How did Kiss Me Deadly come to be restored? The real question should be, how did filmdom lose track of its original ending in the first place? Savant uncovers evidence that may explain when, and why, United Artists mutilated the finish of Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic film noir.
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Before home video the final home for Hollywood films was Television. Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly never saw a theatrical reissue, and it dropped out of major TV visibility in 1962. I saw the documentation in United Artists’ legal folder on the film. To secure capital to launch more movies, Robert Aldrich sold all of his ‘Associates and Aldrich’ pictures back to UA after their original releases were concluded. More papers showed Kiss Me Deadly being included in at least two TV syndication packages, and then each time pointedly removed. Whether or not the film’s reputation for violence and sadism was involved in its relative lack of exposure, I don’t know. United Artists’ other Mickey Spillane movies weren’t shown frequently either. And of course, nobody was programming films noir in 1962. The culture hadn’t even rediscovered Humphrey Bogart yet. Vintage movies would have to wait until 1966 or so to suddenly become, ‘cool.’ Just a few years after its brief release, Aldrich’s film had become functionally nonexistent.
By my estimate, an American would have had to be a film aesthete and fluent in French to have heard the term ‘film noir’ much before 1970. I only became aware at UCLA in 1971, when Paul Schrader curated a marathon of noirs at FILMEX, with Kiss Me Deadly among them. That’s when articles in publications like Film Comment began using the term without necessarily explaining it each time. It was closer to 1980 when the notion of film noir began reaching the general public in any way. If I recall correctly, the first new film publicized as revisiting the style of film noir was 1981’s Body Heat. It was continually compared to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
By the mid- ’80s the term film noir was already being abused in home video sales copy, which routinely defined as film noir almost any B&W movie, not just those with police or a crime. Local Los Angeles stations still showing movies late at night seemed to have gotten hip to noir around 1977 or so, when old prints of things like Detour and City that Never Sleeps began regularly turning up a 2 a.m. But not Kiss Me Deadly. The first time I saw it on Television was a TBS cablecast around 1981.
I’d seen the show twice in 16mm and once in 35mm, and on every occasion the ending at Malibu Beach seemed very wrong. When the fateful box stolen from Alamogordo is opened, fire and brimstone blast forth. Mike Hammer has been felled by a bullet, but as Lily Carver goes up in flames, he musters the strength to free Velda Wickman, his girl Friday. As they begin to exit the beach house, every print I’d seen then cuts to a series of shots of the house belching fire and smoke, in a storm of explosions. The individual effects shots are all jump cuts, looking ragged and sloppy, lacking the pace and polish of the rest of the film. Fifteen seconds later the film ends, as if ripped from the projector. As I ended up being quoted here and there, “Somebody messed with it.” Not exactly the soul of erudition, that.
Even in 16mm the image quality for those last few shots takes a huge nosedive. The audio cuts off without a fade. The superimposed end title looks incompetent, especially in contrast to the carefully designed main titles up front. I was editing for writer-producer Alain Silver at this time, and proofreading his books on film noir. He was certain the film had been changed. The UCLA Theater Arts Special Collections had a screenplay, which said that Velda and Mike Hammer observed the Malibu Beach house burning from the surf line. Alain had a nagging memory of a single wide-angle image with the house and the two survivors in the same shot.
I became the advertising editor for MGM Home Video in late 1991, and not soon after that a VHS was released of Kiss Me Deadly. It had the same ending as ever, but also a trailer for the film, a ‘textless’ trailer. In many cases studios used up or lost track of the duping negatives for trailers, but kept on file a copy of the trailer without language-specific text and graphics, for international use. So if the original trailer had big text cards saying “Red Hot Kisses! White Hot Thrills!” they’d be missing on this copy. That’s why the trailer (visible all over the Internet) seems so ’empty’ — many shots are clearly meant to be mostly blocked out by foreground text, maybe even the ‘big lips’ image built into the film’s graphic logo.
Seeing the trailer cleared up the main mystery for us. It contains a shot of Velda and Mike staggering in the surf, which proves that more material was filmed, and strongly suggests that the ending had been altered. But it took years for me to inquire further. Even though I worked at MGM, I was never a corporate employee, and was normally restricted to my editing room in the marketing area. In 1994 Wade Hannibal asked me to cut a series of montages of UA films, for use in a new MGM studio store. This gave me access to the video vault, as well as the expertise of John Kirk, a senior member of the MGM Film and Video Services team. John was quite busy restoring not only UA and MGM titles, but also representing MGM at film festivals. His department had discretionary funds and a mission to seek out restoration projects that would improve the studio’s holdings. If John found that a longer version of Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! existed, he could restore it. When John recovered the original cut of Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid, it gained a full thirteen minutes of new scenes.
