When I first saw Jigsaw, a film released by United Artists in 1949, it reminded me strongly of Kiss Me Deadly, a film released by United Artists in 1955. My original idea for this paper was to trace the resemblances between the two, implying some kind of ancestral relation. However, when I looked at the two of them “back-to-back” as it were, they didn’t seem nearly so much alike as I had originally thought. Still, there seemed to be something linking them, something that had made me see the one as a precursor to the other. The question then became why I should have sensed a resemblance.
On one level, the answer is fairly simple. Jigsaw is a left-wing paranoia film. It is both stylistically and politically ambitious. So is Kiss Me Deadly.
However, what most closely links the two films is neither the vague “leftness” of their political orientation nor the quite different neo-noir stylistics displayed in them, but the paranoid atmosphere that each, in its own way, exudes. This is not an atmosphere peculiar to these films, but one associated with at least two coterminous, if specific, sets of historical circumstances: postwar Hollywood and cold war United States.(1) Everything that had been shared in the community of war was broken apart by peace. Companions and certainties were scattered to the winds, replaced by doubtful strangers and looming clouds betokening more foul weather. Who is with me? Who? If not myself, who? In an atmosphere of heightened self-reliance it is counter-productive to seek out connections, for in fact nothing is related. Everything repels everything else.
So I will proceed in pieces.
Fragments for analysis and comparison
In the “Introduction” I mentioned “stylistic ambition”. Well, Jigsaw uses a great deal of deep-focus. Some visual compositions are quite striking. The film attempts bravura cinematic effects. One sequence, showing a cocktail party, is particularly flashy (beginning and ending on the same composition reversed, for example, and using segments of “interior monologue” voiceover linked to direct address). In other words, I could spend some time with the visual and narrational stylistics of the film. However, for a variety of reasons, I am more interested in the soundtrack, which is not so overtly stylised, but which I think has a strongly oneiric – or do I mean “soporific”? – effect.
Kiss Me Deadly is also quite “stylistically ambitious”. Indeed, it stands out even among Aldrich’s early films and the films noir with which it is usually classed precisely for the degree to which stylistic elements like composition, lighting, editing and sound are thrust into the foreground of the experience the film offers. At the same time, that context serves as a reminder that a conspicuous strand of American postwar filmmaking deliberately emphasised “style”, sometimes even to the detriment of “story-telling”. Like the “jazz age” circa 1923-35, this was a period of aesthetic experimentation in the popular arts in which conventional expectations were defied or exceeded at least partly through formal strategies designed to emphasise sensation. Radio instantly diffused “new” and sensational sound experiences – musical styles like rhythm and blues and cool jazz, styles of dramatic presentation, even styles of the presentation of “fact” through news and commentary – throughout the country. By comparison, films acted somewhat slowly and more circumspectly, influenced by sound media rather than excercising any great influence over them.
The recording of dialogue for Jigsaw is notable for the absence of “presence” or “ambience” (that is, “background noise” or even the slight echo that “surrounds” voices recorded on a studio set). In this, the overall impression of the soundtrack of the film resembles the stylised soundscape produced by certain radio shows of the period (Inner sanctum, Suspense, The whistler et al.). Voices, music and diegetic sound effects are the only things one hears, just as on the radio. This effect is somewhat different from what Rick Altman has identified as a “radio aesthetic”. For example, “deep focus” sound is not a feature of this film. It occurs only occasionally, even when it might be played-up, as in an early scene where Charlie walks away from Howard and Caroline in one of the film’s many “depth of field” shots: there is actually only a brief passage in this sequence when Charlie’s voice is at all distant. On the other hand, in certain sequences dialogue is “layered”: a key exchange miked quite close, while the less important component is heard as background. All in all, of the five radio “conventions” Altman mentions in connection with Citizen Kane, Jigsaw makes extensive use of only one: “the use of sound continuities to link separate scenes” (24).
The sound style of the film is at least partly the result of a deliberate technological decision designed to save money. The American Film Institute catalog‘s entry for Jigsaw notes that “according to a Dec 1948 article in AmCin[American Cinematographer], the picture was shot entirely without sound” (1941-1950: 1214), just as was once intended for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The Danziger brothers had been dubbing imported films into English and, one would suppose, had taken note of the post-dubbed work then current from Italy, among other countries. Location and studio sound were then, and still are, more expensive than shooting without sound and post-dubbing. In a time of financial crisis, when the industry was reorganising around cheaper, out-of-studio production methods, post-dubbed sound must have seemed like a pretty good idea.
Altman stresses radio’s effect on marking sequences in film, “each one beginning on and ending with a high- (or unusually low-) volume sound event” (24). Music and its absence are often used to define sequences in Jigsaw, although high or low volume sounds are not used so frequently to that end. Extra-diegetic music is usually either heard under an entire narrative sequence or is not present at all (for example in the District Attorney’s office). Some sequences are dominated by the scoring, which starts at the beginning (or just before) and continues unbroken until the scene is finished. In such scored sequences music supplies dramatic punctuation at times. However, as I have indicated, there is also a good deal of cross-sequential segueing through combinations of visuals, dialogue and musical modulation. That is, music as often supplies a layer of continuity for the film as it is used to distinguish narrative or discursive units.
