Friday, May 11, 2012

Double Feature Friday: The Road Edition

Is there anything as American as driving a car on the open highway? The freedom, the rebellion, the attitude all personify the American lifestyle. So maybe you can't drop your whole life to take to the open road. Instead, liberate yourself with this double feature from the comforts of your home.

By the mid-1950's, film noir started its decline. The genre became infiltrated by repetitive, derivative pictures that lost the tension that made film noir famous. 1955's Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) breathed a new life into the stagnant arena by incorporating two of America's hottest trends: the open road and nuclear fears.

Of course, the film centers around a detective. Unlike most film noir protagonists, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is as crooked as private eyes can come. As he's driving down a lonely highway, he encounters a woman (Christina, played by Cloris Leachman) wearing nothing but a trench coat. Hammer gives her a ride -- not so much because he's a good samaritan but because his sexual interests are aroused. This can only mean one thing: she's an escaped mental patient who's about to be murdered, and Hammer might just be along for the ride.

But the movie isn't just about sexy murdered mental patients. It's also about sexy secretaries and sexy roommates. More importantly, those sexy women are in close proximity to a briefcase containing "the great whatis", a glowing material that not-so-subtly alludes to nuclear weaponry. The person who possess the case has the power; in the hands of a crazy woman (or Russia), this is bad, but in the hands of the rational man (America), this is great protection. But there's just no reasoning with women, is there?

This dichotomy of safety and danger is also represented throughout the film with the car. It is when Hammer is alone in his car that he is truly himself, isolated with his thoughts. When Christina is murdered and Hammer knocked out cold, his car acts as a hearse. Of course, the car also transports our heroes to the beach, the location of the film's thrilling climax. Without the car, there would be no danger, but there also wouldn't be any adventure.

It's no surprise that Mr. 50's-lover himself, David Lynch, incorporates so many film noir aspects into his work. 1997's Lost Highway goes a step further, borrowing the visuals of both the opening and closing sequences of Kiss Me Deadly. While Aldrich's original has a beautiful contrast, Lynch's careful use of sparing color and grainy texture increases the isolation and tension. It truly heightens the emotions presented in the original while maintaining the integrity of film noir.

I admit that this film has 2 major things I look for in a film: 1. It's directed by David Lynch (my favorite director), and 2. Bill Pullman stars in it (see also here for more information on that weird fetish of mine). That being said, it's difficult to discuss the film in terms of narrative; in typical Lynch fashion, the story obfuscates logic and traditional concepts of plot. Lost Highway is a surreal nightmare trip into anger, obsession, personality, and murder. The extreme emotions are highlighted by the film's strong color palette. Bold red, gold, black, and white are consistently repeated -- in the road, the sets, blood, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman)'s saxophone, and the make up of the Mystery Man (Robert Blake).

Like Kiss Me Deadly, the car plays a critical role in the story. Madison is fully isolated in his car; again, this intimacy shows that character for who he truly is. Further, Pete Dalton (Balthazar Getty), Madison's double, is an auto mechanic. The film's anxiety culminates in multiple cars meeting for a classic noir-style climax. Afterward, Madison flees from the police, flying down the highway like in the beginning of the film.

And with that, I wish you a happy Friday. Drive safe!

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