I tipped John to the missing KMD ending, and he started looking for it late in 1996. I also told Alain Silver what was happening. He knew the Aldrich family, and made arrangements to access the director’s personal print, which had been deposited with the Directors Guild of America, and thus was on file at the UCLA Film Archive, in a special ‘no access’ collection. Aldrich wasn’t the kind of director who screened his old movies; almost all of the prints in this collection were said to be untouched, straight from the lab. If there was a longer, uncut ending, Alain was certain it would be on the Aldrich copy.
It did take a while for the permission letters to come through. We had three screenings of various ‘final reels,’ and found that all of MGM’s library prints had the expected truncated ending. The big disappointment initially was that the Aldrich print also turned out to be another mangled circulation print, with the bad ending. Maybe Aldrich’s personal prints weren’t so pristine after all, we thought. It looked as if we’d reached a dead end until somebody at the UCLA Archive called John to say that we had been sent the wrong print; a clerk had misunderstood the request, and substituted a ‘loaner’ copy.
In early February of 1997 we screened the real Aldrich print of Kiss Me Deadly, and this time struck gold. Instead of cutting to the same dull, duplicated mess, the movie continued with a full minute of new material of Mike and Velda exiting the house and stumbling into the surf. The shots included more elaborate special effects. There were no jump cuts; the quality was pristine. Even more interestingly, the loud hissing and growling of the deadly box called ‘The Great Whatsit’ became a strange electronic ‘science fiction’ noise. It clicked with electric-guitar reverb, making a composite din that indeed sounded as if ‘all the Evils in the world’ had been set loose. Writer A.I. Bezzerides subverted Mickey Spillane’s message in Kiss Me Deadly, and Robert Aldrich turned it into a genre-bending, semi-apocalyptic science fiction film.
The Aldrich print was so perfect that John was able to use it to restore MGM’s original negative, correcting the mutilation that had been perpetrated some time after the picture’s release. He commissioned a company to do a digital scan and print-back to film, and also had a dupe negative made. Interestingly, the photochemical version looked better. Kiss Me Deadly became big news because MGM Home Video VP Blake Thomas was a fan of the picture. Even though he liked the old ending better (!), Blake allowed publicity director Steve Wegner to give the restoration a push, to go with upcoming VHS and laserdisc releases. I edited a quick extra that presented the mangled old ending, to show what had been done to the movie.
Alain, John and I knew that much of our accomplishment was detecting the problem in the first place, seeing that a restoration was needed. To Alain, that was always a given. Robert Aldrich had died in 1983. Existing interviews made it seem as if he was not aware that the film had been changed. The major articles and book chapters written on the film accept the truncated ending as Aldrich’s doing. One book opined that Kiss Me Deadly’s weird ending had ‘inspired’ the French New Wave. Actually, François Truffaut did once tell A.I. Bezzerides that KMD had an influence, but he was talking about the film’s anarchic style in general. I’ve even read a critical piece that concluded that the ragged, disjointed ‘style’ of the mangled finish, was a purposeful ploy to ‘deconstruct’ film grammar, as if Robert Aldrich and editor Michael Luciano shared the cinematic vision of Jean-Luc Godard. Film criticism can run away with its own ideas.
A helpful film writer gave me A.I. Bezzerides’ home phone, which led to a couple of long phone calls in which he told me the story behind all of his Hollywood movies. It ‘premiered’ at the L.A. County Museum of Art, and also played three nights at Sherman Torgan’s New Beverly Theater, where he had to turn hundreds of people away. At one of the re-premieres I got to meet the author and screenwriter in person. I also spoke with two people who said they had already seen the ‘restored’ ending in local screenings, which confused me. Were personally held intact prints of the movie floating around, or had these people misremembered? The only sour note in the whole restoration business came from a New York based film writer and festival producer who told me that she had screened Aldrich’s print earlier in the 1990s. She not only accused me of making false claims, she implied a kind of territoriality, that the subject of Aldrich belonged to her, and not a non-entity like myself.
I countered by saying that she certainly had kept her ‘discovery’ a secret: in the intervening five years we had found nothing in print more concrete than statements like, ‘an alternate version may show the couple escaping the house.’ Articles dated right up to our re-premiere discuss the mangled finish as if it were the only one. In 1995, Martin Scorsese included a clip of the ‘wrong’ ending of Kiss Me Deadly in his TV docu A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. John Kirk inquired with Scorsese as well as Bertrand Tavernier, the French filmmaker and author also regarded as a prime authority on Hollywood history. Neither was aware of a longer cut for the finale of KMD, despite the festival producer’s claims. To quote Dr. Strangelove, “Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?” Two years later, Kiss Me Deadly would be added to the list of films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
To our delight Steve Wegner’s publicity paid off. The press flipped over the discovery, and the re-premiere made the cover of the L.A. Weekly, the cover of the L.A. Times’ Calendar as well as winning special mention in national magazines. My first thoughts on how the show was altered were repeated everywhere — I not-too-brightly suggested that the end of the last reel had been accidentally lost or destroyed, and that somebody had botched the fix. I then opined without a shred of evidence that it may have been censored. Possibly because of me, various websites now assume censorship to be a proven fact: One page claims, “The Catholic League (sic) of Decency also condemned it, forcing the film’s distributor, United Artists, to cut 82 seconds from the film’s ending.” That’s news to me.