Note: this sound file takes a little under 3 minutes to play.
Music is deployed most intrusively, and instructively, in the sequence of Charlie Riggs’ murder. In the immediately preceeding episode Riggs and Malloy have been talking at a bar. There is no music beneath the conversation. Riggs leaves and Malloy orders another drink. He says he does not like to drink alone. The shot then reveals that the bartender is played by Burgess Meredith, who draws a beer and takes a taste, exclaiming “That can be fixed!” A sudden musical chord follows the punchline – as perfect an instance of “radio” punctuation to define an ending as one would wish. However, as the scene dissolves to the street outside Riggs’ apartment, this chord seems to mutate into a ticking motif of threat and tension cued to the waiting murderer lighting a cigarette and to Riggs’ own tread as he approaches the building. The ticking motif is developed over the ensuing scene as the murderer follows Riggs into the building, accompanies him in the elevator to the eleventh floor, and hits him over the head. It changes drastically and heavily as the murderer drags Riggs into the dark of the apartment, goes to the window and looks down to the street below; and then briefly recapitulates the title theme while the body is dragged to and dumped out the window. A telephone’s ringing is incorporated into the score. The murderer leaves and the sequence ends with another shot to the street below, this time with Riggs’ body in it, underscored to dramatic effect. At each point at which the action has heightened, the music has made itself more apparent until, with the screen almost in blackness and the sequence only about half finished, it is quite clearly “narrating” what is going on.
The soundtrack in this instance takes on a role equivalent to – or in some ways more important than – that of the visual track. Although Riggs’ murder is the most sustained example of this phenomenon, there are other points at which highly-formalised sound asserts itself at the expense of “realistic” narration. Music very nearly drowns out the voices of Malloy and his assistant, Quigley, as they make a clandestine search of a warehouse. Unexpectedly, Malloy’s “internal voice” (rehearsing Grace Hartley’s written words) speaks at the cocktail party through a tight “radio” filter, over the silently talking faces of the media moguls he meets. The mogul Pemberton has difficulty pronouncing key words (“express” “inalienable”). Words are used to link sequences (“…trouble” “Trouble?”).
Throughout, Jigsaw seems to feature “radio acting”, in the sense that a great deal of the sound of the film seems to depend upon the expressivity and sonorousness of the voices of the cast. Many of the production crew and of the cast were radio veterans, which doubtless has a lot to do with the film’s vocal style. However, this kind of delivery may be as much theatrical as it is strictly “radiophonic”. It emphasises clarity of diction and meaning, which is to say that it is readily transferable from stage to radio. Orson Welles is among the best-known exponents of this type of acting in films.
However, there are stylistic subvariants of this general approach. In Welles’ directorial work, for example, the sound of Citizen Kane (1941) differs markedly from that of The Magnificent Ambersons, which is more “monotonal”. There is an “Ambersons” tonal quality to the dialogue track of Jigsaw – that is, like Ambersons, Jigsaw almost never sounds “real”. This is at least partly the result of the suppression of ambience that generally accompanies post-dubbing – that is, the result of making the soundtrack of this film somewhat in the way that radio dramas were made at the time. Indeed, the strongest evidence of a “radio aesthetic” on this soundtrack is its presentation of dialogue. Altman notes a common radio practice of the forties: “Once we settle into the dialogue portion of the program, we know that everything will take place at or near a standard volume level” (11). This is certainly, and rather disconcertingly, what happens in Jigsaw as well.
Tonal quality (vocal timbre) is certainly one of the most notable features of the soundtrack, as it was on radio at the time. Voice signifies character in this film, much as it does in Welles’s Lady from Shanghai (1948). Anyone can tell that Malloy is deceptive, Whitfield is honest, and Hartley is a hypocrite just by listening to them. Franchot Tone’s voice seems to set tonal limits for the others. It moves very smoothly within a limited range in a cross between purring and keening. Emotion is signalled by heightened volume and the voice cracking or breaking slightly. Short pauses isolate key words and phrases.
Most of the other characters also deliver lines in this polished, radio-theatrical way, with more or less roughness in the voice. The notable exceptions are Jean Wallace in a playful or exuberant mood, when her voice escapes restraints (along with her facial expression); and Betty Harper, who speaks as though she had learned her part by correspondence – in a distant, slightly fearful monotone occasionally cratered by unexpected pauses.
