it, he asks Lilly to read it to him, and he pays particular attention to the following lines:
        Remember me when no more day by day
        You tell me of a future which you plan
        Only remember me, you'll understand
        But if the darkness and corruption leave
        A vestige of the thoughts that once we had.
This suggests to Hammer that Christina’s secret must have been small and on her, perhaps something so secret that she had even swallowed it. 

So Hammer and Lilly go to the city morgue and ask to examine Christina’s corpse.  When the morgue attendant refuses permission without a bribe, Hammer cruelly smashes his hands in his desk drawer until he relents.  What they find is that what Christina had swallowed was a key to a locker at the Hollywood Athletic Club. 

Going to the club, Hammer muscles his way past the attendant at the counter and uses the key  to unlock the locker.  What he finds in there is a case containing a lead-lined box.  When he starts to lift the lid of the box, though, he sees that the box contains something blinding and white-hot.  So he quickly closes the lid and relocks the locker, warning the attendant to keep everyone away from the locker.  Leaving the club, Hammer finds that Lilly has disappeared.

At home, Hammer encounters police lieutenant Murphy, who tells him that the real Lilly Carver drowned a while ago and that the woman calling herself by that name, whom Hammer had been hiding in his home, is an imposter.  Murphy, who has been working with the FBI investigation, also cryptically tells Hammer that the lead box he had seen at the club contains radioactive material and is linked to nuclear weaponry.  So now we know a little more about the mysterious whatzit.  As Murphy is about to  leave, Hammer beseeches him to help in rescuing Velda, but Murphy, in keeping with the selfish tenor of all the characters in this story, cynically dismisses the idea.  He has his own business to attend to.

After Murphy leaves, Hammer phones the athletic club, but there is no answer.  The camera shot at the club end of the line shows that the attendant has been murdered, the locker has been broken into, and the mysterious box is gone.

4.  Tracking Down the Box
Hammer is still trying to rescue Velda, and his further bullying investigations lead him to believing that the Dr. Soberin Velda had mentioned is a key figure in the mysterious goings on.  And Hammer ultimately traces Soberin’s whereabouts to the same beach house where Evello and his gang had held him prisoner.

Now the focalization finally shifts away from Hammer and over to the beach house, where Dr. Soberin is shown to be the mysterious and treacherous man wearing the black shoes.  He is with the woman who had passed herself off as “Lilly Carver”, but whose real name is Gabrielle and who is shown to be Soberin’s lover.  They also have with them the mysterious box that everyone has sought.

When Soberin tells her he is going away alone and taking the box with him, the greedy Gabrielle shoots him dead in order to get the box.  Just then Hammer breaks in, and she shoots him, too.  Now Gabrielle wants to finally see what’s inside the treasured box, but when she opens it up, there is a flash of heat and light, and the woman is engulfed in flames.

Hammer is severely wounded, but still alive.  He staggeringly gets up, finds Velda locked up in one of the beach house rooms, and together they stagger out onto the beach, as the beach house explosively erupts in flames behind them.

There are several aspects of Kiss Me Deadly that distinguish the film, even among the film noir genre.  One is its cartoon-like image of masculinity.  Hammer’s explosive belligerence seems to invariably feature one-punch knockout power.  But when Hammer is hit, he always gets up and escapes.  The women he encounters – Christina, Velda, Friday, and Lily/Gabrielle – all throw themselves at him.

Another extreme aspect of the film is the universal expressions of contempt on the part of just about all the male members of the story.  And these goes beyond the usual noirish obsession for revenge; it applies to everyone.   This is true of the police and FBI, in particular Lt. Murphy, as well as Carl Evello, Dr. Soberin, and the other gangster assailants.  And above all, it is a constant behavioral feature of Mike Hammer, himself.  There are basically no sympathetic male characters in this film with whom the viewer might want to empathize.  For these reasons Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t present a compelling narrative that can draw in the viewer’s attention and fascinate him or her with what goes on.
More interesting is the quizzical nature of the never-fully-revealed whatzit – the contents of the box.  Kiss Me Deadly was made when there was more awareness of the likely apocalyptic fate of mankind [9].  The whatzit in this story was the subject of multiple dreamlike interpretations that might provide answers in this respect.  In this connection Robert Weston has commented [2]:
“But the great whatzit is clearly a symbol of truth. The idea that all will be revealed once it is found is each character’s fundamental motivation. Everyone is desperately fighting to find the mysterious box because it represents an answer to something they can’t explain, a desire for the ultimate; a divine explanation for everything. They have no idea that such an object is unattainable in an existential world. Each character, even Mike, who for most of the film does not even know what he’s looking for, rationalize the great whatzit into something they want or need. For Christina, it might have been truth or beauty. For Mike, it appears to be money, or perhaps redemption. For Dr. Soberin and the FBI agents, it is power.”
Overall, it is that apocalyptic mystery element that elevates Kiss Me Deadly above the mundane members of its genre.

