Monday, August 27, 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and The Naked City

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, by Russ Meyer, 1965

In the heyday of exploitation movies, one of the most important factors in getting butts in movie theater seats was to have a tantalizing title. I doubt there's ever been a title that piques curiosity more than Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Russ Meyer struck gold with that one, I must say. The real challenge is making a movie that lives up to that title.

Well, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a true classic, at least as far as trashy movies go. Look, it's not Gone with the Wind, but it does have a certain quality. It's the story of three badass go-go dancers, Billie, Rosie, and their leader, Varla (Tura Satana). While road racing in the desert, they come across a couple of goofy teenagers. Varla kills the boy and they end up kidnapping the girl. They then find themselves scheming to rob an old man in a wheelchair and his two sons (including a dumb, muscular one named The Vegetable), while their teenage hostage tries to get away.

That's basically the story. It almost felt like Meyer and his cowriter Jack Moran were just going "and then this happens", "and then this happens", when they were writing the screenplay, because I don't know how else you would make the leap from "road-racing go-go dancers kill a teen" to "then they end up on a ranch". Not that I'm complaining, though. The movie is weird and plenty of fun. I was amused by how un-trashy this trashy movie seemed. There's not even nudity or anything in it, the violence is tame, it's just, you know, titillation. There's almost an innocence to it. A few years later, this movie would have been wayyyy more exploitative.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a fun and memorable B-movie, but I'm not sure if it would have endured the way it has if it didn't have that crazy title. I'm glad that weird stuff like this exists, though.

The Naked City, by Jules Dassin, 1948

If you traced the police procedural drama genre all the way back to its roots, Jules Dassin's 1948 Film Noir, The Naked City, might have been the starting point. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing it was at least the beginning of the modern era. The Naked City plays like the original Law & Order episode.

It begins with the murder of a model. Two police detectives, Muldoon and Halloran (Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor) begin their investigation. We then see the entire investigative process play out, interviewing witnesses, looking for clues, and following leads, until ultimately, they find their man. I know I'm being vague, but look, it's a really successful formula that we all know by heart by now, don't we?

I don't mean to say that The Naked City is formulaic. I don't believe it was at the time. I think it might be a big reason the formula is so prevalent today. It's a great movie, it even won a couple Oscars. The mystery is very well constructed and richly layered. The cinematography, on location in New York City, is fantastic. The characters, including the investigators, suspects, witnesses, and even the murderer are all given depth and dimension. There's a great scene where Halloran goes home to his wife, who begs him to discipline their son, which he doesn't believe in. We learn a lot about his nature in that one scene. He's not going to hit his kid, which says a lot about a man in 1948.

The Naked City is a classic, and a very influential film. Jules Dassin made some pretty groundbreaking movies. In addition to revolutionizing the police procedural with this, he practically invented the heist genre too, with 1955's Rififi (more on that whenever I actually see it). The only other film I've seen by him is Topkapi, which is another fun and influential heist movie.

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