So, what is the evidence that the ‘long ending’ is the real original ending? — that’s been disputed once or twice, too. The April 20, 1955 issue of Daily Variety review describes a film with the long original ending:
” . . . everything goes up in flames, except Hammer and his warm brunette secretary, who manage to escape.”
John Kirk reasoned that Kiss Me Deadly had to be censored very early in its life because the British print he called in to check had the exact same truncated ending. The Brits made all kinds of little trims of violent moments, really emasculating the movie. But its replacement optical for the finish was identical to the altered American cut, indicating that the movie had been altered before the UK version was prepared. On the other hand, reading François Truffaut’s Cahiers du Cinema review, it looks as if the print released in France retained the original ending — in translation the review reads:
“As the hero and his mistress take refuge under the sea, “The End” appears on the screen.”
We tried but couldn’t find anybody who could tell us what had happened. A.I. Bezzerides remembered seeing KMD cut on TV but hadn’t wasted much thought about it. The day after the story hit the L.A. Times, producer Robert H. Justman called me at MGM, to ask me why the film had been changed. Justman had served as the assistant director on KMD as well as key noirs for Fritz Lang and Joseph H. Lewis, and later moved on to producing, most notably on TV’s Star Trek. I begged him to talk to me more about his film noir experience, but he wasn’t interested in ‘any of that old stuff.’ He was, however, busy writing notes to go on the back of Star Trek bubble gum cards! I imagine that in terms of his bank account, that TV show had become the gift that keeps on giving.
I’ve thought long and hard about the truncated ending to Robert Aldrich’s most radical thriller. In terms of physical cutting, somebody had to splice together a dupe of the four or five cutaways to the burning house, and add a superimposed title with an optical. So it hadn’t been any midnight fix-up by an assistant editor.
What does the truncated ending accomplish? I think it is logical that somebody was trying to alter the finish to make Mike and Velda pay for their sins in a fiery conflagration. Kiss Me Deadly had attracted special attention from the Kefauver Commission, which in 1955 was busy condemning comic books for corrupting America’s youth. In its official report, the Commission named KMD the number one offender for filmic sadism and violence. But none of the torture, finger-mashing and slow-stabbing had been touched, just the ambiguous ending. Was the Great Whatsit going to continue to burn until it consumed the world? Would Point Dume now be radioactive for 4,000 years, like Chernobyl?
But I did find some evidence to support the existence of censorship pressure, if not a direct link. I was allowed to go through UA’s picture files, thoughtfully retrieved by MGM Home Video’s Maggie Adams, to help publicize the restoration. In the boxes I found three interesting text documents. One was a memo from a United Artists distribution manager, criticizing his sales team for the weak bookings KMD was receiving, and exhorting them to redouble their efforts to get the show into theaters. It read like something a manager would want to have in his file, to help him cover his tail should a VP call him on the carpet later: “But I told them they weren’t doing a good enough job.”
The second item was a publicist’s note about vocalist Mady Comfort, who in the film is seen in a nightclub, singing I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got”. Apparently there had been some flack from “a Southern censor” who didn’t like the shots where White is shown grasping and caressing her microphone as she sings!
The third item was a carbon copy of an unpublished (?) five-page article by Robert Aldrich himself, bearing the title “Beware the Pressure Cooker” with an indication that it was written for the “Daily Variety Anniversary.” It begins,
“The technical developments of the last few years from Cinemascope to Panavision appear to have blinded us to what well may be come our horror-scope — the increasing encroachment upon the production end of the motion picture industry by self-appointed censors intent upon bowdlerizing everything from Shakespeare to Spillane. On the latter author I can speak from bitter, personal experience.
What happened with my production of Kiss Me Deadly is not important from the standpoint of an individual film attacked in various quarters for excessive violence. It stands, however, as a monumental example of the increasing boldness of pressure groups and over-righteous individuals of all kinds who are determined to force their will upon any producer or studio whose project does not fit squarely within the confines of the straight jackets which they wear and which they want others to wear.”