  1. David Mattin, “Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”, BBCi, (16 June 2006).   
  2. Robert Weston, “Kiss Me Deadly(1955)”, Film Monthly, (4 May 2001).   
  3. Andrew L. Urban, “KISS ME DEADLY”, “Urban Cinefile”, (3 October 2019).   
  4. Mick Lasalle, “FILM REVIEW -- `Kiss Me Deadly' Still Packs Punch / Ralph Meeker stars in 1955 film noir”, SFGATE, (6 October 1995).   
  5. Alan Vanneman, “Whose Noir Is It, Anyway? Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 November 2007).   
  6. Tim Dirks, “Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”, amc Filmsite, (n.d.).   
  7. "MacGuffin", Wikipedia, (23 September 2019).   
  8. The Film Sufi, "Alfred Hitchcock", The Film Sufi (23 May 2009).   
  9. The threat of nuclear annihilation, however, is no less now than it was in 1955 – especially when you consider some of the narcissistic and irresponsible world leaders now in power.

“Hamlet” - Grigori Kozintsev (1964)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like many of his works, is rather complicated and has been difficult to film for presentation to general audiences.  There are multiple threads of revenge, and the main character is persistently morose and obsessed with his own futility.  On top of that, most staged versions of the play last four hours, which is a long time for an audience to sit through.  And yet Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s most famous and popular work, which is probably due to the play’s profoundly existentialistic tone and theme.  Capturing this melancholy and thoughtful tone is the principal challenge of anyone who films Hamlet, and this would presumably require someone very sensitive to the nuances of the main character’s moody and pensive soliloquies.  Nevertheless, probably the best job has been done, not by an English-speaking creative team, but by Russian filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev and his production colleagues.  Kozintsev’s Hamlet (Gamlet, 1964), which he adapted from Boris Pasternak’s translation of Shakespeare’s play, is an expressionistic tour de force that is likely to enthrall most viewers.  And Kozintsev managed to cover all the material in a relatively brisk two hours and twenty minutes.

Shooting the film during the “Khrushchev Thaw” (1954-64), when Russian censorship was somewhat more relaxed, and having by this time considerable cultural stature of his own, Kozintsev had relative artistic freedom to pursue his own goals and make a truly expressive film [1].  The film’s production values under Kozintsev’s supervision – including the cinematography by Jonas Gricius, the music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and the acting performances – are excellent throughout. 

Following his own instincts, some of Kozintsev’s artistic modifications to the play are notably well conceived.  For one thing, the nature of the film medium enabled him to stage some of Hamlet’s soliloquies more appropriately as thoughtful meditations in voiceover.  More importantly, Kozintsev chose to stage a number of key scenes outside , in front of his castle and by the shore near a turbulent sea [2].

Indeed, the many shots of the relentlessly churning sea provide a key visual metaphor for man’s existential loneliness in the face of a universe of surrounding nothingness and an inevitable fate of meaningless oblivion.  Hamlet feels this all-encompassing sense of meaninglessness to the world – not only as an absence of justice and love but also a meaninglessness to life, itself.  This was a truly modern sense of despair and alienation that we, immersed in our conventional materialistic understanding of reality, can all feel.  In this connection Saviour Catania observed [2]:
“Worth mentioning is that Kozintsev settled for the beach as the setting for the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy after experimenting with various other locations.  His choice was finally determined by his belief that the rocky Crimean beach could be made to embody and partake of the metaphysical issues at stake.“
In addition, Kozintsev uses images of the turbulent sea to separate the theatrical acts that make up Shakespeare’s narrative. 

The five acts encompass a story that tells of nine murders, including one suicide, which engender compulsive desires for “justice” and revenge.

Act 1

At the outset, Prince of Denmark Hamlet (played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky) is shown grieving over (a) the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and (b) the fact that within an unseemly two months his widowed mother, Gertrude (Elza Radzina), had married his uncle, the deceased king’s brother, Claudius (Mikhail Nazvanov).  This means that Claudius has now assumed the throne.

New King Claudius has an elderly advisor, Polonius (Yuri Tolubeyev), whose two children, Laertes (Stepan Oleksenko) and Ophelia (Anastasiya Vertinskaya), are shown discussing Prince  Hamlet’s romantic overtures to Ophelia.  Laertes warns his sister to keep a distance from Hamlet, but Ophelia insists that Hamlet’s expression of romantic interest have been sincere.

Then Hamlet is informed by his friend Horatio (Vladimir Erenberg) that last night he saw the ghost of Hamlet’s father on the ramparts outside the castle.   They arrange to see if they can see the ghost the next night, and when they do so, the mournful ghost informs his son that Claudius had murdered him and that Hamlet should avenge his death. 

Not sure whether to believe this apparition or not, Hamlet tells Horatio that he will investigate the truth of the ghost’s claims and that for the time being he will feign madness in order to facilitate his investigations.

Act 2
With Hamlet now showing signs of madness, the suspicious Claudius urges two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz (Igor Dmitriev) and Guildenstern (Vadim Medvedev), to spy on his nephew.