Kiss Me Deadly is less stylistically cohesive on the vocal level. The strongest traditional “radio voices” of the type that I hear in Jigsaw are Wesley Addy (Pat, who delivers the “I am going to say some words” speech) and Albert Dekker (Dr Soberin, who appears appropriately through most of the film as perfect diction without a face). Strangely, in Kiss Me Deadly as in Jigsaw, young women also are marked by their extreme vocal stylistics. Christina has Cloris Leachman’s distinctive timbre and idiosyncratic delivery (which I, for one, find quite wearing). Maxine Cooper’s Velda is a kind of caricature of “voice acting”, with meaning squeezed into every phrase uttered in a smooth, almost neutral tone. Gaby Rodgers (Lily Carver) is, fittingly, a kind of combination of the two: a quite distinctive, slightly roughened, timbre delivering each line in a highly suggestive/significant way.
“Flat” dialogue recording is not marked in Kiss Me Deadly, although there are passages in the film where something of this sort seems to have occurred (and/or where the film seems post-dubbed). On the other hand, one of the most noticeable stylistic features of Kiss Me Deadly is its “unrealistic” soundtrack. The opening sequence provides the handiest instance of certain sound techniques that recur at other points in the film. The sound of Christina’s breathing remains at the same (close) volume throughout the sequence, no matter where she is in relation to the camera. Here music is used as dramatic punctuation; and the music is never continuous in any scene in which there is much dialogue. Although the music from Mike Hammer’s car radio is introduced at an appropriately low volume, the voice of the radio announcer is very full and very, very close (and, of course, that voice “announces” or portends the credits as well as the film’s theme song). I would contend that the cumulative effect of the film’s soundtrack as a whole is so strong as to entirely transform the direct, cinéma verité sound of Hammer’s first interview with Lily Carver into a particularly hallucinatory aural experience. Although the sound techniques of Kiss Me Deadly are more baroque than those in Jigsaw, both are recognisably “unreal” – “dreamlike” – and contribute markedly to the “paranoid” feeling of the films.
Each of these films is markedly “bad” by many standards. A great deal of their badness is directly traceable to the small size of their budgets and the apparent “subliterary” generic sources of their storylines – but these cannot be the only contributory factors. Kiss Me Deadly must be one of the cinema’s most celebrated illustrations of Umberto Eco’s axiom about art and wagering (essentially that the creation of new art is like placing a bet on the taste of the future).(1) A great deal of what can be thought of as “bad” about Kiss Me Deadly – Maxine Cooper’s performance, for example – can be critically explained also as “good” (as foregrounding artifice, for example). The film’s excesses, its tendency to fragment, its crudity at all levels, become virtues when it is taken for granted that the film as a whole is good.
Jigsaw has not had the advantage of such a critical rehabilitation. Moreover, it seems doubtful that any discerning contemporary critic would be able to canonise it in the way that critics and academics have canonised Kiss Me Deadly. It is not an extreme example of anything, not even of badness. Yet the same claims of badness can be made for it as might have been made for Kiss Me Deadly: the performances of the younger women in the film are eccentric, the film as a whole is overwrought and incoherent (not logical, not well-plotted) and simplistic to the point of naivety.
It seems to me that the badness of these films is actually one of their principal stylistic elements and one of the methods by which they make their own peculiar sense. In the past 20 years there have been a considerable number of well-made films devoted to exposing conspiracies. Although it may or may not be the case that what has prompted such films as Z (1969), All the President’s Men (1976), and JFK (1991), to name three at random, has been clinical paranoia, I do not believe that the films I have named, nor indeed most of the films devoted to conspiracies, are as successful in projecting a paranoid atmosphere as the two films with which I am concerned here. And I think this is because these more recent films are, by and large, well-made films.
The badness of Jigsaw and Kiss Me Deadly – as well as that of some others which I would put in the paranoid category, such as Mr Arkadin (1955), The Everlasting Secret Family (1988) and They live (1988) – serves to mark their paranoiaas paranoia: a common skewed vision that does not show things as they usually appear to be. The ineptness of these films – or, less ironically, their inability or unwillingness to sustain the artifice required for audiences to “suspend disbelief” – would, in the schizophrenic terms of understanding which I am proposing here, be evidence of both madness and clarity of vision. Our perception of that badness as ineptness would be, by the same token, evidence of our inability to see beyond convention to truth. (Of course, these are also the standards invoked tacitly by those few who propose certain cinéastes maudits, such as Ed Wood, as “visionary artists”).
Jigsaw climaxes with the hero’s making a forced entry into an art gallery where an exhibition of “non-objective” art has been hung. Mike Hammer also forces his way into a gallery which may house examples of the “new kind of art in the world” collected by William Mist. Certainly the pictures one sees behind Mike are more convincingly “modern” than the paintings ostensibly by Sigmund Kosterich which are pillaged by Grace Hartley.
Kiss Me Deadly is aggressively highbrow as a antidote to Mike Hammer’s brute culture. Jigsaw is not at all preoccupied with such matters, except for the case of Sigmund Kosterich, who is very anxious to be perceived as an artist (and willing to do quite a lot in order to get that recognition). I suppose the attitude towards Kosterich that the film tends to create is philistine (or, perhaps, “middlebrow”). In any case, high culture is a significant issue in Kiss Me Deadly, and not much of an issue in Jigsaw.