Nice attack, Mr. Aldrich. The article continues:
“What made Kiss Me Deadly a grim warning sign was the fact that the assaults on the picture occurred after it had received the Production Code Administration Seal of Approval. This was not a picture made in a back room and spirited out one print at a time to back-alley exhibitors; this was not a picture made in secret and mailed “in a plain wrapper” to selected drooling customers around the country. This was a picture made in conformance with all of the necessary Hollywood production regulations, submitted to and accepted by the voluntary censorship organization set up by Hollywood many years ago, and released through United Artists to the best theaters in the country.
How then, can any pressure group, however vocal and however militant, succeed in having changes made in Kiss Me Deadly, changes which, in effect, amount to a hangdog admission on the part of all Hollywood (remember that, this is where your stake comes in) that it is unfit to regulate its own product and that it has been caught writing dirty words on a restroom wall?
Does that sentence,
“How then, can any pressure group, however vocal and however militant, succeed in having changes made in Kiss Me Deadly?”
say what I think it says? The wordage implies a fait accompli. It sounds as if Aldrich had been informed that an alternate cut had been prepared, or at had at least been proposed. With the time gap between 1955 and his later interviews on the subject, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had forgotten all about the matter. He can’t have known that Kiss Me Deadly’s original negative had been cut, or he would have raised holy hell. The film was televised so infrequently, and had become so obscure, that I don’t think it’s unreasonable that he would never have seen the mangled cut on TV, either. My informed speculation – a guess for consideration – is that UA tried to slip an edited version of the movie to Binford, in the hope that he would allow it to be shown in theaters in the South. But somebody screwed up and altered the master negative, not a dupe.
Aldrich’s essay then decries the situation in which, when one producer’s Code Seal movie is banned, other studios and producers rush their product in to substitute, instead of presenting a unified front. He calls Hollywood a dog-eat-dog business, but then urges producers to stick together. Two paragraphs further on, Aldrich names his nemesis:
“Hollywood still operates in an atmosphere of economic cannibalism where the jackals rush, yelping with delight, to take a bite out of an unfortunate colleague and make as much profit as possible out of his misfortune.* Does Lloyd Binford ban a Metro picture in Memphis? Paramount delightedly rushes a picture into the breach. If he then frowns upon the Paramount offering, Columbia is willing and eager to come up with something else.”
Look up Lloyd Binford, and you’ll see that, as the head of the Memphis Censor Board, his fame spread far and wide as a crazy blue-nose, censoring and rejecting Hollywood movies on the basis of nothing more than his personal taste. It is said that other big-city censor boards in the South simply copied his choices, giving him substantial power over film exhibition in a sizeable slice of the nation. It is not unreasonable to speculate that United Artists might indeed have gone to him to ask, ‘what do you object to in Kiss Me Deadly that we can cut out?’
Binford’s extreme ideas about race are well documented; he was an unrepentant white supremacist. The issue of ‘somebody being upset about the way the black singer Mady Comfort holds a microphone,’ would seem good circumstantial evidence. I can see Binford railing about the ambiguous ending and liking the idea that it could be altered — just to demonstrate his power and influence. The custom- doctoring of prints for the South was a given in the late 1940s and 1950s. To keep the region happy, MGM specially designed Lena Horne’s musical performances so that they could be easily snipped out of prints. But I should think it was a desperate measure to truncate the end of Kiss Me Deadly . . . and a bonehead mistake to do it to the original negative. United Artists didn’t own KMD, Aldrich and Victor Saville did.
I left MGM about a year later. At that time the studio was beginning work on the newly acquired Orion library, which contained the A.I.P. library with its dozens of sci-fi and horror favorites. Unofficially talking to John Kirk and other film managers, I got to witness the restoration of some favorites. I also pride myself on helping MGM settle on a longer cut of Duck You Sucker (with the correct title). Although the project didn’t happen until years after I left, through John I proposed to MGM VP Gray Ainsworth the notion of a long version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, incorporating the long Italian scenes and re-voicing Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach. But making the fix to Kiss Me Deadly is the one that sticks. I’m glad it happened when it did, before some screening scratched the one print containing the missing finale. Sadly, MGM no longer has an in-house department with the ability to initiate restoration projects at their discretion. We should be grateful to managers like John Kirk who cared enough to reconstitute these broken pictures.
May 13, 2017
* An interesting sentence: “Hollywood still operates in an atmosphere of economic cannibalism where the jackals rush, yelping with delight, to take a bite out of an unfortunate colleague and make as much profit as possible out of his misfortune.” Aldrich literalized this exact analogy for the jarring conclusion of his later feature The Legend of Lylah Clare, where he characterized Hollywood as a pit of competitive, ravenous dogs. Robert Aldrich liked to give his pictures jarring, disturbing endings..
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson