What I watc-WAIT, is one of the movies actually called “Joe Macbeth?” Yes.
As in Hamlet’s Macbeth, but JOE Macbeth? YES already.
So while researching last week’s noir/crime dramas, I left the youtube running and Joe Macbeth. I’m going to skip the potential “Ron Hamlet” gags unless they’re out there already. There’s plenty of movies or stories where you can say “oh, 10 Things I Hate About You is The Taming Of The Shrew” or “Forbidden Planet is just The Tempest.” I confess that I might know more about some of those movies or I might know more about those plays, but Joe Macbeth might be the first direct allusion to a Shakespeare play in its title (is there a Space Hamlet? That would be awesome).
Today’s review will cover two movies where a story was adapted from stage to film, or book to film, and you can determine how much of a stretch the adaptation makes of its material.
Joe Macbeth (1955)- Macbeth is a gangster. He’s introduced being late for his own wedding because he had to rub out a rival gang member. Gang members with some standing own clubs in this movie, and if you want to find them and eliminate them, just go there during normal business hours. His new bride Lily is upset that Joe is at The Duke’s beck and call, since Joe is The Duke’s no. 1 guy. This doesn’t sit well with Lennie, who thinks his dad Banky should be the no. 1 stooge in the gang, but Banky respects the heck out of Joe and tells Lennie to go along with it.
Another rival, the gluttonous Dutch, moves in on The Duke’s territory and Joe rubs Dutch out with poison. To celebrate, Joe & Lily have a party and that’s where they plot to eliminate The Duke so that Joe can take over. Which, if you’ve heard this story before or read it in your high school English lit class, happens, and soon Lennie is suspicious of Joe, Joe’s guilt leads to a botched attempt to get rid of Lennie, and leads to some serious delusional paranoia from both Joe & Lily.
Is it Shakespeare? Sure. I don’t know if this is something your English teacher wheels the school TV into your class to watch so you can appreciate The Bard in a hip manner with this “moving pictures” fad. I’m wondering if people were giggling along, “can you believe they made a mobster movie out of Shakespeare?” and I wonder how many serious thespians and playwrights would be offeded by this. Other than, say, Dutch’s presence, this adaptation feels pretty serious. Even the incompetent goons that Joe hires to kill his rivals don’t feel like they’re there for laughs despite screwing everything up; they’re dangerous criminals, and you feel for their victims as they do Joe’s bidding while making things worse for him.
(Is it good?) I loved it. I had a few snickers but despite the seriousness I fell for and was moved by all of it. I love the staging and imagery (check out the gang’s cars as they pull up for a job), I love Joe’s butler who is just waiting for Joe to be taken down so he can serve the next mob heavy, I love Dutch and the way he treats his food taster and dates, and I especially love Ruth Roman who plays Lily. She’s great, and she’s a knockout. (She’s also about 15 years younger than Paul Douglas, who plays Joe). I don’t know how seriously you want to take this depending on how much you respect Shakespeare, but I think it translated into just the right amount of a doomed gangster flick.
Anything about the cast? Both Ruth Roman and Paul Douglas were married like four or five times each. Quit getting married! Bonar Colleano who plays Lennie died in a car accident a few years after this came out.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – This is an adaption in a different sense. The title is the same, the name of the character of the same, but the story changes a bit and a societal doom setting hangs over a character not fit to take it on himself.
Mike Hammer is a detective in a series of novels by Mickey Spillane, who must have projected Hammer as a bolder version of himself. Or maybe just what he himself would do as a private eye, how he would be, to a T. Mike Hammer in the novel was a burly detective, a survivor of war and the streets, who lives on the edge with wine & women but detests societal breakdown of American values of the time. He competes with police, breaking procedural rules, to put an end to crime rings, because he believes in law and order. Yes, break the rules for the sake of law & order.
I don’t remember much of his novels but I remember the character; the Mike Hammer in this movie is a sleazier, cosmopolitan version of the private eye. He drives a snazzy two door convertable, he lives in a snazzy apartment with a reel-to-reel answering machine built into the wall. Ralph Beeker plays Hammer in classy but intimidating way; he’s more likely to charm people he’s investigating with the unprovoked threat of knocking them around a bit. And he uses his poor secretary to woo wandering men from their wives as proof of their cheating (or inferred blackmail) as his main source of private eye income.
The style might be a bit flashier but the movie is still brooding detective dark. It starts off with Hammer picking up Cloris Leechman off of the highway (with her excessive panting and moaning as she, uh, recovers from her run, as the only sound while they drive during the credits) before they’re run off the road by more goons, who torture and kill her, and try to kill Hammer. He starts searching LA for threads & strings leading to Leechman, and hopefully leading back to her killer.
Instead of gangsters, Hammer is up against…well, it’s implied some sort of spy network, and that’s where the tone is different. It’s not Hammer vs. some goons and a criminal conspiracy to corrupt innocent women or something. It’s Hammer dipping his toes into the cold war, a contemporary commentary of the danger we’re all in regardless of who has the bomb (and a contemporary criticism of what the filmmakers thought of characters like Hammer, which probably didn’t please Spillane).
The ending leaves a lot of questions, especially if the ending was the intended ending (some versions would appear with a slightly more ominous end hinted for Hammer, suggesting that we’re all doomed and also that characters like Hammer get punished when they try to play hero in the face of danger they’re not possibly cut out to face). It has some amazing SFX though.
Watching movies about hardboiled detectives such as Hammer can be weird sometimes in that you don’t get the benefit of their first person narrative. Much of it becomes a silent investigation where actors like Meeker have to emote to show what they’re observing or searching through if there’s no one there to talk to during their investigations into the shadow.
Despite the social commentary that wasn’t originally intended for the character, the movie still plays like a pulp detective in a dramatic mystery setting. The slightly more cosmopolitan (and crueler bully) Hammer still has to meet with seedy characters and exchange blows with the occasional goon (including Jack Elam, of several movies where he gets beat up for being a creepy goon) in dark alleys and run down buildings. It’s regarded as a noir classic, even though it’s still a detective story. and not noir in the doomed protagonist sense (such as Double Indemnity). It’s pretty good, and there’s a Criterion version floating around there, possibly on Youtube.