However, Barbara Whitfield in Jigsaw is a nightclub singer who does what she does because she enjoys it and is good at it. She is the focus for Pemberton’s, Agostoni’s, Kosterich’s, Malloy’s – and possibly even Hartley’s – desire. She has been painted by Kosterichh, the “non-objective” artist. Her publicity photographs are displayed for Malloy by his assistant, Quigley. That is, she is very much a part of culture, very involved with cultural creation. I don’t think that it is insignificant that Barbara is supposed to be beautiful to look at, but that her cultural contribution is to make sounds that we, in fact, hardly hear (only the last bar or so in two sequences).
If there is any cultural counterpart to Barbara at all in Kiss Me Deadly it can only be the singer and musicians in the nightclub where Mike goes to get drunk after Nick is murdered. The song here is the same as the song on the radio at the beginning of the film – and that radio/opening credits music is the only other time in the film that Mike appears to be participating in “his” culture rather than the culture of the women with whom he is involved. Their culture is literary and musical (only at the very end is visual art evoked).
Both films display equivocal positions about certain of the “mass media”. In Jigsaw, at the cocktail party, Malloy is introduced to three men involved with mass communications, each of whom is shown to be a deliberate manipulator of political power and/or popular opinion (Nichols, the newspaper proprietor; Waldron, the radio boss; Pemberton, the public relations man). He is duped into having his picture taken with Barbara at the Blue Angel nightclub by the promise that it will not be used elsewhere – and the picture appears in the next morning’s paper (the film’s director, Fletcher Markle, has been identified as playing the man who seems to order the picture taken). Other news stories play up Malloy’s romance with Barbara, and seem to be taken as evidence of dereliction of duty. On the other hand, at the beginning of the film, Charlie Rigg’s investigative columns for a rival paper are the inspiration behind Malloy’s original interest in the secret hate group.
Kiss Me Deadly quite deliberately associates Mike with legal and illegal recording devices. This association does not seem to cast Mike in a good light. Photographs and newspapers are notably absent from the film. The radio and the phonograph, on the other hand, are ubiquitous and seem to purvey good music (not just the music Christina might like, but Mike’s brand of tasteful pop as well). The radio also relays commentary on sports events that acts as ironic commentary on diegetic events. That is, although there seems to be some case for a significant “thematic” role specifically for the media in Jigsaw, I think that there is little case for such a role in Kiss Me Deadly beyond the rather commonplace modernist ideas of alienation and reification that pervade almost everything in the film.
Howard Malloy’s motives are hidden from us, as Mike Hammer’s are. Malloy at first is clearly motivated to avenge his friend’s murder. But he is offered the chance for advancement (to Special Prosecutor) and then meets Barbara, the beautiful singer, with whom he has an affair while remaining engaged to Caroline, his murdered friend’s sister. At this point it is not easy to tell whether he has been corrupted by the offers of advancement or whether he is secretly using the singer to further his investigation. As the plot moves towards its climax, it becomes clearer and clearer that Howard has indeed been using Barbara. The acting and direction of their last scene together makes the revelation quite repellant. She becomes hysterical at his betrayal, they struggle and he is knocked unconscious. However, it is Barbara who is then killed by Grace, possibly in fulfilment of a pre-arranged plan to get rid of her and pin the crime on Malloy.
Malloy’s treatment of Barbara is questioned on several levels (he is “cheating” on her and on his real girl friend, Caroline, simultaneously and he is abusing her trust). In addition he must bear some responsibility for her death.
Hammer appears to be impelled by a mixture of greed, revenge (for Nick’s murder) and curiosity. However, the film offers no certain explanation for his actions (he is even shown to do selfless deeds). Hammer exploits Velda sexually and directs her to sleep with people he is investigating in order to get information – that is, he abuses her trust even more callously than Malloy does with Barbara.
Whitfield is metaphorically and structurally the centre or pivot-point of Jigsaw‘s story. She makes her first actual appearance more than halfway into the film. She is also “the key” to the conspiracy. She is thoroughly acquainted with the entire conspiratorial group, but maintains her independence from it – outsider and insider at the same time (in this she differs from say, Debbie in The Big Heat ). She is attracted by the protagonist but betrayed by him. In Kiss Me Deadly, Lily Carver parallels her in most of these aspects (she may not know everyone in the conspiracy but she is Hammer’s key to it; she is attracted to Hammer, but he rejects her).
There is something arbitrary and oneiric in these female figures which seem to generate stories rather than to be generated by them. At the same time, they are not the ultimate objects of (masculine) quests as Laura or H. Rider Haggard’s She Who Must Be Obeyed are. Rather, they are antagonists, helpers, metaphors, copulae – avatars of transformation, themselves changing as their actions change those around them. Whitfield’s story, like Carver’s, can be understood as an attempt to delineate a space of freedom within a rapidly constricting and unreliable universe of masculine and quasi-masculine power (Grace Hartley is wearing trousers when she kills Whitfield). Whitfield signifies the seriousness of her interest in Malloy by asking him to buy her a cat, perfectly confounding authenticity and reification in a single transaction.(1) When Jean Wallace laughs, she shifts Whitefield instantly from glamour girl to clown, and Gaby Rodgers’ Lily Carver hovers continually between criminal insanity and criminal acuity – each demonstrating in her being the transformative power their figures exhibit in the narrative.
