Monday, January 25, 2016
THE READING RHEUM: KISS ME DEADLY (1952)
This is not a full review of Mickey Spillane's sixth Mike Hammer novel, but rather a companion to a forthcoming review of the far-from-faithful 1955 film adaptation. The novel's a good read, and perhaps displays less of the so-called misogyny for which Spillane's works are routinely criticized-- until the ending, which I'll proceed to reveal, so...
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
For most of the novel, the tough-guy hero has pursued a mysterious package, causing him to come into conflict with sinister Mafiosi. As is standard in such novels, Hammer also protects a gorgeous "helpless femme," this one going by the name of Lily Carver. In contrast to many such novels, Hammer doesn't get any advance romantic rewards from the mysterious young woman, but there's a good reason for this, beyond Hammer simply playing the part of a noble rescuer. Probably no one was much surprised back in the day when it's revealed that Lily is a femme fatale who's also seeking the valuable whatsit. She's not even the real Lily Carver, but an unnamed schemer who has assumed the real woman's identity. But the concluding scene suddenly amps up the misogyny by Warp Factor Five:
"Her hands slipped through the belt of the robe, opened it. Her hands parted it slowly....until I could see what she was really like. I wanted to vomit worse than before. I wanted to let my guts come up and felt my belly retching. She was a horrible caricature of a human! There was no skin, just a disgusting mass of twisted, puckered flesh from her knees to her neck, making a picture of gruesome freakishness that made you want to shut your eyes against it."
This strange image of a woman who presents an alluring face and form but whose garments conceal a monstrous "freakishness" remains riveting even today, and even though I've only read a handful of the author's works, I'll hypothesize that this may well be Spillane's most misogynistic-- and mythopoeic-- scene in any of his books. Hammer only gets a look at the goods after Lily has shot him once, and is preparing to shoot him again, but she stops only to mess with his mind before she kills him. While pointing her gun directly at Hammer's "belt"-- which is probably as close as a 1950s pop-culture author could come to intimating the groin-- she tries to force him to "kiss me, deadly," knowing that he'll be grossed out by her injuries, briefly explained as having been caused by a fire. Hammer manages a last-minute save, improbably managing to set "Lily" on fire because she's soaked in alcohol from an earlier rubdown.
I for one would not characterize Spillane's use of violence against a woman to be misogynistic in itself, for Hammer is just as wildly violent against his male enemies.Yet, as averse as I am to quick-stop Freudianian readings, I must admit that Spillane's era was uniquely saturated with the ideas of the Viennese "father of psychology." There had been many femme fatales before "False Lily," and they too combined the idea of physical allure coupled with a "masculine" will to turn on the hero and try to kill him. But few of them reproduced an image that was so resonant of the Medusa-myth, in which the female combines aspects of normative beauty and a repulsive hideousness. A Freudian-influenced reader would probably opine that the ugliness beneath Lily's garments was a displacement for male fears of the vagina; indeed, in SEXUAL PERSONAE Camille Paglia goes so far as to claim that Western culture's enshrinement of feminine beauty is a means of avoiding the unlovely reality of the female sex organ (not that Paglia thinks the male organ is much better). I myself don't subscribe to this reading as being broadly applicable, but it does seem to fit Spillane's particular brand of female-fear.
The 1955 adaptation, while it subverts many of the masculine priorities of Spillane's novel, doesn't make its version of Lily a hideously scarred woman. However, in place of the original's rapacity, the film script makes learned comparisons to the myth of feminine curiosity, directly referencing such figures as Medusa and Lot's wife, and implicitly invoking the idea of the Greeks' Pandora and the Box of Evils. And since Pandora's Box may also be seen as a symbol for the female sex organ, it's arguable that the film-maker may have also demonized femininity every bit as much as Spillane did.