Nihilism and the Great Whatsit: Richard Hell at Cinema Club

Richard Hell joins the Alamo's Cinema Club

Hellacool. (by Marc Savlov)

Last night's Cinema Club felt like mainlining MDMA while hooded in a black box at Guantanamo: two thrilling, beautiful movies whose characters were, for the most part, nihilistic, amoral, and utterly ireedeemable. Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil are thrilling to look at, but bad black bummers through and through.

Although it took until the very last minute to sell out the house, those who made the sojourn down to the Alamo Ritz were rewarded with hi-octane grim despair and thuggish, cinematic sleaze. And, of course, Richard Hell, late of Class of '77 New York groups Television, the Voidoids, and the Heartbreakers. Clad in black and looking every bit the aging East Village art school punk rock icon, Hell arrived with prepared opening remarks that incisive, eloquent, and altogether on the money. The dirty, filthy, damned forever film noir money.

"It's a picture of a moment in time and of the psychology of all the people involved," said Hell, noting that many of the Los Angelean locations used by Aldrich for his 1955 adaptation/retooling of hard-boiled crime novelist Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, have since been demolished.

Post-screening, as is Cinema Club tradition, the Alamo's Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson joined Hell onstage for a wide-ranging and informative discussion of Aldrich's nightmare vision of L.A. noir.

"I read an interview with [screenwriter] A.I. "Buzz" Bezzerides," Nilsen said, "that gave me a real good idea of where this movie was coming from. He sounded a lot like a guy who was very disenchanted with our culture and where it had gone, and in this interview he was, like, 'Your skyscrapers will be your tombstones!' He was one of the great, anti-progressive cranks that I've ever heard."

True enough, although compared to Spillane's source novel, Ralph Meeker's portrayal of Mike Hammer, the clueless, slaphappy playboy P.I. with a penchant for getting in way over his head, was a smoother version of the author's lone vigilante.

"There was a time," Nilsen continued, "probably in 1955, when, if you look at the top best-selling books of all time, the Bible was number one and then there were three Mickey Spillane novels right behind it."

Carlson to Hell: "What did Spillane think of the movie?"

Hell: "He hated it. He really resented it because they made Mike Hammer into such a sweetheart. He had written Hammer as kind of an avenger and screenwriter Bezzerides changed all that. [Spoiler alert!] In the novel, [the character of] Lilly Carver was wearing a trenchcoat just like the one Cloris Leachman wore in the movie, and in the last pages of the novel she opens the raincoat and she's burned from her neck to toes. She's taunting Mike Hammer, asking him does he find her sexy now. And that's when she says 'Kiss me, deadly.'"

Va-va-voom! as Mike Hammer's trusty (if doomed) mechanic Nick would say. Ain't that a kick in the head slap in the face?

(Richard Hell will also host a screening of the original King Kong, as part of the Alamo Drafthouse/Film Foundation series, tonight, Mon., May 28, 7pm, at the Alamo Ritz.)

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