United Artists had not been as profitable as other major Hollywood enterprises during the war. In 1946, David O. Selznick was forced out of U.A. The United States entered a period of economic recession during 1947, which was also the year in which the House Un-American Activities Committee resumed its investigation of communist infiltration of the motion picture industry and first subpoenaed Charles Chaplin, one of the owners of United Artists. Chaplin’s politics continued to make headlines and inflame hate groups for several years, until well after he had left the United States (1952) and sold his last remaining interests in United Artists (1955). Revenue from U.A.’s foreign distribution of films dropped 45% in the years from 1946 to 1948. After 1946, domestic revenue also dropped drastically.
During 1947-48, Mary Pickford attempted to sell United Artists, but Chaplin balked. Pickford announced that Gradwell Sears would be the new President of U.A., but Chaplin balked. Sears was then chosen President by the U.A. board.
The “Paramount” decision of May 1948 had a mainly negative impact on U.A., even though the company was not by most standards vertically-integrated to nearly the same extent as others (it was principally a distributor and only part-owner of a handful of cinemas). Although U.A. had not engaged in block booking practices, as a co-defendant in the case it became “a party to the hundreds of treble-damage suits against the Paramount defendants instituted by exhibitors” (Balio 1976, 228.).
1948 was also the year in which there was a “bank holiday” on funding independent producers, precipitated by distrust of what was going on at United Artists. U.A.’s independents staged a revolt and tried to find other distribution.
The Time of Your Life and Arch of Triumph, finally acquired by U.A. from independents, proved to be box office turnips. On Our Merry Way and Christmas Eve were not much better. Red River, on the other hand, was a major hit and the Hopalong Cassidy westerns continued to do very well during these years.
Tino Balio’s section on the independent company Eagle-Lion in United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry, stresses that Eagle-Lion’s success with cheaply-made films noirs, beginning with T-Men in 1947 made a significant impact on the industry (Balio 1987, 24-32). Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin were important players in Eagle-Lion.
Independent production companies of the period also included Enterprise Pictures, handling films by the John Garfield company, then working on Force of Evil. Enterprise Pictures has a reputation for a certain liberal tendency based on its association with figures who came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and other anti-communist fronts. “From 1946 to 1948, [Robert] Aldrich was under contract to Enterprise Studios as assistant director, unit production manager, studio manager and writer” (Combs, 49). He worked as assistant director on Force of Evil. Abraham Polonsky, the writer and director of that film, was blacklisted. In 1948, in response to the “bank holiday”, Enterprise took its films from U.A. to MGM, but still collapsed later that year because of the failure of the U.A.-distributed Arch of Triumph. Force of Evil was distributed by MGM, but also failed.
“By 1949 the company had a deficit of $200,000 and was losing $65,000 a week” (Balio 1987, 14). At the beginning of that year, U.A. President Gradwell Sears was telling Pickford and Chaplin that the company was in very bad shape (Balio 1976, 229) and that the pictures in release or ready for release were of inferior quality (this probably included Jigsaw). They continued to stall. By June the deficit was $400,000 and Sears was saying that there were only four pictures undelivered, two in production, and nothing else to look forward to.
Balio paints a picture of Pickford as trying to control matters, continually intriguing, but to no avail, except perhaps to stop other things being done. Selmer Chalif, her nephew, reported in 1949: “she seems to still be playing around with mysterious plans . . . I don’t know what her ultimate goal is . . . but I do have a distinct feeling that both she and Chaplin are waiting for a miracle” (qtd. in Balio 1976, 232). What they achieved, apparently working together behind the scenes (or, at least, with Chaplin not interfering), was to surprise everyone with the deal that brought in Paul McNutt to head the company. This seems to be pretty much all that Pickford was doing in 1949, while
Sears and the rest of the company stewed and could do nothing.
Paul McNutt was appointed head of the company in July 1950 (with a deficit of $465,000). Pickford continued to dither and refused to accept that the company as she had known it was finished (Chaplin perhaps as well, but Balio does not report on this). McNutt found a way out by the end of the year and Pickford and Chaplin were eventually forced to turn over the company to Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, formerly of Eagle-Lion.
According to Tino Balio then, for United Artists the years from 1947 through 1949 were marked by Mary Pickford’s conspiratorial machinations against the company’s Board. There may be a case for considering Jigsaw a not-so veiled commentary on Pickford’s fondness for behind-the-scenes corporate manoeuvring. In this paranoid film à clef, Pickford would be represented by Grace Hartley and Gradwell Sears would be represented by Howard Malloy. Chaplin, the other active behind-the-scenes owner of United Artists, would be Angelo Agostini, friend of the people and secret co-conspirator with Hartley. It all fits – except one piece. Who was the real Stuart Pemberton, rightwing public relations “fixer” and the implied third man of the conspiracy?