Hamlet, for his part, comes upon a traveling theater troop and arranges for them to soon stage a play, The Murder of Gonzago, which will have some of Hamlet’s own words inserted into the dialogue of the murder scene, which will feature details in accordance with what the ghost told him about his own murder.  Hamlet’s intention is to see if upon watching this scene performed, Claudius will react guiltily.

Act 3 
Walking alone outside near the water, Hamlet has his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, during which he questions the meaningfulness and unlikely persistence of life.  Then Hamlet and Ophelia have a conversation, during which Hamlet, still feigning lunacy, furiously rejects her love. 

Later The Murder of Gonzago play is performed before the royal family and entourage, with Hamlet and Horatio checking Claudius’s reaction to the murder scene.  Sure enough, Claudius is seen clearly to be upset.  

(This is the end of Part 1 of this two-part film.)

Now Gertrude, upset over her son’s seeming madness, summons Hamlet to her chamber.  But Polonius, just to help ensure Gertrude’s safety, decides to hide behind a curtain in her room.  When Hamlet arrives, he gets into an intemperate argument with his mother.  In the ensuing commotion, he hears a noise from behind the curtain, which he assumes must be Claudius, and he thrusts his knife into the curtain, killing Polonius.

Act 4
To get his erratic nephew out of the way, Claudius sends Hamlet, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, off to study in England.  However, on the way, Hamlet discovers that his two erstwhile friends are secretly carrying an official letter ordering the execution of Hamlet upon arrival in England.  So Hamlet manages to surreptitiously exchange this letter with a forged one of his own condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, instead. 

Meanwhile Ophelia, with her father murdered and the one she loves, Hamlet, having rudely rejected her, goes mad, herself.  She eventually commits suicide.  Also, her brother Laertes returns from studying abroad and finding his family in ruins, demands revenge.

Act 5 
The still brooding Hamlet now returns to Denmark and hooks up with his friend Horatio outside the castle.  They soon encounter a funeral procession for Ophelia, which is how Hamlet shockingly learns of his beloved’s death. 

Also, Laertes is seeking revenge for what has happened to his family, so Claudius arranges for Laertes and Hamlet to have a “sporting” honor duel with swords.  However, he will ensure that Laertes’s sword is poison-tipped, and just to make sure that Hamlet dies, he also prepares a poisoned goblet for Hamlet to drink from.

When the duel is formally conducted with Claudius, Gertrude, and other courtiers in attendance, a sequence of deadly events quickly ensues.  Gertrude mistakenly drinks from Hamlet’s poisoned goblet, and both Hamlet and Laertes get fatally wounded by the poisoned sword.  And when Hamlet then learns from Laertes’s dying words about Claudius’s perfidy, he fatally stabs Claudius.  But Hamlet, himself, is dying, and with his last strength, he staggers outside and looks out onto the sea’s waters of oblivion as he dies.

The image of Hamlet as the existentially lonely protagonist is again metaphorically emphasized with these last shots, as Saviour Catania has observed [2]:
“For Kozintsev’s is a world where Hamlet wanders for the most part lonely in a crowd. Significantly, there is a dire need in Kozintsev’s Hamlet to return to the rocky beach whose comfort he seeks in his death-scene. Admittedly, Horatio does accompany the dying Hamlet to the beach, but the focus is not their relationship. Kozintsev’s interest lies in considering Hamlet as a figure apart.”

Indeed, the film’s expressionistic cinematography is expertly crafted to conjure up this feeling of Hamlet’s doomed isolation.  The film was shot in cinemascope, whose wide-screened imagery makes the subjects in the frame surrounded by the bleak surroundings and therefore less visually significant.  In addition, there are few closeups throughout, which further de-emphasizes the importance of the individual in the frame.  Many of the shots of figures are taken from a low angle, with the high, dark, and forbidding walls of the castle in the background, and this also conveys a mood of people at bay and continually threatened by unknown forces that are “out there”.

I also thought that the slight alterations that Kozintsev made to Shakespeare’s script were beneficial, particularly the enhancement to Ophelia’s presence, the emotive acting for which was exceptionally well performed by actress Anastasiya Vertinskaya.

In the end, the so-called quest for “justice” in Hamlet has had dire consequences and has only worsened the main character’s feeling of existential loneliness.  Overall, nine people have been killed – Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet Sr. – and Hamlet, himself, bears responsibility for six of these deaths.  There is greed, guilt, and vengeful resentment, but no salvation.  The story does not offer a way out of the existential mystery that it explores, but it does convey and evoke feelings that we, ourselves, often have about the futility of human existence.  Kozintsev’s rendition of Shakespeare’s work does a good job of evoking these feelings that go beyond their textual presentation, as well as our textual understanding of our own experiences.

  1. Peter Sellars, “Peter Sellars on Grigori Kozintsev”, King Lear (DVD), Facets Video, (2007). 
  2. Catania, Saviour, "The Beached Verge": On Filming the Unfilmable in Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet", Enter Text: An Interactive Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Cultural and Historical Studies and Creative Work, Brunel University. 1 (2): pp. 302–16, (2001).