While in Europe [Bernard Vorhaus] was named as a communist sympathiser during Edward Dmytryk’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee on 25 April 1951. The projectionists’ union in America then threatened to block all United Artists’ products if the company released any further Vorhaus film. (Brown 196-197)
So Young, So Bad, produced by the Danziger brothers for United Artists in the year after Jigsaw, was Vorhaus’s last American film. He took up residence in England.
The postwar House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Hollywood had begun in the Spring of 1947. After the initial identification of “The Hollywood Ten”, there seems to have been a short hiatus. Anti-communist attentions again centred on Hollywood as the Korean War began in 1950. Red Channels, a book that purported to list the names of those exercising “communist influence in radio and television” was published in June of that year. A list which may eventually have contained the names of as many as 500 people suspected of communist attachment of one kind or another began to be circulated in 1951. Movie personnel continued to be called before the Committee through 1953. The effects of the investigations (including the blacklist) continued for at least four years after that. Paul Stewart, who plays Carl Evello in Kiss Me Deadly, was listed in Red Channels.
Overall, films from United Artists during this period (especially 1947-50) appear notably more “liberal” than those from other Hollywood studios – in personnel and in topics chosen.
Jigsaw features cameo roles by “some of Hollywood’s most famous stars”. Quite a few of these were on the hate lists distributed then or soon after (John Garfield, Burgess Meredith, Marsha Hunt, Everett Sloane). In addition, Myron McCormick and Hester Sondergaard are in the regular cast. The movie is a veritable hotbed of reds.
Franchot Tone had appeared before the Committee and did not work in film or television from 1951 to 1957. Marc Lawrence (“The Angel”), on the other hand, named names before the Committee on 24 April 1951. Jean Wallace later starred opposite Richard Wright in Native Son (1951) and made one film between that year and 1955. Markle directed no films between 1951 and 1963, although he did work regularly in television during those years. Don Malkames and Robert W. Stringer may have encountered some difficulty in obtaining movie work in the early fifties, and John Roeburt throughout the decade. Other Danziger brothers productions employed Lionel Stander and Gypsy Rose Lee as well as the dangerous-to-know, Bernard Vorhaus – all identified as communists by the usual sources. The Danziger brothers themselves emulated Vorhaus and went to England – owing money, it is said. (3)
Plot politics (more comparisons)
The plot of Jigsaw depends on a secret rightwing racist group backed by a shadowy cabal of important people. The investigation is intended to uncover who is behind this group rather than to destroy the group itself. In Kiss Me Deadly, Mike Hammer is also engaged in a paranoid investigation of powerful, hidden people.
Both films stop short of directly exposing the connections between the various elements behind the scenes, but in both films there are indications of some government involvement in illicit rightwing political activity.
Of the two, Jigsaw is a great deal more upfront about the network of corruption. Three interests are identified during the course of the narrative as involved with the “hate group”: Grace Hartley’s civic organisation, Angelo Agostini’s mob, and possibly as many as three media moguls. Of these only one of the moguls directly spouts rightwing ideology. Hartley and “The Angel” are apparently working against each other: she represents honest bourgeois government and he represents working class (gang) patronage. Actually they all work together.
The columnist, Riggs, seems to have figured it out before he is killed. He tells Malloy that the apparently politically-motivated group is a “racket” and that it is designed to make money, thus connecting racial politics, organised crime and capitalism. The connections are emphasised at several other points in the film. “This is how wars are started,” Malloy remarks as he discovers Agostini’s cache of paramilitary gear, “. . . in a dusty warehouse”. At the cocktail party, the public relations mogul Stuart Pemberton tells Malloy that hatred is responsible for creating “a superior class” and “our great industrial civilization”.
Hartley also pretends to Malloy that she is opposed to the moguls’ political views, which she is actually supporting in the form of the secret “hate group”. The Hartley-Agostini-mogul alliance is able to get Malloy appointed as Special Prosecutor. Pemberton, the most visible of the moguls, is a “bigtime fixer” and Malloy remarks at one point in the film that “somebody fixed” his appointment. There is a distinct possibility that the cabal has some influence on the District Attorney, who pleasantly argues against Malloy’s investigation until the very end of the film. The alliance also exercises some control over what appears in at least some newspapers. What is represented, then, is a secret and criminal rightwing conspiracy that wields power in media and government. It seems to me that this is very surprising in a movie made in 1949.
At the same time, the emptiness of the conspiracy is as remarkable as its cinematic articulation. There is no “hate group” in Jigsaw; there is only the report of one. Riggs recites a list of racist epithets that is notably lacking in words that refer to Jews or African-Americans (no “jigs” in this movie, nossir). No one is murdered or even roughed-up in the film because of hatred. Instead, several die because the people behind an invisible group are being exposed. The group is called “The Crusaders”. Malloy’s work as Special Prosecutor investigating the group is also called a “crusade” – derisively by the mogul, Pemberton, whose proto-sociobiological ideas about hatred seem likely to be a close match with those of “The Crusaders” themselves.
The politics of Jigsaw become murky around Pemberton. Although he is shown to be of the right and odious and ignorant, it is also the case that nowhere in the film is there any direct evidence that he has any part in the conspiracy. He is implicated by association. From the moment his profile opens the sequence at Grace Hartley’s cocktail party, Pemberton is “everywhere” in the film. At the party, he is chuckling in a corner with Sigmund Kosterich, hanging around Barbara Whitfield’s piano, closing the sequence in reverse profile with a drink and a cigar. Later he is physically absent, but maybe (or maybe not) he fixes Malloy’s appointment and he is referred to twice (by the pet shop owner and by “the Angel”) as a significant liaison in Whitfield’s chequered past. This political strategy is familar: it is the paranoid strategy of the anti-communist “witch hunters” of the period.Jigsaw puts Pemberton on a blacklist: smears him, condemns him by innuendo. Or, if you prefer, it presents the case for the prosecution in a Moscow show trial. Or in a trial by media – by newspapers, by radio, by television – then or now.
One might even say that the politics of Jigsaw is strangely postmodern. For those within the film – even for the film itself – “hate” happens to be a political product that sells. The truly powerful hate no one in particular. The politicians, mobsters and most of the media capitalists who actually run things in Jigsaw ultimately do not care about ideology or political messages – nor perhaps does the film. They all do what they do for the same reasons that certain heads of Hollywood studios release “liberal” or “arty” movies while manouevering to ostracise or control those who make such films: for profit and for power.
Jigsaw came out in the context of such United Artists releases as Ramrod, Monsieur Verdoux, Body and Soul and New Orleans in 1947 and Four Faces West, The Time of Your Life, Sleep My Love, Arch of Triumph, Pitfall, The Vicious Circle, and Red River in 1948. Champion and Home of the Brave were released in 1949, D.O.A. in 1950.
Certainly the critical success of such “anti-hate” films as Crossfire (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), produced by RKO and Fox respectively, must have had something to do with United Artists’ willingness to distribute Jigsaw in the first place. However, the specific United Artists context suggests the political ambition of the latter film, as well as some of its stylistic competitors. “Political” films from this list might include Monsieur Verdoux, Body and Soul, New Orleans, Four Faces West, Arch of Triumph, The Vicious Circle, Champion and Home of the Brave. These eight films are more or less “liberal” in their political leanings (some are only political because they are associated with political people, like Chaplin, or with issues like race). Four titles, Ramrod, Sleep My Love, Pitfall and DOA seem to me to be examples of neo-noir films realised with some style. I would classify Monsieur Verdoux, Body and Soul, The Time of Your Life, Red River, Champion and Home of the Brave (6 titles) as examples of aesthetic ambition.
The conspiracy in Kiss Me Deadly is not the focus of the story (Mike Hammer’s quest for the “whatsis” is). Thus its dimensions are not presented so overtly as those in Jigsaw. However, it does seem to be the case that agents of the U.S. government had falsely confined Christina in a mental asylum as part of their effort to find the doomsday machine. And, as Mike points out in response to Pat’s famous self-righteous rebuke about words, the government is more than willing to sacrifice Velda in order to stop it from leaving the country. It also seems likely that the horrible device itself is a government invention or possession. Once these tenuous links are foregrounded, Kiss Me Deadly does seem to be as politically “courageous” as Jigsaw – and it deals with politics on a federal, rather than a local, level. However, it is not very likely that many of those who saw the film in 1955 would have been compelled to trace those links, precisely because the film’s narration downplays them, whereas political corruption and conspiracy are what Jigsaw is all about.
Political contexts and subtexts (both right and left) are somewhat more prevalent in United Artists’ releases in the years before and after Kiss Me Deadly, even on the percentages (19 out of 124 or 15.3% in 53-55 as distinct from 8 out of 76 or 10.5% in 47-49). To put it bluntly, this means that Kiss Me Deadly is not as unusual in its immediate context as Jigsaw is in its.
Overtly anti-communist U.A. films from the period include Guerilla Girl (1953), Gog (1954), Operation Manhunt (1954) and A Bullet for Joey (1955). This category did not exist during the years I surveyed for Jigsaw. “Liberal” U.A. releases number 14 films, from Donovan’s Brain (1953) through Stranger on Horseback (1955), including Aldrich’s own The Big Knife (1955) – or 11.2%, much closer to the 47-49 sample, but this also represents nearly twice as many films.(1)
The 10 neo-noir films from the same period include 99 River Street (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955) and, of course, some titles already mentioned.(2) In addition to the obvious candidates above, films with aesthetic ambition would include The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Beat the Devil (1954), The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Othello (1955) – by my count, 13 in all.(3)
Here too, context makes Kiss Me Deadly a little less unusual. Although it is commonplace to think of the fifties as the years in which the United States was dullest and most complacent, it was also a period of experimentation and ambition in the arts, and one in which there was a rising chorus of socio-political dissent – that is, it is a period of what used to be called “struggle”, not one in which all dissent was muffled.
References and works consulted
Altman, Rick. “Deep-focus sound: Citizen Kane and the radio aesthetic.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 15, no.3 (1994): 1-33.
The American Film Institute Catalogue of Motion Pictures produced in the United States. F2: Feature films 1921-30. Credit and subject indexes. Executive editor, Kenneth W. Munden. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1971. F3: Feature Films 1931-40. Indexes. Executive editor, Patricia King Hanson. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. F4: Feature Films 1941-50. Indexes. Executive editor, Patricia King Hanson. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. F6: Feature Films 1961-70. Indexes. Executive editor, Richard P. Krafsur. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1976.
Arnold, Edwin T. and Miller, Eugene L., Jr. The Films and Career of Robert Aldrichuu. Knoxville: University of Tennesee Press, 1986.
Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.
—–. United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968. New York: The Viking Press, 1973.
Bergen, Ronald. The United Artists Story. London: Octopus Books, 1986.
Brown, Geoff. “Money for speed: the British films of Bernard Vorhaus.” The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema 1929-39. Ed. by Jeffrey Richards. London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1998. 181-200.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Ceplair, Larry. “SAG and the motion picture blacklist”. URL: http://www.sag.org/publications/blacklist.html#SAG & the Blacklist
Combs, Richard, ed. Robert Aldrich. London: British Film Institute, 1978.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. “The commercial instinct: new Elstree Studios and the Danziger brothers, 1956-1961”. Popular Culture Review 9, no. 1 (February 1998): 31-44.
Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.
Hagen, Ray. “Mercedes McCambridge”. Films in Review 16, no. 5 (May 1965): 292-300.
The Internet Movie Database. [Jigsaw: cast and crew]. URL: http://us.imdb.com/Credits?0041523
Jensen, Paul. “The return of Dr. Caligari: paranoia in Hollywood”. Film Comment 7, no.4 (Winter 1971-72): 36-45.
Lewis, Jon. “‘We do not ask you to condone this’: how the blacklist saved Hollywood”. Cinema Journal 39, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 3-30.
McFarlane, Brian. Sixty Voices: Celebrities Recall the Golden Age of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1992.
Major, Clarence. Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American slang. . New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Maltby, Richard and Craven, Ian. Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
The New York Times Directory of the Film. New York: Arno Press, 1974.
Oliviero, Jeffrey. Motion Picture Players’ Credits: Worldwide Performers of 1967 through 1980 with Filmographies of their Entire Careers, 1905-1983. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1991.
Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. New York: American Business Consultants/Counter-attack, 1950.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Welles’ career: a chronology”. This is Orson Welles. Orson Welles and
Peter Bogdanovich. Edited by Rosenbaum. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993. 397-402.
Simpson, Kieran, ed. Canadian Who’s Who 1987. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1987. 898.
Why have I written? I don’t mean “why have I written the way I have written?”, but rather, “why have I written about these things?”.
Comparison is a good strategy. Comparison of detail can be a useful means of looking at something anew. In comparing two films, then, I am illustrating a method which perhaps has not been used as much as it might. Using it, I think I perceived things about Kiss Me Deadly that I had not fully understood before. And, of course, I have made a case of sorts for the political bravery of another film.
Still, comparison does not complete this puzzle. This puzzle pictures this film, Jigsaw: a film that is not very “good”, but is pretty “interesting”. I like these sorts of not-so-good pictures and the puzzles such pictures make when they are cut in pieces. What warrants the demands on your time and attention while I indulge this fondness? Academic and critical work lay ethical claims: they say that what they do is worth doing, even badly. Is what I have done worth doing?
If the cinema is worth our time and attention, then all of it is worth it. No – more than that.
If the cinema is worth our time and attention, then these “little” films, these unexpected, contaminated works with their fifteen minutes (“if we are lucky,” he did not say) worth watching, these “bad” films, are worth more than the “good” ones – to the measure that the goodness of good films probably has very little to do with the cinema, and that the non-cinematic goodness of good films occupies our time, our thinking, our words in an anxious defence of taste which is only a defence of the self, which is to say, a pure subject. While the cinema remains impure. The cinema is a mongrel. Whatever you say it is, it is not. And whatever you say it is not, it is. And I. And you.
Surely the important thing about the cinema. The important thing. Is that it is not very good. Is defiled. That it will make you sick (or blind). Many years ago, not knowing what I was saying then, I asked a self-confessed sadist what he intended to cure, and everyone laughed, and he spoke of limits. Now I wonder if he knew that he could not cure the cinema just as he could not cure himself, that nothing can cure what binds us and makes us sick. There is no cure. Only time and bad movies.